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DailyFinance.com

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    Markets Rebound From Previous Days Decline
    Getty Images
    By STEVE ROTHWELL

    NEW YORK -- It's an old adage that investors hate uncertainty. Unfortunately for them, they got more of it Friday.

    The stock market has been volatile for weeks on concern that China's economy is slowing more rapidly than previously thought. But investors have also had to contend with uncertainty about the outlook for interest rates.

    Investors had been hoping that the government's August jobs report would give them more clarity on interest rates, before a key Federal Reserve meeting later this month. However, a mixed report left them guessing as to whether policymakers will feel confident enough about the strength of the U.S. economy to raise interest rates from historic lows.

    "It's interesting and disappointing that today's data didn't provide us with that 'Ah-ha!' clarity that everyone is seeking.

    The report showed that the U.S. unemployment rate fell to a seven-year low in August, but also that employers added fewer jobs than forecast.

    "It's interesting and disappointing that today's data didn't provide us with that 'Ah-ha!' clarity that everyone is seeking," said Michael Arone, Chief Investment Strategist at State Street Global Advisors.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 272.38 points, or 1.7 percent, to 16,102.38. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gave up 29.91 points, or 1.5 percent, to 1,921.22. The Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) slipped 49.58 points, or 1.1 percent, to 4,683.92.

    Fed policymakers have kept their benchmark interest rate close to zero since late 2008 to help revive the economy after the Great Recession. Those low rates have also been good for the stock market, supporting a bull run that has lasted for more than six years.

    On Friday, the S&P 500 ended the week down 3.4 percent, its second-worst weekly drop of the year. The index is down nearly 10 percent from its peak of 2,130.82 reached May 21.

    Much of the damage this week was done Tuesday, after gloomy manufacturing data out of China rekindled fears about the health of the world's second-largest economy.

    Stable Economy

    But despite the big drop in stocks, some strategists say that much of the evidence suggests the U.S. economy is maintaining its recovery. A report this week showed robust growth in the service industry.

    "As China is sneezing, there is very little to suggest that the U.S. is catching a cold," said Jeremy Zirin, chief U.S. equity strategist for Wealth Management Research at UBS.

    Trading volume was lighter than usual ahead of the Labor Day holiday. U.S. markets will be closed Monday in observance of the holiday. However, the Chinese stock market, which has been closed for a two-day holiday, will reopen.

    Among individual stocks, Netflix (NFLX) continued its slide Friday. The company's stock has slumped for six straight days and closed the week down 16 percent on speculation that competition from rivals including Amazon (AMZN) and Hulu is intensifying. Variety also reported Monday that Apple is exploring a move into original programming.

    Bond prices edged up after the jobs report, pushing the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note down to 2.13 percent from 2.16 percent Thursday.

    In Europe, the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was down 2.4 percent, Germany's DAX fell 2.7 percent. The CAC-40 in France was 2.8 percent lower.

    The euro edged up to $1.1151. The dollar fell 1 percent against the Japanese currency, to 118.99 yen.

    In metals trading, the price of gold fell $3.10 to settle at $1,121.50 an ounce, silver fell 16 cents to $14.54 an ounce and copper declined seven cents to $2.32 a pound.

    The price of oil fell along with stocks but pared its losses after a closely watched count of active drilling rigs in the U.S. fell. Crude declined 70 cents to close at $46.05 a barrel in New York. Brent Crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell $1.07 to close at $49.61 a barrel in London.

    In other futures trading on the NYMEX:
    • Wholesale gasoline fell 1.9 cents to close at $1.418 a gallon.
    • Heating oil fell 2.3 cent to close at $1.596 a gallon.
    • Natural gas fell 7 cents to close at $2.655 per 1,000 cubic feet.

    What to watch Monday:
    • U.S. financial markets are closed for the Labor Day holiday.

     

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    Mother and daughter sitting on sofa while looking at price tag in furniture store
    Getty ImagesLabor Day sales offer sweet deals on clothing, furniture and more.


    Whether you're looking to start your holiday shopping early or score some great deals while celebrating the (un)official end of summer, Labor Day Sales are worth shopping. Below are some of the best sales to check out -- just make sure you don't go too crazy!

    6PM.com. If you're looking to score designer brands for less, then you definitely should check out 6PM.com. Shop for women's, men's and children's clothing, shoes and accessories. You'll find the latest in bags, jewelry and beauty products, and all at great prices. Plus, there's a great selection of sporting goods and watches. Brands include Michael KORS, Coach, Lacoste, Oakley, The North Face, Cole Haan and Zac Posen. A great perk is that all orders always ship for free. Through Labor Day you can update your fall wardrobe by using online coupon codes for up to 65 percent off contemporary boots or up to 60 percent off hoodies and sweatshirts under $25.

    Best Buy. To get the best deal on a major appliance upgrade, make sure to check out the Best Buy Labor Day Major Appliance Sale. You'll not only get as much as 30 percent off appliances like refrigerators, washers and dryers and dishwashers, but you'll also get free delivery. The generous discount is great, but the free delivery includes a lot of services that deserve a closer look. Best Buy's delivery professionals will place the appliance where it belongs, connect electrical outlets or existing water lines, level it as required by the manufacturer, install safety hardware and even recycle your old appliance ... all for free. The sale ends Sept. 12, so don't waste too much time thinking about this deal (it's definitely a good one)!

    Macy's. The Macy's Labor Day Sale historically has featured as much as 20 percent off any order. Current sales extended through Labor Day include 20 percent off select lingerie, children's apparel and uniforms for as little as $19.99 or less, and 30 to 50 percent off select shoes. An extra tip: When you spend at least $99 online, your order ships for free.

    Omaha Steaks. It may seem odd to shop for food online, but through Sept. 8, get up to 65 percent off Labor Day combos, plus four free burgers and free shipping at Omaha Steaks. Some tasty picks include the Labor Day Celebration Pack for $59.99 (four tops sirloins, four Omaha Steaks burgers, four gourmet jumbo franks and four caramel apple tartlets) and the American Grill Combo for $107.99 (four filet mignons, four boneless chicken breasts, four Omaha Steaks burgers, four boneless pork chops, two stuffed sole with scallops and crabmeat, eight gourmet jumbo franks and 10 potatoes au gratin). This also is a good way to prepare for holiday guests -- you'll have a high-quality, tasty meal on hand at a moment's notice!

    Overstock. Somehow Overstock always seems to make the list of best holiday sales, and it's really no wonder. Shop the Overstock Labor Day 2015 sale for up to 70 percent off items on your list. You'll find up to 50 percent off, plus an extra 10 percent off select living room furniture; up to 75 percent plus an extra 15 percent off certain area rugs; and as much as 75 percent plus an extra 10 percent off select garden and patio merchandise. In other words, if you're looking to purchase furniture, Overstock is likely to have a great sale on what you need.

    Sears. Labor Day is supposed to be a day of rest, so what better way to celebrate than buying a nice, comfy mattress? Sears' Labor Day Sale features up to 60 percent off all mattresses and sets. Plus, use an online coupon and save an extra 10 percent, plus get free delivery when your order is $599 or more. You'll find great sale prices on other items as well, including as much as 25 percent off Dysons or 35 percent off Kenmore appliances. The sale ends Sept. 13.

    Travelocity. Because of shoulder season and great deals on holiday travel, September is a great month to book discounted travel. Travelocity has an especially good offer for $40 off select hotel stays over $275, and the deal expires Sept. 30. Or, get $150 off flight and hotel bookings over $1,750. Just look online for the coupon codes to maximize your savings.

    World Market. Spruce up your home's interior for less with deals at World Market. Place an order by Sept. 21 to get as much as 50 percent off fall dining furniture and décor, as well as pendants and chandeliers. Through Sept. 22, get up to 25 percent off all open-stock wine glasses. Save even more on your purchase with online coupon codes for 10 percent off any order and free shipping on orders over $150.

    Here's to you finding a great deal on the items you need, or even just want! Happy Labor Day!

    Lori McDaniel is the senior content manager at Offers.com. She's a wife and mother of two who can't seem to shake her taste for the finer things in life, which means she always is on the hunt for a great deal.

     

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  • 09/04/15--22:00: 3 Cars That Refuse to Die
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    3 Cars That Refuse to Die

    By David Muhlbaum

    Cars in general have become more reliable over the years. Yet there are always some that just seem to keep rolling along, whistling right past the junkyard. Pinpointing exactly how many miles, on average, any given model has racked up is virtually impossible, but we've identified some with exceptional -- sometimes surprising -- endurance and value.

    When you combine reliability and best-selling status you get ubiquity. Honda Accords of all years are everywhere, usually in tan, silver or white, like my friend Marcel's 1999 model. It's pushing 200,000 miles without any engine or transmission work, and relatively indifferent care. Sorry, Marcel. If you look up the Honda Accord in Consumer Reports you will see a sea of red dots in the rankings -- a sign that owners have darn few problems with these cars.

    Now, the smaller Honda Civic shares the Accord's inherent quality but is more likely to be modified by its owners with spoilers, wings, loud exhausts, that kind of thing -- with maintenance simultaneously neglected. So the Accord gets our nod.

    Of all the cars General Motors put out in the 1990s and early 2000s, it's the Buicks that got all the awards from the quality-ranking organization J.D. Power and Associates. And so it is that the Buick LeSabre, along with Centuries, Regals and Park Avenues live on, more so than their Chevrolet, Pontiac and Oldsmobile equivalents.

    One reason these cars endure? They were popular with older drivers, who maintained them well and drove them gently. That makes them a great value to pick up used, which is what my co-worker Marc did with his 2004 LeSabre. He bought it with 74,000 miles and has put on another 84,000 with very little trouble. Check out that sweet cassette deck!

