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- 09/02/15--22:00: _Ask Stacy: Should I...
- 09/02/15--22:00: _10 Best and Worst D...
- 09/02/15--22:00: _4 Ways to Save Mone...
- 09/02/15--22:00: _How to Avoid Frugal...
- 09/02/15--22:00: _6 Online Financial ...
- 09/03/15--01:36: _Shrinking Trade Gap...
- 09/03/15--01:44: _CVS: Ban on Cigaret...
- 09/03/15--03:46: _Why Planning to Wor...
- 09/03/15--07:06: _Labor Day Drivers t...
- 09/03/15--09:54: _Market Wrap: Stocks...
- 09/03/15--22:00: _17 Clever Ways to S...
- 09/03/15--22:00: _The 9 Best Sales of...
- 09/03/15--22:00: _These 6 Costco Item...
- 09/03/15--22:00: _The Big Business of...
- 09/03/15--22:00: _If You Have Poor Cr...
- 09/04/15--01:37: _Labor Market Shows ...
- 09/04/15--02:17: _Week's Winners and ...
- 09/04/15--04:40: _Nissan Recalls 300,...
- 09/04/15--05:00: _Muddled Jobs Report...
- 09/04/15--08:26: _Toyota to Invest $5...
- 09/02/15--22:00: Ask Stacy: Should I Jump on a 0% Credit Card Offer?
- 09/02/15--22:00: 10 Best and Worst Deals at Whole Foods
- 09/02/15--22:00: 4 Ways to Save Money This Labor Day Weekend
- 09/02/15--22:00: How to Avoid Frugality That Turns Costly
- 09/02/15--22:00: 6 Online Financial Tools to Simplify Your Life
- 09/03/15--01:36: Shrinking Trade Gap Shows Economy's Underlying Strength
- 09/03/15--01:44: CVS: Ban on Cigarette Sales Has Reduced Smoking
- 09/03/15--03:46: Why Planning to Work in Retirement Is a Risky Business
- 09/03/15--07:06: Labor Day Drivers to Enjoy Lowest Gas Prices Since 2004
- 09/03/15--09:54: Market Wrap: Stocks Gain as ECB Says It's Ready to Act
- Wholesale gasoline rose 1.2 cents to close at $1.437 a gallon.
- Heating oil rose 1 cent to close at $1.619 a gallon.
- Natural gas rose 7.7 cents to close at $2.725 per 1,000 cubic feet.
- 09/03/15--22:00: 17 Clever Ways to Save More for Retirement
- 09/03/15--22:00: The 9 Best Sales of Labor Day 2015
- Savings up to $600 on laptops
- Savings up to $450 on desktops
- Savings up to $90 on monitors
- Savings up to 50 percent on printers and accessories
- 70 percent off the Jaclyn Smith Brookner four-piece cushion seating set (now $239.99, regularly $799.99 )
- 28 percent off Kenmore freezer refrigerator in white (now $599.99, regularly $769.99 )
- Up to 20 percent off HDTVs
- Up to 60 percent off luggage
- Up to 60 percent off select printers
- Up to 50 percent off select chairs
- Up to $60 off select iPad models
- Up to $270 off select Windows 10 laptops and desktops
- 09/03/15--22:00: These 6 Costco Items Will Easily Cover Your $55 Membership
- 09/03/15--22:00: The Big Business of Guilty Pleasures
- 09/03/15--22:00: If You Have Poor Credit, This Common Household Bill Doubles
- 09/04/15--01:37: Labor Market Shows Some Muscle Despite Slower Job Growth
- 09/04/15--02:17: Week's Winners and Losers: McDonald's, Disney Please Fans
- 09/04/15--04:40: Nissan Recalls 300,000 Versas to Adjust Console Panel
- 09/04/15--05:00: Muddled Jobs Report Leaves Fed in a 'Jam' Watching Markets
- 09/04/15--08:26: Toyota to Invest $50M to Boost Self-Driving Car Technology
By Stacy Johnson
If you live in America, have a decent credit score and can fog a mirror, you've probably received promotional offers for very low or zero percent credit cards. A zero percent credit line for a year or more can be mighty tempting, especially if you're laboring under the burden of high-interest debt elsewhere. Which brings us to today's reader question.
The short answer to your question, Struck, is yes. If you can pay zero interest on all or part of an existing balance, you want to.
I would really appreciate some advice about whether it is a good idea for me to take advantage of the zero percent balance transfer promotion with one of my credit cards.
I recently came into some unexpected expenses and thought that maybe this might be an opportunity to limit the high interest I am currently experiencing with my credit card, which has more than $8,000 on it and an interest rate of 15.24 percent.
Sincerely -- Struck by offer but don't want to make it a financial mistake
That being said, there are things you need to know about credit cards, especially the zero percent interest kind. Here are some things to know about zero percent balance transfer offers.
It's possible you won't get it. Zero percent card offers are normally made to those with good credit -- scores of 700-plus. While card companies typically screen before making offers, if your credit score changes before you submit an application, they could turn you down.
Offers made by credit card companies are just that -- offers. They aren't guarantees.
Mess up once, and you could lose the zero percent rate. Be sure to read the fine print. Many cards will include conditions, such as paying on time, to retain the zero percent rate. Make a payment that's one day late, and you could lose it.
You'll probably pay a fee. This is the biggest drawback to transferring a balance to a zero percent card. The vast majority of issuers charge a fee ranging from 2 to 5 percent of the balance to transfer to their zero percent card.
For example, if you transfer $8,000 to a card that charges a 4 percent fee, you'll be paying off $8,320.
Do the math. That's why, before transferring any balance, you have to figure out how much it's going to cost you. There are calculators that can help determine just how much you'll save by transferring balances. For example, you can find one at CreditCards.com.
I used that calculator to find out what you'd save by transferring an $8,000 balance to a zero percent card for 18 months, after paying a 4 percent fee. It says you'll save $1,509 in interest over the life of the 18-month promotional period, then $22 a month thereafter, assuming that you make only minimum payments. Not bad.
Granted, you may not be able to transfer the entire $8,000 balance, and we don't know the transfer fee you'll pay. So, although the math will probably work out to your benefit, you need to do it yourself.
Check the rate for purchases as well as transfers. Some cards offer a zero percent rate on balance transfers but charge a different rate on new purchases made on the card, as well as for cash advances. If the amount you're transferring will devour your entire available credit line, this won't be a concern, but if not, find out the terms.
Have you shopped it? Since applying for credit is a hassle, when you do it, make sure you're getting the best bang for the buck.
Like many consumer sites, we have a full list of balance transfer credit cards. Some have longer zero percent interest promotional periods than others, and some have lower post-promotional rates, better rewards, lower fees, etc.
You obviously want a zero percent promotional rate, but decide on other features you'd like, then take the time to make sure you're getting the best deal.
Are you using a Band-Aid when you need stitches? There's an elephant in the room with any balance transfer, namely, the reason you're juggling debt in the first place.
As justification for carrying a balance, Struck says, "I recently came into some unexpected expenses." One-time, nonrecurring expenses are the perfect problem to solve with zero percent credit offers. But if you're habitually living beyond your means, a zero percent card is simply postponing the inevitable day when you reach the end of your credit rope.
Obviously, whatever the source of your debt, paying less interest is better than paying more. But as you make these transfers, take some time to evaluate what got you here and what it's going to take to get you out. Then, if you need help, get it.
Got a question you'd like answered?
A great way to get answers to just about any money-related question is to head to our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth and, most important, post questions and get answers. It's also where I often look for questions to answer in this weekly column. You can also ask questions by replying to our daily emails. If you're not getting them, fix that right now by subscribing here.
I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I've earned a CPA (currently inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.
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By Cameron Huddleston
Whole Foods' reputation for being pricey earned it the nickname "Whole Paycheck," but the grocery chain, which specializes in organic fare, does offer some deals. If you need to run in to pick up a specialty item, it's worth checking out several products that are competitively priced, said Gina Briles, a writer for Cheapism.com who has researched Whole Foods price comparisons.
That said, if you're looking for the biggest bang for your buck, you "can't do all of your shopping at Whole Foods," said Briles. Read on to find out which Whole Foods deals are the best -- and which are the worst.
10 Best Deals at Whole Foods
Not everything Whole Foods sells is priced at a premium. Several items -- even when not on sale -- cost the same or less as similar items at other grocery and supermarket chains.
Increasing competition from other grocers offering premium products has led Whole Foods to lower its prices and offer more promotions such as one-day sales on select items. Several of Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value brand products are priced low, and although there are no Whole Foods discount codes currently available, the chain does publish its Whole Foods sales flier online, which can be searched by store location and downloaded as a PDF.
Here are 10 items that we found with the help of deal experts and through our own research that are some of the best deals at Whole Foods, so you don't have to feel guilty about buying these things at the upscale grocer.
1. Organic milk. A gallon of Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value organic milk costs 20 cents to $1 less than the store brands of other supermarkets we checked. Only low-cost grocery chain Trader Joe's has a price as low as Whole Foods' $5.99.
2. Non-dairy milk. For people who can't consume dairy or choose not to, Whole Foods has competitive pricing on its store-brand milk alternatives. According to research by Cheapism.com, a 32-ounce carton of 365 Everyday Value rice milk is about $1 less than the Rice Dream brand at Safeway. And we found that a 64-ounce carton of 365 organic soy milk at Whole Foods is the same price as Trader Joe's organic soy milk -- $2.99.
