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DailyFinance.com

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    Bankrate.com website
    NetPhotos3/Alamy
    By MARCY GORDON

    WASHINGTON -- Bankrate Inc., an online publisher of widely read consumer finance data, has agreed to pay a $15 million fine to settle federal regulators' charges of manipulating its financial results to meet analyst expectations.

    The Securities and Exchange Commission on Tuesday announced the settlement of civil charges of accounting fraud with Bankrate and a former vice president of finance. Bankrate, based in North Palm Beach, Florida, neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing. It has agreed to refrain from future violations of the securities laws.

    The former vice president, Hyunjin Lerner, agreed to resolve allegations that he and two other Bankrate executives ran a scheme to inflate revenues and omit some expenses from reports to meet analyst estimates for the second quarter of 2012. Lerner is paying a $150,000 fine and making restitution of $30,045 that he allegedly gained from selling Bankrate (RATE) stock after the company announced the false results and the share price rose to $17.57 from $15.95.

    Lerner also was barred for five years from serving as an officer or director of any public company, and for at least five years from working as an accountant for one.

    The SEC is continuing the case against the two others who are contesting the charges, former chief financial officer Edward DiMaria and ex-accounting director Matthew Gamsey.

    "We allege that at the highest levels of its accounting department, Bankrate improperly inflated its financial performance to avoid falling short of Wall Street's expectations," SEC Enforcement Director Andrew Ceresney said in a statement.

    The company is best known for its Bankrate.com website, which lists current data on interest rates, credit cards, insurance, mortgages, auto loans and other areas. Bankrate also licenses content to news organizations including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and USA Today.

    Bankrate said in a statement that it restated its earnings to resolve the allegedly false accounting. The company also said it previously set aside $15 million to cover the settlement amount.

     

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    Consumer Credit
    Julie Jacobson/AP
    By MARTIN CRUTSINGER

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. consumer borrowing climbed to a fresh record in July, the latest evidence that the U.S. economy is on track to grow at a healthy pace in the second half of this year.

    The Federal Reserve says consumer borrowing rose by $19.1 billion in July, pushing the total to a record $3.45 trillion. This followed an even larger $27 billion increase in June, the biggest one-month gain in credit since November 2001. The June increase was revised up significantly from an initial estimate of $20.7 billion.

    Economists believe strong job gains will support increased borrowing and consumer spending, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of economic activity.

    In July, borrowing in the category that includes auto and student loans rose $14.8 billion, while the category for consumer card debt expanded $4.3 billion.

    The Fed's monthly report on credit doesn't cover home mortgages or other loans secured by real estate such as home equity loans.

    On Friday, the Labor Department said employers added 173,000 jobs in August and the unemployment rate dropped to a seven-year low of 5.1 percent.

    The economy grew at an annual rate of 3.7 percent in the April-June quarter after turning in an anemic 0.6 percent increase in the first. Economists believe growth will average around 3 percent in the third and fourth quarters this year.

    Over past year, consumer borrowing has risen 6.8 percent, paced by a 7.9 percent surge in borrowing for auto loans and student loans. The credit card category has risen a more moderate 3.9 percent.

     

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    Senate
    Andrew Harnik/APSen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., speaks at a press conference in July on the positive affects of the Affordable Care Act.
    By CARLA K. JOHNSON

    CHICAGO -- About 9.9 million people have signed up and paid for health insurance under President Barack Obama's health care law, the administration said Tuesday, a slight drop from a previous count but on track toward the administration's year-end goal of 9.1 million.

    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that 84 percent of those, or more than 8.3 million, were receiving tax subsidies to help with the cost. A Supreme Court decision earlier this summer upheld insurance subsidies in all 50 states, a major victory for the White House.

    They still have a tough hill to climb over the next couple of years to increase enrollment and get more people covered.

    The report was the first update since June on how the health care law's insurance markets are performing across the nation. Enrollment shifts are to be expected as people cancel coverage or newly enroll as their circumstances change. A previous report had put the number at 10.2 million as of the end of March.