    And this is a Geo Prizm. They last forever, too. A what, you ask? Here's the secret: Under the skin, it's actually a Toyota Corolla. So are a number of Chevy Novas, Chevy Prizms and Pontiac Vibes. Makes more sense now, right? It's a Corolla! All these cars were built on the same line in California, at a factory jointly owned by GM and Toyota. That technology-sharing project ended in 2010, but these cars, sometimes into their third decade, roll on. My boss uses the one you see here, a 1996 model, for his daily 46-mile commute. Sure, he could buy something fancier, but he loves his Prizm and its great gas mileage. He gets about 35 mpg.

    We have 12 more cars that refuse to die. Maybe you own one?

     

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    By Paul Michael

    There is a lot more to your typical grocery store than meets the eye. Everything has been carefully planned and designed with the goal of getting you to spend more money. From the increasing size of the carts, to the way the aisles are organized, you are being played.

    Fortunately, if you know all of this in advance, you can protect yourself. And if you also know some of their pricing secrets, you can take advantage of some great deals, and create a shopping strategy that means you never have to spend 1 cent more than necessary. Here are nine pricing secrets from grocery stores around the country that will save you time and money.

    1. When Shopping at Target, Look for 4, 6 and 8

    If you do a lot of clearance tag shopping at Target, you should pay close attention to the end number of the price. If the item ends in either a six or an eight (i.e., $12.48), then it will definitely be reduced again during the next clearance run. Of course, if it sells out completely, you won't have a chance to take it, so consider how much you want the item. If the price ends in a four (i.e., $7.24), then it has reached the end of its clearance cycle. It won't go down in price any further, so grab it now if you want it.

    2. At Costco, Avoid .99 and Look for an Asterisk

    The popular warehouse discount store has a pricing code that can tell you a lot about the current and future prices of its products. First, anything ending in .99 is a regular priced item. It's not on sale. However, just two cents less makes all the difference. Any item ending in .97 is a sale item, and you should consider doing a price check on it to see if it is lower anywhere else. If not, and it's something you want, grab it.

    Additionally, anything ending in .49, .79, or .89 is also on sale. And finally, look for an asterisk in the top right corner of any price tag. If you see one, it means that particular item won't be restocked. Once it has sold out, it will be gone for good. This can be helpful if you're considering waiting for it to go on sale. (See also: 15 Things You Should Buy at Costco)

    3. When in Walmart, 5 and 1 Are Your Friends

    If you shop at Walmart often, you will know that most of their price tags end in a seven. This is just the Walmart way of keeping things lower than the typical .99 or .49 prices of other stores. However, when things do go on sale in Walmart, the end number changes. If you see a price ending in five, the item has just been marked down. This is good, but it's not as good as a one. Anything ending in one, such as $9.91, will be at its final marked-down price. If you have any hesitation that it will go down any further, forget it. This is as low as it will go, so if you want it, bag it. Oh, and it's also the same story for Sam's Club, which isn't a surprise as it's a Wal-Mart company.

    4. At BJ's Wholesale, Look for Product Codes 2, 7 and 9

    If you have a BJ's Wholesale Club near you, you definitely need to learn the product codes on the price tags. The product code 1 is printed on regularly priced items, so you don't need to concern yourself with those. However, code 2 is printed on a discontinued item. This means it will be on special offer, BUT it also means it will be harder to find parts and/or supplies for, so keep that in mind (for example, coffee makers, pods, refills, that kind of thing).

    Code 9 means that the product is about to be sent back to the manufacturer, perhaps because it isn't selling well, or people have issued too many complaints or returns on it. In that case, it will be discontinued and gone from the store within the next week or two. If you want it, grab it while you can. And finally, code 7 is a discounted seasonal product. These are not hard to spot, it will be on labels for Christmas decorations in the New Year or Father's Day gifts right after the holiday. These don't last long, so stock up now.

    5. Look for the Expiration Date on Aldi Breads

    We all want the freshest bread we can get our hands on, but if price is an issue for you, take advantage of Aldi's discounting system. Aldi will discount any of its breads five days before the item is due to expire. So, if you see an expiration date that is six days away from the day on which you're shopping, come back tomorrow. The bread will be cheaper. (See also: 10 Things You Should Never Buy From Aldi)

    6. Grocery Stores Change Expiration Dates on Their Products

    There's an old saying: "What the eye doesn't see, the chef gets away with." This is just as applicable in grocery stores when it comes to meats, dairy, and bakery items. There's no way to really know when a product will turn from fresh to stale, so the stores take a best guess. However, if the package of ground beef hasn't sold by its expiration date, and it still looks good enough to eat, they will simply slap a new label on it with a date that's further away.

    You can sometimes see this by looking at the labels. If it looks like the item has been labeled twice, you should probably think twice about buying it. Or, ask the manager for a discount if you can peel back the new label to reveal the old one, with the old expiration date. Some stores will have clearance specials on products that are about to expire, but again, check the label. If it is about to expire based on the new label, it could be way past the original date. You may want to avoid that item.

    7. Many Grocery Stores Will Double Coupons on Certain Days

    Depending on where you live, you will be able to double the value of your coupons. It varies from store to store and state to state, but it is definitely something you should research. Shopping on a Wednesday instead of a Thursday, for instance, could save you a lot of money. About.com has a list of "double coupon" stores by state that is very handy.

    8. 'BOGO' Deals Aren't Always What They Seem

    Read the small print, every time you see a buy-one-get-one-free offer. For instance, when you see a sign that says "10 for $10," don't take it as a directive. Check the label to see if it specifically requires a purchase of 10 items to get the $10, or are they available for $1 each regardless of how many you buy. This varies from store to store, and some are more strict about this than others. If you have any doubts, ask a cashier or store clerk to do a price check for you. If the item comes in more expensive when scanned on its own, it's likely you need to buy multiples to get the deal.

    9. Kroger Will Waive Coupon Expiration Dates

    And finally, one for our military families. If you belong to a military family living on base, Kroger won't enforce the expiration date on any coupons you use, no matter how old or out of date they are. So, if you are currently living on base and have a stack of old coupons, don't throw them out. And going forward, you never again have to go through your coupons to remove the expired ones.

    Any pricing secrets I've overlooked? Please share in comments!

     

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    By Brian O'Connell

    NEW YORK -- U.S. credit card customers are about to experience a new card technology their peers in Europe have used for years -- new, so-called "chip" cards that promise greater security for card consumers addled by recent security breaches.

    But are the cards as safe as some banks and card carriers claim?

    Banking industry professionals say so. On a recent segment on NBC's Today Show, a MasterCard spokesperson claimed that the new EMV cards have slashed fraud breaches by 80 percent in Europe and Canada.

    Yet some card security experts take issue with the claim. In a recent statement, the Arlington, Virginia-based Retail Industry Leaders Association says that banks are only taking "half-steps" by rolling out chip cards that "are still more fraud prone than cards issued elsewhere in the industrialized world."

    Why? The RILA say other safer credit cards, like those used by European consumers are both so-called chip and PIN cards, and aren't ones that rely strictly on signatures, like the chip cards inching onto the marketplace in the U.S. right now. U.S. chip cards "do not provide the added layer of security for cardholders that exists in other countries," RILA states.

    The group says that U.S. consumers shouldn't rest easy until card carriers and banks answer three critical questions about new chip card security:
    • Why aren't new chip cards being issued with an accompanying PIN if it's the smartest and safest technology available?
    • Why, if "chip and PIN" has been successful across the globe in reducing fraud, would we implement a less secure standard for American cardholders?
    • Why are banks and card networks willing to make the added investment in security in other countries but not here in the United States?
    "Banks and card networks continue to gloss over the fact that the cards they are issuing in the United States are inferior to the same products they offer in the rest of the industrialized world," RILA states. "It's time for them to honestly answer these questions."

    For their part, consumers aren't taking the same harsh stance as industry retail groups. For instance, Americans overwhelmingly believe the EMV chip (41 percent) is more secure on credit cards than the "magnetic stripe" (5 percent), while 20 percent feel both are equal when it comes to credit card security, according to data from NerdWallet. But Americans are less sure who will be held liable in the event of a major security lapse, NerdWallet reports.

    Chip cards, while nice in theory, aren't as safe as banks would have us believe.

    Thus, the rather significant layer of uncertainty covering the chip credit card issue.

    "As the Eagles once said, you can't hide your lying eyes," says Michael Bremmer, chief executive officer of Orange County, California-based Telecomquotes.com. "Chip cards, while nice in theory, aren't as safe as banks would have us believe. A quick Google or YouTube search for 'app to hack a chip card' shows I can purchase an app for my Android device, or just watch a video, to easily trigger a hacking situation."

    "Obviously the banks are aware of this and are taking steps to fight back, but this is an ongoing game of cat and mouse," he adds.

    Others say there is some good news, and more bad news, linked to the new chip cards. "In chip cards, the card number or [primary account number] is sent to the card reader along with a unique digital signature," says Rahul Ray, founder of Burr Capital, in Edgewater, New Jersey. "But the two-form identification is a vast improvement over legacy mag-stripe cards. That said, it suffers from a few issues. The PAN, or card number, is still unencrypted, making it a vastly inferior solution to the newer 'tokenization' technology found in ApplePay."

    By and large, financial industry security experts believe the card industry stopped one, critical step short with the new chip cards -- and will face an uphill climb with retailers and consumers as a result. "The new chip cards are definitely safer than the former standard cards with the stripe," says Amanda E. Cioban, a certified public accountant at Manada Tax Service, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "However, the new American banking law falls short in not requiring a chip pin card. The regulations call for the cheaper less secure alternative of chip-plus signature cards. This level of security still puts the United States behind Europe and Canada in the prevention of credit card fraud."

    As banks may well find out to their own detriment, being behind the eight-ball is never where the U.S. consumer wants to be.

     

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    Worried woman lying on the couch while psychologist writing
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    By Lou Carlozo

    Many Americans these days don't make all that much fuss about seeing a shrink, though seeing a financial specialist who can shrink debt -- and the stress surrounding money -- is another matter entirely. A recent report from the American Psychological Association indicates clearly that money is the leading cause of stress for Americans, outpacing work, family and health. In "Stress in America: Paying With Our Health," the APA surveyed 3,068 adults ages 18 and up and found that "72 percent of adults report feeling stressed about money at least some of the time," and 22 percent "say that they experience extreme stress about money" in the past month.