3. Organic olive oil. Briles said that one of the best deals at Whole Foods is its 365 brand organic olive oil, which is priced lower than name brands and other supermarkets' organic store brands. For example, we found that a 33.8-ounce bottle of 365 organic olive oil costs $3 less than a 24.3-ounce bottle of Newman's Own organic olive oil at Kroger and about 5 cents less per ounce than the Wild Oats brand at Walmart.
4. Organic chicken broth. At $1.99, a 32-ounce carton of 365 brand organic chicken broth at Whole Foods is priced 30 to 40 cents less than Trader Joe's and the supermarkets we checked. It's even a penny less than the Wild Oats 32-ounce carton of organic chicken broth at Walmart.
5. Organic pasta. Most pastas aren't expensive, but you'll find especially good prices on the Whole Foods 365 brand organic pastas. For example, at $1.29, a 16-ounce box of 365 brand spaghetti is 10 cents less than the same size box of Wild Oats organic spaghetti at Walmart and 60 cents less than Kroger's Simple Truth brand. Also, the price of 365 brand conventional pasta is the same as or lower than the prices of name-brand and store-brand pastas at the supermarkets we checked.
6. Almond butter. This alternative to peanut butter isn't cheap, so you'll save money by stocking up on jars of it at Whole Foods. You can get a 16-ounce jar at Whole Foods for $1 less than at Trader Joe's, according to Cheapism.com. We also found that the Whole Foods price is lower than the cost of Kroger's Simple Truth almond butter and the Maranatha brand at Walmart.
7. Organic maple syrup. You can drizzle your pancakes with organic maple syrup for less money with the Whole Foods 365 brand, which we found sells for $7.99 for 12 ounces. This price per ounce beats smaller bottles at Kroger and Walmart by several cents.
8. Organic coconut oil. If you like to use coconut oil for cooking or skin or hair care, Briles said you'll get a good deal with the Whole Foods 365 brand. According to Cheapism.com, a 14-ounce jar is a few dollars less than the Spectrum-brand organic coconut oil at Safeway. And we found that the 365 brand jar is $1 less than Kroger's Simple Truth brand.
9. Long-grain brown rice. Trader Joe's specialty food offerings often are a low-cost alternative to many Whole Foods products. But Cheapism.com found that Whole Foods has the lower price on long-grain brown rice, at $5.79 for a 5-pound bag ($1.16 a pound) versus $3.29 for a 2-pound bag ($1.65 a pound) at Trader Joe's -- a savings of about 50 cents a pound. Stephanie Nelson, The Coupon Mom, said that Whole Foods' rice and grains sold in bulk -- where you scoop the amount you want out of a bin and into a bag -- offer savings over packaged versions of those items.
10. Baguettes. Many of Whole Foods' bakery items aren't bargains, said Nelson. But we found that the organic French baguettes were a good deal at $1.29. Non-organic baguettes at Kroger and Trader Joe's were 20 cents to 70 cents more, respectively.
10 Worst Buys at Whole Foods
As if Whole Foods' upscale reputation weren't enough to deter value-minded shoppers, now the chain is contending with allegations that it systematically overcharged for prepackaged food in New York, according to CNN Money. Last year, The Los Angeles Times reported that Whole Foods paid $800,000 in fines to several California cities for pricing violations.
Overcharging allegations aside, several items at Whole Foods are generally more expensive than similar offerings at other grocers. Click through to see 10 of the worst deals at Whole Foods.
1. Beef. Although Whole Foods does have sales on meat, its prices rarely go as low as supermarket sale prices, said Teri Gault, CEO of grocery savings website TheGroceryGame.com. And Whole Foods' "regular prices are most always higher than supermarkets' regular prices on any meat, whether organic or not," she said. For example, you'll pay twice as much for a non-organic steak at Whole Foods as you would for the same USDA-grade steak at supermarkets, Gault said.
2. Organic chicken. Whole organic chickens usually cost $4 to $5 a pound at Whole Foods, while the average price at supermarkets is $3.50 a pound, Gault said. Trader Joe's charges just $2.69 a pound. We also found that Trader Joe's undercuts Whole Foods' price on organic chicken breasts by $3 a pound.
3. Cereal. Name-brand cereals tend to be less expensive at supermarkets or discount stores that carry the same brands as Whole Foods, said Nelson. Even Whole Foods' 365 brand cereal costs more than other stores' own brands. For example, we found a 12.8-ounce box of Whole Foods 365 brand Multi-Grain Morning O's cereal (think generic Cheerios) for $3.39 versus just $2.99 for Trader Joe's version.
4. Coffee. You can get your caffeine fix for a lot less at Trader Joe's. The discount grocer's 13-ounce container of organic, whole bean, French roast coffee is just $7.49 versus $11.99 for a 12-ounce bag of Allegro whole bean, French roast coffee at Whole Foods. We found that a 26-ounce container of Trader Joe's non-organic, French roast coffee is 12 cents less per ounce than the Allegro 16-ounce bag at Whole Foods.
5. Deli items. Whole Foods' deli offerings are beautiful but incredibly marked up, Gault said. For example, whole, non-organic roasted chickens are regularly priced at $9 at Whole Foods, which recently had a highly promoted sale on them for $5. The regular price for roasted chickens at supermarkets averages $5 to $7, she said.
6. Fish. Whole Foods claims that it is the only national retailer with full traceability from fishery or farm to store. Perhaps that explains, in part, the higher price of its fish. For example, the regular price of wild swordfish steak at Whole Foods is $13.99 a pound -- $11.99 on sale -- Gault said. At supermarkets, however, the average regular price is $11.99 a pound, with sale prices averaging $6.97 a pound, she said.
7. Frozen foods. Many convenience frozen foods cost more at Whole Foods, Gault said. For example, Van's frozen waffles are regularly priced at $3.79 at Whole Foods, while the regular price at supermarkets is $2.99, she said. We found that a 10-ounce package of Amy's Palak Paneer -- a vegetarian Indian dish -- is $5.59 at Whole Foods but just $3.99 at Kroger.
8. Produce. The regular price of organic and conventional produce is generally higher at Whole Foods than at supermarkets, Gault said. In fact, in-season organic produce is usually a featured sale item in supermarkets. For example, organic peaches recently were on sale at Kroger for $1 less than the sale price at Whole Foods, Gault said. We also found that the regular prices on other organic items, such as 5-ounce packages of spring mix lettuce, are less at supermarkets and significantly cheaper -- by $1.50 -- at Trader Joe's.
9. Specialty cheeses. Don't expect to find deals on artisan and imported cheeses at Whole Foods. You'll find much better deals at Trader Joe's. For example, we found that the prices of the various types of brie at Trader Joe's range from $5.99 a pound to $8.99 a pound, whereas the prices at Whole Foods range from $9.99 a pound to $13.99 a pound. A 4-ounce package of goat cheese is $2 less at Trader Joe's than the least-expensive offering at Whole Foods.
10. Natural cat litter. If you want to fill your cat's litter box with natural, chemical-free litter, you'll find better deals on Amazon or even pet supply stores such as Petco than you will at Whole Foods. We found that an 11-pound bag of Whole Foods 365 brand natural pine cat litter is $15.99. However, 20-pound bags of Feline Pine Original cat litter sell for several dollars less on Amazon and Petco.com than the smaller Whole Foods bag.
Prices included in this article are examples found at different store locations; prices can vary by location and are subject to change.
This article, 10 Best and Worst Deals at Whole Foods, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.
Let's look at some of the seasonal deals and things that are cheaper now than they were a year ago.
1. Fill 'Er Up
Whether it's one last summer getaway or you want to drive out to visit friends and family, there will be less pain at the pump this time around. The average price for a gallon of gas across the country, according to rate tracker GasBuddy.com, has fallen to $2.46 from $3.44 a year ago. That's a pretty big markdown, and it's going to feel even better if you travel to the same place every Labor Day weekend.
It's true that gas prices are a bit higher since bottoming out at a little more than $2 earlier this year, but it's still a welcome year-over-year comparison this holiday weekend.
2. Draped in Jewelry
Labor Day isn't a romantic holiday, but if you've been waiting for the right time to snap up an engagement ring or any other form of jewelry, you'll have the long weekend to go shopping. The market prices for precious metals have been trending lower over the past year. An ounce of gold has shed more than 10 percent of its value since Labor Day last year, according to commodity watcher GoldPrice.org. If you're settling for silver, that metal has seen its cost plunge by a quarter of its value over the past year.
3. Bargains on the Menu
Restaurants tend to be busier than usual during holiday weekends, but that doesn't mean that they're skimping on deals. Several websites including RetailMeNot (SALE) and EatDrinkDeals.com have many Labor Day coupons and coupon codes to consider.
Some of the coupons available at EatDrinkDeals include a BOGO burger offer at Jack in the Box (JACK), a 25 percent discount at Boston Market for Labor Day and a $5-off coupon at Olive Garden. It's good to check the coupon aggregators, because sometimes eateries don't prominently feature coupon-based promotions on their own websites.
4. Make the Most of the Gig Economy
One of the biggest trends of 2015 is what is being called the gig economy, with folks using their cars to make money on the side by delivering food and groceries or transporting people. With so many players trying to get noticed, there are some pretty nifty deals being doled out to first-time customers.
