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    How to Save Money Automatically

    By Jim Gold

    What are you saving money for?

    European vacation? Kids' college tuition? Emergency fund for a natural disaster, disease or job layoff? Or maybe you're dreaming of the perfect retirement.

    Sometimes we do better at saving our money; other times it's tough. Collectively in June, the latest month for which figures are available, we socked away $646.3 billion, or 4.8 percent of our disposable income, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. That rate was up slightly from May, but was less than half of its 25 year peak of 11 percent in December 2012.

    How much did you put away? Not so much?

    "If you have trouble putting money aside in a savings account, maybe the solution is to stop struggling and put things on autopilot," says Money Talks News financial expert Stacy Johnson.

    Here are seven tips from Stacy and others to get you going, whatever you're saving for.

    1. Pay yourself first. Payroll deduction is the single best idea and one of the oldest. Have money automatically taken out of your paycheck and transferred to a savings or retirement account. See if your employer allows you to directly deposit your paycheck to multiple accounts.

    If you can pay your bills on your current income, send any additional income from raises, bonuses, cash awards or other windfalls straight to savings, too. If your air conditioner conks out or it's time to take that cruise, you'll have a nice sum of money waiting for you in the bank.

    2. Round up your savings. Some banks, including Bank of America, have programs that automatically round up debit-card purchases and then transfers that amount to your savings account. For example, say your tall, half-caf, non-fat vanilla latte costs $3.50, your bill would be rounded up to $4; the extra 50 cents would be deposited into your savings account. So essentially you get a treat now and "keep the change" yourself to save toward another treat later. That act alone daily would build to a painless $182.50 over the course of one year.

    3. We all could use a little change. The low-tech version of the round-up program is stashing your spare change at the end of each day. Keep it in a jar, mug, glass or piggy bank. When your container is full, or on a set schedule, you can turn that change into a bank deposit. Stacy says he turbo-charges this plan by stashing singles as well as coins.

    Coinstar will exchange your coins free if you accept your money loaded onto an egift card from sponsoring partners such as AMC Theaters, The Gap, Sephora or Toys R Us. That won't raise your savings account balance, but it will give you the opportunity to save your spare change for a special item.

    4. Pay with cash. You'll have more cash to stash, too, if you pay with real dollar bills, 5s, 10s and 20s when you shop. Using cash automatically makes you spend less compared to plastic. An oft-quoted Dunn & Bradstreet study says people spend 12 to 18 percent more when using credit cards instead of cash. McDonald's says a credit card user's average ticket is $7, but cash customers usually spend only $4.50.

    Why? If you're worried about schlepping back to the ATM to reload your wallet, you will be less tempted to spend more cash than you planned. You'll be more inclined to pass on a higher-end model of a product you already intended to buy; also, you'll stick to your shopping list and resist in-store temptations to buy more items than you intended.

    5. Make charging rewarding. If you must use a charge card, use one that offers cash back or rewards. Then you're earning cash or equivalents without effort.

    You can check out who's got the right card for you in the Money Talks Solutions Center.

    6. Bank your discounts. What do you do with all the money you save buying bargains? Check your receipts. Most now conveniently tell you how much you saved on a sale item vs. its regular price, or how much you saved by redeeming coupons. Add them up. Did you buy a cheaper generic and save a bundle over a name brand? Track the difference.

    Make it a habit to reward yourself by placing all the money saved from those bargains in your savings account.

    7. Automate your transfers. Check with your bank or credit union about how to set up automatic transfers from your checking account to your savings account. This is another way of making sure you pay yourself first. You can even set up subaccounts and label them for special goals, like college or new car fund.

    Now that your savings are on automatic, relax and watch your balance grow.

    Maryalene LaPonsie contributed to this report.

    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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    Young people having jam session in garage
    Getty Images
    You may have never heard of my nephew's metal band, but it got a lot easier earlier this month to check it out. Miami-based Naked Vengeance -- the rock band in which my nephew David Ulloa shreds as its lead guitarist -- put out three singles on iTunes, Spotify and other leading digital music services.

    The band didn't sign a major label recording contract. You don't need that these days, though it obviously doesn't hurt. If you have original music, it's just a matter of registering with TuneCore, CD Baby, SongCast or any of the other platforms that help get your tunes into the growing number of digital storefronts.

    It's not free. TuneCore charges artists $30 to distribute an entire digital album for the first year. Renewals are $50 after that. Singles will set a composer back $10. SongCast has a different pricing structure: It charges a one-time fee of $20 for every album and $10 for every single. It then charges a monthly maintenance fee of $6 a month or $59.90 a year. CD Baby charges a flat fee of $49 an album and it also specializes in CD distribution.

    Artists may never make that money back in subsequent royalties, but it's a small price to pay to have your demo available -- one click away -- all around the world.

    Pumping Up the Volume

    I had to do it the old-fashioned way a generation ago. I was in a band -- Paris By Air -- that had to shop our demo around to get noticed. We finally got the attention of producer Lewis Martinee, and under his leadership got signed to Columbia Records.

    We put out a couple of singles that charted on Billboard's club play chart. We traveled the country in support. Columbia Records eventually cut us loose. However, we had dozens of unreleased tracks. Most of the songs went unheard outside of friends and family, but then the Internet offered up sites including the original MP3.com, IUMA and SoundClick that made digital delivery a means to discovery. That paved the way for Apple's (AAPL) iTunes, Pandora (P) and Spotify as the leading royalty-generating platforms of today.

    Paris By Air was played on the radio and in dance clubs around the world while we were signed to Columbia Records, but we have probably reached more listeners in the era of digital self-distribution.

    Come as You Are

    The digital distribution marketplaces don't discriminate. It doesn't matter if your garage band never got out of the garage or if your singing is off-key. Outside of Pandora -- which does screen submissions that are sent directly to the music discovery site -- the sites embrace submissions with open eardrums. The marketplace will decide what it likes, and it can add up over time. TuneCore claims to have collected more than $541 million in revenue for its artists through 15.2 billion cumulative streams and downloads since the site launched in 2006.

    In the end, it certainly helps if you're good -- like my nephew's band Naked Vengeance. It also helps if you're savvy in terms of promotions and social media. After all, having your music online is just half the battle. Getting folks to listen to it is the ultimate goal, and that will take more work than just uploading a few songs to a digital distribution site. If you want to get heard, make it happen.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is proud of his work with Paris By Air, but he has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple and Pandora Media. 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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    Mixed race teenage girls using digital tablet on floor at shopping mall
    Getty Images
    By Rebecca Borison

    NEW YORK -- The retail industry is always evolving, particularly in today's digital age, but with all of the various technologies being tested -- both online and in stores -- everything ties back to one simple goal. How can retailers make it easier and faster for consumers to purchase?

    Especially online, one of the biggest challenges for retailers is "cart abandonment," meaning that a customer will browse around, add a few items to a cart, but then ultimately decide against following through with the purchase.

    Perhaps the consumer went to another retailer or just decided against the purchase altogether. Either way, the retailer's goal is to avoid that scenario as often as possible. "The key is, for this to succeed, it has to be a frictionless experience for the customer," said Mike Rowland, director in West Monroe Partners' Customer Experience practice.

    From social media buy buttons to physical buttons, here are the many new ways in which retailers are attempting to do just that.

    Buy Buttons

    The most recent trend in the retail world is to imbue social media platforms with commerce capabilities.

    Along the journey of customer experience, when you look at the ideas of social commerce, there's an expectation out there regarding how easy it will be to do business.

    Twitter (TWTR) , Facebook (FB), Pinterest and Instagram have all jumped on the bandwagon here. They are each testing buy buttons that let their users make a purchase directly through an ad on their site without leaving the platform. The idea being that there are already so many eyes on those ads, why not try to convert them then and there and make it as easy as possible for the purchase to happen?

    "Along the journey of customer experience, when you look at the ideas of social commerce, there's an expectation out there regarding how easy it will be to do business," Rowland said.

    Google (GOOG), too, is rolling out a buy button on its mobile search ads on the same theory of making it easier for consumers to make a purchase.

    These buy buttons are still in the early phases and only a select number of retailers have access to them, but assuming the trials pan out successfully, it is easy to conceive that this will be a key strategy for retailers moving forward.

    At-home Hardware

    While social media platforms are testing out digital buy buttons, Amazon (AMZN) is experimenting with actual physical buttons. In March, Amazon launched the Dash button, which is a small branded button that a consumer can press to reorder a product like detergent, toilet paper and coffee pods. After initially sending these free to select Prime customers, Amazon is now selling the buttons for $4.99 each.