    The sources of worry are enough to pack a portfolio full of panic:
    • Many baby boomers don't have enough put away for retirement. The 2015 Transamerica Retirement survey found that just 14 percent have a written retirement strategy, while 47 percent expect Social Security to be their primary source of income. Where's that hefty nest egg?
    • The average student loan debt is $33,000 for a 2014 graduate, according to Debt.org. Assuming a student pays $380 a month on that debt balance at a 6.8% interest, 10 years later the loans will be paid off -- along with $12,572 in interest, calculators at FinAid.org show.
    • Three in four people have less than $1,000 saved.
    • The average debt for a household with credit card debt is close to $16,000.
    Maybe a therapist can help you talk through the angst. And keep in mind: A financial adviser can't replace a licensed medical authority any more than the therapist can replace a certified financial planner. But in many cases, a good financial planner can cut through the monetary stress and turn it into a plan for success. Here are seven reasons the planner can replace the psychologist.

    1. Planners Can Help Mediate Money Matters That Strain a Marriage

    When money troubles hit a husband and wife, the resulting stress can lead to arguments over how to best address them. Among those who indicate they have relationship stress, finances top the list of reasons, according to a recent SunTrust survey: 35 percent say finances are the primary cause. In many cases, a planner can act as a safe third party who facilitates an important financial starting point: civil conversation.

    This also helps when one partner has a half-baked financial "plan," while the other is hiding his or her head in the sand. A good planner addresses marital issues that run the gamut from debt and bad spending habits to how best to invest retirement savings.

    By the way, the second-leading reason for marital stress is a partner's annoying habits. Whether that's binge shopping or simply nonstop snoring, the survey doesn't say.

    2. They Assist Family Members in Developing a Financial Legacy

    While married couples commonly experience stress over issues such as living paycheck to paycheck, families with adult children might face friction -- or fear -- when it comes to larger planning issues. While you might require legal help to complete some tasks such as crafting a will, a first-rate planner can sit at the table and answer questions while suggesting superior approaches.

    "Getting family members on the same page will help improve the likelihood of success of a wealth transfer and increase the chance of adoption of the parents' wishes," said Rick Arzaga, founder and CEO of Cornerstone Wealth Management in San Ramon, California. "Even more important, it reduces the risk of having the process of estate distribution fracture relationships among siblings and other family members."

    3. They Can Convert Emotional Turmoil Into Rational Strategy

    Financial planning has much in common with house hunting and even pre-marital counseling. The situations create a lot of short-term pressure that causes couples to boil over into heated arguments that bear little resemblance to the initial objective. And while they're not marriage counselors to be sure, financial advisers often experience irrational exchanges between couples.

    If you've ever experienced or witnessed one of these fights, you know it's not such a large leap from, say, "How should we invest for retirement?" to "Why do you spend so much money on power tools?" The best advisers know that cool heads prevail. They know how to redirect a money planning session back to identifying shared goals, pinpointing challenge areas and crafting a sound game plan for the short and long term.

    4. They Help Turn Confusion Into Clarity

    Let's assume the opposite scenario, where a couple or individual wants to make the leap to sound fiscal health but has no idea where to start. Planners can employ survey-based tools to get at your motivations and values.

    "We use a financial personality tool called Financial DNA," Arzaga said. "It's an online survey that asks our clients to choose terms that are 'most like' and 'least like' the investor." The results help Arzaga and his team to benchmark financial goals, measure risk tolerance, spot behavioral biases and determine how clients might behave in a variety of market conditions.

    5. Planners Know How to Overcome the 'Fear Factor'

    It's human nature to resist making a change or back off from a commitment that requires new ways of thinking and acting -- even if they are positive ones. Confronting your fears and holding your hand through it all constitutes a key part of any planner's job.

    This to some extent explains these findings of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors: 56 percent of U.S. adults lack a budget; 40 percent gave themselves a "D" or lower in their knowledge of personal finance; and 50 percent of those with children have no will. After all, who likes to think about death?

    Moving into fruitful discussions about these topics might make shampooing the rug sound like a joy by comparison. But who said you have to do it alone? What you might lack in knowledge and courage, the financial planner can supply in step-by-step fashion.

    6. A Financial Adviser Can Help You Stop Lying to Yourself

    Just as a gifted therapist guides the man or woman on the couch to challenge false assumptions about life, the planner who gets to know you over time has a good shot at spotting your inconsistent or dubious money beliefs. If you try to justify sinking all your dough into a very risky investment, the planner might in turn ask about your stubborn determination to gamble.

    If you insist your spending on life's luxuries should fall outside the monthly budget, then that opens the door for your pro to remind you how you could cheat yourself -- and your family. Your planner might or might not double as an accountant, but either way it's a safe bet that they specialize in accountability. The more you open up, the harder it gets to check your conscience at the door.

    7. You Have a Partner in Converting Bad Beliefs Into Good Plans

    Here's where a planner could especially affect both your financial and mental health. It's the common goal of therapists to explore how past patterns -- especially those learned in your family of origin -- influence present behavior. You might not even be aware that you're doing this, but planners such as Peter Mallouk, president of Creative Planning in Leadwood, Kansas, point to a phenomenon known as confirmation bias, which involves how a person uses new evidence to confirm existing beliefs or theories.

    "Ultimately it's our own behavior that does us in," said Mallouk, rated the No. 1 independent financial advisor in America by Barron's. "The key to dodging the pitfall is to be aware of what your instincts tell you and recognize behavioral land mines." Experienced planners will help bring your biases and assumptions to light and replace them with a holistic formula that stresses portfolio planning, patient investing and a sensible level of risk tolerance.

    It's true that many psychologists listen to patients talk about money and their anxieties, stresses, thwarted hopes, and seemingly impossible goals. The therapist, to be sure, can sympathize and empathize. But a therapist can't strategize about your money habits and investment choices the way a financial planner can. When it comes to improving your financial health, you need the right person for the job.

    This story, 7 Reasons Your Financial Planner Can Replace Your Therapist, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    From a consumer tech giant showing off its latest gadgetry to an upscale retailer of yoga clothes hoping to regain its inner peace, here are some of the things that will help shape the week ahead on Wall Street.

    Monday -- Last Call on a Classic Theme Park Ride

    The market's closed in observance of Labor Day, and theme parks will probably be making the most of the holiday by entertaining the last of the seasonal crowds. There's been a lot of activity in Central Florida and the downside of new additions is that the incoming attractions will have to take the place of something else.

    We'll see that Monday at Comcast's (CMCSA) Universal Studios Florida when Disaster -- one of the park's original rides, in which folks explore the making of disaster movies complete with an ill-fated subway ride finale -- closes forever. It will pave the way for a "Fast and the Furious" attraction that will open in 2017. The competition is intensifying in the theme park capital of the world and Disaster is the latest casualty in this game of one-upmanship.

    Tuesday -- You Say You Want a TiVo-lution

    The new and abridged trading week kicks off Tuesday and TiVo (TIVO) will be one of the companies reporting after the market close. TiVo once revolutionized the way we watch television with the first DVR, but these days we're consuming video in many different ways. The need to record things that we can't watch in real time is no longer necessary with on-demand and streaming platforms.

    TiVo is still making the most of the changing marketplace. It remains profitable; it's actually growing. We'll see how TiVo is holding up Tuesday.

    Wednesday -- Shiny New iStuff

    Apple (AAPL) has scheduled a media event for Wednesday and the company is widely expected to be introducing its latest generation of iPhone. Some of the rumored improvements for the iPhone 6s include a better camera and more powerful processor. We'll also see if Apple sticks with the 6s name. It sounds too much like "success," and that could be a bit too much braggadocio even for a company that has earned the right to brag.

    Apple might also provide an update on its Apple TV set-top box, and given the reports last week that the consumer tech giant is in preliminary talks with studio executives to acquire original content, there could be more to Apple TV this time than just a box.

    Thursday -- Downward-Facing Dog

    One of the retailers reporting fresh financials Thursday will be Lululemon Athletica (LULU). The high-end chain selling yoga apparel was a market darling until stumbling in 2013 after a brand-tarnishing recall of its black Luon yoga pants for being too sheer. Its founder also landed in the spotlight for making some unflattering remarks.

    Wall Street sees Lululemon posting a profit that is flat with its results from a year earlier on sales growth in the low teens. Things could be worse: At least the brand is holding up after its snafus from two years ago.

    Friday -- 10 Items or Less

    The short trading week wraps up Friday with Kroger (KR) giving the market its quarterly update. The grocery store operator is an industry giant, running 2,626 supermarkets across 34 states. Beyond its namesake stores, some of its other supermarkets include Fry's, Ralphs and Harris Teeter.

    Grocery stores tend to be a retail niche in which lean margins are the norm. Kroger has come through with better-than-expected earnings in each of its past three quarters. The trend suggests that Kroger will earn more than the 39 cents a share that analysts are targeting this time around.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Apple and Lululemon Athletica. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days and check out our free report for one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    By Susan B. Garland

    A Medicare card is one of the best birthday gifts a 65-year-old could wish for. But for a growing number of baby boomers, signing up for this most prized of gift cards can be a bewildering and frustrating exercise -- and too often a costly one.

    The enrollment rules and timelines are so confusing that many seniors who work past 65 accidentally miss sign-up deadlines. So do retirees who remain on company health plans, as well as the self-employed or early retirees who buy individual coverage on the new health care exchanges. The possible consequences could be months without health care coverage and premium penalties for life.

    Joe Baker, president of the Medicare Rights Center, says his nonprofit group fields 15,000 calls a year on its helpline. "We see the problem growing," he says. "People's life situations are more complex." For example, he says, more people are working longer, and many mistakenly think they don't need to enroll in Medicare at age 65 if they have workplace coverage.