Amazon's (AMZN) Prime Now is the leading online retailer's bold push to deliver locally available merchandise to your door within two hours if you're an Amazon Prime member. If it's available where you live -- and you haven't tried it -- Amazon is currently offering $20 off a $50 order with the code TRYITNOW. It's been billed as a "limited time offer" this summer, and you never know when it's going to end. Uber, Lyft and the many food delivery specialists also tend to offer big deals the first time you use them.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Amazon.com and RetailMeNot. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.
By Geoff Williams
While saving money is almost always a good thing, there are a few circumstances where frugality can end up costing you money. In the following 10 instances, thrifty ambitions can actually end up backfiring -- and hurting you financially.
1. Buying used baby products. When it comes to cribs, car seats and high chairs, it's safer to spend more than buy the cheapest items you can find. Although baby products are heavily regulated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, recalls often occur and the standards on what is considered safe change. The high chair you found at a garage sale or thrift store may look sturdy, but for all you know, it was recalled three years ago because the screws sometimes come loose. Not only could you end up endangering your child, but you might have to buy a replacement.
2. Skimping on footwear. Cheap and uncomfortable shoes not only hurt, but they can lead to blisters and calluses. You want to find a good fit with a high quality shoe to avoid future trips to the podiatrist's office. Cheap shoes also tend to fall apart more quickly. Save yourself money, and buy a quality pair the first time.
3. Buying health insurance with the lowest premium. Of course, it's better to have not-so-great health insurance than no health insurance at all. But if you're comparison shopping between plans, don't automatically select the one with the cheapest premiums, because doing so could end up costing you in the end. If you end up paying more for doctor's visits, or even worse, skipping visits because you don't like the in-network health care providers, then that cheap policy will cost you.
4. Not writing a will. Your decision to forgo a will won't personally cost you a dime, but you could end up leaving a lot less to your family and friends. That's because your estate could go through the court system and lose money in legal fees along the way. Instead, get your affairs in order in advance for the benefit of your loved ones.
5. DIY appliance delivery. Sometimes consumers try to cut corners by transporting appliances themselves if the merchant doesn't offer free delivery. If you can borrow a friend's truck and avoid the delivery and installation charge, why not? Keep in mind that when you pay for delivery, the company is responsible for the appliance until it's installed. If you transport it yourself, and especially if you haven't purchased a warranty to cover accidents, you are taking a risk that you or a friend might drop and damage it.
6. Buying something because it's interest-free for a while. It's tempting to buy something with a zero-interest window, like a "90-day, same-as-cash" offer, in which you're charged no interest if you pay for the product within 90 days. However, many people don't end up saving the money, and they end up paying more in accumulated interest. Instead, just save your money and make the purchase, if you really want it, when you have the cash on hand.
7. Not going to the doctor when you're sick. This is a classic money (and health) mistake. You may have a treatable problem that goes undiagnosed and eventually becomes not so treatable. And it isn't just appointments with your general practitioner. Regular eye exams and dental checkups can shield you from bigger costs down the road.
8. Leasing a car. In the short term, leasing a car might appear to be cheaper than purchasing one. But consumers typically get locked into making lease payments over a certain time period, even if their car needs change. Plus, when your lease ends, the car is no longer yours, so you have nothing to show for those monthly payments.
9. Going with a cheaper mover. Hiring movers at a cut-rate price, at least without doing your homework, can be an expensive mistake. Cheap movers can show up with a truck that's too small or not enough workers to handle all the items. You might even end up paying much more than the initial estimate.
10. Not putting much money, or any money, away for retirement. You don't need a lecture on how important it is to save for retirement. But if your employer has offered to match your contributions, and you leave that money on the table, you're giving up the chance to potentially receive thousands of dollars each year. You may be hanging onto your money right now, but you're definitely losing out in the long run.
Sandra Block and Kathy Kristof
These days, consumers have a vast array of financial products and services to manage. Consider these digital resources to help you keep track of it all:
1. Automatic bill payment and saving. To keep a record of bill payments and how the money is spent (helpful if you're trying to stick to a budget), check out Mint.com. Another alternative is PersonalCapital.com, which provides budgeting tools and will track your investments, too.
2. Credit cards. Free tools at www.creditkarma.com help you gauge where your credit stands and show how you can improve it. You can also get access to your TransUnion credit report, updated weekly.
3. Insurance. The Insurance Information Institute offers Know Your Stuff, free software that will help you create a record of your possessions. It's also available as an app for iPhone and Android smartphones. Your insurance company may also provide mobile or online tools you can use to record information you'll need to file a homeowners or auto insurance claim.
4. Password management. PCMag.com provides a good rundown of the password managers available (along with their prices).
5. Paper files. Shoeboxed.com offers a free service that allows you to upload as many as five documents a month; after that, prices range from $9.95 to $99.95 a month, based on the number of documents stored and other services. Or use a free cloud-based service.
6. Retirement accounts. Your IRA provider probably offers tools you can use to figure out whether your overall portfolio is appropriately diversified, based on your age and risk tolerance. To see if you're saving enough, use our Retirement Savings Calculator.
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. trade deficit fell in July to its lowest level in five months as exports rose broadly, signaling underlying strength in the economy amid concerns about a global growth slowdown.
While other data Thursday showed an increase in the number of Americans filing new applications for unemployment benefits, the trend in jobless claims remained consistent with a strengthening labor market. Activity in the vast services sector also hovered at a 10-year high in August.
There is little evidence that the abrupt deterioration in financial market conditions and the heightened concerns about the global economy have begun to affect the U.S. economy.
The Commerce Department said the trade gap narrowed 7.4 percent to $41.9 billion, the smallest since February. When adjusted for inflation, the deficit fell to $56.2 billion from $59 billion in the prior month.
The smaller deficit implied a modest contribution to gross domestic product from trade early in the third quarter. Trade added 0.3 percentage point to the economy's 3.7 percent annualized growth rate in the second quarter.
Data ranging from consumer spending to employment and housing have suggested the economy retained much of its momentum from the second quarter and was on solid footing when global financial markets were rocked by turbulence triggered by worries over China's economy.
Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher after the data. Investor sentiment also was boosted after the European Central Bank indicated it could prolong its monetary stimulus program.
The dollar rose against a basket of currencies, while prices for longer-dated U.S. Treasuries fell.
In a separate report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 282,000 for the week ended Aug. 29.
The claims data has no bearing on Friday's closely watched employment report for August as it fell outside the survey period. According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased by 220,000 last month after rising 215,000 in July.
But job gains could come in below expectations as the first reading of August payrolls has tended to be weaker in the last several years before being revised higher.
Eyes on Fed
The August employment report will be released less than two weeks before the Federal Reserve's Sept. 16-17 policy-setting meeting. There is speculation the U.S. central bank could raise interest rates at that meeting.
The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 3,250 to 275,500 last week.
It was the 23rd straight week that the four-week average remained below the 300,000 threshold, which is usually associated with a strengthening labor market.
A third report from the Institute for Supply Management showed its services industry index slipped to 59 last month from a reading of 60.3 in July, which was the highest since August 2005. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the sector.
Fifteen out of 18 service industries, including real estate, construction and retail trade, reported an expansion in activity -- the most since October. Only mining reported a contraction.
"The domestic economy is holding strong. The Fed must weigh this against the prospects of a weakening global economy as they decide whether to raise interest rates in two weeks," said Jay Morelock, an economist at FTN Financial in New York.
The strong services sector should help offset the drag on the economy from manufacturing, which has been hit by a strong dollar and spending cuts by energy companies.
But the buoyant dollar's negative impact on the economy is starting to ease. Exports increased 0.4 percent to $188.5 billion in July, the first rise since April. There were increases in exports of food, industrial supplies and materials, and capital goods in July. Automobile exports also rose.
Imports fell 1.1 percent to $230.4 billion, led by consumer goods such as pharmaceuticals and cell phones. However, automobile imports were the highest on record and the value of crude oil imports was the highest since January.
Soft import growth is usually associated with sluggish domestic demand. The weakness, however, is probably related to a slowdown in inventory accumulation as businesses try to whittle down a huge stockpile of merchandise accumulated in the first half of 2015.
The politically sensitive U.S.-China trade deficit was $31.6 billion in July, up 0.4 percent from June. That trade gap will be closely watched in the coming months in the wake of China's recent devaluation of its currency.
Exports to Canada fell 8.3 percent in July and could come under more pressure after the Canadian economy slipped into recession in the second quarter.
CVS Health (CVS) says its decision to stop selling tobacco products last year led to a 1 percent decrease in cigarette sales in some states where the drugstore chain has a sizeable presence.
The September 2014 decision hurt sales, with general merchandise revenue at CVS pharmacies open at least a year falling 7.8 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, the company said Thursday.
The 1 percent reduction in sales of cigarette packs occurred in 13 of the states where CVS's market share was at least 15 percent. The company said the decline equated to the average smoker in those states buying five fewer packs of cigarettes, or a total of 95 million.
The company estimated it held 1.5 percent to 2 percent of the U.S. tobacco market before it stopped selling the products, which accounted for about $2 billion in annual sales.
For the analysis, CVS said it compared cigarette pack purchases in markets where it had a presence with those where it didn't. Researchers looked at sales in drug, food, big box, dollar, convenience and gas station retailers.
Chief Medical Officer Troyen Brennan said many people thought that smokers would go elsewhere to buy cigarettes once the chain stopped selling them.