    In 2014, the enrollment number peaked at around 8 million in the spring and dropped to 6.3 million by the end of the year. Hanging on to customers is a major priority for HealthCare.gov as well as state-run exchanges, amid a growing sense that it may take three to five years for the taxpayer-subsidized markets to approach their full potential.

    "They still have a tough hill to climb over the next couple of years to increase enrollment and get more people covered," said Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

    People unable to verify U.S. citizenship or immigration status appeared to be a big reason for the drop-off in enrollment seen in Tuesday's report, with approximately 423,000 consumers losing 2015 coverage when they didn't produce required paperwork; nearly three-quarters of those were dropped from coverage since April 1.

    "That's more people than I would have expected who initially got coverage and weren't able to document their immigration status," Levitt said, adding it shows the verification system works better than it did last year when eligibility determinations lingered until late in the year.

    Florida's enrollment number dropped by more than 100,000, the biggest decline among the states. Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Texas also saw declines.

    Obama's law offers subsidized private insurance through online markets called exchanges, plus an expanded version of Medicaid in states that adopt it. Independent surveys and government reports have documented steady gains in coverage since the 2014 launch of the insurance exchanges and the health law's Medicaid expansion. The nation's overall uninsured rate now stands at about 9 percent, a historic low.

    "Consumers from coast to coast are continuing to show how important health coverage is to their families," Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a statement. The figures released Tuesday cover the period through June 30.

     

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    4 Extra-Cheap Warehouse Club Items
    We've all heard about the great deals you can find at warehouse clubs, but certain items can save you more than others. Here are some surprising tips on specific warehouse purchases that can help you stock up on savings.

    First, buying prescriptions at a warehouse club can save you up to 80 percent. This can be the perfect antidote to overspending. Even if you don't have a club membership, these pharmacies are required by law to serve the public, so take advantage of the savings.

    Next, not many shoppers realize that their clubs also offer great deals on tickets. Instead of paying full price at the megaplex or amusement park, you can save up to 30 percent if you buy your tickets in advance from a warehouse club.

    Finally, aside from buying in bulk, you can also get great deals on larger items -- like cars. Many clubs actually sell most brand-name vehicles with pre-negotiated prices that can save you up to 10 percent off the sticker price. However, you don't need a car to drive away with a good deal. Tires are also discounted up to 20 percent off.

    So, the next time you're in your warehouse club, remember these tips. You'll see that stocking up on the right goods will help you bulk up your savings.

    View Poll


     

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    Costco's Swatch Sales Trigger High Court Import Clash
    Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesRings and bracelets are displayed for sale at at a Costco store in Arlington, Va.
    By Nate Raymond

    NEW YORK -- Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST) willfully infringed Tiffany & Co.'s (TIF) trademarks by selling counterfeit diamond engagement rings bearing the luxury retailer's name and must face a jury trial to assess damages, a U.S. judge ruled Tuesday.

    U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain in Manhattan rejected claims by Costco that Tiffany's trademarks were invalid because they sought to prevent others from using the word "Tiffany" as a generic description of a type of ring setting.

    Instead, Swain said evidence established that Costco, the largest U.S. warehouse club chain, had infringed Tiffany's trademarks by selling engagement rings and confused consumers by using the word Tiffany in display case signs.

    "Despite Costco's arguments to the contrary, the court finds that, based on the record evidence, no rational finder of fact could conclude that Costco acted in good faith in adopting the Tiffany mark," Swain wrote.

    Under the ruling, Tiffany may now take Costco before a jury to seek damages, including a recovery of Costco's profits from the sale of the diamond rings and punitive damages.

    Swain set a hearing for Oct. 30 and directed Tiffany and Costco to "make good faith efforts to settle the outstanding issues."

    In a statement, Tiffany General Counsel Leigh Harlan welcomed the ruling, saying it "further validates the strength and value of the Tiffany mark and reinforces our continuing efforts to protect the brand."

    Representatives for Costco didn't respond to requests for comment.

    Tiffany filed the lawsuit on Valentine's Day in February 2013, saying it believed hundreds, if not thousands, of Costco members bought engagement rings they wrongly believed were authentic Tiffany products.

    Tiffany said that in 2012, a person shopping at a Costco in Huntington Beach, California, complained to Tiffany that she was disappointed to see Costco offering for sale what were promoted on in-store signs as Tiffany diamond engagement rings.