    Recognizing that a rising number of baby boomers are falling through the enrollment cracks, the Obama Administration recently announced it would improve the information it provides to people who are newly eligible for Medicare. In the meantime, an excellent resource is the Medicare Rights Center's online Medicare Interactive service (www.medicareinteractive.org), which answers dozens of enrollment questions. Or you can call your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (find your state SHIP at www.shiptacenter.org).

    To help you navigate the complex Medicare enrollment maze, we outline here many of the rules and timelines. Begin with a review of the fundamentals.

    You are eligible for premium-free Part A, which pays for hospital services, if either you or your spouse paid Medicare payroll taxes for at least 10 years. Otherwise, you can each buy into Part A for premiums that range as high as $407 a month. A divorced spouse who is single and didn't accumulate enough working credits on his or her own can get Medicare benefits on an ex-spouse's record if they were married for at least 10 years.

    If you are getting Social Security benefits when you turn 65, you are automatically enrolled in Part A and Part B, which covers outpatient services. You will get your Medicare card in the mail three months before your 65th birthday. You pay a monthly premium for Part B. In 2015, the standard premium for most beneficiaries is $104.90 a month, although higher-income beneficiaries pay more. The premium is deducted from your Social Security payment. You can turn down Part B -- an ill-advised move unless you have coverage from your or your spouse's current job.

    You need to sign up for Parts A and B if you're not claiming Social Security benefits. "The folks who get into trouble are those who aren't taking Social Security at 65, and many more people are delaying," says Kathryn Votava, president of Goodcare.com, a Rochester, New York, firm that advises individuals and small firms on health coverage. "If you're not taking benefits, you don't get automatically enrolled in Medicare. You don't even get a notice." As Congress has shifted the full retirement age for Social Security benefits from 65 to 66 (and 67 in the future), 65 has remained the eligibility age for Medicare.

    That means it's up to you to watch the calendar. You can enroll in Parts A and B during a seven-month "initial enrollment period," which begins three months before the month you turn 65 and ends three months after your birthday month. To avoid a coverage gap, it's best to enroll during the first three months. "If you want to have Medicare in place the first day you're eligible, enroll well in advance of your 65th birthday," says Maura Carley, president of Health Care Navigation, in Darien, Connecticut, and author of "Health Insurance: Navigating Traps & Gaps" (Ampersand, $20).

    Miss your initial enrollment period and you could be stuck without Part B coverage for many months. Unlike Part A, which you can enroll in at any time after the initial enrollment period, you must wait to sign up for Part B until the next "general enrollment period," which runs from Jan. 1 to March 31, and Part B coverage won't begin until July 1. If you don't have qualifying employer coverage, you will pay a 10 percent penalty for life for each 12-month period you delay signing up for Part B.

    The initial enrollment period is the same for a private Medicare Advantage plan. An Advantage plan, which provides coverage through private insurers rather than the government, generally provides Part A and Part B benefits, includes drug coverage, and covers many co-payments and deductibles.

    With the basics out of the way, it's time to tackle the tougher questions: Do you need to enroll in Medicare if you're still working at 65? What if your employer offers you retiree health benefits? How do plans that cover drug costs and other out-of-pocket expenses fit into the puzzle?

    If you're on the job at 65. Don't rely on your employer for Medicare guidance. "We find that employers frequently provide wrong or confusing advice about when employees should enroll in Medicare," says Baker, whose group is helping the federal government create information for employers.

    If you work for a company with fewer than 20 employees, be sure to enroll in Part B during your initial enrollment period. Medicare automatically becomes your primary payer, and your employer's plan is unlikely to pay for any expenses that could be covered by Medicare -- even if you neglect to enroll in the government program.

    An employee may discover this after filing claims with the employer plan. Typically, the insurer will notify the worker that it won't pay a claim because it should have been submitted to Medicare, Carley says. At times, an insurer processes several claims until it realizes the employee was eligible for Medicare -- and then seeks repayment from the employee. As long as you're still employed, you can enroll in Part B without penalty -- and you should do so immediately.

    Your spouse can continue on your employer plan until age 65 as long as you keep the plan for yourself as secondary coverage. But Votava says it could be cheaper for your spouse to buy individual coverage from an insurance company.

    If you're not covering your spouse on your employer plan, it's rarely worth the cost of keeping the plan just for expenses not covered by Medicare -- especially if your employer's insurance limits the choice of providers or won't pay for out-of-network care. Your best bet: Buy a Part D prescription-drug plan and a Medigap supplemental insurance policy (more on those later).

    A self-employed person or an early retiree who has an individual insurance policy should enroll in Medicare during the initial enrollment period, says Casey Schwarz, policy and client services counsel with the Medicare Rights Center. Otherwise, depending on the state, Schwarz says, a policy "can coordinate with phantom Part B," meaning that it will pay secondary to Medicare, even if you haven't enrolled.

    The same advice applies to someone who bought a policy on a federal or state exchange and is getting a federal tax credit to offset premium costs under the Affordable Care Act. Under IRS rules, the subsidy will stop by the end of your initial enrollment period, Schwarz says.

    The rules are different if your employer has 20 or more employees. You don't have to enroll in Part B while you're still working. You should enroll in Part A because it's free, and Part A will be secondary to your employer plan. A spouse who is 65 or older can stay on your company plan and delay Part B until you leave.

    It could make sense to drop your employer coverage if your benefits are inadequate and your premiums, deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs are high. You should compare the benefits and costs of your employer plan with the costs of Medicare, plus Part D and a Medigap policy.

    Once you leave your job, you can enroll in Part B without penalty during an eight-month "special enrollment period," which begins the month after you stop working. To avoid a gap in coverage, be sure to enroll in Medicare a month or two before you leave your job. If you miss this enrollment period, you will need to wait until the next general enrollment period.

    Older workers may run into a bit of a roadblock if they have a tax-free health savings account tied to their employer's high-deductible health plan. A worker who is getting Social Security benefits is automatically enrolled in Part A at age 65. And once you're on any part of Medicare, you can no longer make contributions to the HSA.

    Enrolling in a drug plan. Medicare Part D plans, sold by insurance companies, cover outpatient prescription drugs. You're eligible for Part D if you have either Part A or Part B. If you enroll in an Advantage plan, be sure it includes drug benefits.

    You can enroll in Part D during the same seven-month initial enrollment period as Part B. Miss your initial enrollment period, and, Carley says, "you'll be paying for drugs out of pocket until the next enrollment period," which, for Part D, runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7.

    If you missed your initial enrollment period, you could be eligible for a two-month special enrollment period. To qualify, you must have lost "creditable" drug coverage -- perhaps you are older than 65 and kept your employer drug coverage until you retired, or maybe you were covered by a Cobra plan with drug coverage. (Caution: The Part B and Part D special enrollment periods differ.)

    To be creditable, your drug coverage must have been at least as good as Part D. You could be liable for lifetime penalties if you go for more than 63 days without creditable coverage before applying for Part D.

    For every month you delay, the penalty is 1 percent of the "national base premium," which is $33.13 a month in 2015. If you delay for nine months, for example, your penalty will be $2.98, which will be added to your monthly Part D premium for the rest of your life.

    Your employer is supposed to issue an annual notice to employees whether its drug coverage is creditable. "I caution people that they need to get that statement each year," Votava says.

    Erroneously assuming an employer's plan is creditable can be costly. Say you retire at age 70 and enroll in Part D within the two-month special enrollment period, but Medicare determines that your employer drug benefit was too skimpy during one year to be considered creditable. You'll be socked with 48 months' worth of lifetime penalties because you went without creditable coverage for more than 63 days.

    Filling in the gaps. Traditional Medicare doesn't cover all of your medical expenses. You'll be liable for deductibles, co-payments and other costs. It pays to buy a private Medigap policy to fill in the gaps. You must have Parts A and B to buy a Medigap plan.

    The best time to enroll is during the six months that begin in the month you turn 65 and apply for Part B. If you delay Part B because you have coverage from your or your spouse's current employer, you should enroll in a Medigap plan when you enroll in Part B.

    A Medigap policy can set you back as much as $200 a month. But if you're enrolled in Part B, don't delay enrolling in Medigap until your out-of-pocket medical costs balloon, says Aaron Tidball, manager of Medicare operations for Allsup, which advises individuals on health plans. Only during certain enrollment windows do you have a right to a policy at the best available rate regardless of your health. If you apply outside these time windows, Tidball says, a Medigap plan could refuse to take an applicant. And if it does accept you, he says, "the underwriting can be so significant that the cost makes it impossible" to afford. A handful of states allow people to buy policies without medical underwriting outside the enrollment periods.

    Hazards of post-retirement benefits. Many well-meaning corporate benefits managers tell departing employees that they don't need to enroll in Medicare until their Cobra or retiree health benefits expire. These employers don't understand that the clock for your special enrollment period starts ticking when your employment ends, not when your employer-based benefits end, Baker says. The enrollment period is tied to "whether you are actively at work, not the kind of coverage you have," he says.

    Here's a common scenario: You retire six months shy of your 65th birthday and go on Cobra. Under federal law, you can buy into your employer's health plan for 18 months at 102 percent of the cost. You like the plan so you don't bother to enroll in Part B during your initial enrollment period. At some point, "the plan discovers its error and will switch to secondary, paying a small portion or none of the bills," Tidball says.

    That means you could be stuck without Part B coverage until the July after the next general enrollment period. The lesson: If you're on Cobra when you turn 65, enroll in Medicare during your initial enrollment period. You should drop Cobra, unless you have a spouse who is younger than 65 and covered by the plan. A spouse can continue on Cobra for up to 36 months or until he or she is eligible for Medicare.

    As for retiree health benefits, they're always secondary. Say you retire at 67 with three years of fully paid retiree health benefits. Having been offered such a great deal, you decide to wait until age 70 to apply for Medicare. Because it may take some time for your insurance company to recognize the conflict -- and start rejecting your claims -- you may miss the eight-month special enrollment period.