"The data shows that our decision to not sell cigarettes did have an impact," he said.
CVS has 7,800 retail pharmacies and is the second-largest manager of prescription-drug benefits in the United States.
CHICAGO -- Planning to work longer to bolster your retirement finances?
It can make a big difference, but it is tough to pull off. Half of all retirees leave the workforce earlier than planned due to a health problem or job loss.
Blue collar workers with physically demanding jobs are most susceptible to early retirement, according to conventional wisdom. New research confirms that, but it also shows at least one type of early-retirement risk is spread much more widely across job types than previously thought.
These findings serve as a reminder that while working longer is a worthy aspiration, it is not a reliable financial plan. They also underscore a fallacy in the policy debate about raising eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare.
Almost every occupation has one ability that would be expected to decline with age.
The index doesn't measure the risk of early retirement due to job loss or other factors, such as the need to care for a family member. Instead, it looks at cognitive, psychomotor, physical and sensory abilities required to do various jobs. The key finding: highly educated professionals can be as susceptible to early retirement risk as a steelworker or truck driver.
"Almost every occupation has one ability that would be expected to decline with age," says Anek Belbase, research project manager at CRR and a co-author of the report.
The occupations least at risk are those where verbal skills are key. "These also are jobs where people rely on social skills, which tend to be constant or improve with age," Belbase says. The group includes sales representatives (index ranking: 4), judges and magistrates (5), receptionists (6) and bookkeepers (10).
If your job requires a high level of cognitive skill, you might be at greater risk, depending on the type of cognitive skill needed. "Crystallized" cognitive ability, or knowledge, tends to accumulate with age and boosts your odds of functioning well at older ages. But "fluid" cognitive ability, which includes things like episodic memory and reaction time to new information, tends to decline with age.
"A CEO mostly makes decisions using crystallized knowledge, but fluid intelligence does decline with age, and that is very important for some types of decision making," Belbase says. Still, CEOs scored just 21 on the index, far lower than designers (63), dentists (67) and photographers (71).
On the high end of the susceptibility scale are automotive service technicians and mechanics (100), electricians (96), detectives (83), and iron and steelworkers (98).
CRR's findings underscore the substantial risks to a financial plan of relying on extra years of work.
An unplanned early retirement requires stretching savings over more years, with fewer years of saving at high income levels just before retirement. Early retirement also can mean early filing for Social Security benefits, which reduces annual income substantially for the rest of a retiree's lifetime. And if early retirement comes before you qualify for Medicare (at age 65), the cost of health insurance can rise substantially.
The scattering of risk across occupations also has important public policy implications. Proponents of boosting eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare argue that we can all delay claiming these benefits because we are all working longer these days. But it would create unnecessary, unpredictable retirement outcomes for millions of Americans.
How to know your own susceptibility number? Belbase's index has not been published in its final form, and there is no online tool yet that can show an occupation's susceptibility. Belbase's research will be published sometime in the next 12 months, along with downloadable charts of the index rankings.
"If you want to assess your chances of being able to work as long as you want, simply talk to older workers in your field," he suggests. "If you can't find any, that means you should probably have a back-up plan."
By the way, reporters and news analysts, I am pleased to say, scored a 37, so count on me to stick around here for a while.
-The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
By JONATHAN FAHEY
NEW YORK -- It has been more than a decade since U.S. drivers paid so little to fuel up for that last road trip of summer.
The national average price of gasoline this Labor Day weekend will be its lowest at this time of year since 2004, a result of low oil prices and a quiet hurricane season that has allowed refineries to churn out gasoline and diesel.
"The year of cheap fuel continues," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service.
The national average price of gasoline fell to $2.44 Thursday, nearly $1 a gallon cheaper than last year.
That means drivers will save about $15 on a typical fill-up. For the four big driving days of the weekend, Friday through Monday, Americans will spend $1.6 billion less than last year, according to an analysis by Kloza's OPIS. They are expected to drive more miles, encouraged by low fuel prices, but not enough to burn up their savings.
Gasoline prices often rise toward the end of the summer driving season as supplies dwindle and rough weather disrupts production along the Gulf Coast, where much of the nation's fuel is made.
But crude oil prices have plunged because producers in the U.S. and around the world have been furiously pumping oil while at the same time economic weakness in China, Japan and Europe raises concerns that future demand growth will slow. At around $47, oil is down 23 percent from its June 10 high and around half the price it was last year at this time.
The low crude prices and humming refineries have helped the national average price of gasoline fall 17 days in a row, according to AAA. Refinery production has remained high because refiners' raw material costs are have fallen faster than the price they get for their products. U.S. supplies of gasoline are above where they were at this time last year.
For most of the country, below $2 is in our future for November and December.
"For most of the country, below $2 is in our future for November and December," Kloza says.
By this weekend, 10,000 stations around the country, mostly in the Southeast, will be selling gasoline for less than $2 a gallon. South Carolina's average has already sunk to $2, lowest in the U.S. California drivers had a difficult summer, often paying far more than drivers elsewhere because of refinery problems in the state. Midwest drivers suffered through a short spike because of a refinery problem in Ohio.
Now prices everywhere are falling, but Western drivers are still paying far more than the national average. California and Nevada drivers are both paying more than $3 per gallon on average, and the top 11 state averages are all out west. The lowest prices are found in the Southeast and near the Gulf Coast.
NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks moved slightly higher Thursday as markets calmed after a recent bout of turmoil. Investors were encouraged by comments from European Central Bank policymakers, who said they were willing to provide more stimulus to the region's economy, if needed.
Investors now turn to Friday, when a key jobs report will be released that could help determine whether or not the Federal Reserve raises interest rates this month.
There's a lot of trepidation in the market over what the Fed will do, and it's only getting worse as we get closer to the meeting.
The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) added 23.38 points, or 0.1 percent, to 16,374.76. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) rose 2.27 points, or 0.1 percent, to 1,951.13 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) fell 16.48 points, or 0.4 percent, to 4,733.50.
Stocks started the day solidly higher, but momentum waned as the day dragged on. Major indexes slipped briefly into the red by mid-afternoon before ending mostly higher.
Investors were initially encouraged by news out of the European Central Bank, where President Mario Draghi said the bank is ready to give the eurozone a bigger dose of stimulus should inflation across the 19-country bloc fail to pick up. Along with keeping interest rates low, the ECB is pumping 60 billion euros a month into the region's economy through purchases of government and corporate bonds. The program is slated to run at least through September 2016.
"Draghi said in 2012 he would do whatever it takes to grow the eurozone economy and he's holding to that promise," said Quincy Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial.
European markets jumped on the news. Germany's DAX closed up 2.7 percent, France's CAC-40 rose 2.2 percent and U.K.'s FTSE 100 rose 1.8 percent.
Higher U.S. Rates
At the same time the ECB is stimulating Europe's economy, the Federal Reserve could raise U.S. interest rates for the first time since the financial crisis. While chances of a September interest rate increase have diminished because of signs of weakening global growth and a sell-off in Chinese stocks, many believe the growing U.S. economy may be ready to withstand higher interest rates.
Friday's jobs report for August, a key gauge of how the U.S. economy is doing, could play a big role in guiding that decision by the Fed. Economists are forecasting that employers created 220,000 jobs last month and that the unemployment rate fell to 5.2 percent.
The price of oil followed the stock market higher. U.S. crude rose 50 cents to close at $46.75 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, rose 18 cents to close at $50.68 a barrel in London.
In other futures trading on the NYMEX:
The price of gold fell $9.10 to settle at $1,124.50 an ounce, silver rose four cents to $14.70 an ounce and copper rose six cents to $2.39 a pound.
What to watch Friday:
The Labor Department releases employment data for August at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
By Cameron Huddleston
Many workers, including those nearing retirement age, say they're not saving enough to retire comfortably. Those concerns were illuminated in the recently released 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald & Associates. Of 1,003 workers surveyed, more than half say they have less than $25,000 saved, and nearly 30 percent say they have less than $1,000 in savings.
Some of the workers surveyed say they were unable to save because they're barely making ends meet. Others, however, admitted that they could be doing a better job saving, perhaps with a little more motivation or discipline. If that sounds familiar, keep on reading.
GOBankingRates asked financial planners and retirement experts for their favorite strategies for squeezing more savings out of a paycheck. Perhaps you've heard of some of these clever ways to save -- but they're worth repeating.
1. Calculate What You Need to Save. Many people don't know how much they need to put away for their retirement, said Kathleen Hastings, a certified financial planner and portfolio manager with FBB Capital Partners. "Unless you have a good idea of where you want to be when you retire, you're shooting in the dark with blinders on," she said. So calculate how much you should be setting aside for the standard of living you desire.
Start by using a free online calculator, such as Vanguard's Retirement Income Calculator or the Fidelity myPlan Snapshot, to get a general idea of how much you need to save. Once you have an estimate, you might be more motivated to boost your savings.
2. Automate Savings. Don't give yourself the option of whether to set aside money each month. Automate your savings so it's not a choice, said David Brooks, Sr., president and CEO of Verus Wealth Management. That means having contributions to a workplace retirement account such as a 401(k) automatically withdrawn from your paycheck or setting up automatic deposits into an individual account such as an IRA from your checking account.
