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    Hillary Clinton Campaigns In New Hampshire
    Darren McCollester/Getty ImagesDemocratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a town hall meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire, where she discussed college affordability and student debt relief.
    On Monday, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton unveiled her New College Compact, with the ambition of making public colleges debt-free for students. Her plan is estimated to cost $350 billion over 10 years, and focuses on three key areas. First, federal grants of $150 billion would be given to states to fund public colleges. These grants would only be given to states that agree to increase funding for education and commit to making debt-free study a reality. If the state refuses to spend local money, federal money will not follow.

    Second, the plan would make community colleges free. This provision echoes President Barack Obama's proposal. Third, the plan would reduce the interest rates for people who already have student loan debt, while making sure all borrowers can take advantage of a simplified version of income-based repayment. The massive refinance proposal has been promoted by Sen. Elizabeth Warren for a while.

    Hillary Clinton hopes to make it easier for people who have debt to become debt-free. And she wants to help students attend college without having to borrow. To pay for this $350 billion expense, Clinton would cap the value of itemized tax deductions that wealthy families can take on their tax returns.

    Although the goals are laudable, I see three big issues.

    1. Spending by State Colleges Remains Out of Control

    Many universities have been spending like drunken sailors over the last 20 years. In a battle to win tuition money, universities have been building ever more elaborate campuses, complete with rock climbing walls and athletic facilities that would make most country clubs jealous. In addition, the number of administrators has been growing at a dramatic pace. Investing in education is critical to our nation's success. Investing in a beautiful residential facility feels like a waste.

    Tuition growth is slowing. However, the total cost of a college education has still increased 42 percent from 2004 to 2014. If the federal and state government money is used to fund continued runaway expense growth, the problem isn't solved. Spending growth at universities needs to get under control.

    2. The Biggest Default Risk Is With Students Who Don't Graduate

    Graduation rates remain shockingly low at some institutions. In her announcement, Clinton cited the statistic that 40 percent of college students don't graduate within four years. Some schools have atrocious graduation rates, often below 10 percent.

    The highest default rates for student loans are with borrowers who have the smallest balances. Although that may seem counter-intuitive, it makes sense. If you only go to school for a few years and never graduate, you will have student loan debt but no degree. Without a degree, your earnings potential will be significantly reduced, along with your ability to repay debt for a degree you never received.

    Colleges don't feel the impact of poor graduation rates. The federal student loan money continues to pour in, financing their schools. And the responsibility of repaying the debt remains with the student. Schools that consistently fail in their ability to graduate students should feel accountability.

    3. For-Profit Schools Have the Potential to Remain Leaches on the System

    Although Corinthian Colleges is the most famous, many for-profit schools with questionable practices remain. They charge high tuition. They are experts at obtaining federal financial aid and loans for their students. They profit, regardless of their graduation rate or education quality. And they disproportionately target people with lower incomes.

    The flow of taxpayer money to questionable, for-profit educational institutions needs to stop.

    You Don't Need To Wait

    Student loan debt remains a big problem for this country. I applaud Clinton for making an early proposal, to ensure that we have a debate about the issue. However, you don't need to wait for the election if you want to refinance or are having difficulties repaying your debt.

    The private sector has already noticed that many borrowers are paying interest rates that are too high on their student loan debt. A number of providers have started offering student loan refinancing, with variable rates as low as 1.9 percent. You can find a list of institutions offering refinancing at MaginifyMoney.com. If you have a good job and good income, you could qualify for dramatic savings.

    If you are having difficulty repaying your federal student loans, help already exists with income-based repayment programs. You can have your monthly payments capped, based upon your ability to pay. The details are outlined by the Department of Education, and you should speak to your loan servicer. After an average of 20 years of repayment, your remaining balance would be forgiven. Just remember that if you ever refinance your federal student loan into a private loan, you give up the option for income-based repayment.

    These solutions can help a number of people. But there is still a lot of work to be done. Hopefully Clinton's proposal is just the first step in a meaningful debate.

    Nick Clements is a former banker, author and co-founder of MagnifyMoney.com. He used to run the largest credit card company in the United Kingdom, and now he is helping you save money.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks ended a volatile week higher Friday after upbeat U.S. economic data and as eurozone finance ministers agreed to launch a third bailout program for Greece.

    All three major indexes also ended the week with slight gains, bouncing back from losses earlier in the week set off by worries over a slowdown in China and a yuan devaluation.

    Gains in shares of retailers helped buoy the market. Nordstrom and J.C. Penney both rose after the department store chains posted better-than-expected quarterly results.

    Stocks hit session highs late in the session after Belgium's Finance Minister told Reuters in Brussels that eurozone finance ministers had agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding drafted by institutional negotiators, "with some additional measures."

    U.S. producer prices rose for a third straight month in July, suggesting the drag on inflation from weaker oil prices was easing, while industrial output advanced at its strongest pace in eight months.

    Though the Chinese currency devaluation added some uncertainty to the outlook for a Federal Reserve interest rate hike, most traders and economists are still expecting a September increase.

    That kept the market from breaking out of its trading range, said Michael James, managing director of equity trading at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles.

    "I think the bulls are nervous and bears are hoping for a big market decline once the Fed does finally hike rates," he said.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 69.15 points, or 0.4 percent, to 17,477.4, while the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 8.15 points, or 0.4 percent, to 2,091.54. The Nasdaq composite (^IXIC), which swung 167 points from its low this week to its high, added 14.68 points, or 0.3 percent, to 5,048.24.

    Week of Gains

    For the week, the Dow rose 0.6 percent, the S&P 500 added 0.7 percent and the Nasdaq gained 0.1 percent.

    The day's economic data followed strong employment and retail sales data for July on Thursday, which overall suggested the third quarter was off to a healthy start.

    Nine of the 10 S&P 500 sectors ended higher.

    Energy shares slipped in afternoon trade and the energy index ended down 0.2 percent. Still, the energy index rose 3.2 percent for the week, its biggest gain since March.

    J.C. Penney (JCP) rose 5.6 percent at $8.52, Nordstrom (JWN) jumped 4.3 percent to $78.13 and was among the biggest percentage gainers in the S&P 500, while the S&P retail index rose 0.4 percent.

    Restaurant operator El Pollo Loco (LOCO) fell 20.7 percent to $14.56, below its IPO price, after weak quarterly results.

    Sysco (SYY) rose 7.4 percent to $41.38 after Nelson Peltz reported a 7-percent stake in the food distributor and said he would seek representation on the company's board.

    NYSE advancers outnumbered decliners 2,072 to 962; on the Nasdaq, 1,697 issues rose and 1,096 fell. The S&P 500 posted 21 new 52-week highs and 11 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 62 new highs and 101 new lows.

    About 5.2 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 7.1 billion daily average for the month to date, according to BATS Global Markets.

    What to watch Monday:
    • The Federal Reserve Bank of New York releases its survey of manufacturing conditions in New York state at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The National Association of Home Builders releases its housing market index for August at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Agilent Technologies (A)
    • Estee Lauder (EL)
    • Urban Outfitters (URBN)

     

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    car repair
    Shutterstock
    By Louis DeNicola

    New cars and trucks lose value as soon as they're driven off the lot, but owners who want to preserve a vehicle's remaining value can do so with a little tender loving care. This means changing the oil regularly and replacing parts as soon as necessary. Automotive parts and supplies can be expensive, though, and the specialty stores aren't necessarily the cheapest. To help vehicle owners save money, Cheapism.com compared the prices of eight common automotive products at AutoZone and O'Reilly Auto Parts with those available at Walmart and Target. The big-box stores beat out the auto parts retailers every time.

    With the lowest price on seven out of eight products, Walmart saves vehicle owners up to $39.50 in this comparison. Identical items were selected when possible, although in some cases a similar item had to stand in. The specialty chains stock many more options than the big-box stores; the selection at Target is particularly limited. Prices are listed online and may vary by location or be reduced with coupons. In store, customers may find employees at retailers that specialize in auto parts and accessories to be more knowledgeable than those at the mass merchandisers.

    Here's how the prices compare on products from brake pads to wax.

