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DailyFinance.com

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    Consumer Confidence
    David Goldman/AP
    By Simon Constable

    NEW YORK -- The surge in the greenback has some stock investors screaming foul, but they shouldn't be. Instead, they should embrace the strength.

    It is true that the trade-weighted value of the U.S. dollar has climbed more than 21 percent in the last 13 months, according to recent data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve. It's also true that the rally is taking its toll on the earnings reports of some multinational companies -- their foreign revenues take a hit when translated back into dollars.

    Still, there is plenty to feel great about. Here are 10 reasons to smile:

    1. It makes imports cheaper. A dollar will now buy at least 21 percent more imported stuff. That means retailers can buy more knickknacks for the same money and either lower prices to their customers or increase profit margins. Possibly they can do both. Keep a close eye on stocks of retailers that depend on so-called discretionary spending (items or services you don't have to purchase.) The Vanguard Consumer Discretionary (VCR) exchange-traded fund holds a basket of such stocks.

    2. It's good for the housing industry. The raw materials for building homes, like copper and lumber, are both traded in dollars. It takes around 400 pounds of copper (for the electrical circuits) and thousands of feet of lumber to make a standard single-family home. A stronger dollar makes these essential materials cheaper. Lumber and copper prices have both slumped recently and the dip should help homebuilders hold down costs. Watch the SPDR S&P Homebuilders (XHB) ETF, which holds a basket of homebuilding companies.

    3. It makes oil cheaper. As with copper and lumber, crude oil is priced in dollars. When the dollar is strong, you get more oil for your money. Eventually, as we have seen, the lower price filters through to lower gasoline prices; for many people, that is like getting a tax cut. It also means people can spend more of their money at retailers, if they choose.

    4. It keeps a lid on inflation. By its very definition, inflation is the declining spending power of the dollar. So when the dollar is strong, we have the opposite -- if the greenback isn't declining then we have less inflation.

    5. It keeps the dollar at the top of the currency food chain. What central bank wants to hold a currency that is quickly dwindling in value? The fact that the dollar is strong makes it worth holding. That is actually more important than many people realize. Since the end of World War II, the greenback has been the bedrock of the world financial system. This allows the U.S. government to borrow at lower interest rates than it would otherwise be able to, because the dollar and dollar-denominated Treasury securities are a big portion of holdings by foreign countries.

    6. It should keep the cost of borrowing lower. Lower than it would have been otherwise, that is. Clearly the Federal Reserve has indicated it will raise the cost of borrowing money sooner or later. But still, with inflation under control and the greenback at the top of the food chain, the pressure to continue raising rates will be less than otherwise.

    7. It makes foreign holidays cheaper. If you wanted to go on a romantic trip to Paris, now might be the time. The dollar will now buy you more luxurious dinners than previously.

    8. It's great for domestic manufacturers. Companies that primarily sell to U.S. customers won't be harmed by lower foreign revenues, but could be helped by lower costs of dollar denominated materials such as steel. Think about the enormous benefits to machine tool manufacturers supplying bigger multinationals.

    9. It makes investing overseas a better value. If you have a billion dollars in the bank burning a hole in your corporate pocket, it will now buy you a bigger company overseas. As I have written previously, M&A activity and stock market gains tend to move in tandem. Who knows, maybe we'll see a cross border merger boom.

    10. It might boost the world economy. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. economy has been the locomotive that has pulled the rest of the world along. There has been talk of so-called decoupling with the idea the other economies might be able to grow without the U.S. pulling. Unfortunately, it hasn't really played out that way. Now that the U.S. is growing, albeit slowly, maybe it can help pull Europe and other stagnating economies like Japan along. That will happen by Americans importing lots of things from overseas. Investors might want to take a look at the Vanguard European Stock Index (VEURX) mutual fund, which invests in European securities.

     

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    Financial advisor talking to couple on sofa
    Getty Images

    "Widen the moat, build enduring competitive advantage, delight your customers, and relentlessly fight costs."
    -- Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

    "Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability."
    -- Anne M. Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox

    "Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that."
    -- Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest Airlines

    CEOs know: Happy employees are the key to happy customers. But which financial services companies do the best job of keeping their employees happy -- so that they can turn around and make you happy?

    J.D. Power, the powerhouse of customer satisfaction and product quality surveys, recently conducted two surveys that shed some light on this employer-employee-customer dynamic, and they've come up with some surprising findings that might be important to your financial portfolio.

    Happy Customers

    Three months ago, J.D. Power published the results of a survey of customer satisfaction at 18 different "full service" investment advisers. Six companies stood out from the pack, scoring at or above the industry average and winning five "power circles" worth of endorsement from J.D. Power:
    • Edward Jones and Fidelity Investments tied for first place, with each scoring 812 points out of 1,000 on J.D. Power's "overall investor satisfaction index."
    • Charles Schwab (SCHW) and Wells Fargo (WFC) tied for second place, with 810 points each.
    • Raymond James (RJF) also scored above the "industry average" of 807 points, with 809.
    • And Ameriprise Financial (AMP) tied the industry average.
    Further down the rankings, no investment advisers won four "power circles" from J.D., but four received three circles, and eight companies received subpar two-circle ratings.

    Happy Employees

    Now here's where things gets interesting. One of those last eight laggards was Morgan Stanley (MS) Wealth Management. And as (bad) luck would have it, Morgan Stanley also featured in a later J.D. Power survey of employee advisers' satisfaction with their employer firms.

    And when we say "featured," what we mean is "landed in last place." In this survey of investment advisers' satisfaction with their employers, Morgan Stanley was the only company, out of seven reviewed, to receive a below-average two-circle score from J.D. Power.

    It seems no one's very happy at Morgan Stanley these days -- not its customers, and not its employees, either.

    In contrast, four of the top-ranked firms on the "investor satisfaction" survey also ranked above average on the employee adviser satisfaction survey -- Edward Jones again topped the survey, followed by Raymond James and Charles Schwab. Wells Fargo also scored above average (if only just barely). Fidelity and Ameriprise weren't rated in the employee adviser survey.

    What It Means to You

    If you like doing business with people who like their jobs -- and really, don't we all? -- then the obvious choice based on these two survey findings is Edward Jones. Whatever you think of investment advisers in general, the top-ranked shop in two separate surveys can't be all bad.

    Raymond James and Charles Schwab also receive generally high marks, and should make for decent choices as well.

    In contrast, one shop you might want to cross right off your list of potential investment advisers is Morgan Stanley. They don't score highly among their existing clients. Their employees don't seem especially thrilled to be there. Judging from the data, it's hard to imagine you'll feel any better about the experience, either.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has no financial (or other) relationship with any of the companies discussed above. He does his investing solo ... but if truth be told, he isn't always "five-circles satisfied" with his own performance, either.

    The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. 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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    SeaWorld-Killer Whale Environment
    Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
    SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) hasn't been very popular since the "Blackfish" documentary stirred up the masses against the operator of marine-life theme parks two years ago. Attendance, revenue and profits have fallen sharply.

    It wasn't a surprise to see SeaWorld make the Final Four in Consumerist's annual "Worst Company in America" award last year. It's not an easy company to vocally support, but you probably don't hate SeaWorld as much as you used to. Let's go over a few of the reasons the public may be warming up to SeaWorld these days.

    1. It's battling 'Blackfish' with white fish. There are two sides to every story and that goes for documentaries that often cherry-pick what they present to back up their claim. There was always another side to "Blackfish," but it fell largely on deaf ears as incensed viewers assumed that the assertions were irrefutable.

    SeaWorld has tried to combat many of the claims raised in the 2013 documentary that it feels are dubious. The ads and even the #AskSeaWorld hashtag campaign have backfired, but the theme park operator continues to try to balance out the narrative. Last month it pointed to a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Mammalogy by the Oxford University Press, concluding that there is no material difference in life expectancy between killer whales born at SeaWorld and wild killer whales. "Blackfish" argued that whales in captivity lived much shorter lives.