3. Get Your Employer's 401(k) Match. Would you say no to free money? Probably not. But plenty of employees do each year because they don't contribute enough to their 401(k) to get the full matching contribution from their employer. In fact, one in four plan participants miss out on receiving a full match by not saving enough, leaving an estimated $1,336 of free money on the table, according to research by Financial Engines, an investment advisory service.
Check with your human resources department to find out if your employer offers a 401(k) match. What's most common is when employers contribute 50 cents for every $1 contributed by an employee to his or her 401(k) up to 6 percent, according to the 401kHelpCenter.com. For example, if you earn $40,000 a year and contribute just 3 percent of your salary, but your employer offers a 50-cent match up to 6 percent, you're missing out on $600 a year in free money.
4. Set Up Your Own Match. If your employer doesn't match your contributions to your workplace retirement plan, then set up your own match, said Zach Gieske, an operations analyst at Stable Value Investment Association, a nonprofit resource on retirement investing. Instead of purchasing a daily cup of coffee or a take-out lunch, he recommended putting that money into savings.
"It really helps get you in a saving frame of mind, and even has a side benefit of making you more aware of how seemingly little purchases can add up in your budget," Gieske said.
5. Boost Your Contribution by 1% Annually. Increasing the amount you stash away in savings by just 1 percent each year will significantly raise your account balance over the long haul, Brooks said. Here's an example from Fidelity Investments: A 25-year-old earning $40,000 a year who contributes just 1 percent more of his salary each year (or $33 more each month) until age 67 would have $3,870 additional yearly income in retirement, assuming a 7 percent rate of return and a 1.5 percent annual pay raise.
6. Stash Your Pay Raise in a Retirement Account. People don't often increase their retirement contribution when they get a raise, said Robert Johnson, president and CEO of The American College of Financial Services, which provides continuing education for financial professionals. But it's an easy way to grow your savings.
Workers are already used to making ends meet on their old salary. So continue to live on that and put the raise into a retirement account, Johnson said. Do the same with an annual bonus.
"Your retirement nest egg will increase very quickly if you take that simple step," he said.
7. Put Your Tax Refund in a Roth IRA. Tax refunds might seem like you're getting free money, which increases the desire to spend it, but keep in mind that it's your money that the Internal Revenue Service has collected interest-free. Hastings recommended putting that refund to work for you. Deposit it into a Roth IRA.
You can contribute up to $5,500 in a Roth IRA in 2015 and another $1,000 for a maximum contribution of $6,500 if you're 50 or older. You won't get a tax deduction for your contribution, but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. Your modified adjusted gross income must be less than $116,000 if you're single or less than $183,000 if you're a married couple filing jointly to contribute the maximum amount.
8. Adjust Your Withholding Allowances. Getting a big tax refund from Uncle Sam means that the government held on to money that you could have used to pay bills or invest. So if you usually get a fat refund, consider adjusting your payroll withholding allowances so you can keep more money in your paycheck each month. The higher number of allowances you claim up to a point, the lower the tax refund.
File a new W-4 form with your employer to claim more allowances. Use the IRS.gov withholding calculator to figure out how many allowances to claim. If you received the average refund of about $3,000, you could get an extra $250 each month by adjusting your withholding. Then deposit that money into a retirement account.
9. Make Catch-Up Contributions. You can kick retirement savings into high gear once you turn age 50 because the IRS tax code lets you make catch-up contributions. In 2015, you can add an extra $6,000 to a 401(k), 403(b) or 457 plan for a maximum contribution of $24,000. You can boost traditional and Roth IRA contributions by $1,000, bringing the total amount you can set aside to $6,500.
10. Start a Self-Employed Retirement Account. Being self-employed doesn't mean your retirement savings options are limited. Self-employed individuals can contribute 25 percent of their income, up to a maximum of $53,000,to a Simplified Employee Pension IRA, known as a SEP IRA, or to a 401(k) that you set up with an investment firm such as Fidelity or Charles Schwab.
"One of the most overlooked ways to save for retirement is through a SEP IRA," said Tom Balcom, a certified financial planner in Florida and founder of 1650 Wealth Management.
11. Save in an HSA. A Health Savings Account is meant to help people with high-deductible health insurance policies set aside money to cover out-of-pocket medical costs. But it also can be part of a retirement savings plan.
"When in retirement, this account can continue to be used to pay for medical expenses, preserving more of the traditional retirement savings and income," said Christian Sees, owner of Integrus Financial, a financial services company.
Contributions to an HSA are tax-deductible or made with pre-tax dollars. The funds grow tax-deferred and withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax-free. In 2015, you can contribute up to $3,350 if you have an individual health insurance policy with a deductible of at least $1,300. If you have family coverage with a deductible of at least $2,600, you can contribute up to $6,650.
12. Downsize, Then Retire. Don't wait until you retire to downsize to a smaller home. The sooner you cut your housing expenses by downsizing, the more money you'll have to set aside for retirement and the more time that money has to grow.
If you downsize from a $250,000 house to a house that costs $150,000, for example, and factor out the costs of selling and moving (10 percent of the selling price), you'll have $75,000 that can be added to savings, according to a report called Using Your House for Income in Retirement by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
Consider this: If you withdraw 4 percent of that $75,000 annually, according to the report's calculations, you can increase your yearly income in retirement by $3,000. If you downsize even earlier, say in your 40s, and invest that $75,000 in a portfolio with a mix of stocks and bonds with a 6.5 percent annual rate of return, it could grow to nearly $250,000 over 20 years.
13. Save Spare Change. Tossing spare change in a jar might seem like an old-fashioned approach to saving, but you'd be surprised how quickly your nickels, dimes and quarters can add up. "Cash it in twice a year and put it into a savings account that you never touch," said John Graves, author of "The 7% Solution: You Can Afford Retirement."
You can take a slightly more sophisticated approach by letting your bank do this for you. For example, Bank of America's Keep the Change Savings Program will round up debit card purchases to the nearest dollar and transfer the difference to a savings account. Graves said his account at Wells Fargo allows him to designate an amount to be automatically transferred from checking to savings every time he makes a purchase. See if your bank offers a similar feature.
14. Use an App or Online Tool. Mobile apps make it easy to automate your savings if you lack the discipline to do it on your own. For example, the SavedPlus app moves a percentage of the amount you spend on purchases into your savings account. It claims that its users save, on average, $350 a month. Or you can link the Acorns app to your debit or credit card, and it will round up your purchases to the nearest dollar and invest the difference into a diversified portfolio of index funds.
Digit is a free online service that links to your checking account and analyzes your income and spending habits to figure out how much you can set aside in savings. The service then automatically puts that money into savings for you. The Digit savings account does not earn interest, though, so you'll want to move the money into an interest-bearing account.
15. Invest What You Save. People often talk about how much they saved on groceries, clothes, gas and more. "But do they really save it?" said John Sweeney, executive vice president of retirement and investing strategies at Fidelity Investments. "If you 'saved' money at the pump or the grocery store, then why not literally save it?"
Keep track of how much you saved by using coupons or buying items on sale and put that money into a savings or retirement account. "You'll see how quickly $10 to $20 here and there can add up," Sweeney said.
16. Claim Lost Money and Invest It. States hold billions of dollars in unclaimed assets, from money in inactive savings accounts to uncashed payroll checks, unclaimed pensions and tax refunds, insurance payments and more. The federal government also holds onto lost money. Some of it may be yours.
Visit MissingMoney.com to search its database of unclaimed property records at participating states. Or you can search state-by-state through the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. You can use the Where's My Refund tool at IRS.gov to see if you're owed a tax refund. And you can search for unclaimed savings bonds at TreasuryHunt.gov. Deposit any money you find into your retirement savings.
17. Save for Your Spouse. Typically, you must have earned income to contribute to an IRA. However, if you work but your spouse does not, you can make contributions for your partner in a spousal IRA.
You must be married and file a joint tax return and can contribute up to $5,500 a year ($6,500 if you're 50 or older). You can choose either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA if your income falls below certain levels. This is a solid approach to creating a nest egg for a non-working spouse or stay-at-home parent.
This story, 17 Clever Ways to Save More for Retirement, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.
By Courtney Jespersen
This year, we've taken the labor out of Labor Day shopping so you can sit back, relax and shop. Rather than search for deals yourself, we've rounded up our top nine picks for the best sales of Labor Day weekend 2015.
Labor Day is more than a weekend-long affair at Best Buy, and customers can use this promotion to bring home a new washer, dryer or other appliance at a low price. Through Sept. 16, the store is hosting a Major Appliance Sale, with deals of up to 30 percent off on select models.
If you're in the market for a new washer and dryer, the Samsung high-efficiency steam front-loading washer and electric dryer, for instance, is $1,499.98 for the pair. That's $700 off the original price.
You can take advantage of free delivery and free haul-away on eligible major appliance purchases of $399 and up. Shoppers can also get 18-month financing on eligible major appliance purchases of $599 or more.
H.H. Gregg is offering some pretty steep discounts -- up to 35 percent -- on furniture, appliances and more.
Through Sept. 12, the store has major deals on washers, dryers, HDTVs, sectionals, recliners, laptops and printers, just to name a few.
Shoppers can enter the promo code "LABORDAY" at checkout, or print an in-store coupon to get even more savings. You can get $50 off qualifying purchases of $499 to $1,498.99, $100 off qualifying purchases of $1,499 to $2,998.99 and $200 off qualifying purchases of $2,999 and up.