    Windshield wipers. Driving in the rain without working windshield wipers invites an accident. Although there are some very cheap options, it may be worth spending a few extra bucks for wipers that work well. The prices below are for a single, 22-inch Rain-X brand wiper.
    • Target: $16.99 (Latitude)
    • Walmart: $13.97 (Latitude)
    • AutoZone: $28.19 (Quantum)
    • O'Reilly Auto Parts: $23.99 (Latitude)
    • Winner: Walmart (up to $14.22 in savings)
    Spray-on wax. Waxing can add a protective coat and nice shine to a vehicle, which also helps maintain its value. The prices below are for a 26-ounce bottle of Turtle Wax 1-Step Wax and Dry. (Mr. Miyagi from the 1984 movie "Karate Kid" might be disappointed to learn just how easy waxing a car can be, as this wax comes in a spray bottle.) After washing, spray the car down, then dry and shine with a cotton towel or microfiber cloth.
    • Target: $4.99
    • Walmart: $4.00
    • AutoZone: $7.49
    • O'Reilly Auto Parts: $7.49
    • Winner: Walmart (up to $3.49 in savings)
    Motor oil. An at-home oil change is one of the more common facets of DIY car maintenance. The comparisons below are for a single quart of Mobile One synthetic 10W-30 motor oil. Many vehicles require four to five quarts during an oil change, and it's important to check the vehicle's manual to see which type of oil to use.
    • Target: $7.99
    • Walmart: $7.98
    • AutoZone: $8.99
    • O'Reilly Auto Parts: $9.19
    • Winner: Walmart (up to $1.21/quart in savings)
    Antifreeze and coolant. Coolant keeps a vehicle's engine from overheating, which could lead to a dangerous and costly breakdown. At the same time, drivers who live in cold climates must watch out for coolant that freezes. The prices below are for 1 gallon of Prestone 50/50 prediluted antifreeze and coolant, which should address both issues.
    • Target: $9.59
    • Walmart: $9.42
    • AutoZone: $13.99
    • O'Reilly Auto Parts: $14.99
    • Winner: Walmart (up to $5.57 in savings)
    Battery jumper. A smart backup, especially for drivers headed out on a road trip, a battery jumper holds a charge for months and comes with attached cables that can restart a dead engine in a pinch. Several options below also double as air compressors.
    • Target: $67.99 (Wagan 900-amp with air compressor)
    • Walmart: $86.60 (Wagan 900-amp with air compressor)
    • AutoZone: $89.99 (Duralast 900-amp)
    • O'Reilly Auto Parts: $99.99 (Super Start 1,000-amp with air compressor)
    • Winner: Target (up to $32 in savings)
    Jumper/booster cables. Drivers who forgo a full battery jumper can keep a set of jumper cables in the trunk and hope that nearby drivers will lend a hand. Each set of cables in this comparison comes from a different brand, but they are all 8 gauge. Lower gauge means more power, but that's generally enough for a car.
    • Target: $19.99 (AAA)
    • Walmart: $17.94 (Everstart)
    • AutoZone: $19.99 (Duralast)
    • O'Reilly Auto Parts: $21.99 (Super Start)
    • Winner: Walmart (up to $4.05 in savings)
    Brake pads. Changing brake pads can be daunting, but with many cars it's relatively simple. Instructional videos on YouTube can walk car owners through the process. Alternatively, lower the cost of a professional job by buying brake pads and bringing them to a mechanic. This is another category where finding the same brand (or, in the case of Target, any brand) wasn't possible.
    • Target: N/A
    • Walmart: $10.86 (Centric)
    • AutoZone: $11.99 (Duralast)
    • O'Reilly Auto Parts: $18.99 (BrakeBest)
    • Winner: Walmart (up to $8.13 in savings)
    Mud guards. Whether smaller trucks need mud guards is often a back-and-forth debate, but for drivers who are interested, PlastiColor makes inexpensive 9x15-inch flaps. Some are simple, blank, black flaps, but many have decorative symbols.
    • Target: N/A
    • Walmart: $17.16/pair (PlastiColor with Chevy symbol)
    • AutoZone: $19.99/pair (PlastiColor)
    • O'Reilly Auto Parts: $19.99/pair (PlastiColor)
    • Winner: Walmart (up to $2.83 in savings)

     

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    Car Buying Services - Are They Worth It?

    By Michael Koretzky

    The last two new cars I bought, I did so without speaking to a salesman.

    I bought a vehicle in 2004 after emailing every dealer within a 50 mile radius of my house. I haggled via email with a half-dozen of them, probably spending about the same amount of time it would have taken to visit a couple of showrooms.

    My car before that, a brand-new 1996 Oldsmobile, was an easier experience. I simply hired a car broker I learned about from a co-worker. The broker called me, asked what I was looking for, discussed prices and options, and went on his merry way. A week later, he found the perfect car at a near-perfect price. He even had it delivered to the parking lot at my office building. Best I can tell, I saved a couple thousand dollars by buying a car online, and slightly less buying a car through a broker. These are two of the options to consider if you want to buy a car. Here's a guide to these and related ways to make this important purchase, and other key considerations before you take the leap.

    1. Not all services are the same. As you saw in the video above, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson recently used a car buying concierge service, Authority Auto, that saved him $2,000, but he spent $795 to do it, so he only netted $1,205. Still, spending $795 to make $2,000 is a 60 percent return on investment within a very short time -- good by pretty much any standard.

    In my case, the broker I hired didn't cost me a dime. He made his money by charging the dealer instead of charging the customer. Brokers often have close relationships with a handful of dealers in the area who are willing to give them a discounted price because of the volume of sales they generate.

    I could have gone to a car concierge like the one Stacy used. They generally charge customers a flat fee or a percentage of the savings they generate for the buyer. Generally, a concierge scores deals by casting a wider net. As the name implies, concierges excel at buying luxury or harder-to-find vehicles.

    In addition, there are car-buying services available through membership organizations, such as the AAA Auto Buying Service and the Costco Auto Program. (AAA is regional or sometimes just by state, so it's best to just track down the link on your local club's website. Go to www.aaa.com to get started.) Many credit unions also offer this service, including those from PenFed and USAA.

    Before selecting a service, get the answers to these questions:
    • How is the service paid? If the service is being paid by the dealership, what gives it the incentive to find you the best possible price?
    • What services are included? Will the contract be ready for your signature? Will the car be delivered to you? Is the service simply introducing you to potential sellers? What else is involved?
    2. Consider selling your old car on your own. In my case, the car broker offered to include my old car in the deal for a new one. But I quickly figured out I could sell my ancient, no-frills Nissan hatchback on my own for a few hundred more.

    Then I had a change of heart and let the broker handle the trade-in. Why? Because I was willing to lose some value if I could gain some free time.

    Do this math for yourself. If you're willing to put in the hours, sell your trade-in and pocket the cash. If it's too much hassle, or if you live in a small town where your customer base may be limited, consider doing what I did.

    3. Do your own research. A broker, concierge or buying service can save you legwork, but you still need to do your homework. Spend some time online studying what vehicle you want, the options you crave and those you could do without. You want to give the service as much detail as possible. In my case, the broker said I would save time and money if I didn't care what color my Oldsmobile was. So I ended up with a red car, which was fine with me.

    4. Line up your financing in advance. There's no point in shopping for a car, or anything else, until you know you have the money to buy it. Shopping for a car before securing the loan is like stepping on the gas before you're in gear: You may make a lot of noise, but you're not going anywhere.

    5. Figure out what happens afterward. What happens if you get a lemon? What if you just don't like the car when you show up on the lot or it's delivered to your door? Also, if you want it to be maintained by a dealership, where's the nearest one that services your make? Besides the potential savings, a major advantage to embracing one of these services is sparing you time and hassle. If you don't ask these questions upfront, you could be facing complications and demands on your time after the sale.

    6. Consider what your time is worth. If I had to do it all over again, would I use another broker or buy on my own? At the time I called the broker, I was starting a new job, so it was invaluable to me to have someone else handle the purchase -- even worth forgoing a few hundred dollars on the sale of my old car -- so I could focus on proving my value at work. And I ended up getting a great deal on the car.

    However, shopping and comparing prices online continues to become more efficient, so hunting down the best deals on a new car and selling an old car becomes an increasingly worthwhile DIY project. If you're willing to put in the time online, you can save more, especially if you're buying a popular, midpriced model that many dealers have stacked on their lots.

    Have you used a car-buying service? Share your experience in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

    -Ari Cetron contributed to this post.

    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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    Mixed race woman shopping online on sofa
    Getty Images
    NEW YORK -- There is no shortage of ways for shoppers to save cash online, although some methods, no doubt, work way better than others.

    For savings-savvy shoppers, the hunt for the best discount consumer shopping sites is both a valuable one (yes, you can save money) and a fun one (who wouldn't get a kick finding that Hermes scarf or Calloway 3-wood at 90 percent off?)

    The challenge is cutting through myriad discount and coupon sites and slicing the wheat from the chaff.

    In that spirit, let's through our hat in the ring with some top nominations for the best discount online consumer shopping site in the U.S.:

    Snagshout: In the company's own words, Snagshout creates a social connection between shoppers and brand owners. "With Snagshout, shoppers can 'snag' a deal for their favorite products (up to 90 percent off) and then write an honest review to help other potential customers make a decision," the company says in a statement. Snagshout works alongside Amazon to serve as a product discovery platform for shoppers to purchase consistently updated products ranging from groceries to clothing in exchange for their honest review, the company reports.