    Amazon is hoping a customer, for instance, will buy a Tide Dash button and hang it up in his laundry room so that the next time he's running low on detergent he'll just press the button and an order of Tide will be on its way.

    Amazon also lets consumers order via its Echo device, which is Amazon's personal assistant service, similar to Apple's (AAPL) Siri.

    With both the Echo and the Dash button, the capability extends only to Prime members who are ordering a product that they have already ordered previously. Nonetheless, it promises to close the gap between intent and purchase. The minute you remember you need detergent, you can automatically place the order, instead of having to remember to order it next time you open your laptop.

    "One button shopping is very much like impulse buying at the cash register," said Vishal Gaur, associate dean for MBA programs and professor of operations management at Cornell University. "When the customer has an impulse to buy, you want to capture that impulse right away rather than letting the opportunity go and having the customer shop at a competitor."

    Augmented Reality

    Another technology that retailers have been using for some time now is so-called "augmented reality," which blends print with online. Augmented reality takes an advertisement in a magazine and connects it to a digital experience, which brings the consumer closer to a purchase.

    For example, Target (TGT) is running an ad in Vogue's September issue that ties in an augmented reality component. When a consumer opens up the Shazam app on her phone and hovers it over the ad, she will be able to buy any of the products from the ads immediately.

    Traditionally, a magazine reader who is interested in a dress she sees would have to remember to go find that product later on online. The chances of her forgetting or deciding against the purchase are high. Using Shazam, Target can combat that problem.

    In-store Apps

    On top of innovating in e-commerce, retailers are realizing that technology should also be brought into physical stores as well. One of the ways in which they're doing that is offering in-store modes in their mobile apps to add different functionalities for shoppers.

    Target, for example, has an app called Cartwheel that lets shoppers scan items in store to get discounts.

    Other retailers like Walmart (WMT) also offer in-store apps that offer different features such as store maps, shopping lists and deals. Some use video technology to create heat maps of where consumers are in the store. Others use technologies like beacons to track an individual consumer and send them personalized deals right as they pass a certain product in the store.

    "Two years back [these location-based apps] were somewhat clunky but they're getting better," Gaur said. "That's one place where brick-and-mortar retailers are becoming savvy now compared to where they were just a few years back."

    Mobile Wallets

    As the mobile payments industry heats up, retailers are trying to tap into those technologies to make it easier for consumers to make purchases.

    Retailers like Starbucks (SBUX) are creating their own branded mobile wallets. This not only lets consumers leave their wallet in the office when they run down to get a coffee, but it is also integrated with their loyalty program and gamifies the whole purchase. Consumers end up buying more to get more Starbucks stars.

    Other retailers are just deciding to accept mobile wallets like Apple Pay and Android Pay. Some retailers have partnered up under the Merchant Customer Exchange to work on their own mobile payment solution called CurrenC, but those efforts have yet to come to fruition, with the consortium having yet to launch an actual product.

    Whether or not consumers think these mobile solutions are easier than credit cards or not, retailers want to leave the door open and let consumers choose.

     

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    Cast Iron Skillet Production Ahead Of Durable Goods Figures
    Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesProperly cared for, iron skillets provide an excellent nonstick surface and can be passed on from one generation to the next.
    By Louis DeNicola

    Savvy renters and homeowners look beyond aesthetics when shopping for home goods. The right purchases can make a home safer, save money and come in handy for years. Equip your home with these 15 items for no more than $50 each.

    LED Light Bulbs. Although they can cost $4 to $10 each, LED light bulbs are money savers that can pay for themselves in just over a year, in addition to being good for the environment. Each bulb lasts up to 25 times longer than a traditional incandescent bulb and uses up to 80 percent less energy. Manufacturers have answered early complaints about LED light bulbs: Now there are "soft white" versions (which mimic incandescent light) and bulbs for dimmers.

    Cast-Iron Skillets. They require a little extra care, but cast-iron skillets that are properly seasoned and maintained provide an excellent nonstick surface and can be passed on from one generation to the next. Shoppers can find starter sets of three skillets by Lodge, a well-known brand, for about $25.

    Silicone Spatulas. To go along with the new skillets, buy silicone spatulas that can withstand up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit. They're not especially expensive -- Oxo sells one for about $10. Unlike plastic spatulas, they won't melt at the edges when flipping eggs or pancakes. Unlike metal spatulas, they won't damage nonstick surfaces.

    Coffee Maker. Making coffee at home can save time and money, especially for those who need it daily, and there are plenty of inexpensive methods to choose from. A French press, pour-over dripper, Chemex, percolator, AeroPress or classic Mr. Coffee can all be found for less than $50.

    Toaster Oven. This one small appliance takes care of multiple tasks. Whether making toast for breakfast or reheating last night's dinner, a toaster oven can save time and energy over a conventional oven. The Black & Decker and Proctor Silex brands start at about $30.

    Fabric Napkins and Cleaning Cloths. Paper towels and napkins can be convenient, but they're a drain on a household budget and the earth's resources. Instead, buy a set of matching napkins that can be thrown into the wash. Microfiber cleaning cloths are durable, absorbent and suitable for all types of surfaces, from windows to countertops to the bathtub. (Use different colored cloths for the bathroom so they don't get mixed up.) They also clean with just water -- no need to buy chemical cleaners.

    Water Filtration. A pitcher with a water filter can replace bottled water, keep water cold in the fridge during the summer and serve dinner guests. While Brita (starting at $17) is a household name, the more stylish Soma pitcher is available for $40.

    Wine Preserver. A bottle of wine that's recorked and stored for the next day quickly loses its original flavor and aroma. A wine stopper can create an airtight seal and prevent oxidation. The Air Cork Wine Preserver ($25) performed well in testing by The Sweethome but was bested by an even cheaper option: Private Preserve ($9.50), a mix of gases that are sprayed into the bottle to form a protective layer above the wine, which can then be recorked. Either way, don't let good wine go to waste.

    Fire Extinguisher. This is one item too many people don't consider until it's too late. For $20 to $50, depending on size, a fire extinguisher can literally be a home saver. And keeping an extinguisher in the home often earns a discount on renters or homeowners insurance.

    Bidet. Not common in many U.S. households, bidets are starting to become popular in luxury homes. (Google's headquarters is equipped with high-end models with air dryers, a step toward a paper-free office.) A Luxe Bidet can be fitted easily to a toilet, and some models cost just $35 to $40. (Bump up to $50 or $60 and a hot-water connection becomes an option.)

    Blackout Curtains. Curtains may be harder to clean than blinds, but blackout curtains can provide a better night's sleep (one study has even linked excessive light at night to obesity). Blackout curtains also help keep rooms cool in the summer, reducing energy bills. Prices vary by size and fabric, but curtain panels can start as cheap as $10.

    Programmable Thermostat. High-end "smart" thermostats can go for more than $200, but the best cheap programmable thermostats cost less than $50. The government's Energy Star program estimates that a family can save about $180 a year by using a programmable thermostat to automatically turn down the heat or air conditioning when they're sleeping or out for the day.

    Painting Supplies. Refreshing a room can be as easy as pulling out a few paintbrushes and rollers and painting a dramatic accent wall. An eight-piece set with a tray is available for $10 at Home Depot, and a gallon of paint starts at about $15 or $20.

    Key Lock Box. Forgetting the house key is a pain, and just about everyone knows to look under the mat. Store a spare safely with a wall- or shackle-mounted combination lock box (the type real estate professionals often use). MasterLock models cost less than $25 online.

    Rechargeable Batteries. Batteries never seem to be handy when they're needed. Make sure there's always an extra set and avoid buying them over and over by opting for rechargeable batteries and a charger. A set of eight AmazonBasics-brand high-capacity AAs, a dozen AAAs and an EBL eight-slot charger that holds both sizes can all be purchased for just under $50.

     

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    Couple reading bills
    JupiterimagesSeparate checking accounts provide autonomy, but joint accounts may lead to fewer money squabbles.
    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    If wedding bells were ringing for you this summer, you may be in the thick of trying to figure out how to blend your beloved's financial life with your own. One of the most fundamental decisions a couple faces is whether to treat money as a joint asset or something to be managed separately.

    Traditionally, married couples have been expected to keep their money in a joint checking account, and many finance professionals tout the merits of this arrangement. However, as couples are increasingly marrying at an older age, they may be more likely to bring substantial assets, income and even debt to a union. In those cases, separate checking accounts could be appealing.

    Here's why you may want to have a joint checking account with your spouse ... or not.

    Joint checking accounts promote trust. When asked why a couple might want to have a joint checking account, financial planners respond with words such as "communication," "openness" and "trust."