HP is offering savings of up to 50 percent (plus free shipping) on products made for both productivity and fun.
Here's a sample of what Hewlett-Packard is offering this Labor Day:
At Amazon, get in the Labor Day spirit with discounts on products you can use to take a break from work. The online marketplace has discounted select movies, books and more. Shoppers can even score savings up to 90 percent off on magazines.
Visit Amazon's Labor Day section to browse the current deals. The majority of these discount opportunities are time-sensitive, so check the ending time and date on each product to see how long the sale price will last.
Labor Day marks the end of summer, and Target is offering Labor Day shoppers some discounts on the essentials they may need to stock up for the new season ahead. The retailer is slashing prices by 25 percent on select clothes, shoes and accessories. Plus, select home items are up to 25 percent off.
Additionally, online through Sept. 7, the store is offering an extra 10 percent off eligible clothing, shoes, accessories and home items when you use the promo code "LABORDAY" at checkout. And, before you finish your online transaction, remember that Target offers free shipping on orders $25 or more and free returns on everything.
Kmart's holiday sale is an online-only event that boasts discounts across a variety of departments. This sale ends Sept. 7.
Here's a look at just some of the noteworthy deals:
Sleep Train Mattress Centers
Sleep Train Mattress Centers has launched its "mattress price wars" in honor of the holiday weekend, and that equals savings of up to $400 (more, in some cases) on brand-name mattresses. Plus, you can get free same-day delivery, too.
We found the Beautyrest Recharge 1000 Pillow Top Mattress king size on sale for $1,799.99. That's $400 off the $2,199.99 original price.
Ashley Furniture Homestore
It seems that this Labor Day is all about the furniture deals. Online Ashley Furniture shoppers can take up to 25 percent off sitewide on eligible purchases. Some products are half off in the store's home decor section.
The Dinelli sofa, for example, is on sale for $479.20 (regularly $599 ). That's $119 off. And if your home needs a little light boost, the Roisin floor lamp is available for $74.99 (regularly $149.99 ).
Office supply store Staples makes checking off the final items from your back-to-school list a little easier with Labor Day-inspired discounts up to 75 percent or more .
You can find savings on nearly every possible office essential, such as charging cables, wireless speakers and desks.
Other deals include:
Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, which saves consumers cash and compares everything from shopping deals to credit cards.
By Kyle James
Is Costco really worth the $55 annual fee? If you're on the fence about joining the warehouse club, this is undoubtedly a question you've asked yourself many times. While Costco can contain spending traps for undisciplined shoppers, the store also provides many unique ways to save money. Money that can easily cover, and greatly exceed, the $55 annual membership. Here are a few items that provide enough savings to justify the annual fee. (See also: 10 Things You Probably Didn't Know You Could Buy at Costco)
1. Wine. If you regularly buy wine from your local liquor or grocery store, you're probably overspending. According to Andrew Cullen, founder and editor of CostcoWineBlog.com, your local Costco sells an excellent selection of wines at very affordable prices.
"I'd say wines at Costco, from my experience in the Atlanta area, are generally priced 10 to 20 percent below other liquor stores," says Cullen. "Compared to grocery stores, that difference would be even higher." If you're buying at least five bottles of wine a month, that savings alone will typically pay for your annual membership.
Cullen adds that the "handpicked nature of the selection" at Costco is another factor that gives them an edge when it comes to buying wine. "Regardless of the varietal or region or price range, wines from Costco typically offer a strong quality to price ratio, almost like they have to pass a screening before they are presented in the stores. That's not to say I haven't encountered a few duds here and there, but all in all, the quality of the selection is pretty good." But like anything in the warehouse, if you pass on a particular wine selection, be aware that it may be gone the next day, never to return.
2. Car tires. If you're in need of a new set of tires for your car, the $55 membership fee can easily be recouped with a single purchase of four passenger tires. I recently priced a set of four tires for our minivan and Costco was $85 cheaper than my local tire shop and $120 less than what the dealer was asking. Savings was really noticeable when I factored in installation fees which were a reasonable $15 a tire at Costco, compared to $45 at the dealership.
Other side benefits of buying your tires from Costco includes lifetime balancing and rotations, free flat repairs and a 60-month road hazard warranty.
3. Lunch or dinner. Another easy and tasty way to recoup your $55 is at the very affordable Costco food court. Easily their most famous offering is the hot dog and soda meal, which is really hard to beat. For only $1.50, you get a big hot dog and a 20 oz. soda with free refills. It only gets tastier with an excellent condiment bar which features a fresh onion slicer so you can load up your dog. I have a hard time passing up this meal whenever I visit the warehouse close to the lunch hour as it's a very affordable way to grab a quick bite.
The savings aspect is probably greatest when talking about their pizza. For only $10, you get an extra large pizza that can easily feed a family of four or five, depending on how big the appetites are. But if you have kids and are hosting a birthday party, soccer party or the like, you can really save by ordering pizza from Costco. You'll be able to feed a lot of people a quality meal, and with the lean prices, you'll come out ahead when comparing the price to most local pizzerias.
Insider tip: When checking out from Costco, be sure to place your food court order directly from your cashier. That way you'll only have to pay once and can save time by simply picking up your food from the pick-up window and completely bypass the food court line.
4. Movie tickets. If you go to the movies at least once a month, you should be buying your movie tickets directly from Costco. Popular theaters that regularly sell discount tickets at Costco include Cinemark, Regal, AMC and Cinelux. For example, right now you can buy a 10-pack of tickets for AMC Theaters for $84.99. Before you ask, these tickets have NO expiration date and can be used seven days a week. With tickets hovering around $11 to $13 nationally, you just saved about 30 percent off your next movie. For a family with kids who love seeing a flick in the theater, buying your movie tickets at Costco is a total no-brainer and can single-handedly pay for your annual Costco membership.
5. Gift cards. Once you take notice of the gift card deals at Costco, you'll never buy one anywhere else. They sell gift cards for restaurants, theme parks, local attractions and golf outings. Savings on average is 20 to 30 percent off the face value of the card. For example, right now they have four $25 Smashburger gift cards for $79.99 and five $10 Jamba Juice gift cards for $34.99. If you buy discounted gift cards at Costco for places you know you'll be buying from anyways, or are looking for cheap gift ideas for teachers and coaches, you can save significant money.
6. Prescription drugs (especially generics). If you're buying prescription drugs on a monthly basis, you can easily recoup your membership fee by purchasing from Costco. According to a study by Consumer Reports, shoppers can easily save more than $55 per year by buying their generic drugs from the Costco pharmacy. The reason Costco can charge less has to do with their huge inventory and ability to buy in bulk from suppliers and pass the savings along to you. Also, while drugstores like CVS and Walgreens depend heavily on drug sales, Costco can afford to give a discount on prescription drugs and stay profitable.
By understanding the products at Costco that are a great value, you can easily justify the $55 annual membership fee. Just be sure you don't blow the money you save on the bright and shiny objects Costco stocks in the front section of the warehouse. Stuff you had no idea existed, but clearly can't live without...stuff that also happens to pad their profits. (See also: 15 Things You Should Buy at Costco)
What other Costco items will help you save enough money to cover the annual membership?
Coca-Cola (KO), for one, thinks it is. The beverage giant introduced its 7.5-ounce "Coke Mini" can in 2009, claiming that the diminutive refreshment represented a smart choice for those who wanted to enjoy the taste of Coke without overindulging.
Since then, the slighter can's popularity has burgeoned and it continues to reap rewards for Coca-Cola. The mini format grew by double digits in the second quarter of 2015, versus unit case volume growth of only 2 percent for Coke's total beverage portfolio.
Coke executives see this as a win for both the company and its customers. CEO Muhtar Kent described the phenomenon earlier this year: "[W]hen you compound double-digit growth in smaller packages over a number of years, this starts becoming really meaningful, meaningful in terms of both how you can impact calories, how you can entice a broader consumer group because essentially ... you're following a consumer -- and that really works."
Fellow beverage giant Starbucks (SBUX) also professed its desire to follow the consumer when it introduced its "Mini Frappuccino" at the beginning of this summer. The company said that it developed the drink after numerous customer requests for a smaller version of its popular Frappuccino beverages.
At just 10 ounces, the Mini Frappuccino has, according to Starbucks, one-third less sugar and one-third fewer calories than a 12-ounce "tall" serving. (Alas, these numbers are before the addition of any whipped cream or flavorings.)
Big Business Wants to Help You Watch Portions
The marketing around tinier servings is increasingly aligned with a practice known in dietary and nutrition circles as "portion control." This concept encourages us to carefully watch portions of healthy foods -- as well as foods which may represent guilty pleasures -- as a sensible way to balance what our bodies need with what they often crave.
A popular method for implementing portion control involves invoking images of common objects to gauge reasonable sizes of food servings. The Mayo Clinic, for example, suggests that to estimate a healthy portion of cooked skinless chicken (about 2.5 ounces), you should picture two-thirds of a standard deck of cards. WebMD says a healthy serving of chocolate is roughly the size of a box of dental floss.
Snack manufacturers must love the trend toward portion control, as they've become adept at creating ever smaller, often individually wrapped treats. In many instances, the consumer pays a steeper per-ounce price for a more compact indulgence, resulting in higher margins for the manufacturer.