    FatWallet: FatWallet is popular among shoppers for its cash-back reward program. According to the company, FatWallet works with retailers to let customers know about thousands of special offers, discounts and coupon codes. When a customer takes advantage of a deal, the brand receives commission that they return back to customers as a cash back reward. "It's really a triple threat for deal hunters and saves the average shopper the time of doing all the research, with hot deals and insider tips from your peers (deal forums), coupons and discounts from retailers, and cash back from FatWallet," says Brent Shelton, spokesman for FatWallet.

    Overstock.com: Consumers may recognize the name from Overstock's ubiquitous advertising campaign, where the deals seem to be flying. Shoppers seem to agree. "I love shopping through Overstock," says Angie Nelson, a frequent visitor on the site. "I recently purchased several rugs through the site that were priced less than 50 percent of what they were at our local home furnishings store. And, the shipping was free. Plus, the Liquidations category often features deals at 75 percent off or more." You can also stack those savings with an additional 3 percent cashback, when you go through Ebates first, Nelson adds.

    Rather-Be-Shopping.com: For a quick return on your money, try this online discount site, where visitors spend on average, three minutes on the Rather-Be-Shopping site, and save $14 when they do so, claims the company. "We also currently have over 10,000 online coupons on the website, and users can sign up for free 'coupon alerts', which allows them to pick their favorite stores and get an email when we add a coupon that fits their criteria," says founder Kyle James. "You never miss a coupon again."

    Raise.com: Raise bills itself as an online gift card marketplace that has popped $27 million back into consumer pockets so far this year, according to Meghan Fox, the company's marketing manager. "On the marketplace, you can buy gift cards below face value with average savings up to 16 percent off or sell your unwanted gift cards for cash," Fox notes. With more than 3,000 brands featured on the site, she adds, consumers can find the best deals before stacking with in-store sales or coupon codes. Currently on Raise.com, Fox says you can by a McDonald's gift card for 20 percent off, a Bed, Bath & Beyond card for 8 percent off and a Home Depot card for 7 percent off.

    Other competitive online discounting sites include Price Grabber, Passion For Savings and Yipit. Try any of the above, and see if they can't cut your retail spending by 10 or 15 percent -- or way more, depending on the price of that Hermes scarf.

     

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    Finishing high school gives you a sense of accomplishment. It's the familiar path to higher education and higher earnings -- college graduates earn twice as much as high school dropouts. But if you were to discuss this topic with some celebrities, they might argue that a traditional high school education isn't the only path to success.

    Some of your favorite singers, actors and entertainers didn't finish high school. Read about 13 celebrities who dropped out of high school.


    This article, 13 High School Dropouts Who Are Millionaires Now, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    detail of several social...
    Shutterstock
    By Karla Bowsher

    Friday marked the 80th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's signing of the Social Security Act of 1935 during the Great Depression.

    The U.S. Social Security Administration's anniversary slogan is "Celebrating the Past and Building the Future." But Gallup Poll results released Thursday show that most Americans doubt the SSA's ability to help secure their future.

    This year, 66 percent of Americans polled said Social Security is either in a state of crisis (21 percent) or has major problems (45 percent).

    While that is down from a high of 77 percent in 2010, at least two-thirds of Americans have viewed the system as being in crisis or having major problems since 1998. And that's unlikely to change without movement in the nation's capital, according to Gallup:

    These negative views likely will continue until elected officials in Washington take action to tackle the system's long-term problems or the projections about the system's financial strength improve as a result of shifts in the economy.

    Gallup's poll results are based on phone interviews conducted this month and last month of 2,020 adults from every state and the District of Columbia. Among Americans who have yet to retire, 51 percent doubt the system will be able to pay them benefits when they retire.

    That's not much higher than it was when Gallup first measured in 1989, when 47 percent felt that way. It is also down from an all-time high of 60 percent in 2010.

    But the younger a worker is, the more likely he or she is to doubt getting benefits. On one end, 64 percent of people age 18 to 29 are doubtful. On the other end, 3 percent of nonretirees age 65 and older are doubtful.

    Gallup notes that Americans' doubts about Social Security appear to be grounded in reality.

    An annual report released last month by the trustees who oversee the Social Security Disability Insurance program stated that the reserve for its funds is projected to be depleted in 2035.

    Do you think Social Security is in crisis or has major problems? Do you think future retirees will have their benefits cut? Share your thoughts in our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth and, most important, post questions and get answer.

    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!


    How to Get More Social Security When You Retire

     

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    A man counting a handful of dollars.
    Kyrylo Grekov/Alamy
    By Sandra Block and Kathy Kristof

    Back in the day, TVs were all basic black-and-white sets with on-off knobs and a choice of four channels. People saved money in a bank account, carried a department-store charge card, and could fit all of their important papers in the proverbial shoebox. Today's big-screen entertainment centers come with hundreds of channels and multiple remotes. Likewise, consumers are free to choose among a vast array of financial products and services. That's a boon to your finances, but it also makes life more complex and can become overwhelming. To cut through the clutter, we suggest that you think one and done: one credit card to maximize your rewards points, one manager for all of your retirement accounts, a single do-it-all mutual fund. Even if you make only one or two of our nine moves, you'll cut your stress and have more time to kick back -- and you'll save money, too.

    1. Carry just one credit card in your wallet. Why tote around a clutch of credit cards for retail stores you no longer patronize or gas stations that are nowhere near your home? By consolidating your purchases on one rewards card that best matches your spending patterns, you can lighten your wallet and streamline your monthly bills; stockpile rewards points, frequent-flier miles or cash-back bonuses; and reduce the hassle if your wallet is lost or stolen. (See our slide show Find the Best Rewards Credit Card for You.)

    The flip side is to get rid of the cards you don't need. Even if you keep more than one and carry a backup card when you travel, the key is to prune your accounts judiciously. Canceling credit cards outright can hurt your credit score because a big component of your score is your credit-utilization ratio. That's the amount of credit you've used expressed as a percentage of your overall credit line. You want to keep that ratio as low as possible (ideally below 30 percent or, even better, below 20 percent). Closing a number of accounts can bump up the ratio, even if you pay off your balance every month.

    Start by ordering your credit reports from annualcreditreport.com. You're eligible for one free report annually from each of the three major credit bureaus. Once you have the list in hand, look for cards with low credit limits. If you have $50,000 in available credit, closing a department-store card with a $500 limit won't make a big dent in your utilization ratio. Still, if you're planning to apply for a mortgage or a car loan, it's a good idea to put off closing unwanted credit cards until after the loan has been approved, says Rod Griffin, director of public education for Experian.

    Or you could simply put aside all but one of your cards in a safe place. Your utilization ratio won't suffer, and you won't be tempted to use the cards.

    2. Use a single insurer. Keeping your homeowners, auto and other insurance policies with the same company will cut down on the number of bills you have to pay and may even improve the service you get. For example, if you're happy with the way your auto insurer handles claims, it makes sense to use the same company to insure your home (and possibly your life).

    That's especially true if the company rewards your loyalty with a generous discount. Most major insurers offer discounts if you buy more than one policy. Purchase multiple policies from Allstate, for example, and you can save up to 20 percent on your auto insurance premiums and up to 35 percent on your homeowners policy. Liberty Mutual offers savings of up to 10 percent on its homeowners, condo or rental coverage if you bundle it with auto insurance. The company may offer a discount on the auto insurance premiums, too. Most insurers also cut you a break on auto insurance if you cover more than one vehicle. And Nationwide offers a discount of up to 50 percent on boat insurance if you have multiple policies.

    Buying all of your policies from one insurer won't always deliver the best deal. For example, bundling may not lower your insurance costs if you need a nontraditional policy, such as insurance for a home built with green technology, says Jeanne Salvatore, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute. But you can streamline your search by getting price quotes from an insurance agent who deals with several companies (go to www.iiaba.net to find one near you). Don't overlook insurers that sell directly to customers, such as Geico and USAA.

    3. Create one master password. Hardly a week goes by without news of another massive security breach that has exposed thousands of people to identity theft. Yet despite this threat, the most common password is 123456, according to SplashData, a provider of password-management systems. The second most common password is -- wait for it -- password.

    Clearly, we need to do better. But who has the time to come up with (and remember) difficult-to-decipher passwords for all of their online accounts? One solution is to use a password-management system that stores all of your passwords in a single file. All you need to remember is one master password (your dog's name is not a good choice) to access all of your other user names and passwords. Most password managers offer a free basic version; you'll need to update (and pay) to use the service on multiple devices.

    Unfortunately, these programs aren't bulletproof. In June, LastPass, one of the most popular password-management systems, announced that its network had been hacked, exposing users' e-mail addresses and password reminders. The company said encrypted master passwords were not compromised, although users were prompted to change them.

    If you're uncomfortable storing your passwords in the cloud, there are alternatives. KeePass stores all of your passwords in an encrypted file on your computer. As is the case with the cloud-based systems, you use a master password to access the file. Just make sure your computer is protected from hackers with strong antivirus software, or you'll lose the benefits of storing your passwords locally. (For more advice on protecting yourself against data breaches, see our Guide to Preventing and Overcoming 5 Types of Identity Theft.)