    Tiffany said a subsequent investigation revealed rings in a display case at the Huntington Beach Costco labeled with the word "Tiffany" and that a salesperson there referred to them as such.

    Prior to the lawsuit, Tiffany contacted Costco and secured a commitment that it would remove references to Tiffany from its display case signs, according to Tuesday's ruling.

    Costco also previously sent a letter to customers who bought the rings offering a full refund if they were unsatisfied, the ruling said.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks rose more than 2 percent on Tuesday, bouncing after steep losses last week and a China-fueled rebound in global equities.

    Gains were broad-based and followed a three-day U.S. holiday weekend. All but one of the 10 major S&P sectors ended with gains of more than 2 percent.

    Hopes for more stimulus measures from the Chinese government increased after data on Tuesday showed that China's imports shrank far more than expected in August, falling for the 10th straight month.

    Chinese stocks surged in a late rally, sparking a rebound in global equities. Late on Monday, China said it would remove a tax on dividend incomes for investors who hold stocks for more than a year in an effort to encourage longer-term investment.

    We had some nice buying opportunities with the sell-off in August.

    "We had some nice buying opportunities with the sell-off in August, and I think people are starting to take advantage of that and put money to work," said Larry Peruzzi, senior equity trader at Cabrera Capital Markets in Boston.

    "In China it seems like there is a willingness to continue with stimulus, so hopefully those markets will stabilize."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI)​ rose 390.3 points, or 2.4 percent, to 16,492.68, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC)​ gained 48.19 points, or 2.5 percent, to 1,969.41 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC)​ added 128.01 points, or 2.7 percent, to 4,811.93.

    All three major U.S. stock indexes posted losses of at least 3 percent for last week.

    Global financial markets have been rattled in recent weeks by fears that China's slowdown could drag on already sluggish global growth, prompting some investors to bet that the U.S. central bank will delay a hike until the end of the year.

    Fed Watch

    A mixed report Friday on the U.S. job market for August added to investor uncertainty about whether the Federal Reserve will increase interest rates at its Sept. 16-17 meeting.

    Apple (AAPL) shares gave the biggest boost to the S&P and the Nasdaq, rising 2.8 percent at $112.31, a day before the iPhone-maker is expected to unveil new offerings.

    Fitbit (FIT) was up 11.2 percent at $35.46 after Morgan Stanley (MS) upgraded the stock to "overweight."

    Media General (MEG) fell 6 percent to $10.48 after it said it would buy diversified media company Meredith for about $2.34 billion to create the third-largest local TV station owner in the United States. Meredith (MDP) was up 9.9 percent at $50.47.

    After the bell, Yahoo (YHOO) shares were down 3.1 percent at $29.95 after it said it was considering its options following an Internal Revenue Service denial of its request on a tax ruling related to Yahoo's plans to exit a stake in Alibaba Group (BABA).

    In addition, shares of United Continental Holdings (UAL) were down 2.8 percent at $55.90 after the bell following the company's announcement that Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smisek had stepped down.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2,439 to 644, for a 3.79-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 2,202 issues rose and 646 fell for a 3.41-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The benchmark S&P 500 index posted one new 52-week highs and no new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 46 new highs and 30 new lows.

    About 6.7 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, compared with the 7.6 billion daily average for the month to date, according to data from BATS Global Markets.

    -Tanya Agrawal contributed reporting.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • The Labor Department releases job openings and labor turnover survey for July at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Barnes & Noble (BNS)
    • Conn's (CONN)
    • Krispy Kreme Doughnuts (KKD)
    • Palo Alto Networks (PANW)

     

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    Christmas border with layaway sign
    Catherine Lane/Getty Images
    It seems as if the holiday shopping season keeps creeping earlier into the year and we saw that on display late last month when Walmart (WMT) kicked off its Christmas layaway program. Retailers have always tried to get shoppers on a tight budget to start prepaying for their holiday purchases early through the layaway process, but Christmas in August seems like a bit of a stretch.