    2. The new CEO deserves a chance. SeaWorld hired an outsider to run the company in April. Joel Manby seems to be everything that critics argue SeaWorld is missing. He was CEO at the parent company of Dollywood and Silver Dollar City, two of the more popular family-run amusement parks in the country. He's on the record as being compassionate: He starred in an "Undercover Boss" episode, and he has even written a book -- "Love Works" -- on how treating employees with respect is the most effective way to manage.

    Earlier this month he announced that he will detail his new vision for SeaWorld come November. It probably won't include releasing orcas into the wild, but anything that can soften the public's perception of SeaWorld can only help at this point.

    3. Attendance is starting to move in the right direction. SeaWorld's latest quarter seemed to be a disaster on the surface. Revenue, attendance and earnings all went the wrong way. However, the stock still moved higher on the news. The market didn't misread the report. Sometimes you just have to dig beneath the headlines.

    Yes, attendance did decline during the second quarter, off by 1.6 percent since the prior year's second quarter. However, that also included the Easter holiday shifting from April last year to March of this year, something that inflated the first quarter's turnstile clicks at the expense of the second. Add both quarters up and SeaWorld greeted 9.7 million guests at its parks through the first six months of 2015, 0.7 percent of last year. After two years of 4 percent declines in attendance, the crowds are starting to come back.

    SeaWorld has had to discount admissions and folks aren't spending as much as they used to once inside the park, but attendance itself is trending higher in 2015 for the first time since the year before "Blackfish" came out.

    4. There's more to SeaWorld than SeaWorld. SeaWorld runs the three namesake parks, but it's also the company behind the two Busch Gardens attractions and several water parks that have managed to hold up better in terms of attendance.

    That helps, but it also helps that the three SeaWorld parks are actually evolving. SeaWorld is already in the process of expanding its killer whale habitat in San Diego, a $300 million project that will double the size of the tank and offer better viewing experiences that don't necessarily rely on a signature show.

    SeaWorld is also adding more rides. It plans to open Mako at SeaWorld Orlando next year, a coaster that will be the tallest, longest and fastest ride in Orlando. Adding more thrill rides and family-friendly attractions will help it lean less on the marine life performances that are at the core of activist objections.

    SeaWorld Entertainment won't change overnight, but it's taking steps to win back public perception as it repositions its offering as a theme park operator.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment. 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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    Loss of money financial hardship concept image
    Alamy
    By Stacy Johnson

    If you die with money and possessions, everything is distributed based on your will. But what happens when you die in debt?

    Here's this week's question:

    Dear Stacy,
    I'm a single woman with no kids who is actively and aggressively trying to pay off my debt. I have a few health issues and worry sometimes about leaving this life without being debt free. My credit cards (from my stupid 20s) are paid off, and I'm now working on paying off my car loan, student loans and my mortgage. What happens if I pass away with debt? My father is still living, as well as my three siblings. Do they get stuck with my debt? I have a life insurance policy; it's not very big. Does that go towards paying my funeral expenses or my debt?
    Thanks in advance,
    Zepher

    Life can be complicated. And as it turns out, death isn't so simple, either -- at least not when it comes to settling your debts.

    When You Die, Your Estate Is Born

    When you die, your family may inherit your Beanie Baby collection, but they don't inherit your debt.

    What essentially happens is that the instant you shuffle off this mortal coil, a new entity is simultaneously born: your estate. "Estate" is just a fancy word for your assets, or stuff you owned, and your liabilities, or stuff you owed. If your assets exceed your liabilities, your estate has a positive net worth. If they don't, it doesn't.

    Let's explore how this all works by looking at a few common debts and methods of ownership.

    Debts In Your Name Alone

    You might think your credit card company knows everything about you. But when you die, your bank doesn't automatically get a memo. It just notices your bill is overdue and eventually passes it along to the collections department.

    When you're gone and your estate is born, it becomes the responsible party for your debts. The person serving as your surrogate, known as a personal representative or executor, gathers your assets, sells your stuff, pays your bills and distributes anything remaining to your heirs. If your estate owes more than it owns and there's not enough to pay the bills, unsecured lenders, like credit card companies, just have to suck it up.

    When I notified my father's bank that he'd died, shortly after expressing their condolences, they began calling, writing and otherwise requesting the full payment of his credit card balance. They also implied I should pay it, since I was his nearest living relative.

    This is not uncommon, but it is despicable. My father's estate was responsible for his debts, not me. You're less likely to run into something similar these days, because the FTC has since issued guidelines for debt collection from decedents' friends and relatives. Here's what they say:

    ... family members typically are not obligated to pay the debts of a deceased relative from their own assets. What's more, family members -- and all consumers -- are protected by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to try to collect a debt.

    In short, if an unsecured debt is in the deceased person's name only, the debt isn't passed on to heirs and family members. It's owed only by the estate. If you die broke, or there isn't enough money left over for all the creditors, they lose and you win. Except, that is, for the part about being dead.

    Joint Accounts

    Now the bad news. As CreditCards.com explains:

    One situation in which someone else could end up shouldering your credit bill: If you share the account. If a spouse, family member, or business partner signed the card application as a joint account holder, then that person could be liable for the balance on that card, along with (or instead of) the estate.

    The same goes for married couples who have joint bank accounts -- and joint debt. Your surviving spouse might be legally responsible for the debt, even if you're the one who rang it up. If the debt is in your name alone, however -- in other words, you're married but applied for the debt completely on your own -- your spouse may not be liable for it. Unless, that is, you live in a community property state.

    These states make it possible for your debts to pass on to your spouse:
    • Alaska
    • Arizona
    • California
    • Idaho
    • Louisiana
    • Nevada
    • New Mexico
    • Texas
    • Washington
    • Wisconsin
    Here's how the Law & Daily Life blog explains it:

    Such "community property" is liable for debts incurred by either or both spouses during the marriage (regardless of personal liability). Should a spouse pass away, creditors in such states may have options, both inside and outside of probate, to try to attempt to recover for the debt.

    That doesn't necessarily mean your spouse will get stuck with the bill, but it makes it a bigger possibility.

    Secured Debt

    You also need to watch out for secured debts -- loans that are secured by an asset such as a house or car. You might think you're doing a family member a favor by leaving them your car, but if there's a loan on it, that loan may go with the car. The same is true with a house.

    So if you're planning to leave someone an asset with a loan attached, the nice thing to do would be to also leave them enough money to pay off the loan. If that's not possible, then they may have to sell the asset to satisfy the lien, because it's not going to be wiped out in the event of your death.

    Co-Signed Accounts

    What happens if you co-sign a debt for someone who dies? Unfortunately, in many cases you could be paying the bill. A co-signer agrees to pay the debt if the original borrower can't. So whatever the reason, if the primary borrower doesn't pay, the co-signer may have to. This isn't always true: For example, federal student loans are typically discharged by death, but private student loans may not be. If they're cosigned, the co-signer may be on the hook. If they weren't co-signed, the estate will be liable. You can read more about student loans after death at credit.com.

    What You Should Do While You're Still Alive

    No matter how old you are or how much you have, if you're an adult, you should have a will. A will is simply a list of instructions that lets those you leave behind know what you wanted done with your body and your stuff. It will be read by a judge in a process known as probate, and providing your wishes are legal (no, you can't have yourself stuffed and propped on your favorite bar stool) it will be followed.

    Getting a will doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. (See our story, Estate-Planning Documents You Need Right Now.) And it's important, even if you think you don't own enough to make it necessary. Because without a will, everything you have is going to your nearest relative -- do you really want your mom to inherit your vintage Penthouse collection? -- and that person will also be responsible for settling your debts and taking care of all the loose ends you leave behind.

    A will offers you the opportunity to put your possessions into the hands of those you'd like to have them, and could save your family a lot of hassle. If you don't have one, get one.