    4. Store your files in one place. Among the mountains of paper in your home office are a number of documents that you should save forever: birth certificates, passports, Social Security cards, education records, life insurance policies, marriage license, divorce decree and record of military service. Hold on to home-purchase documents and records of improvements for as long as you own the property. The same goes for the titles to your vehicles.

    In addition, the IRS generally has three years from the tax-filing deadline to audit your return, so keep your return and supporting documents for at least that long. Some experts recommend, though, that you hold on to your tax returns indefinitely because they can be useful for other purposes, such as applying for disability insurance or a mortgage. Starting with tax year 2014, you're also required to keep records that show you and your family had health insurance, along with records of any subsidies you received to cover health insurance premiums.

    Once you've stored all of those documents in a bank or a couple of file drawers at home, feel free to toss, toss, toss. After you've paid your credit card bill, shred the monthly statement unless you need it to claim tax deductions. Monthly bank statements can also go into the shredder unless you need them for tax purposes. Shred pay stubs after you've received your Form W-2 and checked it for errors. You can dispose of brokerage statements once you receive your annual statement, unless they show a gain or loss that you'll need to report on your tax return. Hold on to statements that show the cost basis for an investment you still own.

    You can also harness technology to reduce paperwork. The IRS accepts digital copies of supporting tax documents, so you can scan documents you'll need, such as letters from charities, and convert them to digital files. Back up the files with an external hard drive or flash drive.

    Or store scanned documents on the Internet, using free cloud-based services such as Apple iCloud Drive, Dropbox, Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive (see our story The Mysteries of Cloud Storage Explained).

    5. Get your bank to pay your bills. Why waste time paying your bills when your bank or credit union probably offers an electronic bill-payment program, most likely at no charge? Even if one of your accounts doesn't accept e-payments, the bank will send a paper check.

    You can set up e-mail or text reminders of due dates, which will reduce the risk you'll incur late-payment fees. Or arrange for recurring payments to be made automatically every month before the due date.

    Although auto-pay can be a godsend for busy people, there are downsides, too. Changing banks can be a hassle because you must unwind all of your auto-payment plans before closing your old account (most banks and credit unions provide switch kits that help you with this process). If you're hit with an erroneous charge, you'll be out the money while you dispute the payment. Even when bills are accurate, you need to make sure there's enough money in your account to cover the automatic payment. Otherwise, you'll be hit with hefty overdraft fees.

    One way to avoid that problem is to put your savings on autopilot, too. Have your paycheck deposited electronically in your bank account and, if your employer permits it, consider having a portion of your check deposited in a savings account set up for emergencies. You can arrange for your bank to withdraw money automatically from your savings whenever there's a shortfall in your checking account.

    6. Consolidate retirement accounts. Over the course of your working life, you may have accumulated a raft of 401(k) plans from former employers and individual retirement accounts at various financial-services firms. You can reduce paperwork, lower fees and make sure your port­folio is appropriately diversified by rounding up these accounts under one umbrella.

    For IRAs, consolidating with one firm will help you avoid low-balance fees that could eat into your returns. As long as mutual funds in your IRA are included in the financial institution's funds network, you won't have to sell your funds when you consolidate. You can combine the same types of IRAs (such as traditional IRAs) in a single account, which makes it easier to keep track of your portfolio.

    Increasing the size of your account could also make you eligible for perks, such as a discount on tax software or a free portfolio review by a financial planner. Changing and updating beneficiaries is also easier when all of your IRAs are in the same place. And when you retire, taking withdrawals from your IRAs will be easier if you have all of your accounts with the same firm.

    Your IRA provider will happily help you roll over old 401(k) plans into your account, too, but that's not always in your best interest. Some large-company 401(k) plans offer institutional-class mutual funds with lower fees than retail funds offered by IRAs. Many also offer stable-value funds, which are attractive low-risk alternatives to money market funds and are only available in employer-sponsored retirement plans.

    If you're still working, there's a one-step alternative: Roll your former employer's plan (or plans) into your current employer's 401(k). Most large companies allow plan-to-plan rollovers. You'll streamline your retirement savings accounts without sacrificing the benefits offered by a 401(k).

    7. Pick one broker or fund firm. It's also a good idea to put taxable investment accounts under one roof: You can see what you have at a glance, compare your asset allocation to your target mix of investments, and reduce the amount of paperwork you have to contend with at tax time.

    All of the big fund com­panies, such as Fidelity, T. Rowe Price and Vanguard, have brokerage arms, so you can transfer both individual securities and mutual funds to them. Big brokerage firms, such as Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade, let you buy and sell funds as easily as stocks. Know, too, that you usually don't have to sell an investment to transfer it. Just stipulate that you want to transfer it "in kind" and your current brokerage will transfer your securities without triggering a potentially taxable gain.

    Going simple won't only make your life easier, it could also improve your results, partly because you'll find your portfolio easier to understand. That cuts down on shocks that can lead to poor, emotionally driven decisions, says Ben Carlson, author of the book "A Wealth of Common Sense: Why Simplicity Trumps Complexity in Any Investment Plan."

    To see if your investment mix is well diversified, make a stop at the portfolio "Instant X-ray" tool at Morningstar.com, a free service that lets you plug in your investments and get a snapshot of your portfolio's composition. Among other things, the tool tells you the degree to which your investments overlap and what percentage of your assets are in broad investment categories, such as big U.S. growth companies or investment-grade corporate bonds, as well as industry sectors, such as technology or financial services. For advice on making changes, you can upgrade to Morningstar's premium membership ($199 a year).

    8. Invest in an 'all-in-one' fund. If you'd rather let someone else pick your tax-deferred or taxable investments and make sure they stay in proper balance, you're a candidate for an all-in-one fund. They come in three main flavors: Balanced funds typically hold 60 to 70 percent of their assets in stocks and the rest in bonds. Lifestyle funds assemble a mix of investments geared to your tolerance for risk. A conservative lifestyle fund might have 40 percent of its assets in stocks, while an aggressive one might have 80 percent in stocks. Asset allocations in both balanced and lifestyle funds tend to remain fairly constant over time.

    The asset allocation in target-date funds, by contrast, changes as the fund ages. The idea is to pick a fund, such as Fidelity Freedom 2050, whose target date matches your particular goal -- usually retirement, but the funds may also be used to save for college or other purposes. A fund with a target year far into the future typically has a high percentage of stocks. Over time, the fund gradually trims its allotment to stocks and adds more bonds and cash. Note, however, that this so-called glide path can vary dramatically from one fund sponsor to another.

    Which type of all-in-one-fund should you choose? A balanced or lifestyle fund is fine for investors who want to temper the risk of an all-stock portfolio. But for goals with a clear estimated date of arrival, such as college or retirement, a target fund is just the ticket, says Christopher Philips, a senior manager in Vanguard's Institutional Investor Services Group. "It's globally diversified, it's professionally managed, it's regularly rebalanced, and it gets more conservative as you age. For someone who wants to keep things really simple, that's a good option."

    9. Sign up once and forget it. To procrastinate is human. To automate is divine. "Humans, by their very nature, fail to follow through," says Philips. "They may want to do something, but something else comes up and they just never execute. Automatic investment plans are a great way to overcome human nature."

    You may have already automated an aspect of your finances by signing up for a 401(k) plan or direct deposit of your paycheck. You can do the same thing with your investment accounts. Every major brokerage firm, fund company and bank offers automatic savings programs that allow you to establish a timetable designating how much you want to save and how often, the account that should be tapped to make the contributions, and where you want the money to go.

    You can specify a money market fund if you're saving for a short-term goal, or even a state 529 savings plan for college bills. No immediate goal? Then set up the savings to go into a balanced fund; Dodge & Cox Balanced (DODBX) and T. Rowe Price Balanced (RPBAX) are solid choices. "Automate as many decisions as you can," Ben Carlson advises. "It makes things simpler and keeps you from making decisions on the fly."

     

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    Excited young traveler with boarding pass in airport concourse
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    By Karla Bowsher

    Formulas for when to book a plane ticket at the best price seem to be an increasingly inexact science. Some theories are supported by data, but the Associated Press reports that trying to use a formula to book the best airline ticket price can also be like trying to time the stock market (which Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson has called a fool's game).

    Patrick Scurry, chief data scientist for Hopper, a travel-information firm that archives ticket prices, tells the AP:

    "There isn't a golden rule anymore. There are these 'average' rules, but they're not that useful necessarily for a specific trip."

    Some rules also contradict others.

    On domestic flights, for example, Airlines Reporting Corp., which handles tickets sold through travel agents, determined that prices for domestic flights are cheapest 57 days before the flight. But fare-search website CheapAir.com advises 47 days before the flight, on average. Rules also fluctuate on the best day of the week to buy tickets.