For example, Lindt Chocolate's "Hello Chocolate Minis," individually wrapped miniature chocolate bars sold together in single packs, work well for the portion control-conscious consumer (as well as being highly shareable, I should add). It takes two minis to equal the dental floss-pack sizing guideline, so you get twice the pleasure from tearing open the little packets and devouring them.
But you'll pay a premium for the portioning. A 4.9-ounce bag of Minis in your local grocery store can range from 20 to nearly 70 percent higher in price on a per-ounce basis than say, a Lindt "Classic Recipe" Hazelnut Milk Chocolate Bar.
The Marketing Hook Is Persuasive, but Should Consumers Bite?
It may be difficult at first to see the point of making a guilty pleasure like chocolate or Coca-Cola less "guilty." Aren't manufacturers simply taking advantage of consumers in the most cynical fashion?
Maybe not. It's interesting to think about the personal economics underlying scaled-down, "mini" products. On one hand, you're getting less value for your dollar. Yet, odd though this may seem, you're also paying the manufacturer to ensure your moderation. And corporations can't be blamed for responding to market demand, as Starbucks did.
Moreover, the long-term economic benefit of curtailing consumption of sodas, candies and the like, and thus leading a healthier lifestyle, surely outweighs the premium you'll pay for a bit of portion policing.
Before you scoff at the argument, consider that many consumers, myself included, will pony up extra cash for foods and beverages marketed in positive terms, such as "sustainable," "local," "organic," "preservative-free," etc. We often willingly pay more for what we think will advance our well-being.
Big business, whether it truly cares about our well-being or not, certainly understands our cravings and ultimately knows how to push our buttons to induce a purchase. Take Haagen-Dazs, which has been hooking grocery store shoppers with a tiny, 3.6-ounce "cup" version of its ice cream in freezer sections for years. The company's marketing tagline brilliantly captures that mythical, promised win for both manufacturer and consumer:
"Haagen-Dazs single serve cups are perfectly portioned. Indulge. A little."
Motley Fool contributor Asit Sharma has no position in any stocks mentioned, but he's invested quite a bit recently in those "perfectly portioned" Haagen-Dazs cups. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Starbucks. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2016 $37 calls on Coca-Cola, short January 2016 $43 calls on Coca-Cola and short January 2016 $37 puts on Coca-Cola. The Motley Fool recommends Coca-Cola. 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.
By Brian O'Connell
NEW YORK -- A lousy credit score penalizes consumers in myriad ways: they're left with limited access to credit, significantly higher interest rates on loans and credit cards, as well as obstacles in getting hired for a job.
There is one other area that homeowners, who usually have higher credit scores than non-homeowners, need to pay special attention to. That would be their homeowner's insurance, which can double in cost due to a low credit score.
According to fresh data from Insurancequotes.com, "homeowners with poor credit pay twice as much for homeowner's insurance as people with excellent credit." Additionally, American homeowners with median credit pay 32 percent more than those with excellent credit.
Insurancequotes.com's senior analyst Laura Adams says the practice of linking homeowner's insurance to consumer credit scores is "controversial," but that's not stopping insurance companies from doing so, as the industry claims there is a strong connection between credit scores and claims. "In most states, insurers are putting more emphasis on credit scores this year," says Adams. "The impact of a poor credit score is higher now than it was last year in 29 states and Washington, D.C., while it is lower in just 17 states. It's more important than ever for people to maintain a solid credit rating by paying their bills on time, keeping their balances low and correcting errors on their credit reports."
The company says that homeowners with toxic credit credit pay double the going rate for homeowners insurance in 38 states and Washington, D.C. "West Virginia's 202% increase is the highest in the nation, followed by D.C. (185%), Ohio (185%) and Montana (179%)," the study reports. Only three U.S. states -- California, Massachusetts and Maryland -- ban insurance companies from tying credit to homeowner's insurance costs, although Florida has set limits on what insurance companies can charge Sunshine State homeowners.
Why the big hit on homeowners by insurance carriers? Carriers use credit scores, because they predict future losses and policy persistency more reliably than other data sources such as previous claims history, says Kevin Haney, an industry analyst with SavvyOnCredit.com, and a long-time insurance industry executive.
"Homeowner claims are large, but infrequent," he says. "This means that carriers have little or no claims data to work for most consumers. Credit information provides a richer data set for the majority of applicants. Credit information also helps predict policy persistency -- which is correlated with financial stability -- a major factor used to price policies."
To rally against onerous home insurance bills, consumers should expand their vision and covering as much ground as possible. "Consumers with poor credit scores can do better on homeowner insurance premiums by shopping around," says Haney. "Carriers differentiate on underwriting, and they evaluate risks differently. Some do not use credit scores at all, while those that do place different weights on the scores."
Consequently, your best bet is to work with a licensed agent in your area specializing in homeowner policies. Haney says you should know which carriers in each local market emphasize credit scores, and which weigh other factors more heavily. That can steer you to the right company.
If you're stuck with low credit and want another avenue to lower homeowner's insurance, try attaching it to your life, auto and other insurance bills.
"Combining your house, car, health, dental, life and other insurances can save you big with some insurance companies offering bundle discounts," notes Arvin Sahakian, vice president at BeSmartee, an online mortgage-services firm. "Also, consider making a payment in bulk for the full insurance term. Companies have been known to offer a discount to clients willing to pay in bulk."
Also, don't miss a chance to let your insurance company know your credit is improving. "Negotiation time arrives when you have been working on improving your credit scores and delinquent payment history," Sahakian adds. "Once you run a report and see a significant improvement in your scores, then it's time to call your insurance rep and send them a copy of your credit report. They will conduct their own research to double check, but that will help you to normalize your homeowner's insurance expense the next time you need to renew your policy."
Bottom-line: Don't let bad credit double the cost of your homeowners insurance. Check around, bundle if you have to, and use improving credit to make your case, and save big bucks in the process.
WASHINGTON -- U.S. job growth slowed in August, but the unemployment rate dropped to a near 7½-year low and wages accelerated, keeping alive prospects of a Federal Reserve interest rate hike later this month.
Nonfarm payrolls increased 173,000 last month after an upwardly revised gain of 245,000 in July, the Labor Department said Friday. August's gain was the smallest in five months as the factory sector lost the most jobs since July 2013.
The jobs count, however, may have been tarnished by a statistical fluke that has often led to sharp upward revisions to payroll figures for August after initial weak readings.
Indicating the hiring slowdown was likely not reflective of the economy's true health, the jobless rate fell two-tenths of a point to 5.1 percent, its lowest level since April 2008.
The payrolls data is certainly good enough to allow for a Fed rate hike in September.
"The payrolls data is certainly good enough to allow for a Fed rate hike in September," said Alan Ruskin, global head of currency strategy at Deutsche Bank (DB) in New York. "The big question is still whether financial market volatility will scupper the plans."
Stocks on Wall Street, which could be pressured by higher rates, ended down more than 1 percent. Prices for U.S. government debt rose, while the dollar fell marginally against a basket of currencies.
While the mixed report did little to alter views that the U.S. economy remains vibrant despite volatile global financial markets and slowing Chinese growth, it could further complicate the Fed's decision at a policy meeting on Sept. 16-17.
In the wake of a recent global equities sell-off, financial markets significantly scaled back bets on a September rate hike over the past month. But Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer told CNBC last week it was too early to decide whether the stock market rout had made an increase less compelling.
"With this jobs report ... the Federal Reserve finds itself in a real uncertainty jam," said Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz in Newport Beach, California.
Economists in a Reuters survey had forecast nonfarm payrolls increasing by 220,000 last month, but they had also warned that the model used to smooth the data for seasonal fluctuations is often thrown off at the start of a new school year.
They said the data could be further muddied because of a typically low response rate from employers to the government's payroll surveys in August.
But the evidence of a tightening labor market added to a string of upbeat data, including figures on automobile sales and housing, that has suggested the economy was moving ahead with strong momentum after growing at a robust 3.7 percent annual rate in the second quarter.
The decline in the unemployment rate brought it into the range that most Fed officials think is consistent with a low but steady rate of inflation, and would likely bolster their expectation that a pick-up in wages will help lift inflation toward their 2 percent target.
A broad measure of joblessness that includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they cannot find full-time employment fell to 10.3 percent, the lowest level since June 2008.
In August, construction payrolls rose 3,000 on top of the 7,000 jobs added in July. Mining and logging employment fell by 10,000 jobs, the eighth straight monthly decline.
The sector has shed 90,000 jobs so far this year, with industries that support mining activity accounting for 80 percent of the drop. Oilfield giants Schlumberger (SLM) and Halliburton (HAL) and many others in the oil and gas industry have announced thousands of job cuts this year.
Manufacturing payrolls slid 17,000 as sharp declines at metals, machinery and food industries offset a solid increase in employment in the automobile sector.
The 0.3 percent increase in hourly earnings left them 2.2 percent above their year-ago level, still well below the 3.5 percent growth rate economists consider healthy.
Aggregate weekly hours rose 0.4 percent, the largest gain since November. The combination of more hours and higher earnings left workers with a 0.7 percent increase in their take-home wages.
Some analysts think average hourly earnings are being held back by falling wages in oil field services.
But a tighter labor market and decisions by several state and local governments to raise the minimum wage should eventually translate into faster earnings growth.
A number of retailers, including Walmart (WMT), Target (TGT) and TJX Cos. (TJX), have increased pay for hourly workers since the start of the year.