    "I think it's important to have both names on every account," says Keith Klein, a certified financial planner and owner of Turning Pointe Wealth Management in Phoenix. "It eliminates some trust issues."

    Planners like Klein say joint accounts help prevent money secrets between spouses and encourage couples to communicate about financial goals.

    Separate checking accounts promote autonomy. While joint accounts may keep couples talking about their money, separate accounts allow each partner to retain their financial independence. That autonomy may be particularly important to those who marry later in life and are used to managing their own money.

    Emily Sanders, managing director of United Capital in Norcross, Georgia, says separate accounts can mean each spouse maintains the skills needed to take care of their money should something happen to their partner. "I find time and time again women abdicate their control of finances," she says. "With separate accounts, both spouses remain financially literate in case of death or divorce."

    Joint checking accounts offer a clear financial picture. Another benefit of joint checking accounts is that they make it easy to gauge the overall finances in a family. "I believe all money should come into one account and all bills should be paid from it because it provides a clear picture of finances," says Kelsa Dickey, a financial coach and owner of Fiscal Fitness Phoenix. Too many bank accounts can muddy the waters and make it difficult to properly track spending and pinpoint areas where a family's budget could be improved.

    Separate checking accounts offer less ammunition for money battles. On the other hand, separate checking accounts may lead to more harmony in a marriage if each spouse doesn't feel as if he or she has to justify spending habits.

    "[Separate accounts] allow people to spend according to their personality," Dickey says. "Some people may spend every day, while others hoard it for big purchases."

    Joint checking accounts mean money is never out of reach. Couples may want to keep joint accounts because they ensure both spouses can access money at any time. If only one person's name is on an account and that spouse becomes injured or ill, their partner may be unable to pull out money needed for medical expenses or other bills.

    However, spouses share ownership of assets in joint accounts, which means either partner can take over management of the household money whenever needed.

    Separate checking accounts mean money may not be touched by others. Sometimes, couples may not want their money to be so freely accessed by their spouse.

    "There are reasons to keep inheritance money individually, especially if there are guidelines from the grantor on how that money is used," Klein says. In addition, putting an inheritance in a joint account means an ex-spouse could walk away with half its value in the event of a divorce.

    Putting money in separate accounts can also be useful if one spouse has considerable debt. Money from a joint account could be garnished, but the spouse without debt can keep their money out of creditors' hands by leaving it in their name alone.

    The best arrangement may combine joint and separate accounts. While there are benefits to both joint and separate accounts, the best way to manage your money in marriage could be a combination of both.

    "Put all money into a joint account to pay the bills," Dickey says. "Then, you can have individual spending accounts." This arrangement requires couples to work together to pay household bills while giving them an agreed-upon amount each spouse can spend as he or she wants. Even though these accounts are meant to be used individually, Dickey recommends putting both spouses' names on the account in case one person becomes incapacitated or passes away.

    At the end of the day, couples need to make a decision that works best for their marriage. "For the right people, [separate accounts] can be a route to happiness," Sanders says. "The happiest couple I know just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary, and they've had separate accounts all their life."

     

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    Wal-Mart Falls as Costs Rise

    By Nathan Layne

    CHICAGO -- Walmart Stores (WMT) reported weaker-than-expected quarterly earnings and lowered its annual forecast on Tuesday, citing higher costs from adding worker hours as well as weaker margins in its U.S. pharmacy business.

    Shares of the world's largest retailer fell 3.1 percent to $69.71 to trade at its lowest in 2-1/2 years.

    Net profit attributable to the company fell to $3.48 billion, or $1.08 a share, in the second quarter ended July 31, from $3.92 billion, or $1.21, a year earlier. Analysts, on average, expected $1.12 a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

    Walmart lowered its forecast for the year ending in January to a range of $4.40 to $4.70 from its outlook of $4.70 to $5.05 in February. The consensus was for $4.77 a share.

    Walmart logged a 1.5 percent increase in U.S. comparable sales at stores open at least a year, raising concerns about whether it can grow revenue fast enough to compensate for increased wage and other expenses.

    "Unless sales really ramp up they are going to continue to see profits pressured," said Edward Jones analyst Brian Yarbrough. "With this new model of all these investments, I don't know if they can even leverage expenses at a 2 or 2.5 percent same-store sales comp."

    In February Walmart had flagged it would spend $1 billion to lift workers' pay and for training, which will weigh on earnings this year. It also warned of higher spending to boost its e-commerce infrastructure as it seeks to close the online gap with Amazon.com (AMZN), which recently passed the Arkansas-based retailer in market value.

    But Walmart said Tuesday costs to increase worker hours beyond the February plan -- as it tries to improve customer service with faster checkouts and better-stocked shelves -- were denting earnings more than anticipated.

    It also said reduced reimbursement rates from pharmacy benefit managers were hurting margins in its U.S. pharmacy business and that wider healthcare insurance coverage generally had led to fewer higher-margin cash transactions on drugs.

    Another problem is increasing "shrink," a retail industry term for losses tied to various issues including theft.

    In one bright spot, the company said sales at stores open more than a year in the United States increased 1.5 percent in the 13 weeks ended July 31 from a year earlier. Analysts polled by research firm Consensus Metrix expected a 1 percent rise.

    Walmart Chief Financial Officer Charles Holley told an earnings conference call that while lower gasoline prices helped drive sales, the bulk of the gains were due to increased investments in its stores as well as in wages and training.

    The retailer lowered its forecast for opening smaller-format stores, and now plans to open 160 to 170 Neighborhood Markets locations for the full year, down from 180 to 200. It said it was still on track to open 60 to 70 Supercenters this year.

     

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    Housing Starts
    Gerry Broome/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- Housing starts rose to a near eight-year high in July as builders ramped up construction of single-family homes, suggesting that the economy was firing on almost all cylinders.

    The Commerce Department report Tuesday added to solid payrolls, retail sales and industrial output data in suggesting the economy got off to a strong start in the third quarter. The steady flow of upbeat economic reports has bolstered views that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates in September.

    The Fed is likely to take further reassurance that housing is on an improving trend and this should add to the view that the economy is in more normal territory.

    "The Fed is likely to take further reassurance that housing is on an improving trend and this should add to the view that the economy is in more normal territory," said John Ryding, an economist at RDQ Economics in New York.

    Groundbreaking increased 0.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 1.21 million units, the highest level since October 2007. June and May starts were revised higher, a sign that builders are growing more confident in the economy.

    Housing starts have now been above a one million-unit pace for four straight months. Economists had forecast groundbreaking on new homes rising to a 1.19 million-unit pace last month.

    The dollar was trading higher against a basket of currencies, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt fell. The S&P homebuilding index jumped 3.09 percent, outperforming the broader market, which was weighed down by weaker-than-expected quarterly results from Walmart Stores (WMT).

    D.R. Horton (DRI), the largest U.S. homebuilder, increased 2.69 percent. Lennar (LEN), the nation's second-largest homebuilder, surged 3.26 percent.

    Housing is getting a tailwind from a tightening labor market, which is encouraging young adults to move from their parents' basements and set up their own households.

    Economists expect that housing will absorb some of the slack from a struggling manufacturing sector and contribute to growth this year. The economy expanded at a 2.3 percent annual pace in the second quarter and forecasts for the July-September period are close to a 3 percent rate.

    Most economists expect the Fed to hike interest rates next month for the first time in almost a decade.

    Leading Light

    "The housing market is a leading light of the economy and it looks like that will be the case for a while. My take is the economy is moving forward solidly," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.

    A report Monday showed confidence among homebuilders climbed to a near 10-year high in August. The firming housing market is bolstering profits at Home Depot (HD). The world's No.1 home improvement retailer reported better-than-expected quarterly same-store sales and raised its full-year sales and profit forecast Tuesday.

    In July, groundbreaking for single-family homes, which accounts for the largest share of the market, surged 12.8 percent to a 782,000 unit pace, the highest level since December 2007. Single-family home building in the South, where most of the home construction takes place, rose to the highest level since January 2008.

    Though housing starts in the Northeast tumbled 27.5 percent, that followed several months of strong gains as builders rushed to take advantage of tax incentives for real estate development in New York that expired in mid-June.

    Groundbreaking on single-family homes in the Northeast in July rose to the highest level since October 2013. Single-family starts in the West increased to a near eight-year high.

    "Construction activity is picking up across the country, which we take as a positive signal about the health of the U.S. consumer and overall economy," said Jesse Hurwitz, an economist at Barclays in New York.

    Starts for the volatile multifamily segment fell 17 percent to a 424,000,000 unit rate. The decline, however, is likely to be temporary given a tightening rental vacancy rate.