    It used to be Tuesday, when airlines often announced advertised sales. Expedia says if you are buying tickets for a flight that is at least three weeks out, Tuesday is still the cheapest day, followed closely by Wednesday.

    For flights that depart within three weeks, Expedia says, Sunday is a little cheaper.

    AirfareWatchdog.com founder George Hobica tells the AP, however, that shoppers should check prices daily because unadvertised sales can happen any day of the week:

    "Sometimes we'll see amazing sales on Saturday mornings, especially to international destinations. A lot of people don't search on weekends because they've been brainwashed to think that Tuesday is the day to book."

    Rules for whether it's better to book tickets early or late also now vary.

    For example, waiting for prices to drop at the last minute doesn't work as well as it used to, the AP reports. Many flights fill up, which generally means prices go up as the flight nears.

    But booking early for flights around the holidays doesn't work either, because airlines know which days passengers prefer to fly and set prices high from the start.

    Do you follow any rules or use any formulas when booking plane tickets? Share your tips in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

    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!


    How to Get the Best Airline Seats

     

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    By Louis DeNicola

    Student loan debt has surpassed $1.2 trillion, ticking up several thousand dollars per second, according to FinAid.org. For recent graduates entering the workforce, the average loan for a bachelor's degree amounts to more than $35,000. Failure to repay can lower credit scores and lead to garnished wages and legal action; this debt can't be eliminated through bankruptcy. One way to make loans easier to manage, and potentially decrease the financial burden, is to refinance.

    Refinancing is when a lender pays off the outstanding loans and issues a single new one, often based on an applicant's credit score, debt-to-income ratio, and income. The process is often similar to applying for a new student loan, except this time around the borrower's circumstances, or the global markets, may have changed. Former students in a better financial situation than they were when they took out the loans may be eligible for lower rates through refinancing.

    Owen Karssiens, an accounting and payroll specialist, refinanced his student loans and now stands to save thousands. After earning an MBA, Karssiens had accumulated $35,000 in federal loans. Between the principal and interest (6.8 percent), the 10-year repayment plan would have cost him a total of $48,000. He stuck to that path for three years before refinancing with Earnest, a private lender. His new loan has a fixed 5.87 percent interest rate, and if he maintains the same $450 monthly payments at the lower rate, he'll repay the loan 14 months early, saving $6,300.

    Refinancing isn't necessarily a good deal, though -- in some cases monthly payments get smaller but the life of the loan gets longer, costing the student more in the end. The long-term financial impact isn't always easy to determine, especially when dealing with multiple loans with different interest rates. Student Loan Hero, a free online resource that helps borrowers organize and understand their loans, provides a calculator that shows estimated monthly payments and total interest costs before and after refinancing.

    Keep in mind that special arrangements with previous lenders, such as discounts for consistent on-time payments or automatic payments, won't be honored after refinancing. The new lender may also have different rules or fees when it comes to repaying loans. Some private lenders charge several percent of the amount being refinanced in origination fees, which can offset potential savings.

    Federal Loans vs. Private Loans

    Federal loans (there are several types) are somewhat flexible. Borrowers are eligible for special repayment terms, such as income-based repayment or an extended repayment plan. The loans also can be forgiven if the borrower makes 120 payments (10 years' worth) while working full-time in a public service job. Payments can be temporarily reduced or frozen if the borrower returns to school, loses a job, or faces financial hardship. While some lenders refinance only private loans, others also take on loans from the federal government. Refinancing replaces the federal loans with a single private loan. Borrowers who initially owed money to the federal government are no longer eligible for any of the associated repayment or forgiveness programs.

    There is one way for students with federal loans to combine several loans into one and still hold on to the special repayment terms: a federal Direct Consolidation Loan. Students can consolidate their federal loans after graduating, leaving school, or taking on less than a half-time load of courses (a full list of eligible loans can be found at StudentAid.gov). Everything goes to one lender, which means no more sorting through multiple piles of paperwork or dealing with multiple due dates and interest rates.

    As with refinancing, borrowers can potentially wind up with a lower monthly payment but a longer payment term. And with consolidation, the new interest rate is the weighted average of the previous loans' rates. Borrowers typically don't save much money, if any. Private loans can sometimes be consolidated with a similar outcome if the borrower has multiple loans from the same issuer. However, refinancing is required to combine private and federal loans.

    Some, but not all, private lenders offer flexible repayment programs similar to those provided by the federal government. Online lender SoFi, for one, freezes repayment and offers complimentary career coaching for borrowers who lose their jobs.

    More About Refinancing

    The ability to refinance isn't open to every student debtor. According to Student Loan Hero, many lenders require a minimum 680 credit score, a maximum 45 percent debt-to-income ratio, and a monthly income of at least $2,000 to be eligible. Other lenders take a big-picture approach that relies less on credit scores and incorporates other factors such as employers, alma maters, banking history, savings account balances, and even applicants' LinkedIn profiles. Students who seek private loans often have a relative cosign (federal loans don't require this), and some lenders are willing to release the cosigner in refinancing. This is more likely if the borrower has a history of consecutive and on-time monthly payments, hasn't extended repayment terms, and is currently employed. (Still, good luck: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that 90 percent of cosigner release requests were denied.)

    Borrowers may be able to choose between fixed and variable rates when refinancing. A variable option with a low starting interest rate can be appealing, but it might wind up costing more in the long run. For example, SoFi offers fixed rates starting at 3.50 percent and variable rates starting at 1.90 percent (for borrowers who enroll in automatic payments), but the latter can climb to 4.19 percent as overall interest rates fluctuate.

    Where to Refinance

    Those considering refinancing should also read about the customer service experience that a new lender will provide. Karssiens said everything seems less bureaucratic, cleaner, and easier to understand with his new loan servicer. Logging into his account and making an extra one-time payment or changing his monthly payments feels as seamless as using Uber or Amazon. Magnify Money, a free online resource, grades and reviews lenders. A helpful comparison chart shows the longest term length, cosigner release option, fixed- and variable-rate ranges, and largest loan amount the company will refinance. In addition, consider how different private lenders treat borrowers who run into financial trouble.

    Borrowers should hunt around for suitable lenders and get several rate quotes. Most will ask for at least the applicant's name, income and employer, school attended, and the amount to be refinanced. Once the initial information is punched in, applicants may be able to see estimated rates and repayment terms in a matter of seconds.

     

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    Family having popcorn while watching TV
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    Fall is quickly approaching, which means many favorite TV shows are soon to return, not to mention baseball playoffs and the start of football.

    With that in mind, have you taken a close look at your cable bill lately? Unless you moved recently, chances are you haven't changed your subscription. And if you have the same service as a few years ago, your cable costs have likely increased. Before the fall season begins, now is a good time to evaluate whether your shows are worth the expense.

    Consider how much you spend each month versus how much of your cable subscription you use. Are you watching all the channels you pay for or just flipping between the same 20 options?

    If you're happy paying the bill every month for what you watch, and aren't willing to give up access to all cable has to offer, then canceling might not be the best option for you. Before you decide, consider a few pros and cons of cutting the cord:

    Pros

    When you cancel your cable subscription, the first obvious benefit is saving money. And the savings don't mean you have to sacrifice your favorite shows.

    There are tons of streaming services and devices on the market that make it easier to cut ties with cable, especially when devices connect to the Internet and provide instant access to your must-see shows. With so many options, you may want to use an app like Yidio which can help you find a show or movie and see whether it's available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, iTunes (all cheaper options than or cable) or through free online streaming.

    For some people, there is another unexpected benefit of canceling cable. Instead of flipping on the television and watching whatever is on (sometimes for longer than intended), watching TV becomes a more intentional act. If you're looking to spend less time in front of a screen, this is a plus.

    Cons

    There are a few cons to cutting your ties with cable, depending on your viewing preferences. One major change is losing access to live coverage of news and sports.

    This can easily be remedied with the Internet's myriad sources of news and live streaming of major events. However, watching sports coverage sometimes requires a workaround when you don't have cable. With the exception of national games aired on major networks (which stream online for free), you won't have access to the live sports coverage on ESPN and other cable channels.

    Another consideration: If you follow local sports teams, you'll likely be part of blackout restrictions and won't be able to stream those games online.

    One more con for dedicated viewers is the delay of watching current television series. If you're waiting for a season to be uploaded to Netflix, it can be difficult to avoid spoilers for those months in between. For hard core fans, even waiting to watch a new episode a few days later can be a challenge.

    Lastly, there is some content that is still "cable-locked" -- HBO used to be one such network with limited access, but recently unveiled a new HBO Now service for people who don't have a cable subscription. Other channels like Showtime and AMC haven't yet relinquished their newer episodes to streaming.

    Making the Decision

    With all the options available, you might find a new setup confusing and not worth the effort. On the other hand, if you can find a setup that works for you, it can be a new and improved level of convenience -- a TV watching experience that is catered to your personal preferences.