     

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    By Brian O'Connell

    NEW YORK -- Way too many U.S. retirement savers believe they're seeing light at the end of the tunnel with their savings funds, but more likely, that light is coming from a speeding, oncoming train.

    Too much hyperbole? Not really -- not when only 43 percent of Americans have put "some thought" into their retirement and 38% have not thought about it at all, according to fresh data from BMO Harris.

    More bad news on the retirement front. Even though BMO reports that three-fourths of non-retirees under 60 are utilizing a 401(k) or IRA account, signs are abundant that retirement investors are under-invested in their "Golden Years" portfolios. What's more, more than half don't know how much they will need in retirement. To boot, only 19 percent of Americans under 60 have a "definite idea" what their retirement will look like.

    There is one very simple reason that many Americans are under invested in retirement savings vehicles. They have no plan.

    BMO Harris also surveyed current U.S. retirees, asking them what savings advice they'd give to the younger generation. Some 93% respondents strongly advised "opening a 401(k) and/or IRA account as soon as possible and making regular contributions."

    "We're seeing that today's retirees are satisfied with their retirement lifestyle -- what they have learned with the retirement planning process can serve as a model for future generations as they plan for their golden years," notes Stuart Thompson, head of premier banking strategy at BMO Harris Bank. "The notion of an 'ideal retirement' changes with each generation."

    Even so, with so many U.S. workers uncertain, or under-invested in their retirement accounts, the big question is: why?

    "There is one very simple reason that many Americans are under invested in retirement savings vehicles," says Dennis M. Breier, president of Fairwater Wealth Management in Downers Grove, Illinois. "They have no plan." If the average American investing in a retirement vehicle had a plan and definite strategy, there is no possible he they could be underinvested, Breier states.

    For example, if a 42-year-old set a goal to retire at 60 with a $100,000 annual income all the way to age 90, a solid financial plan would give them following information:
    1. How much he has to accumulate to reach the goal.
    2. What the rate of return needs to be to get there.
    3. How much money needs to be placed in the accounts per month assuming some rate of return.
    "While there are other factors that go into planning, these are the basics," he says. "Given this information it is impossible to underfund a retirement plan unless the person has no plan or they are not very serious about reaching their goal."

    Another reason why Americans are under-invested and struggling with their retirement plans is a demographic one, and an avoidable one, at that.

    "When people are young, which is the best time to start saving for retirement, they either don't understand the value of starting early -- especially the value of compound interest -- or they don't feel like they can spare the money," says Corey Hinds, a financial adviser with APS Wealth Management, in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. "It's a hard sell to a 20-something where they should squeeze their belt even tighter so that they can have money decades in the future. But later on down the road when they realize they should have been saving, it's often too late."

    Another reason for the meager retirement prospects: U.S. workers just don't feel like they have enough cash to plow into a retirement fund, and when they do, investment firms eat up the profits with high fees, notes Joshua Belanger, founder of the options trading site, Optionsizzle.com.

    "Still, I see this as a silver lining, because everyday investors shouldn't be investing into retirement accounts they can't touch and only provide long-only investment options so firms can collect their fees," Belanger says. "They should be putting it into a normal account they can manage themselves."

    For retirement savers who do get ahead, the rules of the road are simple.

    "My husband and I are retirement savers and have approximately $500,000 in retirement accounts plus healthy regular investment accounts and a fully paid mortgage," says Julie Rains, a Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based personal finance writer and founder of the money management advice blog, InvestingToThrive.com. "We started saving early when 401(k)s were first offered in the 1980s plus have roll-over IRAs, regular IRAs, RothIRA's, and other funds."

    Rains notes that it can be a psychological game for people who are underinvested in retirement accounts to conduct a paradigm shift.

    "One way to turn things around is to get excited again about retirement and start socking away more money - that's one way to get started," she said.

    Sage advice indeed, if you're looking to take aggressive steps to play catch-up with your retirement savings. Just don't waste anymore time.

     

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    Kickstarter has emerged as the go-to hub for crowdsourced funding, giving aspiring artists and budding entrepreneurs a platform to bankroll promising projects. A whopping 22,252 projects were funded through successful Kickstarter campaigns last year, raising $529 million in the process.

    At its best, Kickstarter has been the springboard for the Pebble smartwatch, the Ouya video game console, the "Reading Rainbow" app and the "Veronica Mars" movies. At its worst, Kickstarter is an underbelly of funded deals that never see the light of day.

    Bankrolled projects that fail to deliver the promised goods aren't necessarily scams or frauds. Some dreamers just get in over their heads, getting tripped up in the logistics of actually completing a project.

    Dream Weavers

    I'm 0-for-2 in my Kickstarter experiences. It's been a little more than two years since I backed a soda-making machine and a theme park simulation game. Both were supposed to be available by the summer of 2013, but two years later, neither project has seen the light of day.

    To be fair, Theme Park Studio has given early access users the ability to play with a perpetually upgraded beta version of the eventual game. SPRiZZi is promising that units will finally start shipping later this month, but it's hard to put a lot of faith in a product that's already 25 months late.

    Backers who have requested refunds for both projects have reportedly been cashed out by the project creators. That's a good thing, because Kickstarter claims that it's not on the hook when deals go bad.

    "Kickstarter doesn't issue refunds," the site reads. "Transactions are between backers and creators directly."

    "Anyone who backs a project is accepting the creator's offer, and forming that contract," the site's terms of use go on to read. "Kickstarter is not a part of this contract."

    Leaving burned or impatient backers with no choice but to deal directly with project creators can get tense. There's no shortage of heated comments after updates are posted on delayed projects. This doesn't mean that it's the only way out.

    The state of Washington went after the creators of the Asylum card game last year in what turned out to be the first consumer protection lawsuit involving crowd-funding. It wasn't the last. This year we had the Federal Trade Commission go after the project creator of a board game based on H.P. Lovecraft characters. The FTC settled with the creator after he failed to provide refunds.

    That is the big risk with Kickstarter. You're at the mercy of project creators, just as you would be if you got a raw deal on Craigslist or any other online platform. The intentions usually aren't evil or deceptive, but it seems as if a lot of promised and funded projects just don't see the light of day. Help your odds by backing projects where creators have real-world reputations to protect. They have more to lose if they don't deliver.

    If you find yourself in a situation where a project is unreasonably delayed, it's probably best to get vocal. Post in the comments section of the most recent update, asking for a refund publicly, if you don't think the campaign will bear fruit. Early refund requests are the easiest for a creator to fulfill.

    More important, only bankroll what you can afford to lose. For every Kickstarter success story, there are plenty of tales of campaigns that failed to deliver on time. Support your fellow dreamer, but make sure you do it with eyes wide open.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking to kick-start your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    By Louis DeNicola

    Employers, landlords, banks, credit card issuers and other lenders often rely on credit scores to determine the worthiness of applicants. But many borrowers don't know how their credit scores are calculated. The first misconception is that there's a single score; most people have several. FICO scores are the ones most often used by lenders, but there are competitors such as VantageScore, which was developed in 2006 by the three major credit bureaus and is slowly becoming more popular among lenders. There are also different types of FICO scores and different sources for the information used in the calculations. Here are some things consumers might think affect their credit scores -- but don't.

    Do you know what goes into your credit score?

    Checking a credit score or report. Accessing a free credit score is becoming a commonplace add-on for financial products such as credit cards and checking accounts, and there's no negative impact if a company, or user, checks a score. Everyone is entitled to three free copies of their credit report each year (one from each bureau) by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com, and requesting those reports won't impinge on the score.

    Age, race, religion, marital Status or sex. The federal CARD Act of 2009 made it harder for people under age 21 to get a credit card; they now need a co-signer or proof of independent income. But age is not a factor in determining a credit score, and neither is race, religion, marital status, or gender.

    Where you live or work. Jobs, employers, employment history, and home address generally aren't factors that affect credit scores. They may be important to insurance companies and lenders, though.

    Income. This one can be confusing, because loan and credit card applications almost always ask about income. Lenders do consider income and an applicant's debt-to-income ratio when deciding whether to extend a loan, and credit card issuers may also base credit limits partly on this data. But it has no role in determining a credit score.

    Avoiding borrowing. Some people believe that as long as they don't apply for credit, their credit history will be clean and they'll have a good credit score. But doing nothing generally doesn't affect a credit score. To improve their scores, consumers need to show they're trustworthy borrowers. If they have no credit history, lenders don't have anything on which to base their decisions.

    Credit counseling. Credit counseling services can help people who are having trouble making monthly payments, juggling multiple loan payments, budgeting, or understanding credit. Free credit counseling services are provided by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and Financial Counseling Association of America, as well as independent offices associated with one or both. Use of these free services generally doesn't affect credit scores -- although it appears on credit reports and may make loan approvals more difficult in the future.

    Debit cards. Even though most debit cards have a Visa (V) or MasterCard (MA) logo and can be used for purchases wherever credit cards are accepted, the funds come directly from a bank account and the activity isn't reported to credit bureaus. As a result, debit card use doesn't affect credit scores.

    Insurance premiums and utility bills. Many people assume their credit scores must be good because they always pay bills on time. Insurance companies, utility providers, and mobile phone carriers often check new customers' credit scores, but credit rating agencies generally don't take insurance, utility, or cellphone bills into account. The exception is if someone falls behind on payments and the account gets turned over to a collections agency; that will be reported to credit reporting and rating agencies.

    Child support. According to FICO, any item listed as child or family support in a credit report isn't considered when calculating a credit score. VantageScore also doesn't consider child support in its scoring calculations. As with other financial obligations, though, late or missed payments can have an impact.

    Interest rates. While a credit score helps determine whether a borrower is offered the best interest rates, the converse is not true. High or low interest rates on current credit cards or loans don't factor into a credit score.