    Walmart's annual layaway program kicked off on Sept. 16 in 2012, Sept. 13 in 2013, and Sept. 12 in 2014. This year it rolled out on Aug. 28. Clearly, the world's largest retailer wants you to commit your holiday spending to Walmart as early as possible this summer, but that alone should make you skeptical.

    Layaway is a noble concept in theory, giving shoppers the ability to prepay for merchandise through installment payments until it is paid in full by mid-December, but let's not kid ourselves: Layaway is often more about the retailer than the shopper.

    The Dark Side of Layaway

    Walmart used to charge shoppers $5 to open a layaway program. That initiation charge was done away with in 2013, but the retailer decided to reintroduce a $10 cancellation fee that it had eliminated a year earlier.

    That cancellation fee is still in place for anyone who doesn't fully pay and pick up an order by Dec. 14. Payments made up to that point will be refunded after subtracting the $10 cancellation fee. That would be adding insult to injury, but it's not the only reason that going the layaway route could be a losing proposition.

    Deciding what you want to buy as early as August is problematic. We still don't know what the hot holiday toys will be this season. Walmart kicked off this year's layaway program a whole week before the new "Star Wars: A Force Awakens" merchandise was unveiled and nearly two weeks before Apple's (AAPL) big product release event. Who knows how many cool wearable cameras, video games and licensed products will hit stores closer to the actual holiday shopping season?

    One shouldn't need layaway. Tucking away that money under the mattress and having greater freedom to shop around -- in terms of both products and pricing -- has to be the smarter way to go. Sure, Walmart and most layaway-offering chains will match competitors' prices, but isn't it better to actively seek out those deals instead of handing your money to a retailer for months? What happens if you lose your job, your roof leaks or a medical emergency comes up, forcing you to reconsider how much you can spend on gifts this year?

    There's a stigma to layaway, but it would be out of line to call it a poor tax. It's not as predatory as advance payday loans that are tagged with ridiculous borrowing costs. Then again, the money is going the other way in layaway. You pay high interest rates at advance-payday and check-cashing establishments to get your money early, but Walmart isn't paying the layaway shopper interest on the money that they are holding for months before having to deliver the purchased merchandise.

    The bottom of your mattress isn't going to be paying you interest on your money either, but at least you'll be sleeping better at night knowing that you have greater flexibility in how you will ultimately allocate your holiday shopping.

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

     

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    pest control worker spraying...
    Shutterstock
    By Craig Donofrio

    Americans are having a problem keeping critters outdoors where they belong, as evidenced by the growing field of exterminators: Pest control employment is expected to grow by 20 percent through 2022 according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

    But exterminators should be your last resort. If you take steps to create a hostile environment for bugs and other pests, you won't need to spend big bucks on the bug man.

    1. Seal and repair openings. Check your basement for cracks and gaps, especially where pipes exit through the wall. Go outside and look for openings around exterior outlets, laundry vents and utility meters: These areas are likely to have invitingly large cracks for bugs. Check weather stripping on doors and windows and repair holes in screens. (I've used these screen repair adhesive patches for a quick fix.) Also make an effort to keep your garage door shut.

    2. Give your pets a dining space. I left my dog's pet food in a bowl on the floor once. Big mistake. Bits of food he knocked out of his dish ended up across the room (I must have kicked them) and attracted ants. Make it harder for ants to get to pet food by giving your pet a dining area on a rubber mat. This will make spilled food easier to spot and clean up.

    If you're having an ant problem with pet food left on the floor, put the food bowl into a larger bowl with water in it -- the ants can't cross the moat to get to the food.

    3. Keep a clean kitchen. Because just about every unwanted pest is attracted to leftover bits of food, keeping a clean living area is important to keep bugs out. Here are a few quick tips:
    • Keep all leftovers stored in lidded containers.
    • Check for sugar spills near the coffee maker.
    • Wipe residue off containers containing sugary stuff like peanut butter and jelly.
    • Keep fruit out of direct sunlight and check frequently for spoiled produce.
    • Vacuum or sweep regularly.
    • Rinse containers before putting them in the recycling bin.
    4. Keep a dry home. Insects love damp environments, so eliminate moisture and wet spots. To eliminate them, you can start by applying caulk to fix leaks around tubs and sinks. In your basement, check for stains on the ground that indicate dripping pipes and inspect above for cracks or loose fittings. Look for water spots in your ceiling that could mean a hole in your roof; in addition to an obvious roof issue, holes can also be an entry spot for bugs.