    For those afraid of cutting the cord entirely, try "cord shaving," and just cut back on your cable subscription for a cheaper bill that still allows access to some channels. It's all about finding what works for your household and your budget.

    Jon Lal is the founder and CEO of coupons and cash back website BeFrugal.com, which saves shoppers an average of $27 an order thanks to coupons plus an average of 7 percent cash back at more than 4,000 stores.

     

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    Lifebuoy on wooden wall
    Getty ImagesWhole life insurance can make your portfolio more complete by offering steady balance and also help subsidize retirement planning.
    By Lou Carlozo

    If portfolio investments were people at a party, then the cool kids -- growth stocks, real estate, retirement accounts and exchange-traded funds -- would huddle in a closed circle. Those dull-yet-dependable bonds would stand just outside, trying to fit in. And alone in a corner, not far from the annuities, you'd have whole life insurance: complicated, frumpy and arguably not worth the time and trouble.

    Indeed, the notion of skipping life insurance as an investment -- and plowing the saved cash into more profitable areas -- has its allure for some investors. Term life policies, while they don't build cash value, are more affordable, simpler to grasp and easy to comparison shop.

    Life insurance products -- whether they are term life, whole life or another variety -- are meant to be financial protection for your heirs.

    "If you're pricing out term and permanent life policies, and term will provide sufficient coverage, consider buying the term policy," says Melinda Kibler, portfolio manager with the Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "Use the difference in premiums to add to your investment portfolio, as opposed to using the permanent life policy as an investment option."

    And so the question arises: Is life insurance a good investment at all?

    "Life insurance products -- whether they are term life, whole life or another variety -- are meant to be financial protection for your heirs," says Jim Poolman, executive director of the Indexed Annuity Leadership Council. "They are not meant to be investment products and shouldn't be regarded as such, because they will never live up to products designed as investment vehicles."

    "There is merit to the negative argument among non-annuity insurance products," says Andrew Murdoch, president of Somerset Wealth Strategies in Portland, Oregon. He cites the variable annuity universal life policy, which invests in sub-accounts such as mutual funds under a life insurance wrapper. "This type of account has to perform well enough to pay for the cost of insurance and provide growth over and above it."

    'Peace of Mind'

    Murdoch characterizes life insurance as "more a peace of mind play than a growth play." But he adds: "Not all insurance investments are bad. Annuities issued by insurance companies are generally good and the only product offering guaranteed income for life."

    If not all are bad, could insurance investments possibly be good, then?

    "Most circumstances don't call for whole life insurance with the exception of estate planning, buy-sell arrangements, executive benefits or pension maximization," says Mike Chadwick, CEO of Chadwick Financial in Unionville, Connecticut. "Almost all other situations call for term insurance, and it's far less costly."

    That's not to say others don't reap rewards from whole life -- those who push it, that is. "Insurance is certainly sold, and there are very sophisticated sales techniques to sell it," he says.

    But some contend that most objections to whole life are simply unfounded.

    "Insurance has been a smart investment for years," says David F. Keefe III, a financial adviser for 4-Point Financial in Waltham, Massachusetts. Keefe cites the Great Recession as an example: "If you needed cash from your portfolio in January 2009, and you had $50,000 in a mutual fund and $50,000 cash value insurance, where would be the best place to take it from? Over a six-year period to now, that could have saved you $50,000 in additional mutual fund growth."

    Whole life can also build up tax-sheltered savings that can subsidize retirement planning, and make portfolios more complete by offering steady balance, insurance experts say.

    "Insurance products are used to complement and balance the risk of an investment portfolio," says Mark S. Cardoza, founder of the Retirement Education Resource Center of North America. "Whole life insurance within a mutual company will produce 6 to 8 percent growth between interest and dividends during a down market, thus at times outperforming the market."

    Poolman says that annuities, a close cousin of life insurance and sold by the same agents, can serve a key purpose in a portfolio. Those products guarantee income streams upon retirement; "It can never be outlived, which is a solution to one of the most significant financial obstacles aging Americans face today," he says.

    Tax Strategy

    And while it's not an investment move, life insurance policies with cash value -- whole, universal and variable -- can serve as part of a broader tax strategy.

    "Once cash value is built up in your policy, you can use it as collateral to take a loan from the insurance company," says Sean A. Quigley, author of "The Cash Play: Capitalizing on the Opportunity Value of Cash."

    Here's how it works: "You set up your own unstructured loan with no repayment schedule, which allows you to skip traditional bank financing. Since it's a loan and not a direct distribution, you do not owe any income tax," Quigley says.

    Even if you want to bypass whole, don't overlook life insurance as a whole; that's the equivalent of flying without a financial safety net. "The question of whether or not to buy whole life shouldn't be confused with whether or not to buy life insurance at all," says Jeremy Hallett, founder and CEO of Quotacy, an online term insurance marketplace. "Everyone needs life insurance if they have others who depend on them financially in any way."

    And so let's return to the portfolio party, where whole life may never make it into that charmed investment circle. But it shouldn't be kicked out on a whim, either -- it might just be, if you will, a life saver.

    "Insurance and investment portfolios should be kept separate and managed separately," Cardoza says. "The purpose for investing in insurance products should be to protect the individual from the risk in an investment portfolio -- or life in general."

     

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    Wall street, New York, USA.
    Alamy
    Plenty of stocks go up and down in any given week. The gainers inspire us to keep investing. The decliners keep greed in check while reminding us about the risks of the equity markets.

    Let's go over some of last week's best and worst performers.

    Aquinox Pharmaceuticals (AQXP) -- Up 112 percent last week

    The market's biggest winner last week was Aquinox Pharmaceuticals, more than doubling after revealing positive mid-stage clinical trial results. Aquinox is trying to get a treatment for eczema and bladder pain approved, and the encouraging results suggest that it will happen.

    Wayfair (W) -- Up 36 percent last week

    The Web-based furniture retailer soared after posting blowout quarterly results. Wayfair saw its sales soar 66 percent since the prior year, and its loss was only half as much as Wall Street was expecting. Wayfair's online platform continues to attract new furniture shoppers. Its active customer count now stands at 4 million, 54 percent ahead of where it was a year ago.

    magicJack (CALL) -- Up 25 percent last week

    Another big winner last week was magicJack. The company behind the namesake Internet-based phone service connected with investors after posting better-than-expected financials. Revenue did post a year-over-year drop in its latest quarter, but shrewd cost-cutting helped deliver a strong pop in profitability. The eventual adjusted profit of 30 cents a share was well ahead of the 19 cents a share that the pros were forecasting.

    There are now 2.62 million subscribers to magicJack's platform. Its monthly churn clocked in at 2.8 percent, and while that may seem like a lot of turnover, it's actually magicJack's best churn rate in several years.

    Christopher & Banks (CBK) -- Down 47 percent last week

    The New York Stock Exchange's biggest sinker was Christopher & Banks. The specialty women's apparel retailer warned that sales for the quarter that will end later this month will clock in closer to $94 million. The chain's earlier guidance called for $100 million to $103 million in net sales.

    Christopher & Banks started to experience weakness in late June across all of its product categories, and that hasn't improved through the summer. It now sees comparable-store sales plunging 12.4 percent since the prior summer. That would be acceptable if Christopher & Banks were scoring generous markups on those diminished sales, but margins are also going the wrong way. It's not a pretty situation, and Christopher & Banks is bringing in an outside consultant for an operational review.

    Papa Murphy's (FRSH) -- Down 26 percent last week

    The top dog in take-and-bake pizzas that are assembled at its stores but customers bake at home slumped after posting quarterly results. It wasn't a bad performance. Revenue climbed 33 percent since the prior year, juiced up by the expansion of company-owned stores and a 4.5 percent uptick in comparable-store sales. That was actually ahead of Wall Street's expectations.

    Papa Murphy's adjusted profit of 9 cents a share was in line with analyst targets, but the chain spooked the market by raising its guidance for capital expenditures this year, something that could sting on the bottom line even if it results in more company-owned stores opening. Even with the big hit last week, the stock is still beating the market this year with a 28 percent gain so far in 2015.

    King Digital Entertainment (KING) -- Down 12 percent last week

    Finally, we have the mobile gaming giant behind "Candy Crush Saga" and "Farm Rescue Saga" getting crushed after offering up weak financials. Once again we're seeing gross bookings, revenue, and earnings continuing to slide. "Candy Crush Saga"'s financial performance peaked in the latter half of 2013, and pushing out several new games hasn't been able to offset the slide. The number of active paying players has fallen 27 percent across all of King's games, and that's not going to sit well with Mr. Market.

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

     

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    Older First Time Homebuyers
    Michael Conroy/AP
    By JOSH BOAK

    WASHINGTON -- Short of cash and unsettled in their careers, young Americans are waiting longer than ever to buy their first homes.

    The typical first-timer now rents for six years before buying a home, up from 2.6 years in the early 1970s, according to a new analysis by the real estate data firm Zillow (Z). The median first-time buyer is age 33 -- in the upper range of the millennial generation, which roughly spans ages 18 to 34. A generation ago, the median first-timer was about three years younger.