    While building permits fell 16.3 percent in July to a 1.12 million-unit pace, that followed three straight months of hefty increases and the decline was likely related to the expiration of the tax incentives in New York. Building permits in the Northeast plunged 60.2 percent last month.

    Single-family building permits slipped 1.9 percent in July. Multifamily building permits tumbled 31.8 percent.

     

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    jacksonville  fl may 22  2014 ...
    Shutterstock
    By Yashaswini Swamynathan and Sudarshan Varadhan

    Target (TGT) said it has reached an agreement with Visa (V) card issuers to reimburse up to $67 million in costs related to a data breach at the retailer in 2013, according to a source familiar with the matter.

    The breach during the holiday shopping season compromised at least 40 million credit cards and may have resulted in the theft of personal information from as many as 110 million people.

    The agreement comes three months after a proposed $19 million settlement between Target and Mastercard (MA) fell through as not enough banks accepted the deal.

    A lawyer representing banks that are suing Target said financial institutions shouldn't accept the "optional alternative recovery offer" as that requires them to release the retailer from a class action lawsuit.

    "Just as with the proposed MasterCard settlement ... this deal was negotiated under a veil of secrecy without the involvement of the court or the court-appointed legal representatives of financial institutions," Charles Zimmerman of Zimmerman Reed said.

    The Mastercard deal required the approval of banks that issued at least 90 percent of the MasterCard accounts.

    "[The agreement with Visa] fails to fully reimburse card issuers for the substantial losses suffered from the Target data breach," Zimmerman said Tuesday in an email.

    Financial institutions have sued Target, saying they have spent billions of dollars to replace compromised cards and beef up customer service operations because of the data breach.

    Target said Tuesday the agreement with Visa was based on a condition that a subset of Visa card issuers entered into direct settlements with Target and Visa.

    Target's breach was followed by an attack on Home Depot (HD) which revealed theft of some 56 million payment cards in September last year.

    More recently, office supplies retailer Staples Inc said about 1.16 million payments may have been affected by a data breach it had announced in October.

    The Wall Street Journal reported the agreement between Target and Visa earlier Tuesday, citing people familiar with the matter.

    Target had incurred $162 million in net expenses related to the breach as of Jan. 31.

     

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    How to Research a Deal on Your Next Car
    Buying a new car can be confusing, and with so many options it's hard to know whether you're getting the best deal for your new wheels. Luckily, there are a few easy tips that can help you drive away with more savings.

    The first thing to do is go online to asses the car's long-term costs. At Edmunds.com, you can find out what the "true cost to own" will be. Simply put in the make, model and year of your car and you'll get a helpful cost breakdown. The site even gives you a side­-by-side comparison with key stats for each vehicle. Using these tools could potentially save you thousands of dollars.

    Another important thing to do is check the reviews. On MotorMouths.com, you can look up an average score of your car based on reviews submitted by popular car authorities like Automobile Magazine and CNET. This may seem obvious, but digging deeper can really pay off.

    Finally, if you're in the market for a used car, go on your smartphone and check out Vinny. Not only is this app great for looking up a car's history, it's also free! Simply open the app, and scan the VIN barcode on the car to start the process. Vinny has data on over 100 million cars and you'll get instant results on the car's value, which will help you negotiate a better deal.

    Before you buy your next car, give these tips a try. You'll find that with a little know-how, you'll get the most mileage for your budget.

    View Poll

     

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    This undated photo provided by Google shows Google's Wi-Fi router.  Pre-orders for the $199 wireless router, called OnHub, can be made Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015 at Google's online store, Amazon.com and Walmart.com.  The Mountain View, California, company is promising its wireless router will be sleeker, more reliable, more secure and easier to use than other long-established alternatives made by the Arris Group, Netgear, Apple and other hardware specialists.  (Collin Hughes/Courtesy of Google via AP)
    Collin Hughes/Courtesy of Google via APPre-orders for Google's $199 Wi-Fi wireless router, called OnHub, can be made starting Tuesday.
    By MICHAEL LIEDTKE

    SAN FRANCISCO -- Google (GOOG) is making a Wi-Fi router as part of its ambition to provide better Internet connections that make it easier for people to access its digital services and see more of its online advertising.

    Pre-orders for the $199 wireless router, called OnHub, can be made beginning Tuesday at Google's online store, Amazon.com (AMZN) and Walmart.com (WMT). The device will go on sale in stores in the U.S. and Canada in late August or early September.

    Google is touting the cylinder-shaped OnHub as a leap ahead in a neglected part of technology.

    The Mountain View, California, company is promising its wireless router will be sleeker, more reliable, more secure and easier to use than other long-established alternatives made by the Arris Group (ARRS), Netgear (NTGR), Apple (AAPL) and other hardware specialists. Google teamed up with networking device maker TP-Link to build OnHub.

    OnHub also will adapt to the evolving needs of its owners because its software will be regularly updated to unlock new features, according to Trond Wuellner, a Google product manager. The concept is similar to the automatic software upgrades the company makes to its Chrome browser and personal computers running on its Chrome operating system.

    This undated photo provided by Google shows Google's Wi-Fi router.  Pre-orders for the $199 wireless router, called OnHub, can be made beginning Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015 at Google's online store, Amazon.com and Walmart.com.  The Mountain View, California, company is promising its wireless router will be sleeker, more reliable, more secure and easier to use than other long-established alternatives made by the Arris Group, Netgear, Apple and other hardware specialists.  (Sandbox Studio/Courtesy of Google via AP)
    Sandbox Studio/Courtesy of Google via AP
    Wuellner expects most people will be able to set up OnHub in three minutes or less. The router is designed to be managed with a mobile app called Google On that will work on Apple's iPhone, as well as devices running on Google's Android software.

    Google's expansion into wireless routers may conjure up memories of how the company trespassed on the Wi-Fi networks in homes and businesses around the world for more than two years beginning in 2008.

    In 2010, Google acknowledged that company cars taking photos for its digital maps also had been intercepting emails, passwords and other sensitive information sent over unprotected Wi-Fi networks. The intrusion became derisively known as "Wi-Spy" among Google's critics.

    Although Google insisted it hadn't broken any laws, it paid $7 million in 2013 to settle allegations of illegal eavesdropping in the U.S. made by 38 states and the District of Columbia.

    Google is pledging not to use OnHub to monitor a user's Internet activity. The company will still store personal information sent through an Internet connection tied to OnHub when a user visits Google's search engine or other services, such as YouTube or Gmail, with the privacy controls set to permit the data collection. This is the same data collection Google does when users of its services visit through any router.

    The new router represents the latest phase in Google's mission to make it easier for people to be online.

    Besides dispatching Internet-beaming balloons and drones to parts of the world without much online access, Google also has been trying to lower the cost and accelerate the speeds of the connections in more advanced countries such as the U.S. The goal has already hatched Google Fiber, an ultra-fast Internet service that is already available in a few U.S. cities and is coming to more than 20 others. Google is also preparing to offer a wireless subscription plan for smartphones running on the company's Android software.

    Google has a financial incentive to make the Internet more accessible and less frustrating to use because it runs the world's dominant search engine, as well as the highly popular YouTube and Gmail. The company believes people who spend more time online are more likely to interact with a Google service and click on one of the ads that generate most of Google's profits.

    Ensuring the reliability of Wi-Fi systems is becoming more important to Google for another reason. Like other tech companies, Google is hoping to sell more home appliances and other equipment that require wireless connections to the Internet. Google's Nest division already sells thermostats, smoke detectors and video cameras that depend on Wi-Fi to work properly.

    Google's push into Internet access and other far-flung fields ranging from driverless cars to health care has frustrated investors who believe the company is spending too much on its technological mishmash. To address those concerns, Google later this year is creating a holding company called Alphabet that will break things up into the main search advertising business and various side projects.

    It hasn't been decided yet whether OnHub will remain in Google or spun into another part of Alphabet.

     

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    APTOPIX Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Rodrigo Campos

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks fell Tuesday, with the S&P 500 trading in its tightest daily range in nearly a month, weighed down by earnings-related selling in Walmart and a drop in commodity stocks on concern about China's economy.

    Walmart Stores (WMT) fell 3.4 percent to close at $69.48, its lowest in nearly 2½ years, after its profit missed estimates and it cut its outlook.

    Chinese stocks fell more than 6 percent overnight. Fears that Beijing may be intent on a deeper devaluation of the yuan pushed oil prices and industrial metals, including copper, to near six-year lows.

    You would think that a 6-percent China move amid the recent currency adjustments would have netted a more negative result.