    Medical debt. This one is partially true. For the VantageScore 3.0, medical debt isn't considered unless it has entered collections by a third party -- and once paid, it isn't a factor. But most lenders use FICO scores, and while the latest version -- FICO 9 -- doesn't weight medical debt as heavily as past versions and similarly erases past-due debt and overdue payments that have been paid off, medical debt remains a factor. Even worse, lenders are slow to switch to new versions of the FICO scoring system, and many still use versions that do look at medical debt.

    Bank account overdrafts. Writing a bad check or incurring overdrafts on an account doesn't generally affect a credit score (although if the bad check is for a credit card bill, there can be cascading effects). Some banks have internal rating systems, though. Overdrafts may be reflected on a customer's bank profile, which could make it more difficult to open a credit card or take out a loan from that bank.

    Small debts. Sometimes it's hard to keep track of small debts, such as a $15 late fee. The good news: Even if a debt goes into collections, the two latest versions of FICO don't consider debts less than $100. For VantageScore 3.0, collections of $250 or less don't have an impact on credit scores.

    Shopping for a loan. Opening a credit card often comes with a temporary drop in credit scores, because the issuer does a "hard inquiry" (a deep look into the applicant's file). When you shop for a loan, each lender is likely to do one. But that doesn't necessarily hurt a credit score. For the newest FICO scores, multiple inquiries for mortgages, auto, or student loans are considered to be a single inquiry if made within a 45-day period. VantageScore extends this rate-shopping allowance to all types of loans but limits the shopping window to 14 days.

    Having many credit cards. Credit scores don't directly take into account the number of credit cards a consumer holds. However, there are many scenarios in which multiple cards can have an effect. The hard inquiries that accompany most credit card applications can lower a score. Having multiple cards can also affect the average length of a person's credit history and the percentage of available credit being used -- two factors in many credit scores.

     

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    By Stacy Johnson

    According to the CIA, the average American should expect to live about 79.56 years, or 41,844,484 minutes.

    If you're lucky, you're going to spend about a third of those minutes sleeping. With those that remain, the idea is to spend as many as you can doing what you want to do rather than what you have to do.

    How do you maximize the minutes you spend at leisure and minimize those you spend at labor? You become financially independent. Here's some proven advice to get you there in as few minutes as possible.

    1. Motivation: Think time, not money. Almost every resource you have, from physical possessions to knowledge, is renewable. The amount of time you have on this planet, however, is finite: Once used, it can never be replaced.

    If you can live on $100 a day, then every time you forgo spending $100, you get a day closer to financial freedom. So create a mental yardstick to hold up against potential purchases. Ask yourself: Which will make me happier, this purchase or retiring an hour, day, week or month earlier?

    2. Mechanics: If you want to work less, make your money work more. Say you set aside $1,000 a month. If you earn 1 percent on it for 30 years, you'll end up with $419,628. Earn 10 percent on it, and you'll end up with $2,260,487. The 1-percenter has a nice nest egg, the 10-percenter is not only financially free, their kids might be as well.

    "But wait!" you say. "There's no way to safely earn 10 percent. And if I lose my money, I'll be worse off than I was before because I've also lost all the time it took to earn it!"

    True. And the same logic applies to love. If you're going to find the love of your life, you're going to have to risk pain if it doesn't work out. The solution? Be wise with both your money and your heart: Think it through before you make a move. Act cautiously but don't miss an opportunity by standing there like a deer in the headlights.

    3. Method: Small and soon, not large and later. Shortly after I began my television career in 1988, I went on set with a pack of smokes, a can of soda and a candy bar. I explained that these things represented the kind of money most of us throw away every day without thinking about it -- at the time, about $5. But compound $5 at 10 percent for 30 years, and you'll end up with about $340,000. That's why saving small sooner is better than trying to save large later.

    Fortunes are rarely made by investing big bucks, nor are they often made late in life. Wealth most often comes from starting small and early.

    There are limited ways to become financially independent. You can inherit, marry well, build a valuable business, successfully capitalize on exceptional talent, get exceedingly lucky -- or spend less than you make and consistently invest your savings over time. Even if you're on the road to any of the former, why not do the latter?

    4. Management rule No. 1: Avoid debt. I'm always getting questions about debt. "Should I borrow for this, that, or the other?" "What's an acceptable debt level?" "Is there such a thing as good debt?"

    There's way too much analysis and mystery around something that isn't at all mysterious. Paying interest is nothing more or less than giving someone else your money in exchange for using theirs. Rule of thumb: To have as much money as possible, avoid giving yours to other people.

    Pay interest in only two circumstances: when your back is against the wall, or when what you're buying will increase in value by more than what you're paying in interest.

    5. Management rule No. 2: Save more by spending less. The key to spending less is to avoid deprivation: reduce your expenses without reducing your quality of life. How?
    • Never buy new what you can buy used. That brand-new sparkle comes at a high price, on everything from cars to furniture to clothes. Let somebody else take the hit. Instead of heading to the department store, head to the consignment store, thrift shop, yard sale, or sites like Craigslist or eBay.
    • Always ask for a lower price. People say you get what you pay for. I say you get what you ask for. In addition to negotiating more traditional things like houses and cars, you can score lower prices on hotel rooms, doctor's visits, cable bills, car repairs ... pretty much everything. From now on, consider the price of services or big-ticket items as what they are: an opening bid. Check out Those Who Haggle Save Major Money.
    • Stop paying for name brands. What's in a name? Often nothing more than a higher cost. Paying more is OK, if the higher cost means higher quality. But it's not OK to pay more simply to help pay for some company's annoying commercials. One of many examples: More often than not, generic patent medicines like aspirin and cough syrup aren't similar to their brand name counterparts. They're identical. There's only one reason anyone would pay up to 50 percent more for an identical item -- some commercial told them to. Check out 12 Items You Should Always Buy Generic (and 4 You Shouldn't) for more.
    Do you have money-saving tips that don't take a bite from quality of life? Share them in our comments section below or on our Facebook page.

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    Planet Fitness Inc. Locations Ahead Of Earns
    Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    Plenty of stocks go up and down in any given week. The gainers inspire us to keep investing. The decliners keep greed in check while reminding us about the risks of the equity markets.

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

    Trevena (TRVN) -- Up 78 percent last week

    One of last week's biggest winners was Trevena, moving higher after positive clinical trials results for its promising pain killer for folks undergoing tummy tuck procedures. Trevena's TRV130 treatment also proved superior to morphine in curbing some abdominoplasty side effects including nausea, vomiting, and hypoventilation.

    Vera Bradley (VRA) -- Up 33 percent last week

    The company behind the colorful luggage, handbag and accessory merchandise saw its stock pop by nearly a third after posting encouraging quarterly results. Checking in with nearly 2 percent year-over-year growth in sales may not seem like much, but analysts were holding out for a decline. The bottom line is also holding up, and now Vera Bradley is boosting its profit forecast for the entire year.

    Planet Fitness (PLNT) -- Up 11 percent last week

    Shares of Planet Fitness -- the gym operator that prides itself on low-cost memberships -- got off to a slow start after going public four weeks ago, but the stock's been getting pumped up lately. Planet Fitness stock has closed higher in nine consecutive trading days, and a strong quarterly report on Wednesday afternoon only helped.

    Revenue climbed to $79 million for the quarter, 26 percent ahead of the prior year's showing. Adjusted earnings grew even faster, up 29 percent to hit a better-than-expected profit of $0.13 a share. This is naturally Planet Fitness' first quarter as a public company, and it's always a good sign to kick things off with a strong report.

    Vince Holding (VNCE) -- Down 42 percent last week

    Last week's biggest sinker was Vince Holding, taking a big hit after posting terrible quarterly results. Sales declined sharply, as an uptick in sales at the retail level was no match for a sharp slump at the wholesale level.

    The clothing company is in a state of disarray. It has lost its CEO, CFO and chief creative officer since June. The boardroom can be as fickle as fashion sometimes.

    Netflix (NFLX) -- Down 16 percent last week

    Shares of the leading premium video service fell every single trading day last week. Investors were scared earlier in the week after Variety reported that Apple (AAPL) was chatting up Hollywood executives in a move to secure original content for its yet-to-be-announced streaming television service.

    AeroVironment (AVAV) -- Down 15 percent last week

    Unmanned drones are cool, but AeroVironment wasn't last week after posting disappointing quarterly results. Sales fell short of Wall Street projections and AeroVironment's quarterly deficit was twice as bad as analysts were targeting. AeroVironment's vehicles may help keep troops out of harm's way by going on security missions, but it couldn't do the same for its shareholders.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Netflix. The Motley Fool owns and recommends AeroVironment, Apple, and Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Mixed race woman putting coin into purse
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    By Elizabeth Sheer

    This is a nation of bargain hunters, addicted to thrift, but there are times the cheapest option just doesn't make sense. An item is no bargain when it must be replaced often; when more must be used to do the job; or when the cost in aggravation exceeds the cost in dollars. Instead, look for discounts on high-quality items, and even try haggling. Whatever you do, don't scrimp on these 10 things -- you get what you pay for.

    Toilet paper. The cheapest toilet paper is single-ply and needs to be folded over several times to be useable. There's no savings when the rolls run out so much faster. And why use a product that's scratchy and rough? Paper towels are a similar case: The cheap stuff falls apart easily, requiring more to soak up the same spills.

    Mattress. Everyone needs a good night's sleep to function properly, and anything that helps the cause is worth a splurge. Although price doesn't necessarily correlate with quality in this market, a super-cheap foam mattress likely isn't going to cut it night after night. Any mattress that causes sleeplessness or back pain -- any pain, really -- shouldn't be tolerated.

    Paint. Painting is a chore and no one wants to do more coats than necessary. Expensive paint usually claims low or no volatile organic compounds, so there are no fumes and a room can be used as soon as the walls dry. More evenly distributed pigment and higher-grade resins make it easier to apply the expensive stuff. It's usually more durable and easier to clean, as well.