    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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    social security document dloct up
    Alamy
    By Kelly Holland

    You would think sharing information about Social Security benefits would be simple. After all, the system is pretty straightforward: You contribute while you work, and after you retire you collect until you die. But when it comes to Social Security, simple is not even in the same room.

    The Social Security statement people now receive is one example. It provides clear data points, like projected benefits at age 62, 66 and 70. But even so, it is the subject of intense scrutiny as experts sort out how details of its format and content affect when people file for benefits.

    For example, people who wait to claim their benefit at age 70, instead of when they are first eligible at age 62, can see their check increase some 76 percent. For many, that's the optimal plan. But few people do this, and experts suspect the content and form of the Social Security statement could be one reason why.

    "A lot of the information is buried in a table. A good designer could really design the presentation of information and could make the gist of the information presented in a much more clear way," said Steven Sass, a research economist at Boston College's Center for Retirement Research.

    The first thing the statement should make clear is there are two separate decisions: When do you retire and when do you start claiming Social Security?

    John Shoven, director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, takes issue with what he views as the conflation of retirement and Social Security claiming on the statement.

    "Sometimes they use the word 'retirement' as if that's the same as collecting Social Security," he said. "The first thing the statement should make clear is there are two separate decisions: When do you retire and when do you start claiming Social Security?"

    Shoven has studied the optimal time to claim Social Security benefits, and he believes that for almost everyone, it pays to wait as long as possible. As a result, how the Social Security statement frames the pros and cons of different claiming choices "makes a lot of difference," he said.

    "If you tell somebody 'if you delay it will take you 12 or 14 years before you break even, they may choose not to delay. If you frame it saying how much higher the monthly benefit would be or what the expected rate of return would be for somebody like you, you get a different answer," Shoven said.

    Others argue that by presenting benefits information as just static numbers can lead people to alter their behavior in ways that can harm their retirement finances. Philip Armour, an associate economist and professor at Pardee Rand Graduate School, has compared how people behaved when they received their first Social Security statement to what they did on receipt of their second. The statements include a person's projected benefit, assuming they continue earning at current levels.

    On average, people cut their work hours by 119 hours a year after receiving their first statement, apparently assuming their benefit was locked in, Armour found. Reductions were most prevalent among older, educated workers who were working relatively long hours. People not working or working part time were more likely to increase their hours, but work hours declined for recipients overall.

    Benefits aren't locked in, however, and workers can keep adding to (or reducing them) as long as they continue in the labor force. When workers received their second statement, Armour found that some of the behavior changes reversed.

    Armour believes an online tool that would let people try out different scenarios would lead to smarter working and claiming behavior. He said: "At the the very least, if it's going to stay a paper document, have a 'well, if you earn 50 percent more from now forward what will happen to your benefits' and 'if you earn 50 percent less what would your benefits be?' "

    Ben Stump, a Social Security Administration spokesman, said "the best age to start retirement benefits is a personal decision for every individual, based on a number of considerations including present and future financial circumstances, current health and life expectancy. There is not a single 'best age' for everyone, so Social Security provides many tools to help people make an informed decision about when to apply for benefits." he said, "We are continually working to improve the services we provide." The Social Security Administration's website provides retirement estimators,calculators and benefit planners along with a section for frequently asked questions.

    Researchers have found that the Social Security statement does have a noticeable effect on participants -- but only to a point. Giovanni Mastrobuoni, director of research students in the economics department at the University of Essex, studied the effect of receiving Social Security statements and found that they did increase knowledge of benefits. However, he concluded the benefits statement had "no impact" on retirement behavior.

    Return on Investment

    Experts also argue for framing Social Security choices differently.

    For example, Armour pointed out defined contribution retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans, send regular statements showing the rate of return on the various investment choices beneficiaries have. A Social Security statement presenting the benefit of delayed claiming as a rate of return might make more people compare the two and realize that the return on waiting to claim Security exceeds the return on other low-risk investments, he said.

    "If they could provide a number that's more comparable" to 401(k) plan investments like bond funds, "I think that would make it clearer that for some people there are definitely incentives to delaying claiming until after full retirement age," he said.

    Sass thinks the statement would encourage later claiming if it focused less on full retirement age, typically 66, and more on benefits at age 70. Say "that if you claim at 66 you will get a third more than at 62 and if you claim at 70 you get 76 percent more," he recommended. "When you tell people that, people are shocked and surprised. They really get the understanding that delay is powerful. When you center on full retirement age, you get 25 percent less, 35 percent more -- a moderate number doesn't really grab you by the lapels," he said.

    Retirement security revolves around three issues, according to Sass: how long you work, how much you save (and thereby move to a more sustainable standard of living), and how you deal with your home. In Sass' view, a revised Social Security statement could encourage to work longer, and if it did, it would make a significant difference in retirement savings for most people.

    "When to retire is not really seen as a key decision in your retirement finances," he said. "There is nothing you can do with saving and investing that would move the needle like working longer."

    This is the third part of a week-long CNBC.com series on the state of Social Security on its 80th anniversary.


    Get Your Due from Social Security

     

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    Economy Fed Rate Hike
    Susan Walsh/AP
    By Megan Cassella

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Federal Reserve will probably raise interest rates twice this year, with the first increase in almost a decade coming as early as next month, according to a Reuters poll of economists published Thursday.

    The survey gave a median 55 percent chance that the U.S. central bank would raise its short-term lending rate twice this year. Economists put a 60 percent probability on a September rate hike and an 85 percent chance that it would move by year-end.

    If the [Federal Open Market Committee] acts in September, there is a good possibility that it will in December as well.

    "If the [Federal Open Market Committee] acts in September, there is a good possibility that it will in December as well," said economist Terry Sheehan of Stone & McCarthy in Princeton, New Jersey.

    The case for a September monetary policy move was bolstered by solid job gains and a rebound in wages in July. In addition, economic growth accelerated in the second quarter after bad weather constrained it at the start of the year.

    After China's surprise devaluation of the yuan, U.S. financial markets have slightly pushed rate hike expectations to December. The Fed, currently targeting a range of zero to 0.25 percent, hasn't raised interest rates since 2006.

    The midpoint of the range of federal funds rate expectations in the survey came to 0.375 percent by the end of September and 0.625 percent at the turn of the year, unchanged from a July poll.

    Even if the Fed raises interest rates twice this year, the tightening process would still be gradual, economists said, citing a strong dollar.

    'Strong Dollar'

    "Their credibility requires a rate increase this year," said Georgia State University professor emeritus Donald Ratajczak. "The strong dollar suggests that a very slow pace is needed until currency values stabilize."

    Average hourly earnings are expected to rise slightly beginning in 2016, according to the poll.

    The economists forecast wage growth averaging 0.5 percent in the first quarter of 2016 and 0.6 percent in the second. They had previously expected 0.3 percent for both periods.

    The more than 80 participating economists saw little impact on the economy from the anticipated slight tightening in monetary policy.

    The growth estimate for 2015 was unchanged at an average of 2.3 percent. The survey showed growth accelerating to 2.7 percent next year, little changed from the July poll.

    "Monetary policy will still be very accommodative even after the first couple of Fed rate hikes," said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Florida. "Raising rates will be a sign that the Fed believes the recovery has made substantial progress and will continue to improve."

    Inflation forecasts were little changed from the July survey.

    -Lucia Mutikani contributed reporting; Polling by Aara Ramesh and Kailash Bathija.

     

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    Retail Sales
    Danny Johnson/APShoppers check out at a Walmart Supercenter store in Springdale, Ark.
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. retail sales rebounded in July as households boosted purchases of automobiles and a range of other goods, suggesting solid momentum in the economy early in the third quarter.

    The upbeat report Thursday from the Commerce Department should strengthen expectations of a Federal Reserve interest rate hike as early as next month. Although another report showed a rise in new applications for unemployment benefits last week, the trend pointed firmly to a tightening jobs market.