    The materials sector was the largest decliner among the top ten industry sectors with a 0.7 percent decline. Freeport McMoRan (FCX) fell 3.1 percent to $9.92.

    "You would think that a 6-percent China move amid the recent currency adjustments would have netted a more negative result," said Andre Bakhos, managing director at Janlyn Capital in Bernardsville, New Jersey.

    He said the market hasn't found a reason to break lower or test record highs, so "it's been a rubber-band kind of mentality."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 33.84 points, or 0.2 percent, to 17,511.34, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 5.52 points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,096.92 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 32.35 points, or 0.6 percent, to 5,059.35.

    Homebuilders continued on a winning streak after data showed housing starts rose to a near eight-year high in July. The PHLX housing sector index rose 1.3 percent for an eighth straight session of gains.

    "Housing starts was a very good number, with positive revisions, and I think that caught the market's eye," said Doug Cote, chief market strategist at Voya Investment Management.

    Underscoring the strength of the homebuilding sector, Home Depot (HD) rose 2.6 percent to $122.80, a record closing high.

    Winners and Losers

    TJX Cos. (TJX) jumped 7.2 percent to close at a record high of $76.78 after same-store sales beat estimates.

    Dow component Disney (DIS) fell 1.9 percent to $106.94 after Wells Fargo (WFC) cut its rating on the stock and five other media companies, including CBS. CBS (CBS) fell 1.4 percent to $49.35.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 1,975 to 1,064, for a 1.86-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,906 issues fell and 890 advanced, for a 2.14-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted 41 new 52-week highs and 9 new lows; the Nasdaq was recording 69 new highs and 85 new lows. About 5.4 billion shares exchanged hands in U.S. exchanges, below the 6.7 billion daily average so far this month, according to BATS Global Markets data.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • The Labor Department releases Consumer Price Index for July at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Federal Reserve releases minutes from its July interest-rate meeting at 2 p.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to report quarterly financial results:
    • American Eagle Outfitters (AEO)
    • Hormel Foods (HRL)
    • L Brands (LB)
    • Lowe's Cos. (LOW)
    • NetApp (NTAP)
    • Staples (SPLS)
    • Target (TGT)

     

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    Man in dining room with laptop holding paperwork
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    The mutual fund industry continues to grow. There is more than $15.8 billion invested in nearly 8,000 funds, according to industry tracker Investment Company Institute, making it just as challenging to find the right fund to buy as for stock investors to nail down specific equities.

    Mutual funds offer a great way to achieve a diversified portfolio in a single investment. Most funds are open and honest, but there are some practices that investors should watch out for. Let's go over a few potential warning flags.

    1. Window-Dressing Is a Drag

    One of the more nefarious industry practices -- and thankfully one that doesn't happen often these days -- is window-dressing. Money managers would shake up their portfolios at the end of a reporting period, replacing market losers with some of the biggest winners over the past year.

    Window-dressing, therefore, merely makes the "window" look better. It conveys the illusion that a fund manager has invested in all of the right stocks, when in reality it's a matter of just trying to make the list of portfolio holdings at the end of the year look good.

    Today's investors are smarter than that. The Internet offers easy access to performance reports and third-party rating agencies and ranked lists. Year-end stock holdings don't hold a lot of weight when a fund can be easily pitted against the competition.

    2. Fund Families Bury the Black Sheep

    Mutual funds that consistently lose to the market don't stick around. Mutual fund families tend to close investments that aren't performing well, and that usually means merging those assets into a more successful fund.

    In theory, investors shouldn't mind. Their underperforming funds are being upgraded. However, the new funds may not have the same objectives as the old fund. More important, someone trying to judge a mutual fund operator based on the performance of its available funds will only be seeing the more successful ones that are still active.

    3. Relative Performance Isn't Always Relative

    Different categories of funds stack up their performance against different benchmarks. That makes sense: It's not fair to compare a short-term bond fund or an emerging-markets equity fund to the S&P 500.

    However, some funds aren't true matches to their benchmarks. Some income funds invest in blue chips, but others may invest in riskier fare. International funds will naturally vary based on their allocations into different countries and types of stocks within those countries.

    This may not be a deliberate trick. It's just as easy for a fund to underperform a benchmark than it is to exceed it. However, it certainly makes it easier for a fund to promote itself by marketing the outperformance against a benchmark that isn't an appropriate fit. As a potential fund investor, it's important to assess a fund's actual performance and the risks it took to make it happen, and that's where third-party sources such as Morningstar and annual Kiplinger's rankings can come in handy. Be a smart fund investor from the beginning, and everything else comes easy.

    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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    Retirement
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    By Jason Notte

    NEW YORK -- So you think a private equity fund can do more for your money than a mutual fund? Give it some more thought.

    Paul Jacobs, chief investment officer of Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Atlanta, notes that adding private equity funds to your portfolio can lead to higher returns and lower risk over the long term. However, selecting a private fund requires a lot more homework than picking from your typical mutual fund.

    For one thing, private equity funds aren't for everybody. Private equity funds are typically limited partnerships with a lifespan of about 10 years, and some have a minimum investment as low as $100,000 and are available. That makes them available to affluent investors, but keep in mind that's the low-end buy-in. Other funds require specifically more wealth.

    "For the right investor, the rewards can be substantial," Jacobs says.

    Private fund managers can take a more active role with the companies they acquire and potentially wring out higher returns than mutual fund managers. Their "leverage" (borrowing) can produce higher returns by buying up companies and improving operations and profits.

    "Look for managers who generate returns by making significant operational improvements to portfolio companies, rather than those who rely on excessive leverage, which adds risk," Jacobs says. "However, with judicious use of leverage, a skilled manager can deliver excellent results."

    Also, realize that a private equity fund is going to tie up your money for 10 years or more, so you're going to want to get a good handle on a manager's investment strategy and the risks involved before diving in. How were the manager's previous fund portfolios were structured? How does he or she expect the current fund to be structured and diversified? How many portfolio companies does the manager expect to own, and what is the maximum amount of the portfolio that can be invested in any one company? A more concentrated portfolio will carry the potential for higher returns, but also more risk.

    Asking Tough Questions

    Don't be afraid to ask the tougher questions, either. Does a fund provide annual audited financial statement? Can the manager tell you where the fund stores its cash balances? Can you visit the manager's office and get a tour? If the answer to any of these questions is no, or if your fund manager wants more than 20 percent of the end profits (carried interest), then don't be so quick to part with your investment or the management fee. Also, it helps if the manager believes in his or her own cooking.

    "Active management -- in the right hands -- can build wealth faster and more reliably than an index strategy," says Frank Congemi, an investment adviser in Deerfield Beach, Florida. "And while past results don't guarantee future results, this methodology is the most convincing I've seen... The beauty of high manager ownership is that these people are literally putting their money where their mouth is."

    If you like what you see, Jacobs says that managers' fees for private equity funds are incredibly negotiable. However, he advises limiting your exposure to those funds to about 10 to 20 percent of your entire portfolio, given the risk involved.

    As we mentioned, however, private equity funds are not for everyone. As Jacobs notes, these funds have higher risk of incurring large losses, or even a complete loss of principal, than do mutual funds. You're putting a lot more at stake when you're doing your homework, so if something doesn't seem quite right about the fund or you don't think you have enough to risk, there are always other options.

    'Boring' Funds

    Benjamin Sullivan, a certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson's office in Scarsdale, New York, realizes that ETFs and mutual funds can seem boring in contrast to private equity funds or investing in private companies, but investors can get excited about sensible investing if they think about it the right way.

    "Investing in an index fund won't give you a rush of adrenaline like seeing your stock going up 10 percent in a day, but, ultimately, it's more exciting to see your portfolio double and triple in value over the years," he says, noting that actively managed mutual funds can provide similar reward if an investment manager has an eye for undervalued companies. "Index equity funds are bedrock investments, but actively managed funds can play a key role too once you have a reasonable amount of money to invest,"

    If that mix sounds a bit more comfortable, Sullivan recommends putting about 60 percent of equity investments in index funds in established markets like the United States, Japan and Europe. The other 40 percent should go into actively managed funds that invest in small-cap stocks, emerging markets and specialty areas such as REITS. Just avoid funds with excessive fees.

    "With private companies, if you're lucky, you may hit a home run, but far more often, you're going to strike out," Sullivan says. "Hitting singles and doubles consistently with funds is the time-tested way to build long-term wealth."

    This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

     

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    Are You a Shopaholic?