    The delay reflects a trend that cuts to the heart of the financial challenges facing millennials: Renters are struggling to save for down payments. Increasingly, too, they're facing delays in some key landmarks of adulthood, from marriage and children to a stable career, according to industry and government reports.

    These shifts help explain why homeownership, long a source of middle class identity and economic opportunity, has started to decline. The share of the U.S. population who own homes has slid to 63.4 percent, a 48-year low, according to the Census Bureau.

    And when young adults do sign the deed, their purchase price is now substantially more, relative to their income, than it was decades ago. First-time buyers are paying a median price of $140,238, nearly 2.6 times their income. In the early 1970s, the starter home was just 1.7 times income.

    HOMEBUYERS
    Millennials are "still very interested in buying a house, but they're delaying that decision," said Svenja Gudell, chief economist at Zillow. "Once they start having kids, they begin looking for homes. We're also finding that -- given how much rental rates are currently rising -- a lot of folks are having a hard time saving for a down payment and qualifying for a mortgage."

    Millennials increasingly find themselves in a situation like that of Lou Flores, a 30-year-old portfolio manager in San Diego. He shares a one-bedroom apartment with his boyfriend, paying $1,400 a month to live within walking distance of Balboa Park and the zoo.

    Flores' parents had built their nest egg by steadily upgrading their homes, ingraining him with the notion that "renting was a waste of money." But the median home in San Diego costs more than a half million dollars, according to the area's association of Realtors.

    So Flores figures ownership is at least a few years away.

    "Here in California, if you're not married or with someone, it's impossible to buy a home without financial backing from your parents," Flores said.

    Few first-timers around the country can lean on their parents. Among homebuyers last year under age 34, 14 percent received down payment help from family or friends, according to a Federal Reserve survey.

    Higher Rental Prices

    Most first-timers still depend on personal savings for at least some of their down payments. But rising rental prices have complicated the task of socking away money for a down payment. Fueled by a surge of renters across all age ranges, rental prices nationally have grown at roughly twice the pace of average hourly wage growth, which was a paltry 2.1 percent over the past year.

    A result is that those prices are consuming more income. A striking 46 percent of renters ages 25 to 34 -- the core of the millennial population -- spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent, up from 40 percent a decade earlier, according to a report by Harvard University's Joint Center of Housing Studies. (The housing industry generally regards a figure above 30 percent as financially burdensome.)

    Some of the cost burden stems from a shift toward people who envision themselves renting for several years and therefore seeking the kinds of amenities more commonly associated with home ownership. Based on searches for rentals on RadPad in June and July, for example, apartments with stainless steel appliances and swimming pools were disproportionately popular in cities with lower homeownership rates such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington.

    Nearly a fifth of Washington-area searches sought apartments with stainless steel appliances, compared with 5 percent nationwide. More than a third of Chicagoans wanted an apartment with a pool, versus 18 percent nationally.

    Job security has become a more central consideration for first-time buyers. The Money Source, a mortgage lender and servicer, examined applications from 5,404 millennial homebuyers. It found that the buyers had averaged nearly 4.5 years in their field of work and had held their current job for slightly more than three years. Those figures point to how critical career stability has become for a generation that entered the workforce during the Great Recession and its slow-growth recovery.

    Housing industry experts note that surveys still show a strong desire to buy among millennials, but that their timelines for purchasing depend on achieving more stability in their careers.

    "As long as there is the job market to support millennials -- just as it has for previous generations -- I don't believe their habits will change," said Darius Mirshahzadeh, CEO of The Money Source.

     

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    Zulily Surges After Raising $253 Million In Mom-Website IPO
    Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Devika Krishna Kumar

    Liberty Interactive (QVCA), which owns home shopping network QVC, said it would acquire Zulily (ZU) in a deal valued at $2.4 billion to tap into the online retailer's younger clientele and its strong mobile presence.

    Zulily, a website that hosts "flash" sales of clothing primarily for women and children, counts Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba Group (BABA) as one of its shareholders.

    Alibaba held about 9 percent of Zulily's total common stock as of May 15.

    The offer of $18.75 a share represents a premium of about 49 percent to Zulily's Friday close. The company's shares rose 49 percent to $18.73 in early trading on Monday.

    Zulily sales growth has slowed recently, hurt by increasing competition from other flash sales sites such as Boston-based Rue La La and giants such as Amazon.com (AMZN).

    Mike George, chief executive of QVC, said the two companies target similar customers who have above-average income, but had little overlap.

    "Only 6 percent of Zulily's active customers made a purchase on QVC," George said on a conference call.

    The combined company would have annual revenue of more than $10 billion, QVC, which is about 30 years old in the United States, said.

    John Malone, the chairman of Liberty Interactive who also runs Liberty Media (LMCA), is well known for buying and selling cable and media companies.

    Liberty Interactive said in 2014 its board had approved splitting into two tracking stocks, one for its cable shopping business QVC Group and the other for its digital commerce, Liberty Digital Commerce.

    Liberty Interactive said it would buy Zulily for $18.75 a share, or $9.375 in cash and 0.3098 newly issued share of Liberty Interactive for each Zulily share.

    In the second quarter ended June 28, about 56 percent of Zulily's orders were placed from a mobile device, up from about 49 percent a year earlier.

    QVC reached about 317 million homes globally in fiscal year 2014. Mobile as a percentage of ecommerce orders, excluding a China joint venture, was about 41 percent for the company.

    Once the deal closes, expected in the fourth quarter, Zulily will remain based in Seattle and continue to be run by chief executive Darrell Cavens.

    Zulily's shares were up 47.9 percent $18.60 while Liberty Interactive shares fell as much as 4.8 percent to $28.79 on the Nasdaq.

    Up to Friday's close, Zulily's stock had fallen about 43 percent since its debut in November 2013.

    -Kshitiz Goliya contributed reporting from Bangalore.

     

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    Earns UnitedHealth
    Jim Mone/APUnitedHealth Group is said to be interested in buying Aetna. Should that happen, half the country could soon be getting its health coverage from just two mega-health-insurers.

    "Generally speaking, further consolidation in the health insurance industry is not a good thing for consumers, employers or medical providers ... It means the potential for future price increases as a result of less competition."
    -- Dave Jones, California Insurance Commissioner

    And yet, "further consolidation in the health insurance industry" is exactly what we're getting.

    Last month, giant consumer health insurance company Anthem (ANTM) -- the insurer formerly known as WellPoint -- confirmed that it is proceeding full speed ahead with its plan to absorb Cigna (CI), a health insurer half its size. Together, the two insurers will employ some 89,000 workers, and take in more than $115 billion in annual revenues.

    In a statement on the merger, Anthem noted that "the combined company will cover approximately 53 million medical members" -- nearly 1 in 5 Americans. Data from S&P Capital IQ suggest the concentration could be even bigger than that. Total membership at Anthem is stated at 58.4 million souls. Total membership at Cigna: 27.4 million. That's 85 million members (although there may be some overlap between the two groups).

    And that's not all.

    It's a Small World, After All

    At the same time as Anthem swallows Cigna, rival megainsurer Aetna (AET) is buying Humana (HUM) for $35 billion. Aetna boasts 54.4 million total members; Humana, 21.5 million. Assuming both the Anthem-Cigna and Aetna-Humana deals go through, this will make Anthem and Aetna two of the largest publicly traded health insurers in the nation. UnitedHealth Group (UNH), said to have 41.6 million U.S. members "across commercial, Medicaid and Medicare segments" alone, is the third.

    Again, there's likely some overlap among all of these numbers, but just tallying them all up, before accounting for overlap, we get the astonishing sum of 203.3 million Americans getting one form or another of medical insurance from these companies -- more than half the country.

    And the World Is Getting Smaller

    What's more, UnitedHealth Group itself is said to be interested in buying Aetna. If that happens, half the country could soon be getting its health coverage from just two mega-health-insurers: UnitedHealth and Anthem.

    What is going on here? And is it good news or bad news for you?

    The Company Line

    Joe Swedish, current CEO of Anthem and soon-to-be-CEO of a merged Anthem and Cigna, says his company's absorption of Cigna will help it to "serve the evolving health care market with increased participation by individual consumers and growth in the government business and the need for solutions that advance affordability, choice and quality." And while that's seemingly a self-serving statement, it's not necessarily untrue. Experts note that as insurers grow in size, and have more business to offer to both pharmaceutical companies on one hand and hospitals and other caregivers on the other, they are in a better position to negotiate lower prices for drugs and medical services.

    These lower prices can then be passed on to insurance plan members. Additionally, Swedish says that the merger of Anthem with Cigna should permit the company to make significant cost cuts within the companies' own internal bureaucracies, eliminating as much as $2 billion in costs within two years of a merger -- which is even more savings that could be passed along to consumers.

    Or not.