    Retail sales increased 0.6 percent last month, broadly in line with economists' expectations. June's retail sales were revised up to show them unchanged instead of the previously reported 0.3 percent drop.

    Retail sales excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services rose 0.3 percent after a revised 0.2 percent gain in June. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

    Core retail sales were previously reported to have slipped 0.1 percent in June.

    Prices for U.S. Treasuries fell and U.S. stock index futures rose after the data. The dollar was trading higher against a basket of currencies.

    The retail sales report added to July's fairly upbeat employment and small business confidence reports in suggesting the economy was growing at a steady clip at the start of the third quarter. GDP expanded at a 2.3 percent annual pace in the April-June quarter.

    But June data on factory inventories and imports as well as upward revisions to May construction spending figures have left economists expecting that the advance second-quarter GDP growth figure could be raised to at least a 3 percent pace.

    The June core retail sales figure also points to a stronger GDP number. The government will publish its second GDP growth estimate later this month. Given the steadily firming economy, many economists expect the Fed will raise its short-term lending rate in September for the first time in nearly a decade.

    Financial markets, however, have shifted their rate hike expectations toward December following China's devaluation of its currency this week.

    Firming Job Market

    In a separate report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 274,000 for the week ended Aug. 8.

    Though claims have risen for three straight weeks, they have for 23 consecutive weeks remained below the 300,000 threshold, which is associated with a firming job markets.

    The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 1,750 to 266,250 last week, the lowest level since April 2000. The tightening labor market is steadily lifting household income, which is supporting consumer spending.

    Retail sales last month rose in most categories, with receipts at auto dealerships increasing 1.4 percent after falling 1.5 percent in June. There were also increases in sales at clothing, building materials and garden equipment, furniture and online retailers, as well as at restaurants and bars.

    Receipts at sporting goods and hobby stores rose 0.9 percent, but sales at electronics and appliance stores fell 1.2 percent.

     

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    April 12, 2012 - Minneapolis, MN - Minnesota, U.S. - Natedogs owner Nate Beck in front of the Fulton Brewing Company on March 12
    AlamyA food vendor outside Fulton Brewing Co. in Minneapolis. The brewery is teaming with Wheaties to produce "HefeWheaties."
    By CANDICE CHOI

    NEW YORK -- These Wheaties may not be so good with milk.

    Wheaties says it is partnering with a craft brewery to create a limited-edition beer. The 16-ounce cans will only be available in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market starting Aug. 26, according to Wheaties parent company General Mills (GIS).

    It's not exactly clear what makes it Wheaties beer, besides being made from wheat.

    We're not saying it's a breakfast beer, but we're not saying it's not.

    General Mills says the beer will be called HefeWheaties in a nod to a Germany style of beer called hefeweizen, which is typically made with more than 50 percent malted wheat.

    "We're not saying it's a breakfast beer, but we're not saying it's not," said Ryan Petz, president of Fulton Brewery, the Minneapolis-based brewery that is making the beer.

    Petz said the beer is also intended to tie his company to heritage of Minneapolis, which is also home to General Mills' headquarters. Fulton will consider making the beer more widely available depending on how people react to the initial run, he said.

    Mike Siemienas, a General Mills spokesman, said the company left the development of the beer to Fulton. He declined to say whether the company plans to tap an athlete or celebrity to endorse the beer.

    The companies declined to disclose the financial terms of their agreement.

     

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    Water Pollution
    Joe Raymond/APThe BP Refinery in Whiting, Ind., shown here in September 2007.
    By Robert Gibbons

    NEW YORK -- Retail gasoline prices in Midwest states have jumped as much as 33 cents in a week and could top $3 a gallon as soon as next week as the impact of an unexpected shutdown of a key unit at the region's biggest refinery shows up at the pump, motorist advocacy group AAA said Thursday.

    While national prices for regular gasoline have been flat this week and prices in Texas have fallen nearly 5 cents, the average price at the pump in Ohio rose 33 cents and drivers in Illinois are paying nearly 19 cents more with most of the rise occurring Wednesday, AAA data shows.

    The worst may not be over as oil traders struggle to bring supply to the region, which has been caught short of fuel after the unexpected shutdown of 60 percent of BP's Whiting, Indiana, refinery last weekend.

    We expect to see higher prices in the next few days ... and they could reach $3 a gallon by next week.

    It may take a month or longer to repair the 240,000-barrel-per-day crude distillation unit after leaks in its piping were discovered, sources said. The refinery accounts for over 6 percent of the Midwest's refining capacity.

    "We expect to see higher prices in the next few days ... and they could reach $3 a gallon by next week," said Michael Green, manager at AAA public relations in Washington.

    In addition to Illinois and Ohio, Green noted higher prices in Michigan and Indiana.

    While lower than last month as well as prices above $3 a year ago, the spike at the end of the summer driving season will be an unwelcome surprise to region's motorists.

    The Illinois average regular gasoline price was $2.78 a gallon, according to AAA's daily report Thursday, 13 cents lower than a month ago and 78 cents below last year.

    "While that does soften the blow of the rising prices you can see how consumers, looking at how crude prices are dropping, feel frustrated at the higher prices for gasoline," Green said.

    In the Chicago wholesale market Wednesday, regular gasoline jumped to 75 cents above the U.S. RBOB gasoline futures benchmark, the second-highest level in the past decade, according to Reuters data. That differential to the benchmark was at 2.50 cents below futures on Friday.

    Chicago and metro area retail prices pushed above $3 on Wednesday.

    BP's Whiting refinery, the nation's sixth-largest, can process over 19 million gallons of fuel a day, or enough to run 430,000 cars and 10,000 tractors, according to BP's website.

     

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    Shop Like a Pro During Labor Day Sales
    We all know Labor Day has great deals, but in reality, some sales aren't as good as you might think. Before you head out to the stores, here are a few tips that can help you save the most.

    First, remember with all sales that timing is everything. While experts advise checking out sales early, you won't actually find the best deals until Monday. This is when holiday promotions are ending and retailers are most desperate to offload sale merchandise.

    Next, knowing what time to shop is one thing, but knowing what deals to shop for is another. Grills, patio furniture and umbrellas will often see the biggest discounts, sometimes with sales up to 60 percent off. You can also find great deals on mattresses. At some retailers, you can actually find sales starting as low as $300!

    Lastly, there are some sales you should try to avoid. Electronics are one thing to stay away from -- better sales for these items usually start on Black Friday. Also, hold off on buying any fall apparel like sweaters or light jackets. Those items will see a bigger price drop in late autumn.

    So, as we head into Labor Day Weekend, remember these tips to work the most out of sales. You'll see that with a little know-how, you can save on Labor Day without overworking your budget.

    View Poll

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks finished flat Thursday as a drop in energy shares offset a rebound in retail sales and stronger-than-expected Cisco results.

    The S&P energy index dropped 1.4 percent, leading the decline in the S&P 500, as U.S. crude oil prices slid to a six-and-a-half year low.

    The S&P consumer discretionary index rose 0.6 percent, the most among the major 10 S&P sectors, but it had been up more earlier.

    U.S. retail sales rose in July, while the trend of weekly jobless claims pointed to a tightening job market. The data supported the view the Federal Reserve could raise interest rates as early as next month, offsetting speculation in the previous two sessions that the Fed could wait until December to raise rates after China devalued its currency.

    "The market is still adjusting to the Chinese devaluation. Obviously, that's created a lot of uncertainty and people are not sure how this is going to play out," said Michael O'Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading in Greenwich, Connecticut.

    Cisco Systems (CSCO) jumped 2.9 percent to $28.70, giving the biggest boost to the Nasdaq and the S&P 500.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 5.74 points to 17,408.25, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 2.66 points, or 0.1 percent, to 2,083.39 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 10.83 points, or 0.2 percent, to 5,033.56.