    Tires. Tires are a huge expense, particularly for an SUV, and the temptation to save money is strong. It's possible get several years' wear out of cheap tires on perfectly smooth roads. That said, Popular Mechanics warns that poor tires can make the ride a perpetual headache (sometimes literally). The experts there suggest buying the tires that came with the car to get the best ride.

    Winter Boots. Cheap winter boots are a misery. They may start out waterproof, but that won't last through snow and mud. There are plenty of ways to save money on warm -- and possibly even fashionable -- waterproof boots. Buy at preseason sales for a better selection or when the season is over for even more savings. A really good pair of winter boots can last for years, so the price per wear might actually be higher for a cheap pair that must be replaced every winter.

    Insurance. Regular doctor visits and early diagnostic tests can prevent future expenses, and sufficient health insurance helps keep costs from spiraling out of control. At a minimum, high-deductible insurance means an unexpected hospital visit won't result in bankruptcy. The same goes for insuring a house. No matter how careful an owner or renter is, not every disaster can be avoided, so it's smart to have enough insurance to cover emergencies when they happen.

    Knives. A good kitchen knife is the basis of all cooking, so a cheap one -- a knife that can't cut easily through an onion without catching or slipping, for instance --makes for daily irritation and is dangerous and wasteful. It's not necessary to buy the top of the line, but at the very least, a cook needs knives that feel good in the hand. A knives should be well-balanced and heavy enough to cut through chicken bones. A set of eight is not necessary; if you can afford only one, a good 8-inch chef's knife is the one to get. It can last a lifetime.

    Dish Detergent. Cheap dish detergent typically contains a lot more water and a lot less detergent than pricier brands. That means more is required to get dishes clean. Might as well buy the good stuff and replenish less often.

    Tools. It might be okay to buy a cheap tool for a job that's unlikely to arise again. And some small items, such as a level, start at just a few dollars. But tools such as screwdrivers, hammers, and power drills likely will be used a lot. Buy good ones that will safely accomplish common tasks and pass them down to the children.

    Chocolate. There's no point in buying mediocre chocolate. The good stuff may actually save money: A small square of gourmet chocolate is more satisfying than a bar sold for a buck at a gas station.

     

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    Beginner's Guide to Buying Your First Car

    By Allison Martin

    There's nothing more exciting than the thought of cruising down the highway in the driver's seat of your new car.

    No more carpools and public transportation; just you and your new ride.

    But it takes a little time and effort to make those dreams a reality. You don't want to be bamboozled by a slick car salesman. Following is a step-by-step approach to buying your first set of wheels.

    Step 1: Know your dough. Resist the temptation to ride in style and instead stick with a realistic budget that won't put you in a bind each month. As Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson says, "Cars are for transportation, not status."

    Consumer Reports recommends you zero in on two figures that will dictate how much car you can afford:
    • What is your down payment? Since this is your first car, you won't have a trade-in. However, a down payment of 20 percent will put a noticeable dent in the size of your monthly payments.
    • What is your monthly payment? CR says your total monthly debt load should not exceed 36 percent of your gross monthly income. So figure out your monthly income and subtract all monthly debts and other costs. What's left is how much you can reasonably afford to spend on a car.
    An affordability calculator, such as the ones offered by Cars.com and Edmunds.com, will help you figure out how much a car payment will set you back each month. Taxes and registration should be figured into your total. And don't forget car insurance costs.

    However, don't focus solely on the monthly cost. That car salesman will try to talk you into a lengthy payment plan that lowers your monthly payment, but costs you much more in interest over time. When you arrive at the dealership, have a set total price in mind and stick to it.

    Step 2: Arrange financing. Never walk into a dealership without financing already preapproved by a lender.

    Compare rates you find online with those offered by local financial institutions. You may find that you'll get the best rate from a credit union.

    You may also learn from lenders that you'll get a better interest rate if you wait and take steps to improve your credit score before you apply. See: "10 Ways to Raise Your Credit Score Fast."

    Step 3: Do your homework. Assess your needs, not your wants. A two-passenger convertible may be more fun, but it won't work if you'll be traveling with a family of four. And if you commute 30 miles in heavy traffic, don't buy a gas hog.

    Look for vehicles with a strong track record of reliability and affordable maintenance. These sites will help you rate a car's reliability: Read online reviews from industry experts and owners to get a better feel for the cars that make your final cut.

    Step 4: Take your prospects for a spin. Head to the dealership or lot to test-drive your top picks. This is your opportunity to see if you and your family will be comfortable in the car, and whether its performance and handling meet your expectations.

    Bring along a checklist to evaluate the vehicle. Here are some good sources: Step 5: Have the vehicle inspected. A brand-new car will be protected by a warranty. (See: "Are You Driving a Lemon?")

    Looking to buy used? Have the car inspected by a trusted mechanic before you buy. A good mechanic can spot problems that require costly repairs or affect the car's safety systems.

    Step 6: Negotiate the sale price. As we said, a car salesman will focus on the monthly payment, rather than the total cost. Keep your price firmly in mind. See: "10 Tips for Buying Your Next Car for Less."

    Consumer Reports recommends skipping extras such as rust-proofing, fabric protection and an extended warranty. CR says they aren't necessary.

    Nervous about face-to-face negotiations? The dealership's Internet sales department is an option that can ease your worries and save you money. Edmunds.com notes:

    There's no question that using the Internet department saves time and stress. When buyers are shopping in person at a dealership, they run the risk of making costly, spur-of-the-moment decisions on financing or additional products, such as extended warranties. Working via the Internet department minimizes that risk. It also is good for people who don't have an appetite for negotiations.

    If you can't reach an acceptable agreement with the seller, take your business elsewhere.

    Remember when you bought your first car? What did you learn that can help others? Share your thoughts in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

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    Businesswoman Counting Bank Note
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    By Sandra Block and Kathy Kristof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

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    Woman getting mail from mailbox
    Getty ImagesLow interest rates make the refinancing of student loans an attractive option for many investors.


    There has been a growing concern around student loan debt for quite some time. The New America Education Policy Program reported in 2012 that about 40 percent of all student loan debt was from graduate students.

    Why is this important? One in four borrowers took out more than $100,000 in loans, according to the study, and interest rates for graduate programs can be 50 percent higher than what their less-leveraged undergraduate counterparts can expect.

    Is there anything you can do about your federal or Direct PLUS student loan debt?

    1. Take no action. Depending on your interest rate and financial situation, you may be best suited to take no action at all. Refinancing or consolidating will limit flexibility in the future for loan deferment, forbearance and forgiveness. Since there is no prepayment penalty, you have the flexibility to make additional payments to the principal of your loan as your income changes without getting locked into a higher monthly payment.

    2. Consolidate. Designed to help simplify payments on multiple loans, some borrowers decide to consolidate their loans into one. By consolidating your loans, a new interest rate will be applied, based on the weighted average of the loan balances and associated interest rates. This approach is typically not advisable as it usually costs more over the life of the loan and limits your ability to refinance only a portion of the loan in the future. Since automatic payments can be set up and managed easily online, there is little need for consolidation.

    3. Refinance. The decision to refinance student loans can save some borrowers thousands in interest expense over the life of the loan. Similar to most credit applications, your eligibility and rate will be determined by numerous factors, such as your income, credit score and total outstanding debt. Strong candidates can see a dramatic reduction in their interest rate -- even a few points. It isn't right for everyone though, and there are some very important caveats to consider. With only a few exceptions, it is generally advisable for all student debt holders to at least explore a refinancing scenario. Depending on how long you've been out of school, your annual income and credit history is likely to have improved. One of the main factors for the interest rate you may qualify for is current market interest rates, which are currently very low.

    Why doesn't everyone refinance?

    There are a few good reasons why refinancing isn't for all borrowers. Many of the big student loan refinancing lenders only consider candidates with excellent credit and income profiles, sometimes even limiting which academic institutions are accepted. Refinancing also tends to cost more in the short term, which not all borrowers can afford. Refinancing typically requires the borrower to enter into a shorter repayment period, often five to 15 years. Even with a reduction of one or two points on your interest rate, shaving five to 10 years off the life of the loan may result in monthly payments outside your current budget.

    Refinancing federal student loans to a private lender also has lesser-known implications. Federal loans have benefits such as loan deferment and forbearance, which can help a borrower when they're having financial struggles. Depending on which you qualify for, you may be granted a period in which you can defer all loan payments, or at least only pay interest. When refinancing to a private lender, you lose these options, along with student loan forgiveness. Finally, if someone dies with outstanding federal loans, the balance is forgiven. With private lenders, this isn't necessarily the case, especially if there is a co-signer on the loan.

    If you're financially secure and think refinancing could benefit you, shop around a bit to find the best rate. That ultra-low variable rate may look appealing, but for the vast majority of borrowers, the risk isn't worth the reward, especially for those carrying high balances. If you have multiple loans outstanding, it probably makes sense to start with the highest balance or interest rate. Trying to tackle all your loans at once may not be feasible, but depending on the amount of debt, you can still save thousands by choosing one.

    Most refinancing lenders don't charge any fees to refinance, and some even offer bonuses. Before signing on, be sure you're comfortable with the terms and check if there are prepayment penalties, as you may want to put a bonus towards your loans or refinance again in the future. As a final consideration, ensure the new monthly payment is within your budget and doesn't derail any other financial goals. If you're saving up for a down payment on a home, you may not want to divert an extra couple hundred dollars each month to your loans should your payments increase.

    While interest rates remain low, consider your financial situation and whether it could be a good opportunity to refinance student loan debt. While the stock market cannot guarantee returns, by locking in a lower fixed rate on your loans you can actually calculate a guaranteed rate of savings over the original loan. As part of a diversified savings and investment approach, capitalizing on historically low rates by refinancing existing debt could be a good option for investors of any risk tolerance.

    Kristin McFarland is a blogger for The Smarter Investor and director of strategic partnerships at Darrow Wealth Management, an SEC registered investment adviser in Massachusetts. The material contained in her articles is for general information only and should not be construed as the rendering of personalized investment, legal, accounting or tax advice. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter.