    (Pricing) Power Corrupts. Absolute (Pricing) Power Corrupts Absolutely

    Just because these companies can cut costs for consumers, of course, doesn't mean that they will. After all, the more insurance companies that merge, the fewer insurance companies remain to compete with. Thus, the merging of insurers can work to decrease competition in the market.

    Publicly traded insurance companies, beholden to shareholders who like to see profits grow every year, may be tempted to keep any savings from their mergers for themselves (and their shareholders), passing little of the savings on to consumers.

    Indeed, a recent analysis of trends by the American Medical Association argues that consolidation to date is already yielding "a serious decline in competition" among insurers -- and consequently, we assume, higher prices. Backing up that analysis, Politico reports that health insurance costs are set to skyrocket in 2016. Especially in states where one insurer owns a dominant market share, Politico is reporting insurance premium rate increase requests as high as 25, 30 and even 50 percent.

    Long story short: Anthem's argument that consolidation in the health insurance industry is good for consumers might turn out to be true -- but the evidence is against it.

    First five big insurers, then three big insurers, then two? Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith wonders if what we're really doing is taking a roundabout route to "single-payer" health coverage. The Motley Fool recommends Anthem and UnitedHealth Group. 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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    Builder Sentiment
    Ross D. Franklin/AP
    By Sam Forgione

    NEW YORK -- U.S. homebuilder sentiment rose in August to its highest level since a matching reading almost a decade ago, the National Association of Home Builders said Monday.

    The NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market index rose to 61 from 60 in July, the group said in a statement. The latest level was the highest since a matching reading in November 2005. It was in line with economists' expectations, according to a Reuters poll.

    Readings above 50 indicate more builders view market conditions as favorable than poor. The index has not been below 50 since June 2014.

    "Today's report is consistent with our forecast for a gradual strengthening of the single-family housing sector in 2015," NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe said in a statement.

    "Job and economic gains should keep the market moving forward at a modest pace throughout the rest of the year."

    The single-family home sales component rose to 66 from 65 to mark its highest level since November 2005. The gauge of single-family sales expectations for the next six months was steady at 70, while prospective buyer traffic rose to 45 from 43 to mark the highest reading since December.

     

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    Federal Building SEC
    Andrew Harnik/AP
    By Sarah N. Lynch

    WASHINGTON -- Two units of Citigroup (C) will pay nearly $180 million to settle financial crisis-era charges alleging they defrauded investors in two hedge funds by telling them the funds were safe, low-risk investments, U.S. regulators said Monday.

    The Securities and Exchange Commission said that Citigroup Global Markets and Citigroup Alternative Investments are settling without admitting or denying the charges, and that the funds will bear all of the costs for distributing the money to harmed investors.

    We are pleased to have resolved this matter.

    "We are pleased to have resolved this matter," a Citigroup spokeswoman said in a statement.

    The SEC said that the bank's two units made "false and misleading" statements to investors in both the ASTA/MAT fund and the Falcon fund, which collectively raised nearly $3 billion in capital from about 4,00 investors before the funds collapsed.

    The ASTA/MAT fund was a municipal arbitrage fund that bought municipal bonds and hedged risks with Treasury or LIBOR swaps, while the Falcon fund invested in a number of products, including complex instruments like collateralized debt obligations.

    The SEC said that even as the funds were collapsing, the units still accepted $110 million in additional investments and investors weren't informed about the "dire" financial conditions.

    The regulator added that at times some of Citigroup's employees gave clients misleading information that ran counter to disclosures in marketing documents and other materials.

    Both funds were highly leveraged and sold to advisory clients of either Citigroup Private Bank or Smith Barney.

    "Advisers at these Citigroup affiliates were supposed to be looking out for investors' best interests, but falsely assured them they were making safe investments even when the funds were on the brink of disaster," SEC Enforcement Director Andrew Ceresney said.

     

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    ** FILE ** In this Jan. 26, 2009 file photo, a McDonald's restaurant in El Cerrito, Calif. is seen.  Cash-strapped consumers kept buying McDonald's burgers and breakfast items in January, helping the fast food company post a 7.1 percent worldwide increase Monday in same-store sales for the month. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, file)
    Ben Margot/AP
    By Lisa Baertlein

    LOS ANGELES -- McDonald's (MCD), which is expected to offer all-day breakfasts starting this fall to turn around slumping U.S. sales, is the top choice for "Breakfastarians," who crave breakfast food at any hour, according to a new survey obtained by Reuters.

    Forty-one percent of consumers who eat breakfast twice a day consider McDonald's for their next meal, according to the survey from YouGov BrandIndex, a brand perception research service.

    Sandwich chain Subway was diners' second choice for anytime breakfast with 34 percent, followed by DineEquity's (DIN) IHOP at 32 percent, Burger King (QSR) with 27 percent and Starbucks (SBUX) at 26 percent.

    Denny's (DENN) and Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN) were tied with 25 percent each and Wendy's (WEN) got 23 percent, while KFC and Chick-fil-A rounded out the top 10 with 22 percent apiece.

    McDonald's long has dominated the breakfast category, which already accounts for roughly 25 percent of McDonald's sales and about 40 percent of profit in the United States.

    Breakfast is the only U.S. restaurant meal time seeing an uptick in customer visits. Breakfast traffic was up 4 percent for the year ended May 2015, largely because of gains at fast-food chains, while lunch and dinner visits were flat, according to research firm NPD Group.

    The category is increasingly competitive as growth-hungry chains dive in or double down with new breakfast menu items.

    McDonald's added espresso drinks to its morning lineup of McMuffins and inexpensive drip coffee. Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts struck back with new and upgraded breakfast sandwiches and pastries. And, Taco Bell (YUM) last year jumped in with waffle tacos and other twists on the morning meal.

    While McDonald's holds the lead in the survey, its results suggest that the industry's breakfast brawls are far from over. Chick-fil-A, IHOP and Taco Bell made the greatest purchase consideration gains in the last six months.

    Breakfastarians "appear willing to consider a broad range of options," YouGov BrandIndex chief executive Ted Marzilli.

    The online survey, which took place over a 12-month period, included 1,000 adults over the age of 18 who eat breakfast twice a day.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Rodrigo Campos

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks rose Monday after strong economic data boosted the housing sector and as investors bought recently battered shares in biotech and media.

    Housing stocks rose after data showed U.S. homebuilder sentiment rose in August to its highest since a matching reading almost a decade ago.

    The housing data was pretty good. It certainly didn't hurt the bullish tone to everything housing-related.

    The data more than offset earlier concern over a surprise fall in manufacturing activity in New York state in August.

    "The housing data was pretty good," said Michael James, managing director of equity trading at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles. "It certainly didn't hurt the bullish tone to everything housing-related."

    An index of housing sector stocks gained 1.2 percent to hit its highest in 8½ years.

    Consumer stocks were among the day's gainers led by media companies including Disney, which announced over the weekend plans for two theme park expansions that will bring the celebrated Star Wars movie franchise to life.

    Disney (DIS) shares gained 1.8 percent to $109.05 and Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Charter Communications (CHTR) also rose sharply. A reading of the sector's stocks rose 1.3 percent after closing Friday with its largest two-week drop in almost four years on investor concern over the future of media consumption.

    "The Star Wars news has lent a bid to Disney and that has spilled over into the rest of media space today," James said.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 67.78 points, or 0.4 percent, to 17,545.18, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 10.9 points, or 0.5 percent, to 2,102.44 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 43.46 points, or 0.9 percent, to 5,091.70.

    Biotech Boost

    Among the best performing stocks on the S&P 500 and largest boost to the Nasdaq were those in biotech. The Nasdaq Biotech Index rose 2.1 percent after falling 4.8 percent over the previous two weeks.

    With 92 percent of the S&P 500 companies having reported results so far, second-quarter earnings are expected to have edged up 1.2 percent, while revenue is expected to have fallen 3.5 percent, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    Tesla Motors (TSLA) rose 4.9 percent to $254.99 after Morgan Stanley (MS) raised its price target on the stock to $465 from $280 and said Tesla was its top pick among U.S. automakers.

    Zulily (ZU) soared 49.1 percent to $18.74 after Liberty Interactive said it would buy the online retailer for $2.4 billion. Liberty (QVCA) fell 1.5 percent at $29.80.

    Estee Lauder (EL) fell 6.8 percent to $82.80 after the cosmetics maker reported lower-than-expected quarterly sales.

    The S&P 500 posted 29 new 52-week highs and 12 new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 92 new highs and 83 new lows. About 5.4 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 6.84 billion daily average for the month to date, according to BATS Global Markets data.

    What to watch Tuesday:
    • The Commerce Department releases housing starts for July at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Analog Devices (ADI)
    • Dick's Sporting Goods (DKS)
    • Hain Celestial Group (HAIN)
    • Home Depot (HD)
    • TJX Cos. (TJX)
    • Walmart Stores (WMT)

     

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