    The S&P financial index rose 0.3 percent, after falling in the previous two sessions.

    In corporate news, retailers posted mixed quarterly results.

    Coty (COTY) rose 2.9 percent to $28.70 after its sales beat estimates for the first time in five quarters, while Kohl's (KSS) fell 8.8 percent to $56.11 after its same-store sales missed expectations.

    News Corp. (NWSA) rose 7.6 percent to $15.19 after the Wall Street Journal owner's profit topped estimates, helped by cost cuts at its news business, including Dow Jones.

    -Tanya Agrawal contributed reporting from Bangalore.

    What to watch Friday:
    • J.C. Penney (JCP) reports quarterly financial results before U.S. markets open.
    • The Labor Department releases the Producer Price Index for July at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Federal Reserve releases industrial production for July at 9:15 a.m.

     

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    Sky Tower and city at dawn from Westhaven Marina, Auckland, North Island, New Zealand, Pacific
    Getty ImagesSky Tower and city at dawn from Westhaven Marina, Auckland, New Zealand
    2013 was a record year for expatriation.

    In 2014, we broke that record.

    According to the U.S. Treasury Department, 2,999 U.S. citizens and long-term residents moved abroad and gave up (or abandoned efforts to obtain) American citizenship in 2013. A year later, Treasury Department statistics showed a 14 percent increase in expatriations, to 3,415.

    And that could be just the beginning.

    The Trouble With Taxes

    Reporting on the trend of more and more Americans severing their ties with America, TaxNews.com noted that July 1, 2014 was the deadline for complying with the new Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.

    FATCA, which requires taxpayers to declare assets and income owned abroad so that the Internal Revenue Service can tax them, was apparently a big reason that so many Americans decided to hand in their passports and leave the country last year.

    But it's not the only reason. And folks looking to dodge American taxes aren't the only ones casting longing glances abroad.

    1 in 3 See a Better Alternative

    According to a new poll conducted by British money transfer firm Transferwise, about 35 percent of the Americans it surveyed would consider leaving the U.S. and moving abroad. Only about half of those surveyed, however, cited a desire for lower taxes as one of their "major" motivations.

    Nearly equally important, it seems, is the view that there are better educational opportunities abroad (48 percent cited that as a major motivation, versus 51 percent citing lower taxes). Even more important was the perception that health care is "more affordable" in countries outside the U.S.

    What Would Make You Leave?

    While the dream of leaving the motherland and wandering strange paths abroad may be more of a daydream than a real option for some, many Americans appear to be giving a move some serious thought. If 35 percent of Americans "would consider" moving abroad eventually, perhaps around retirement age, fully 14 percent of us -- or 4 in 10 of those who "would consider" leaving the States at all -- say they would consider a move "within the next five years."

    What might push them over the edge, and into action? Not taxes. Rather, Transferwise says the three reasons most often named for considering a move abroad are:
    • "a better quality of life" -- 36 percent;
    • "a lower cost of living" -- 33 percent;
    • and just plain "to have new experiences" -- 31 percent.
    Where Can You Find That?

    Choosing a foreign country to relocate to based on cost of living alone could be problematic. Countryranker.com, for example, just published a list of the top 15 cheapest places to live. But before you get too excited, be forewarned. Six of the top 10 cheapest places to live either have ongoing civil wars or active insurgencies. A seventh is an arguable narco-state, and an eighth is at imminent risk of invasion by Russia. (And the other two are Nepal and Macedonia.)

    On the other hand, if you're willing to spend a bit more in search of a better quality of life, your options may improve. Human resources consulting firm Mercer recently published its 2015 Quality of Living rankings covering 35 leading global cities. Topping the charts are:
    • Vienna, Austria
    • Zurich, Switzerland
    • Auckland, New Zealand
    Bonus points: In New Zealand, you wouldn't even need to learn a new language. Rumor has it that the local Hobbits speak a variant of English.

    And of course, if it's just "new experiences" you're after, the horizons expand even wider. Fact is, for an American seeking new experiences, a few weeks' vacation abroad may be all you need, before returning to the land of the free and the home of the IRS.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith is planning a vacation of his own this summer, to the Land of Disney. He wonders how hard it will be to get a visa.

    Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. 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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    Whisper Words
    Getty Images
    By Marisa Torrieri

    You're hanging out with other parents at the playground when you overhear someone discuss their kid's recent birthday party.

    You smile and nod, but you're secretly wondering, "What are they thinking paying $1,500 for a bouncy house and a three-foot 'Frozen' cake ... for a 4-year-old?"

    Welcome to modern-day parenting -- and indulging. And it doesn't necessarily end when kids leave the nest, either.

    Just read what these financial planners across the country have to share.

    We asked money pros to share some of the most outrageous things -- from plunking down serious dough to buy siblings his-and-hers convertibles to bankrolling a tanking business -- they've heard parents do for their grown (and nearly grown) kids.

    "I'm Buying Convertibles for Both of My Children."

    "I had a client who received $1 million in a divorce settlement some 10 years after the marriage had ended.

    She only made $35,000 a year, so this windfall was all the money she would probably ever have in savings.

    Shortly after she came into the money, she told me that she wanted to buy each of her kids a car -- a new convertible Mustang for her daughter and a BMW convertible for her son -- because she felt bad that they'd done without for so many years.

    I told her I understood her desire to give her kids a treat, but she'd be better off buying them used Hondas for $10,000 each, getting a house in the $150,000 to $200,000 range and then putting away a significant chunk for her own retirement.

    After telling me, 'I really want to do this for them,' she purchased the convertibles, anyway -- and burned through about $240,000 instead of investing it."

    -- Karen Lee, certified financial planner, Karen Lee and Associates

    "I'm Taking a Home Equity Loan and Doubling My Workload -- So My Kid Doesn't Have Student Loans."

    "I recently worked with parents who didn't want their child to take out any loans for college. While the sentiment is understandable, they weren't in a position to do it.

    I tried to discuss with them why I thought they should take advantage of the financial aid package they were offered, which included subsidized student loans and a work-study award.

    But they didn't want to do either -- or even let their child work part-time.

    Instead, they decided that the mother would double her workload and they'd take out a home equity loan to help pay for the private school.

    While the situation isn't disastrous, letting the child shoulder some of the responsibility of college tuition would have given the kid a sense of ownership over costs -- and served as a confidence builder for their post-college years."

    -- Marguerita M. Cheng, certified financial planner, Blue Ocean Global Wealth

    "I Want to Give My Daughter $250,000 to Save Her Restaurant."

    "A few years back, one of my retired clients came to me because her child was in a desperate situation: Her daughter and son-in-law owned a small seaside restaurant that was going bankrupt.

    My client was living on Social Security, a small pension and the earnings from her savings, which were around $300,000 at the time. She wanted to lend them $250,000 -- and the interest they'd pay on the loan would fund her retirement.

    I strongly cautioned her against the move, explaining that if the 'investment' didn't work out, she would not have enough monthly income to live on.

    "I had a situation in which the parents of a grown woman were helping her to cover most of her family's six-figure lifestyle costs -- including vacations."

    The bottom line is that you should never lend money to your children -- unless you can afford to lose it, because you're not always guaranteed to get paid back.

    Unfortunately, she did it, anyway.

    As it turned out, her daughter couldn't make the interest payments -- and my client ended up moving to Seattle to live with them, since she didn't have enough income to pay her bills. She now also works at the restaurant to earn extra money."

    -- Les Szarka, certified financial planner and CEO, Szarka Financial Planning & Investments

    "I Support My Grown Daughter ... and Her Entire Family."

    "I had a situation in which the parents of a grown woman were helping her to cover most of her family's six-figure lifestyle costs -- including vacations and schooling costs for her two children.

    Fortunately, right on the cusp of receiving yet another big infusion of cash, the daughter came to me and admitted that she knew she needed to make a change.