    By Renee Morad

    It's one thing to surrender to the occasional impulse buy -- that watch gleaming from behind the display case, or a pair of black shoes that will add the perfect dash of sophistication to your favorite business suit. But when your purchases shift from impulsive to compulsive, it's the first sign that you might be grappling with a more serious condition: a shopping addiction.

    Researchers estimate that up to 6 percent of Americans are so-called shopaholics. In our society, the phrase "shop till you drop" translates as frivolous and fun, but when spending presents a real problem, the glamour fades and, frequently, debt mounts.

    Psychologists call it Compulsive Buying Disorder, and it is characterized as an impulse-control issue, just like gambling or binge eating, and has the potential to create a whirlwind of emotional and financial distress.

    Here are some of the telltale signs someone is becoming a problem shopper and what they can do to curb their spending. For a more complete analysis, also check out the Compulsive Buying Scale, developed by psychologist Gilles Valence and his associates.

    1. You have many unopened or tagged items in your closet. We're not talking about the sweater your aunt gave you last holiday season, but about items you selected on your own that sit unopened or with their tags still attached. You've likely forgotten about some of these possessions -- boxes of shoes lining the bottom of your closet or jackets that have never seen the light of day.

    2. You often purchase things you don't need or didn't plan to buy. You're easily tempted by items that you can do without. A fifth candle for your bedroom dresser, a new iPod case, even though yours is fine ... you get the idea. You're particularly vulnerable if you've admitted to having an obsession, like shoes or designer handbags. Just because your splurges tend to stick to one category doesn't make them any more rational.

    3. An argument or frustration sparks an urge to shop. Compulsive shopping is an attempt to fill an emotional void, like loneliness, lack of control, or lack of self-confidence. Shopaholics also have a tendency to suffer from mood disorders, eating disorders, or substance abuse problems. So if you tend to binge on comfort food after a bad day, studies suggest that you may be more likely to indulge in a shopping spree, too.

    4. You experience a rush of excitement when you buy. Shopaholics experience a high or an adrenaline rush, not from owning something, but from the act of purchasing it. Experts say dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasure, is often released in waves as shoppers see a desirable item and consider buying it. This burst of excitement can become addictive.

    5. Purchases are followed by feelings of remorse. This guilt doesn't have to be limited to big purchases, either; compulsive shoppers are just as often attracted to deals and bargain hunting. Despite any remorse that follows, though, shopaholics are adept at rationalizing just about any purchase if challenged.

    6. You try to conceal your shopping habits. If you're hiding shopping bags in your daughter's closet or constantly looking over your shoulder for passing co-workers as you shop online, this is a possible sign that you're spending money at the expense of your family, your loved ones, or even your job.

    7. You feel anxious on the days you don't shop. It's one thing to feel anxious if you haven't had your morning cup of joe, but if you're feeling on edge because you haven't swiped your debit card all day, be concerned. Shopaholics have reported feeling out of sorts if they haven't had their shopping fix, and have admitted to shopping online if they couldn't physically pull away from their day's responsibilities.

    8. You are shopping beyond your means. You max out credit cards and open new ones in order to keep purchasing things. The mounting debt may also tempt you to lie or steal.

    If the characteristics above sound a lot like you or someone you know, don't worry just yet. And if you're on the fence about whether you really have a problem, even figuring out why you're always shopping and how you can change could be a big relief -- for both your well-being and your budget. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to help you kick a shopping habit:
    • Find a new activity. Jogging, exercising, listening to music, watching more TV, any of these activities could potentially substitute for shopping and would be a much lighter burden on your wallet.
    • Identify triggers. Take note of what's likely to send you off to the nearest department store, whether it's an argument with your significant other or frustration after a business meeting. When these feelings overcome you, resist shopping at all costs and find a healthier way to work it out.
    • Remove temptation. It's no secret that you shouldn't walk through your favorite boutique if you're trying to curb your spending. Try to limit your shopping trips and go only when absolutely necessary. If online shopping is your weakness, resist the urge to surf your favorite stores' sites and even consider keeping your laptop out of reach.
    • Carry only enough cash to buy what you went for. Leave your debit and credit cards at home. Create a shopping list with estimated costs and stick to it when you're at the store.
    • Ask for help. If you're still struggling with compulsive spending, don't be afraid to ask for help. You can start by asking a friend or family member to help keep you in check or seeking out money management classes. But it might also be wise to enlist professional help. Consider therapy to address underlying issues such as depression or anxiety, and check out recovery programs like Stopping Overshopping, Shopaholics Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous.
    Do you have ideas about curbing problem spending? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

    -Kari Huus 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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    Man and Wife Shopping for Groceries
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    By Gina Martinez

    Unlike food labels such as "natural" and "free range," use of the word "organic" is strictly regulated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies products as organic if they meet a set of standards, including, but not limited to, using 100 percent organic feed for animals and zero use of synthetic fertilizers, certain pesticides, and genetically modified organisms for fruits and vegetables. Organic proponents generally tout benefits such as higher nutritional value and better taste; less contamination from toxins, chemicals, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria; and less damage to the environment. These claims are hard to verify and are subject to much debate. One factor about which there is no doubt: Organic products typically cost more. Is organic worth it?

    Buy Organic: 'The Dirty Dozen.' The Environmental Working Group lists a "Dirty Dozen" of fruits and vegetables for which organic really matters in terms of pesticide exposure. Apples are usually named as the No. 1 food to buy organic, followed by peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, and potatoes. These 12 fruits and vegetables test consistently -- and alarmingly -- high for pesticide residue. If you want to only buy a few organic items, choose from this list. The "Clean Fifteen," on the other hand, are fruits and vegetables that test lowest for pesticide residue, and include avocados, onions, pineapples, eggplant, grapefruit, mangos, and sweet potatoes. There's little benefit to spending more on organic versions of these.

    Buy Organic: Baby Food. The organic label on baby food matters because the condensed ingredients can mean higher concentrations of pesticide residue. Organic farming reduces those risks significantly. Earth's Best, Gerber's Organics, and Plum Organics are three moderately priced brands; stock up during sales to stretch the food budget. Alternatively, use a blender or food processor to make DIY baby food with organic ingredients. Organic produce is available at many farmers markets and increasingly at local supermarkets, big-box stores, and discount clubs.

    Don't Bother: Olive Oil. Growing olives doesn't require many synthetic inputs (chemicals, pesticides), so buying organic olive oil doesn't make financial sense. Moreover, the organic version is far more expensive than regular (e.g., a 25.5-ounce bottle of the Walmart store brand is 28 cents cheaper than 17 ounces of Filippo Berio organic olive oil) and any health or safety benefits are unproven.

    Buy Organic: Bread and Cereal. Rodale's Organic Life lists bread and cereal among the processed foods to always buy organic -- and for good reason. Grains attract a lot of insects, so millers regularly use pesticides, which leave residues in the finished product. And conventional cereals often contain genetically modified organisms. In general, organic breads and cereals contain fewer chemicals and preservatives.

    Don't Bother: Maple Syrup. Sugar maples grow well on their own, almost always in forests, without help from pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The production process is just as basic: Farmers tap the trees, collect the xylem sap, boil it, and bottle it. Although you can't be 100 percent sure without the organic label, chances are very high that a non-organic buy is pure.

    Buy Organic: Coffee. Non-organic coffee beans are washed in chemicals, such as ammonia, that you probably don't want to consume. And the crop is grown using ample pesticides. Figure on paying about $3 more for a pound of organic coffee, but it's probably worth the tab.

    Buy Organic: Beef. Many health professionals recommend choosing organic meat products whenever possible despite the extra cost. The primary concern about conventional meats is antibiotic use in livestock, which some research has linked to the development of drug-resistant bacteria in humans. Moreover, organic meat comes from animals that have been fed diets free of pesticides, fertilizers, and animal by-products.

    Don't Bother: Quinoa. American consumers have gone quinoa crazy in recent years. The grain crop is highly nutritious, gluten-free, and a complete protein. There's no need to buy organic quinoa because farmers don't use pesticides to grow it. Quinoa plants naturally produce saponins, which help defend against pests. They also leave a bitter coating on the seeds, so be sure to rinse before cooking. Save your pennies for other products that are best in their organic state.

    Buy Organic: Peanut Butter. The anatomy of the peanut is what makes organic peanut butter a worthy buy even though the cost is about double the regular variety. Peanut shells are permeable and peanuts grow underground, absorbing pesticides and chemical fertilizers from the soil. The nuts, due to their high fat content, retain these inputs. The USDA has found pesticide residue in traditional peanut butters.