"Regardless of which meeting this year the Fed begins to raise rates, next year we expect core inflation to surprise on the upside, forcing the Fed into tightening policy more aggressively than the markets currently anticipate," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.
McDonald's (MCD) -- Winner
Late risers have spoken. McDonald's will soon start serving breakfast all day long at its restaurants. Franchisees have approved a plan that will make most of its morning staples available beyond the typical 10:30 a.m. cutoff. The new initiative kicks off on Oct. 6.
This has been the most common request from customers, and it's convenient because McDonald's doesn't have to add any new ingredients or training to make it happen. Mickey D's has seen its sales suffer over the past couple of years and this may give it the best shot to bounce back.
Five Below (FIVE) -- Loser
Even the trendy discounters are smarting these days. Five Below -- a rapidly expanding chain that sells merchandise priced at $5 or less -- took a hit Thursday after posting disappointing quarterly results. Sales growth fell short of Wall Street targets, and profitability declined sharply since the prior year.
Five Below's guidance suggests that the cheap and apparently not-so-chic discount retailer will fall short of top-line expectations again for the current quarter.
Disney (DIS) -- Winner
There are a lot of Star Wars fans out there and Disney knows it. The family-entertainment giant decided Friday to unveil all of the new merchandise tied to December's "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." It even hosted unboxing videos on the official Star Wars website.
With Disney stock suffering from weakness at ESPN -- the shares slipped 15 percent in August, its largest monthly drop in nearly seven years -- it's smart for the media mogul to show off one of its other flagship properties. The holiday shopping season started Friday for many Star Wars fans.
Wearable Cameras -- Losers
Shares of video chip-maker Ambarella (AMBA) and camera-maker GoPro (GPRO) took big hits Wednesday and Thursday after Ambarella warned of weakness in its wearable camera market, where GoPro is its primary customer.
Ambarella is growing nicely on its other fronts. It's a leading player in video chips used by broadcasters, security equipment and dashboard cams. However, warning that the timing of wearable camera product releases would hold back its growth for the current quarter was enough to scare investors out of both Ambarella and GoPro.
Royal Caribbean (RCL) -- Winner
The cruising industry is showing signs of life, and the country's second-largest cruise line is sharing the wealth. Royal Caribbean's board approved a 25 percent hike to its dividend. Shareholders will now be receiving 37.5 cents a share every three months. The move pushes the stock's yield up to nearly 1.7 percent.
That may not seem like a lot, but it's a decent payout for a company that's growing at a decent clip these days. It's not pocket change. Bon voyage, income investors.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Ambarella and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Ambarella, GoPro, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool is short Five Below. The Motley Fool recommends Five Below. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.
The carmaker said it received a report of an accident involving injury, but no deaths have been tied to the issue.
It said in a report filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that in rare cases, the right edge of a driver's shoe might catch on the center console's lower trim panel.
Nissan North America Inc. said owners of vehicles affected by this recall have already been notified, and those who have not had the issue addressed will get a recall letter. Dealers will trim the console panel so that its leading edge is farther from the driver's foot. The fix will be done free of charge.
The recall involves four-door Versa sedans from the model years 2012 to 2015 that were made between June 9, 2011, and March 11, 2015, and 2014 and 2015 Versa Note hatchbacks made between April 23, 2013 and March 11, 2015.
NEW YORK and RICHMOND, Va. -- The latest U.S. jobs report definitively wasn't good or bad enough to help the Federal Reserve decide whether to raise interest rates later this month, leaving the decision hanging on volatility in financial markets over the next couple of weeks.
The economy added 173,000 jobs in August, quite a bit fewer than expected. But employment growth in June and July were revised higher, wages rose more than expected in August and the jobless rate fell to a seven-year low of 5.1 percent.
With global financial markets reeling over the last two weeks over fears of a Chinese economic slowdown, the report is probably the best and last direct reading on the economy before Fed officials consider hiking rates at a Sept. 16-17 meeting.
With this jobs report ... the Fed finds itself in a real uncertainty jam when it comes to a September interest rate hike.
"With this jobs report ... the Fed finds itself in a real uncertainty jam when it comes to a September interest rate hike," Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at Allianz, in Newport Beach, California, said in an email.
"In the run-up to its policy meeting, the Fed will pay even greater attention to global market developments."
According to Fed policymakers gathered in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, last week, not only would the August jobs report need to be decent but market gyrations would need to dissipate for them to act.
Decency was evident in the jobless rate falling to a level many U.S. central bankers see as full strength, while growth in wages and the number of hours worked across the country suggested Americans have more money to spend.
U.S. stocks Friday fell sharply as investors weighed the chances of a Fed rate hike. Oil prices also fell.
For many, the report simply reinforced their previous views on the timing of the pending rate hike.
"I'd call this a good ... employment report. It didn't change the picture for monetary policy," Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker, who favors a prompt policy tightening, told a retailer conference in Richmond, Virginia.
Others highlighted the fact that the economy produced nearly 50,000 fewer jobs than expected in August. Still, average job growth in the last three months is 221,000, seen as enough to keep pushing the jobless rate lower.
Employment growth for the month of August in particular has a history of being initially underestimated and later revised higher by the U.S. Labor Department.
Waiting for a Rate Hike
Wall Street's top banks still expect the Fed will raise interest rates this year, but their conviction around a September hike has decreased notably in the last month due to volatility in global markets, a Reuters poll found.
Ten of 17 banks that deal with the Fed directly said they expect a rate hike in the fourth quarter of 2015 or later. Only seven dealers expect the tightening this month compared to 13 in an early August poll.
Bets in futures markets imply investors see roughly a 20 percent chance the hike will come this month.
Fed Vice Chair Stanley Fischer said last week that there was "a pretty strong case" to tighten before the market slump, and that now, "we are still watching how it unfolds."
While data on the broader U.S. economy has remained healthy, the U.S. central bank wants reasonable confidence that inflation will rebound in the medium term before it raises rates. The rising dollar has also held U.S. prices down.
"It's really inflation that has been holding them back, and this [jobs report] doesn't really give them any evidence on that front," said Thomas Simons, money market economist at Jefferies & Co, in New York.
The Fed's policy decision "will break down to how commodities react between now and the September meeting," he said. "If commodities recover and stabilize then there's a chance [of a hike]; otherwise I don't think it's likely to happen."
-Jennifer Ablan contributed reporting from New York.
EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Toyota is investing $50 million with Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in hopes of gaining an edge in an accelerating race to phase out human drivers.
The financial commitment announced Friday by the Japanese automaker will be made over the next five years at joint research centers located in Silicon Valley and another technology hub in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Toyota has hired robotics expert Gill Pratt to oversee research aimed at developing artificial intelligence and other innovations that will enable future car models to navigate the roads without people doing all the steering and stopping.
We believe this research will transform the future of mobility, improving safety and reducing traffic congestion.
Unlike some of its rivals in the technology and auto industries, Toyota believes the day when cars are able to drive entirely by themselves is unlikely to arrive within the next decade. The company instead is focusing its efforts on developing technology that can turn a car into the equivalent of an intelligent assistant that recognizes when it should take over the steering when a driver is distracted or automatically play a favorite song when it detects a driver is in a bad mood.
"What if cars could become our trusted partners?" mused Daniela Rus, an MIT professor who will lead the university's research partnership with the automaker.
Major tech companies such as Google and Uber are competing against a range of automakers to make robot cars that will be better drivers than people and save lives by causing fewer accidents.
Google, which runs some of the world's most popular online services, has been working on a fleet of self-driving cars for the past six years. Its goal is to have the cars capable of driving completely on their own by 2020. Ride-hailing pioneer Uber has teamed up with Carnegie Mellon University on a Pittsburgh research center in its quest to build driverless cars.
Toyota Motor Co. (TM) has been working on autonomous driving technology for about 20 years, but it was known as "advanced driving support" back in the 1990s, Ise said.
Pratt, a former program manager at the U.S. government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, suspects many people will still want to drive some of the time even when cars are fully equipped to handle the task. He hopes Toyota's research will give the option of relying on computers to do the job when they are stuck in traffic or traveling down a boring stretch of highway. "Our focus today is more on the autonomy of people," said Pratt, who will be based in Silicon Valley.
Under the Toyota partnership, the MIT research center will focus on inventing ways for cars to recognize their surroundings and make decisions that avert potential accidents. If the goals are realized, Toyota might be able to build a car "that is never responsible for a collision," Rus said.
Besides working on recognition technology, the Stanford research center will try to create artificial intelligence programs that study human behavior to learn more about the decision making and reasoning that goes into driving so cars can quickly adjust to potentially dangerous situations. Stanford's research will be led by Fei-Fei Li, director of the university's artificial intelligence laboratory.
Not far away from Stanford, both General Motors Co. (GM) and Ford Motor Co. (F) have established offices in Palo Alto, California, in their own quests to make smarter cars.
Meanwhile, just to the south, Google's self-driving cars are regularly cruising the roads of the company's hometown of Mountain View, California, during ongoing testing of the vehicles.
California law still requires humans to be in the self-driving cars to take control in dangerous situations or if something goes wrong. Most of the time, though, Google's self-driving cars are being controlled by a computer. They logged a combined 147,000 miles in autonomous mode from June 3 through Aug. 31, according to Google. The self-driving cars were involved in four collisions that resulted in no major injuries. The robot cars were rear-ended by vehicles driven by people in those accidents.