    So I ran financial models that illustrated how her family's cost of living was unsustainable. I also helped her see the toll the situation was taking on her self-image -- and her relationship with her parents.

    She had to make significant changes -- and work to earn more money, rather than be subsidized by her parents -- but she is well on her way to being on her feet.

    For parents like hers, treating their children as though they are unable to earn their own living may end up creating exactly that result."

    -- Colin Drake, certified financial planner, Drake Wealth Management

     

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    Berkshire
    Nati Harnik/APBillionaire Warren Buffett
    By Paul Sisolak

    Billionaire Warren Buffett is known as one of the richest investors in the world, with a net worth that seems to grow by the day. But the "Oracle of Omaha" wasn't always as filthy rich as he is today. In fact, 99 percent of his immense wealth was earned after his 50th birthday, reports Business Insider.

    That doesn't mean Buffett, 84, was a late bloomer in any sense. He started his financial path toward wealth at a very young age and built his fortune slowly over the years, decade by decade -- something we can all do with a little perseverance and a lot of hard work.

    Warren Buffett's Wealth Through the Years

    Buffett was born in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, and showed a savvy business acumen as a child. At 11 years old, he was already buying stock: multiple shares of Cities Service Preferred for $38 apiece. When he was just a teenager, he filed his first tax return, delivered newspapers and owned multiple pinball machines placed in various businesses. By the time he graduated high school, Buffett had already bought a 40-acre farm in Omaha, Nebraska, and sold his pinball machine venture for $1,200.

    Legend has it that during his younger years Buffett once said, quite prophetically, that he would be a millionaire by age 30, "and if not, I am going to jump off the tallest building in Omaha."

    Here's a look at Warren Buffett's net worth and earnings (according to Dividend.com) and also the median household income provided by data from the U.S. Census Bureau throughout the years. Find out exactly how rich Warren Buffett was at your age and compared with the rest of America during that time.

    Warren Buffett's 20s: The First $100,000

    After graduating college, Buffett worked for his father's brokerage firm as a stockbroker. When Buffett was 21, his net worth was shy of $20,000, reports Dividend.com.

    At age 24, Buffett was offered a job by his mentor, Benjamin Graham, with an annual salary of $12,000. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, this was already about three times the annual median income for the average family in 1954 -- proof that Buffett was well on his way to fortune. By the time Buffett reached 26, his net worth was $140,000.

    Warren Buffett's 30s: Millionaire Status

    When he reached 30 years of age, Buffett's net worth was $1 million. In 1960, the average family income in the U.S. was $5,600 a year. Compared with Buffett's $1 million net worth at the time, men who were working full time only made $5,400.

    By age 35, according to Dividend, Buffett's partnerships had grown to $26 million. Buffett bought controlling stock in Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B) in 1965, according to CNN, and by 1968 his partnerships grew to $104 million. Going into his forties at age 39, Buffett's net worth was listed at $25 million.

    Warren Buffett's 40s: Bounces Back From Financial Troubles

    By age 43, Buffett's personal net worth was at a high of $34 million. He used some of this capital the year prior to purchase See's Candies for $25 million, reports The Motley Fool, and it became an investment that's still profitable in 2015. But, the mid-1970s proved to be a rough period for Berkshire. By 1974, its decreasing share price lowered Buffett's net worth to $19 million when he reached 44, reports Dividend.

    Never one to let his savvy investment skills fall by the wayside, Buffett was able to recover financially. By the end of the decade, he had increased his net worth to $67 million at age 47. By the close of the 1970s, the median U.S. household income was $16,530.

    Warren Buffett's 50s: Becoming a Billionaire

    Buffett's net worth in 1982 was $376 million and increased to $620 million in 1983, according to Dividend. In 1986, at 56 years old, Buffett became a billionaire -- all while earning a humble $50,000 salary from Berkshire Hathaway.

    Meanwhile, the average American family in 1986 was making nearly half of what the Oracle of Omaha was earning in salary; the median household income in 1986 was $24,900. As Buffett neared 60 years old, he was worth $3.8 billion.

    Warren Buffett's 60s: Berkshire's and Buffett's Net Worth Grow

    In a letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders in 1990, Buffett wrote that he thought the company's net worth would decrease during this decade, and the second half of 1990 supported that. But late in the year, the company was able to close with a net worth of up to $362 million. As he entered further into his 60s, Buffet's personal net worth grew as well -- to $16.5 billion by the time he was 66 years old, according to Dividend.com.

    The average American family began to creep up to Buffett in earning power during the 1990s. According to Census data, the median household income by the end of the decade was close to $42,000.

    Warren Buffett's 70s: Philanthropy and Growth

    Within six years -- from age 66 to 72 -- Buffett's net worth more than doubled. His net worth at 72 years old was listed at a whopping $35.7 billion. But, Buffett is about sharing the wealth. In 2006, he released pledge letters that stated he will donate 85 percent of his wealth to five foundations over time, reports CNN.

    The median household income in 2000 was $42,148.

    Warren Buffett's 80s: The Sky's the Limit

    As of mid-August 2015, Buffett's net worth is $67 billion, making him one of the richest billionaires in the world, behind Bill Gates and Carlos Slim Helu. At 84, Buffett shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. And while he might have an 11-figure fortune, Buffett reportedly earns only $100,000 a year at Berkshire Hathaway and spends it frugally.

    Still, the master investor is making much more than the average American. According to the most recent Census Bureau data, the median household income in the U.S. is $51,939.

    This story, How Rich Was Warren Buffett at Your Age, originally published on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Mature Woman Receiving an Injection to Her Forehead
    Getty Images
    By Mia Taylor

    NEW YORK -- In the competition among women to stay slim, beautiful and youthful, (and we all know there is such a competition), things appear to have taken a new turn.

    A recent survey conducted by the website RealSelf shows that women are now putting off major life events and milestones -- such as getting married, buying a house or even child rearing -- in favor of undergoing plastic surgery.

    The website, which had 51 million unique visitors last year and is devoted to gathering and sharing information about elective procedures, polled 700 people on the topic. The site asked individuals who had contacted a doctor about cosmetic surgery if they put off any major activity, in favor of going under the knife.

    The answers are more than a little surprising.

    About 44 percent of survey participants said they delayed at least one big purchase or life event, in order to have money for altering their appearance. One-third of respondents said they delayed a vacation. Home improvements were second on the list of activities sidelined in favor of seeking physical perfection. Further down the list, at 14 and 6 percent respectively, were delayed child bearing and postponed marriages.

    More Available, Acceptable

    "It's something that's becoming more available and socially acceptable," Tom Seery, CEO of RealSelf, says of the trend. "We're seeing in our data that people come from all over the country, all demographics, and all slices of household income."

    In other words, cosmetic surgery is fully out of the closet. There is no shame in it anymore. Quite the contrary, it is now very middle America, and no longer just the provenance of billionaires' wives or the Beverly Hills demographic. By some accounts, it's becoming so commonplace, that those not undergoing anti-aging or self-maintenance procedures are the ones being viewed askance.

    A recent report from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons supports such notions.

    The 2014 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report says that a staggering 15.6 million cosmetic procedures were performed in 2014. Americans spent $12.9 billion on those procedures, among the most popular of which is breast augmentation.

    The real drivers are a very strong cultural factor and personal factor -- improvement, our culture is somewhat obsessed with self.

    But beyond it simply being more widely accessible, why exactly has it become so commonplace and such a top priority?

    "The real drivers are a very strong cultural factor and personal factor -- improvement, our culture is somewhat obsessed with self," says Seery. "There is this expectation, for better or for worse, that has been shifted onto all of us."

    In order to meet those expectations, people are tapping lines of credit, withdrawing 401(k) funds and delaying other significant purchases or life events, says Seery.