     

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    Asian woman paying bills
    Getty Images
    By Tim Lemke

    A savings account is an essential tool of money management. It'll enable you to save for emergencies and financial goals, and you might even get a little bit of interest income along the way. But not all savings accounts are the same. Some are extra-stingy on interest. Some have high fees. And some are just terrible all around.

    Here's a look at some ways your savings account may actually be making your financial situation worse, and how to find the best savings account for you.

    1. Terrible interest rates. No bank has high rates these days. But some are offering practically no interest at all. Don't hesitate to shop around for higher rates; it's still possible to get rates higher than 1 percent, especially on the Internet. Online savings accounts such as Discover Bank and CapitalOne360 offer some of the best rates around, so look there first. (See also: 5 Best Online Savings Accounts)

    2. Fees. Many banks charge fees for a wide range of things, from low balances and overdrafts, to frequent deposits or withdrawals. You might even get dinged if you want a paper statement, or want to use an ATM from another bank. If your bank seems to be bleeding you dry with fees, find a different place to put your money. Many online savings accounts offer no fees or minimums.

    3. You're putting too much into it. Let's be clear: There's nothing wrong with saving. We love saving! But if you are placing virtually every dollar of surplus cash in a normal savings account, you're hurting your future self financially. That's because it's also important to put as much money as you can retirement accounts, such as your 401(k) or Roth IRA. Putting some money in stocks and other investments will lead to higher returns and more cash in the long run, and these accounts have great tax advantages. Even taxable brokerage accounts are fine if you're investing in things that generate a higher return than your savings account.

    4. A lack of sub-accounts. A savings account is good, but when it's just a pile of money without a designated purpose, it's not as effective as it could be in helping you reach your goals. If you have the ability to open sub-accounts for specific purposes, such as a new car, home repairs or vacation, you'll find that it's much easier to be disciplined. If you have an account labeled "new car fund," for example, you'll be less tempted to dip into that account until absolutely necessary. Many online savings accounts offer sub-accounts free of charge, so take advantage of them if you can.

    5. The online security stinks. It seems like every day, we're hearing about a company suffering from a major data breach, potentially placing customers' personal and financial information at risk. Credit card users are often the most vulnerable, but be aware if your bank has also had issues protecting the information of account holders. Be sure you're comfortable with the security measures in place to prevent criminals from logging in to your accounts. Loyalty to a bank isn't going to mean much if you spend thousands of dollars getting a case of identity theft resolved.

    6. Poor access to good CDs. CDs offer terms of varying lengths; the longer the term, the better the rate. But not all banks allow you to easily move cash from a savings account to CDs. And many that do offer them don't have a great selection. When researching a savings account, also research the CD offerings from the same bank.

    7. A dearth of online and mobile services. In this day and age, you need a bank that allows you to save and manage your money in the same way you live your life. This means having access to online banking and mobile apps that let you check balances, pay bills, and move money around when necessary. It means mobile check cashing. It may even mean the ability to make payments to other people from your account, when necessary. If you are still relying on visits to physical banks and monthly paper statements, you're wasting time and money.

    8. It's not even your account. Imagine having an account in which a bank takes your money and places it in its own savings account. Imagine having to ask the bank to transfer money back to you when you need it. Seems absurd, right? But that's exactly what happens if you sign on with the online banking service known as Digit. The service is designed to move money from your checking account to savings when money is available, theoretically encouraging people to save. But the customer doesn't actually own the savings account, and worst of all, Digit offers absolutely no interest to customers, but it makes money by generating interest on your savings. Get it? Me neither. Stay away from banks and services like this one.

    How is your savings account holding you back?

     

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    Earns Disney
    Jae C. Hong/AP
    By Arathy S. Nair

    Walt Disney Co.'s (DIS) studio unit said customers of Amazon.com (AMZN) and Microsoft's (MSFT) video services will get access to the collection on its cloud-based movie storage service beginning Tuesday.

    Studios such as Disney, which has made blockbuster films like "Frozen" and Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy," have been attempting to steer movie fans towards digital purchases as sales of DVDs decline.

    Walt Disney Studios added that it would launch the app on video streaming-device maker Roku Inc and Google's (GOOG) Android TV on Sept. 15, coinciding with the DVD release of "Cinderella."

    The collection in Disney Movies Anywhere can be accessed through its new app for the Microsoft Xbox 360 and for Amazon's Fire tablets, Fire TV and Fire TV Stick.

    The media company launched Disney Movies Anywhere in February 2014 with Apple's (AAPL) iTunes, and in November partnered with the Google Play online store and Walmart Stores' (WMT) online store Vudu.

    The two new additions come on the same day as its early digital release of Marvel's "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

     

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    Apple fans queue up for iPhone 6
    Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
    By Jim Gold

    Could it really be time for a new iPhone?

    Just a year after it revealed the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Apple is expected to unveil its latest incarnation Wednesday: the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, along with a slew of new products including Apple TV upgrades, tech industry analysts say.

    The hype around Apple products is enough to exert a pull like few other brands. In the nine months ending June 2015, Apple reported in its most recent quarterly earnings statement, it sold 183 million iPhones.

    Maybe you bought one; maybe you clung to an older model and you're ready for a big change; or maybe you're an Android or Windows phone fan. But before you are sucked into the Apple vortex, stop and think.

    Deciding whether to plunk down hundreds of dollars for the latest iPhone starts with what is important to you, says Money Talks News tech expert Dan Schointuch.

    "Unless they've already identified some specific feature that they know they want, or their current 6 or 6 Plus is broken and not covered under warranty, then most people will probably be just as happy with the 6 as they would be with the 6S," he said. The change from an iPhone 5 or 5S would be more substantial.

    Still, if there is a feature that appeals to you, "it may be worth buying on that basis," Schointuch said. For him, that feature is the camera, one of seven points to consider about whether the new iPhone will be right for you.

    1. How important is the camera to you? As earlier reported by Money Talks News, the new iPhone is expected to feature a 12-megapixel rear-facing camera, which allows users to take higher-resolution photos than the 6's 8-megapixel camera.

    It's also expected to have enhanced 4K video, about four times higher resolution than the 1080p in current phones.

    For MTN's Schointuch, the camera specs are important.

    "I tend to upgrade my phone each year for the camera improvements," he said. "My feeling is that 10 years from now, when I can't even remember what made the 6S different from the 6, I'll still have all of the pictures I took with my phones, and I'd like those pictures to be as good as was possible at the time."

    Also, big for selfie shooters, the front-facing camera will go to 5 megapixels and a flash, up from 1.2 megapixels and no flash, tech-watcher 9to5mac.com said. Software modes will allow for slow-motion video capture and panoramas, it said.

    2. How much speed and battery life do you need? Apple's A9 chip coming inside the 6S and 6S Plus will pack thousands more transistors than the A8 chip in the 6 and 6 Plus. That means, says 9to5Mac, greater performance and more energy efficiency in a chip about the same size as the A8. It also will come with 2 GB RAM, instead of 1 GB. To you, it means the phone should handle the higher resolution photos and videos as well as improved game graphics with ease and without running down the battery faster.

    Apple will continue to offer 16GB, 64GB and 128GB capacity phones, but the smallest will fill up pretty quickly if you keep a lot of 4K videos on it.

    3. Concerned about getting 'the bends'? The new iPhones will likely look just like the current models. But remember reports of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus getting the bends? That may be solved with the use of something called Aluminum 7000, that's aluminum strengthened with zinc, says Lewis Hilsenteger in an Unbox Therapy video.

    A new color will also be available, rose gold, says Mashable.

    4. Looking for a different touch? Look for Force Touch, though not necessarily by that name, which is also on the Apple Watch and the trackpad on the MacBook and MacBook Pro, says Mashable. The phone will know how hard you're pressing on the glass, which could change the way you launch apps or access features.

    5. Is the price right? These are the rumored prices and storage options, with and without two-year contracts from major carriers:
    • iPhone 6S, 16GB: $199; $649.
    • iPhone 6S, 64GB: $299; $749.
    • iPhone 6S, 128GB: $299; $849.
    • iPhone 6S Plus, 16GB: $299; $749.
    • iPhone 6S Plus, 64GB: $399; $849.
    • iPhone 6S Plus, 128GB: $499; $949.
    Schointuch advised against subsidized deals with two-year contracts with AT&T (T) or Verizon (VZ) "unless you specifically need to use one of those providers" or get substantial discounts with them, perhaps through an employer.

    "Time [magazine] ran the numbers, and most of the time you'll end up paying more than you would have had you purchased the phone outright and opted for a monthly plan from T-Mobile (TMUS), Sprint (S) or Cricket Wireless."

    6. Can you trim the cost? You can offset the price by selling or trading in your old phone. Schointuch looked into some options.

    MacRumors found that the best value came from selling your phone yourself through a site like eBay (EBAY) or Craigslist. It also had examples from Gazelle and NextWorth, each guaranteeing best prices.

    "But if you're looking for a more convenient experience, Amazon's trade-in store was the next best thing offering $360 for a 16GB iPhone 6, $389 for an iPhone 6 Plus, and $175 for an iPhone 5S, assuming you're OK with receiving that money in the form of an Amazon gift card," Schointuch said.

    If you want the iPhone experience without the 6S price, you could get a 6 or 6 Plus at a discount once the newest models are released, Schointuch said.

    Apple (AAPL) will cut the price of a new iPhone 6 by $100, analysts said. Deals for new and used 6s can be found online.

    7. What do you really value in a cellphone? Determining how you use your phone will go a long way toward figuring out if you need a new one. Do you take a lot of pictures? Do you rely on your phone's apps for information, games or productivity? Are you the type to use your phone to write papers and create spreadsheets? Or, are you really -- when you get right down to it -- a person who mainly uses a phone to make phone calls? Answer these questions honestly, and you may save yourself hundreds on unnecessary upgrades.

    Are you going to spring for a new phone or wait? Share with us in the comment section or on our Facebook page.

    Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free!


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