    Buy Organic: Microwave Popcorn. Pesticides are commonly used when growing corn, and residue remains on the kernels. The microwave variety piles on with preservatives as well as chemicals used to coat the bag. Instead, opt for packs of organic microwave popcorn despite the substantial price difference: at least 30 cents an ounce for a variety of Newman's Own Organics compared with less than 18 cents an ounce for Orville Redenbacher's. Cheaper (and safer) still, buy organic kernels and pop them yourself; scoop into a brown paper bag and microwave until they stop popping.

     

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    Calculator and bank account
    Getty ImagesEven if you don't have any kids to buy school supplies for, the back-to-school season can serve as an excellent chance to revisit your finances.
    By Susan Johnston

    Many of us give ourselves a little more latitude (financially and personally) during summer. We'll have that extra mojito or leave work a little early on summer Fridays without thinking twice.

    "Here in the Midwest [and elsewhere], we're trying to do as much as we can with travel," says Michael Foguth, president and founder of Foguth Financial Group in Howell, Michigan. "The sun is shining, we're spending more on gas and hotels." Yet as the seasonal spending starts to wind down, Foguth says you should ask yourself: "What do I need to prepare for?"

    With the dog days of summer drawing to a close, back-to-school season is a good opportunity (even if you're not a parent or a student) to revisit your finances and get on track for the rest of the year. Here's a look at expert tips for checking in with your money goals and getting your financial house in order.

    1. Assess where you stand. If you set financial goals at the beginning of the year, now's a good time to check your progress. "How much have you saved?" Foguth asks. "Are you on track for your goals? Or are you behind in that and need to catch up?" A good goal for most people, according to John Rosenfeld, head of everyday banking at Citizens Bank, is to save up at least three to six months' worth of living expenses in an emergency fund. Rosenfeld also suggests looking at financial areas you've been ignoring such as credit card balances or student loans.

    2. Check (or create) your budget. On a more micro level, now's also a good time to check in with your budget (or if you don't have a budget, actually make one). "The majority of Americans do not have any kind of budget and do not monitor their cash flow," says Laura Adams, author of "Money Girl's Smart Moves to Grow Rich." "Most people find that they are overspending in ways that they don't realize, so it's about checking in, and if you're one of those really on-top-of-it people who already have a budget, make sure you're on target through the end of the year." If you've had a change in life circumstance earlier this year, such as a marriage, divorce, new baby or new job, it's doubly important to revisit and recalibrate your budget (and employer withholding) accordingly.

    3. Break down your goals. If you're trying to reach a certain financial milestone by the end of the year, Foguth suggests breaking your goal down into smaller parts. Instead of saying, "I need to save $500 by December 24" (which could feel overwhelming to some people), calculate how much you need to save each week or month to make that happen. "If you need to save and you're behind your goal, re-evaluate your numbers and adjust your goal," Foguth adds.

    4. Review your credit report. Consumers are entitled to one free credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies once a year through AnnualCreditReport.com, so Adams recommends requesting a report from a different credit bureau every four months to spread it out. "Make sure you're not the victim of identity theft," she says. "Criminals can take your personal information and open up new accounts in your name, and you could have no idea that they'd done that unless you saw it on your credit report." In addition to suspicious activity, also make sure that the amount of debt reported matches your own records. If not, it's time to reconcile the difference.

    5. Revisit your insurance needs. Adams recommends checking your insurance coverage once a year. Does the coverage still suit your needs? Are you overpaying for coverage? You can't always switch health insurance at any time of the year, but you can certainly switch homeowners or auto insurance providers if you find a better deal. "Check in, get quotes and compare that to your current coverage," Adams says. "You may find a better deal."

    6. Look for rate-cutting opportunities. Most homeowners know they can refinance their mortgage to a lower rate (provided they qualify based on equity, credit standing and so on). But you can also refinance other types of loans, including student loans. "A lot of people who are paying student loans got them when the rates were much higher," Rosenfeld says. "By refinancing at a lower rate, you can pay less in total interest." If you have credit card debt and a decent credit score, explore zero percent balance transfer offers, but do the math to make sure that the savings won't be offset by other fees. Those without credit card debt might want to see if they can qualify for a credit card with better rewards or other perks. "Select the card that's a better deal than what you may have today," Rosenfeld says.

    7. Optimize your tax strategies. Looking ahead to year-end, Rosenfeld suggests that consumers plan how they'll reduce their tax liability through charitable contributions or retirement contributions. If you haven't reached your 401(k) contribution limit yet and have extra money coming in, consider boosting your contributions to lower your taxable income and put aside extra money for retirement.

     

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    Inside A Target Corp. Store Ahead Of Earnings Figures
    David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Nandita Bose

    CHICAGO -- Target (TGT) reported a higher-than-expected quarterly profit and raised its full-year earnings forecast for the second time, benefiting from strong demand for clothing and other product categories at the center of its growth plan.

    Shares of the fourth-largest U.S. retailer, which had already been up 6 percent this year, rose 4.4 percent to $83.82 in early trading Wednesday.

    In the year since Brian Cornell became chief executive officer, Target has focused on promoting a narrower set of "signature" products in the style, baby, children's and wellness categories.

    Sales of those products grew three times faster than the company average during the second quarter ended on Aug. 1, Chief Operating Officer John Mulligan said on a conference call.

    "That represents our acceleration from the first quarter, where they all grew about two times the company average," Mulligan added.

    Under Cornell, Target has also reshuffled its management, exited its struggling Canadian operations and spent more on online sales.

    In March, Cornell announced a restructuring plan to eliminate several thousand corporate jobs and revamp grocery operations. It also included a $1 billion investment in technology in areas such as supply chain.

    For the full year, Target said it expected earnings of $4.60 to $4.75 a share, excluding special items. Analysts on average forecast $4.62, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

    During the first quarter, the company had raised the lower end of its forecast by 5 cents a share to a range of $4.50 to $4.65.

    Target said second-quarter sales at stores open at least a year rose 2.4 percent, which research firm Consensus Metrix said beat market expectations of 2.2 percent.

    Digital sales increased 30 percent and contributed 0.6 percentage points to comparable sales growth.

    Excluding restructuring charges and other special items, earnings rose to $1.22 per share from $1.01 a year earlier. Analysts on average were expecting $1.11, Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S said.

    The company narrowed its after-tax loss from discontinued operations in Canada to $20 million from $157 million a year earlier.

    Net sales rose 2.8 percent to $17.4 billion, meeting Wall Street expectations.

    Target said it repurchased $675 million worth of its shares in the second quarter, continuing a buyback program it resumed in the first quarter after about two years.

    -Yashaswini Swamynathan contributed reporting from Bangalore.

     

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    Consumer Prices
    Danny Johnston/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- Consumer prices rose slightly in July, but a solid increase in the cost of shelter suggested inflation was probably stabilizing enough to support expectations the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates this year.

    The Labor Department said Wednesday its Consumer Price Index edged up 0.1 percent last month as gasoline and food prices increased marginally. July's increase in the CPI was a slowdown from the 0.3 percent gain in June. It was the sixth straight month of increase in the CPI.

    Modest inflation shouldn't hold the Fed back from raising rates this year. Prices are bottoming.

    "Modest inflation shouldn't hold the Fed back from raising rates this year. Prices are bottoming," said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

    Shelter costs, the government's way to track the cost of owning or renting a home and which account for a third of the CPI, shot up 0.4 percent, the largest increase since February 2007. That was on top of a 0.3 percent again in June.

    In the 12 months through July, the CPI climbed 0.2 percent. It was the second month the annual CPI increased after plunging crude oil prices pushed it into negative terrain in January.

    Signs of an ebb in the disinflationary trend, combined with a tightening labor market and strengthening housing sector could give the Fed confidence that inflation will eventually rise toward its 2 percent target.

    "Fed officials made clear that they do not need to see higher inflation before hiking. They just need to have reasonable confidence it will return to mandate," said Michelle Girard, chief economist at RBS in Stamford, Connecticut.

    Most economists expect the U.S. central to raise its short-term interest rate next month for the first time in almost a decade.

    Gradual Tightening

    But the pace of monetary tightening is likely to be gradual given the dampening effect on inflation of a strong dollar, renewed weakness in oil and other commodity prices, and China's devaluation of the yuan, which should push down import prices.

    Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI rising 0.2 percent from June and gaining 0.2 percent from a year ago.

    U.S. Treasury debt prices briefly rose after the data before slipping. The dollar was trading slightly higher against a basket of currencies.

    The so-called core CPI, which strips out food and energy costs, ticked up 0.1 percent last month after rising 0.2 percent in June. Shelter was the main contributor to last month's rise in the core CPI.