    In addition, says Seery, the RealSelf survey responses are an indication of people simply planning carefully for major purchases in their life. Before taking on the lifelong expense of a child, for instance, they're getting other big-ticket goals or dreams out of the way, such as self-improvement.

    "It's about being thoughtful, and making sure the timing is right and that you have the appropriate resources," he says.

    Last October, Texas resident Chipo Marowah started saving for a home purchase. A professional nurse, she managed to set aside nearly $12,000 toward her goal.

    But at the same time Marowah's savings account was growing, so were her body issues.

    Something for Herself

    "My body image kept bothering me," says the 35-year-old mother of three. "I'm always doing things for the kids. So I wanted to do something for me."

    Marowah, who is from a very traditional African family, says there was little support for her decision. None of her family members were in favor of a cosmetic procedure. But she underwent breast augmentation anyway, enlisting a friend to drive her to and from the procedure and paying for it with $10,000 she had set aside for a home.

    "I'm so happy with it, I wouldn't trade it, or take it back," Marowah says now of her surgery, adding that the procedure has made her more confident and happier about proceeding with other goals in her life, such as a new home.

    "And once I did it, I realized a lot of other people had done it as well," she adds. "They all started showing me. It seems like at least 60 percent of my company had breast augmentations, but they don't talk about it."

    Still have we reached new heights in delaying marriages, children and home purchases? And is there any negative impact when our pursuit of physical improvement is prioritized over other experiences?

    Not necessarily, says Austin plastic surgeon and RealSelf contributor Dr. Jennifer Walden. The pursuit of happiness takes all forms and sometimes a cosmetic procedure provides a much-needed emotional boost, she says.

    "I think it's whatever gets you there -- to a state of feeling happy with your life, and comfortable with the skin you're in," explains Walden. "If that's adding to your family and having more children, so be it. I come from a liberal, feminist standpoint. There are a lot of very normal women who seek cosmetic surgery just because they want to look as good as they used to. I don't think it's bad or vain. I think it can do the trick for some people just like a two-week vacation in Bora Bora can for some people. If done well, these are definitive results and can last 15 or 20 years."

    Walden says the increasing number of people engaging in cosmetic improvements may also be fueled by the fact that many procedures no longer require surgery, and involve very little down time.

    Middle-Age Majority

    Indeed, of the 15.6 million procedures performed last year, only 1.7 million were surgical procedures. The lion's share, around 13.9 million, were minimally invasive cosmetic procedures. The top minimally invasive procedures are Botox and other soft tissue fillers. Meanwhile, the majority of those undergoing cosmetic procedures, 49 percent, are 40 to 59 years old.

    No matter how you parse the numbers, the increasing acceptance of cosmetic surgery in America has been great for business, says Walden.

    "Austin is interesting," says Walden. "Texas is a very conservative state, but Austin is this liberal, booming city, and I'm up to my ears in patients who want plastic surgery."

    Meanwhile, Marowah, the Texas nurse who recently underwent breast augmentation, has a bit of advice for others who may be contemplating a procedure: do what makes you feel good about yourself.

    Among her circle of friends and acquaintances, Marowah says she knows of one person who is putting off continuing education in favor of undergoing plastic surgery first and another who is delaying a car purchase.

    "Don't listen to what anyone thinks," says Marowah. "At the end of the day, when you're looking into that mirror, it's your self image ... Whenever you are happier about your body image, you are happier to do other things."

     

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    FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015, file photo, Tori Smith, center, director of the Southwest Branch of the Boys and Girls Club in Wichita Falls, Texas, and employees of Academy Sports and Outdoors help several club members pick out new backpacks for school. To get the best back-to-school deals, experts say it's all in the timing. (Torin Halsey/Wichita Falls Times Record News via AP, File)
    Torin Halsey/Wichita Falls Times Record News via AP
    By ANNE D'INNOCENZIO

    NEW YORK -- The start of the school year is just around the corner, and you haven't shopped yet?

    Don't fret. To get the best deals, it's all in the timing.

    Need sweater? Wait until later in the fall. Backpacks? Hold off until late September, if you can.

    "I think it is knowing and planning ahead of time. What am I going to need in the next six months?" said Kristin Cook, managing editor of Ben's Bargains, an online deal site that put together a list of the worst things to buy right now for the back-to-school season.

    Of course, some discounters have consistently low prices. Walmart Stores (WMT), which pushes everyday low prices, has launched extra discounts for the back-to-school shopping period. Earlier this month, it launched thousands of new price cuts, including on the 10 most-searched items online so an assortment of $12.88 backpacks are now $7.
    And you should take advantage of limited free shipping offers. Target (TGT) is temporarily waiving the minimum purchase order of $25 for free shipping on all items until Saturday. However, oversized handling fees may still apply.

    There are also other gimmicks. J.C. Penney (JCP), which operates 800 stores nationwide, is offering $10 haircuts for kids for grades kindergarten through sixth until Aug. 31.

    You can also take advantage of tax-free back-to-school shopping. Seventeen states have such sales tax "holidays."

    "Arm yourself with information," said Traci Gregorski, vice president of marketing for research firm Market Track, which tracks promotions at various retailers. "Lots can be found on websites, apps and circulars."

    Here are the best times to buy the following types of items:

    School Supplies

    Start shopping now for pens, notebooks and other supplies.

    Staples brought back its "Less List," which offers basics like one-subject notebooks for 25 cents and two-pocket folders for 15 cents, as well as a 24-pack Crayola crayons for 50 cents.

    Walmart rolled back prices on all three Texas Instrument calculators to $88. These graphing calculators are for high school and above and are normally $96 to $125.

    Target is testing a new way to shop for supplies online called School List Assist, which is an online hub that offers a selection of the most common supplies for grades kindergarten through eighth grade.

    For those stores with high spending thresholds for free shipping, just go to the store, said Benjamin K. Glaser, features editor at DealNews, because you'll just spend more trying to meet that $50 minimum.

    Clothing and Accessories

    Now is a good time to stock up on summer clothing, taking advantage of clearance sales. Gap's Old Navy, for example, is offering up to 60 percent off on summer tops. Macy's (M) is highlighting lightweight casual dresses for teens that are $29.99 and under.

    But it's best to wait to buy jeans, boots, sweaters and until well after school starts.

    Gregorksi monitored circulars at 13 stores including J.C. Penney, Macy's, Sears (SHLD), Target and Walmart the past two years.

    "The key takeaway here is that the best chance to get a deal on these fall clothing items is in October," said Gregorski. "Not only are there more products on promotion, but the deals are as good and often better than the back-to-school months."

    If you can hold off on buying boots a little longer than that, just take advantage of the Black Friday sales, Cook says.

    Computers and Smartphones

    Hold off on upgrading Apple iPhone and Apple iPad because Apple typically announces new launches later in the fall.

    But Glaser notes late August is the best time to buy a laptop before Black Friday sales hit. Right now, the average discounts for laptops are 15 percent, but you can get 25 percent off by the end of the month, he said.

    "Laptops are making a comeback, especially the sub-$200 models, due to the influence of Google's Chromebook," Cook says. "In fact, sub-$150 models are popping up as of late and should continue through the end of the year."

     

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    Producer Price Index
    Mark Humphrey/APWorkers prepare chocolate molds at Olive and Sinclair Chocolate in Nashville, Tenn.
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. producer prices rose for a third straight month in July, suggesting the drag on inflation from weaker oil prices was easing.

    The Labor Department said Friday its producer price index for final demand increased 0.2 percent last month after increasing 0.4 percent in June.

    An increase of 0.4 percent in services prices, which offset a fall of 0.1 percent in the cost of goods, accounted for the increase in the PPI last month.

    In the 12 months through July, the PPI fell 0.8 percent after declining 0.7 percent in June. It was the sixth straight 12-month decrease in the index.

    Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the PPI edging up 0.1 percent last month and falling 0.9 percent from a year ago.

    U.S. stock index futures and prices for U.S. Treasuries fell after the data. The dollar pared losses against a basket of currencies.

    With the dollar remaining strong and oil prices falling again, inflation pressures are likely to remain benign. That and China's surprise devaluation of the yuan this week has some economists believing that the Federal Reserve will be hesitant to raise interest rates next month.

    Inflation has been persistently running below the Fed's 2 percent target. A government report Thursday showed import prices fell 0.9 percent in July.

    Economists at BNP Paribas estimate that a 10 percent drop in the yuan against the dollar could shave about one-tenth of a percentage point off U.S. inflation over 12 months.

    The dollar has gained 15.7 percent against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners since June 2014.

    Last month, wholesale gasoline prices rose 1.5 percent after gaining 4.3 percent in June.

    Food prices fell 0.1 percent in July on a sharp drop in egg prices, which had surged in recent months. Food prices rose 0.6 percent in June. Wholesale chicken egg prices fell 24.2 percent in July after soaring a record 84.5 percent in June.

    The volatile trade services component, which mostly reflects profit margins at retailers and wholesalers, rose 0.4 percent in July after increasing 0.2 percent in the prior month.

    A key measure of underlying producer price pressures that excludes food, energy and trade services rose 0.2 percent last month after increasing 0.3 percent in June. The so-called core PPI was up 0.9 percent in the 12 months through July.

     

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    Germany Earns Volkswagen
    Ferdinand Ostrop/AP
    By Andreas Cremer and Bernie Woodall

    BERLIN -- Volkswagen is recalling about 461,300 cars in the United States and Canada to fix a fault that could prevent air bags from deploying.

    The world's biggest carmaker said Friday that the recall included VW Golf, Passat, Jetta and Tiguan models assembled between 2010 and 2014.

    No accidents or injuries related to the problem have been reported, VW said.

    The recall comes as the German group struggles to overcome underperformance in the United States, where the sale of VW-branded cars plunged 10 percent to 367,000 last year, less than half its ambitious target of 800,000 by 2018.

    VW said there will be 420,000 models recalled in the U.S. market and another 41,300 in Canada. VW is examining whether such issues affect cars delivered to other markets, a VW spokesman said.

    The spokesman said that debris could, under certain circumstances, interfere with the clock spring that keeps the vehicles' air bags powered, but added that no such incident has been reported.

     

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    Shake Shack Results
    John Locher/AP
    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with a fast-growing gourmet burger restaurant putting the pedal to the metal in terms of expansion and a pioneer in mail-order music filing for bankruptcy.

    DirecTV -- Winner

    The leading satellite television provider is making it easier for nonsubscribers to enjoy its NFL Sunday Ticket. AT&T's (T) DirecTV -- yes, the wireless phone giant completed its acquisition of DirecTV late last month -- announced on Monday that it will be offering streaming access to the package that includes all out-of-market football games for folks who can't subscribe to DirecTV.

    The packages start at $50 a month. That's not cheap, but a lot of football fans won't mind. DirecTV is also offering the plan for just $25 to all students at four-year universities. As cash-strapped as many college kids may be, it's going to be a compelling purchase for out-of-town coeds missing their hometown teams. It's also a smart way for AT&T to promote DirecTV and its flagship wireless products to eventual college grads.

    Columbia House -- Loser

    The owner of Columbia House -- the once iconic mail-order music company -- filed for bankruptcy on Monday. For those too young to remember, Columbia House was a juggernaut in the 1990s. Its introductory offer of more than a dozen CDs for a penny was followed with monthly mailings at retail prices until a member completed the required obligation. At its peak in 1996, Columbia House generated $1.4 billion in revenue.

    However, as consumers grew jaded about the commitment (the next monthly CD would be shipped automatically unless you proactively canceled) and CDs shifted to digital downloads, the Columbia House model was stuck. It stopped mailing CDs a couple of years ago, and now under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, it will likely sell off anything that may have any value.

    Shake Shack (SHAK) -- Winner

    This year's hottest IPO continues to get hotter. Shake Shack moved higher after announcing blowout quarterly results. Revenue for the current period nearly doubled since the prior year, and comparable-restaurant sales moved 12.9 percent higher. It boosted its top-line guidance.

    Shake Shack also announced that it would be opening a dozen new company-owned eateries this year, two more than it had originally announced. It expects to open at least 12 restaurants annually in the coming years. As overvalued as the stock may seem, raising the bar on expansion and growth finds investors focusing on the ceiling instead of the floor.

    Disney Japan -- Loser

    This week's social media blunder belonged to Walt Disney Japan, where Disney (DIS) has a minority stake in the Japanese theme park resort. Walt Disney Japan sent out a controversial Twitter (TWTR) post Sunday.

    "A very merry unbirthday to you," read the tweet, a nod to the catchy tune from Disney's original "Alice in Wonderland." That may not seem so bad, but in Japanese that roughly translates into "Congratulations on a not special day," and Sunday just happened to mark 70 years since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki that left tens of thousands of civilians dead. Walt Disney Japan apologized, naturally, but a flub is still a flub.

    Netflix (NFLX) -- Winner

    The top dog among premium video services continues to nab first-run content. Netflix announced on Tuesday an exclusive deal to release "Mascots," the latest mockumentary project from Christopher Guest. "This Is Spinal Tap," "A Mighty Wind," and "Best in Show" are previous mockumentary projects that Guest has been associated with, all of them standing the test of time as cult faves.

    Netflix keeps making the most of its growing base of streaming subscribers, investing in more original content.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Netflix and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Netflix, Twitter, 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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    new york city   mar 26  the...
    Shutterstock
    By Simon Maierhofer

    NEW YORK -- The average age of a bull market is 39 months. This bull market is already 76 months old. Although it has one foot in the coffin, this bull keeps hanging on.

    What makes it so resilient?

    Many investment pros and celebrities predicted a market crash already last year (click here for a list of infamous "crash prophets" humiliated by Mr. Market).

    Ironically, the persistent bull-market heckling is exactly what keeps the market going. How so?

    The stock market needs new buyers to keep going higher, like a fire needs wood. Every person who "heckles" the bull market is a potential buyer. Yesterday's heckler is tomorrow's buyer.

    How many investors who taunted the market in 2013 are still on the sidelines now? Few forces are as persuasive as rising prices, and nobody likes to be left behind.

    My September 2013 article "Who or What Can Kill this Bull Market" observed that phenomenon and stated the following:

    "A watched pot never boils or a mistrusted market never tops. Every time stocks decline a bit, investors think: 'That's it, the gig is over.' But the propensity for investors to turn instantly bearish is likely to keep sell offs contained."

    Bull markets climb a wall of worry. Pessimism is like fuel for stocks, and the same mistrust that was present in 2013 still exists, although there's one condition that's in place now, which wasn't in 2013 (more on that toward the end).

    Here are a couple of charts that illustrate current investor sentiment.

    Retail Investors

    Last week, retail investors polled by the American Association for Individual Investors were about the most bearish they've been in years.



    The pessimism we saw last week is unusual, especially when considering that the S&P 500 is still within striking distance of its all-time high.

    Option Trader

    The chart below plots the S&P 500 against the Chicago Board Options Exchange equity put/call ratio, a measure of option trader sentiment. Call options are basically bets on a rising market, while put options benefit from falling stocks.



    The ratio between put and call options showed that option traders purchased more than 0.78 puts for every call earlier this week. That is the second highest ratio in years. Option traders are afraid of lower prices.

    In other words, many market participants are expecting a market top, an outright crash, or at the very least a correction. But the market rarely does what's expected.

    Under normal conditions, this kind of pessimism would be reason to buy.

    As mentioned earlier, unlike in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and even the first quarter of this year, the stock market is showing the early warning signs of a major market top. That may neutralize the normally bullish effect of investor pessimism, as this S&P 500 deep-tissue analysis shows.

    This article is commentary by an independent contributor.

     

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