    In the 12 months through July, the core CPI increased 1.8 percent. It was the fourth time in five months that the 12-month change was 1.8 percent.

    Last month, gasoline prices rose 0.9 percent after rising 3.4 percent in June. Food prices gained 0.2 percent, slowing from a 0.3 percent increase in June as the impact of the bird flu on egg prices eases.

    Egg prices rose only 3.3 percent after a June's 18.3 percent surge, which had been the biggest gain since August 1973.

    Declining homeownership and a rental vacancy rate near a 22-year low is driving rents higher. Rents increased 0.3 percent in July. There were also increases in the cost of medical care. Apparel prices increased after declining for three straight months.

    However, airline fares dropped 5.6 percent, the largest decline since December 1995. Prices for used cars and trucks and household furnishings and new motor vehicles also fell last month.

     

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    Disney Store at D23 Expo 2015
    Jordan Strauss/Invision for Disney Store/AP Images
    A lot of people visit Disney's (DIS) resort in Florida every year. A whopping 51.5 million guests visited Disney World's four theme parks last year, according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association. Another 4.2 million guests checked out one of the resort's two water parks.

    With more tourists traveling to Orlando than even New York City these days, it's a safe bet that a trip to Disney World may be in your future. It's not cheap: A single-day ticket to visit Disney World's Magic Kingdom is now up to $105, and that's before factoring in travel, lodging, meals and other diversions.

    You may want to start saving up money. Disney announced some pretty impressive attractions coming to Disney World in the coming months and years during this past weekend's D23 expo. Let's go over a few of the things that may make you want to visit or revisit the self-proclaimed happiest place on Earth.

    1. Star Wars Land at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    The biggest and most anticipated announcement at D23 on Saturday was Star Wars Land, a 14-acre themed universe that will take visitors deep into the lore of the George Lucas franchise. One of the two attractions that will anchor the new land lets guests pilot the Millennium Falcon.

    Disney didn't offer up a timeline as to when Star Wars Land will be built. A similar attraction will also open at Disneyland in California. It will probably take several years to flesh this out, making 2018 or 2019 the best educated guesses until Disney tells us otherwise. However, one early treat will come later this year when the existing Star Tours flight simulator adds new ride footage inspired by the upcoming movie.

    2. Toy Story Land at Disney's Hollywood Studios

    A hot rumor heading into D23's presentation was that the west side of the Disney's Hollywood Studios -- where several attractions have been closing over the past year -- would be transformed into an area themed to Pixar's properties. It was close, but Disney's settling for just infinity and beyond.

    Disney is dedicating 11 acres of the park to be Toy Story Land. The existing Toy Story Mania will stay, and it's in the process of expanding capacity. Two new rides will be added. One is a spinning flying saucer ride where guests ride vehicles decorated to look like the green alien claw game toys from the original movie. The more ambitious ride is a family-friendly coaster where folks of all ages get to ride on Slinky Dog. There's no opening date announced for Toy Story Land, but it's not as elaborate as Star Wars Land and all of the recent attraction closures should make it easy to open by either 2017 or 2018.

    3. Pandora - The World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom

    The most ambitious Disney World project outside of Star Wars Land is the richly themed area going up at Animal Kingdom. Set to open in 2017, the new area has been in the works since Disney struck a licensing deal with James Cameron in 2011 to bring his "Avatar" franchise to life.

    We've known the new land is coming for some time, but D23 offered new details and concept artwork of the island with floating mountains. Two major rides will include a thrill ride where park guests ride banshees and a tamer attraction that features a leisurely canoe ride through the film's Pandora planet in its state of permanent bioluminescence.

    4. Frozen Ever After at Epcot

    The popular Maelstrom boat ride closed in Epcot's Norway pavilion last year, and next year it will reopen as a "Frozen" themed boat attraction. There was a rumble of dissent at first. Purists didn't want to see Maelstrom close. Norwegians also aren't happy about a ride being added that doesn't actually take place in Norway; "Frozen" is based in the fictional Arendelle. However, given the box office success of "Frozen" and the popularity of Anna and Elsa merchandise, there will be plenty of people looking forward to the new attraction.

    5. Soarin' Around the World at Epcot

    Soarin' -- a flight simulator at Epcot -- will be updated next year. Instead of footage of classic California landmarks, the new ride will feature soaring vistas from all over the world. Disney is in the process of building out a third theater for the popular attraction that should open in time for the switch, helping keep wait times in check.

    6. Skipper Canteen at Magic Kingdom

    Disney World's most popular -- and expensive -- park isn't getting a major ride anytime soon, but later this year it will open Skipper Canteen just at the entrance to Adventureland. The restaurant will feature wisecracking Jungle Cruise skippers as servers, and hungry patrons will dine in themed rooms. It may not seem like a game changer, but the last major eatery to open at Magic Kingdom -- the Be Our Guest Restaurant -- has been a rousing success.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. He's also spending the summer in Celebration, Florida, covering the industry at mouse level. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Cheating Website
    Lee Jin-man/APAshley Madison's Korean website as seen on a computer screen in Seoul, South Korea. The matchmaking website for cheating spouses said it was hacked and that some of its users' information was posted online.
    By RAPHAEL SATTER

    LONDON -- Hackers say they have exposed unfaithful partners across the world, posting what they said were the personal details of millions of people registered with cheating website Ashley Madison.

    A message posted by the hackers alongside their massive trove accused Ashley Madison's owners of deceit and incompetence and said the company had refused to bow to their demands to close the site.

    "Now everyone gets to see their data," the statement said.

    Ashley Madison has long courted attention with its claim to be the Internet's leading facilitator of extramarital liaisons, boasting of having nearly 39 million members and that "thousands of cheating wives and cheating husbands sign up every day looking for an affair."

    Its owner, Toronto-based Avid Life Media, has previously acknowledged suffering an electronic break-in and said in a statement Tuesday it was investigating the hackers' claim. U.S. and Canadian law enforcement are involved in the probe, the company said.

    The Associated Press wasn't immediately able to determine the authenticity of the leaked files, although many analysts who have scanned the data believe it is genuine.

    TrustedSec Chief Executive Officer David Kennedy said the information dump included full names, passwords, street addresses, credit card information and "an extensive amount of internal data." In a separate blog, Errata Security CEO Robert Graham said the information released included details such as users' height, weight and GPS coordinates. He said men outnumbered women on the service five-to-one.

    Avid Life Media declined to comment Wednesday beyond its statement. The hackers also didn't immediately return emails.

    The prospect of millions of adulterous partners being publicly shamed drew widespread attention but the sheer size of the database -- and the technical savvy needed to navigate it -- means it's unlikely to lead to an immediate rush to divorce courts.

    "Unless this Ashley Madison information becomes very easily accessible and searchable, I think it is unlikely that anyone but the most paranoid or suspecting spouses will bother to seek out this information," New York divorce attorney Michael DiFalco said in an email. "There are much simpler ways to confirm their suspicions."

    Huge Data Breach

    Although Graham and others said many of the Ashley Madison profiles appeared to be bogus, it's clear the leak was huge. Troy Hunt, who runs a website that warns people when their private information is exposed online, said nearly 5,000 users had received alerts stemming from the breach.

    Although many may have signed up out of curiosity and some have little more to fear than embarrassment, the consequences for others could reverberate beyond their marriages. The French leak monitoring firm CybelAngel said it counted 1,200 email addresses in the data dump with the .sa suffix, suggesting users were connected to Saudi Arabia, where adultery is punishable by death.

    CybelAngel also said it counted some 15,000 .gov or .mil addresses in the dump, suggesting that American soldiers, sailors and government employees had opened themselves up to possible blackmail. Using a government email to register for an adultery website may seem foolish, but CybelAngel Vice President of Operations Damien Damuseau said there was a certain logic to it. Using a professional address, he said, keeps the messages out of personal accounts "where their partner might see them."

    "It's not that dumb," Damuseau said.

    How many of the people registered with Ashley Madison actually used the site to seek sex outside their marriage is an unresolved question. But whatever the final number, the breach is still a humbling moment for Ashley Madison, which had made discretion a key selling point. In a television interview last year, CEO Noel Biderman described the company's servers as "kind of untouchable."

    The hackers' motives aren't entirely clear, although they have accused Ashley Madison of creating fake female profiles and of keeping users' information on file even after they paid to have it deleted. In its statement, Avid Life Media accused the hackers of seeking to impose "a personal notion of virtue on all of society."

    Graham, the security expert, had a simpler theory.

    "In all probability, their motivation is that #1 it's fun, and #2 because they can," he wrote.

    -Technology Writer Bree Fowler in New York contributed to this report.

     

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