    5. Clean up the yard. Insects are likely to congregate under grass clippings, compost heaps and decaying leaves. They will also use branches touching your home as pathways, so trim branches and shrubbery to keep insects confined to plants. Clean up pet poop, and keep trash bins and compost heaps securely covered and away from your house.

    6. Invite birds. Birds are prettier to look at than bugs, and they like to eat them. Consider getting a bird feeder -- it's cheaper than a bird bath and it won't create a stagnant pool of water. Or you can make one free; check out Audubon.org for six examples. It's a nice weekend project for the family!

    7. Store firewood away from the house. Termites, ants and cockroaches like to hide out in woodpiles and the damp ground underneath. Keep firewood stacked on an elevated surface and stored away from your home. If you have lots of wood, you may want to look into getting a firewood rack, which allows wood to be stacked neatly and off the ground. Otherwise stack wood somewhere like a wheelbarrow or bench and cover it with a tarp.

    8. Make a homemade flytrap. I hate fruit flies. They pop up wherever there's something sweet and seem to linger forever. So after I got tired of running after them, trying to crush them in my clapping hands while yelling "fruit fly!" I took to a more scientific approach.

    I've tried several homemade flytraps, but I've had the most success with this: Add a squirt of dish soap to half a cup of apple cider vinegar in an open container. The flies are attracted to the sweet-smelling vinegar and the soap breaks the surface tension, drowning the fly. Put a few of them around the house where you see the pests, but don't put them near open windows; it encourages more to come in.

    9. Don't kill mice, trap them. I don't like killing mice because their dead bodies are a breeding ground for insects and bacteria. Instead, try this simple trap ($7 on Amazon), which has a 4-star average review and is reusable. There's also this slightly more expensive trap for $13.87, but it has even more positive recommendations and its transparent walls let you see if a mouse has been caught. To prevent mice from getting inside in the first place, plug holes like those found near baseboard heaters and dryer vents with steel wool.

    10. Practice mosquito management. Mosquitoes are annoying bloodsuckers that, at best, leave itchy red welts and, at worst, can transfer disease. We discussed ways to ward off the annoying bugs in "5 Cheap Steps to Eliminate Mosquitoes," like:
    • Get rid of standing water: Mosquitoes lay eggs in stagnant water, so take away their breeding ground by overturning water in open containers, and throwing mulch or soil over yard puddles.
    • Place minced garlic around your porch. Garlic's odor acts as a natural repellent to many insects, including mosquitoes.
    • Adding citronella, eucalyptus, cinnamon or castor oils to sunscreen can repel mosquitoes for when you need to work outside -- just be sure to follow the instructions and don't dump a cup of citronella on your face.
    • When you're sitting outside on the porch, use an oscillating fan. You'll love the nice breeze and wind is a mosquito's enemy.
    What do you do to eliminate bugs at your place? Tell us below or on our Facebook page!

    Kari Huus contributed to this report.

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

     

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    Senior businessman sitting at  computer holding hands to head
    Getty ImagesBefore officially retiring, test out a few ways to make working more tolerable.
    By David Ning

    Almost everyone hopes they will be able to retire someday, but many people are surprised that retired life isn't as good as they thought it would be. Part of the problem is that some people retire to escape from an unpleasant career, rather than to begin a whole new lifestyle. Before you make the mistake of resigning too soon, consider these moves if you are experiencing burnout.

    Look for a different source of income. No one who is already overworked and overtired wants to hear that they need to continue to work even harder. And finding new streams of income isn't always easy. But when you successfully find new ways to make money, you will be able to quit your old boring career and spend more of your time on something more exciting and fulfilling.

    Try to start another career. You may have to take a pay cut when you switch jobs, but it can still pay off if you enjoy the job enough to continue working longer than you would have stayed in your previous career. Perhaps you would like to work in an entirely new field or do similar work for a different industry. Either way, the unfamiliarity is likely to be refreshing enough for you to feel excited to learn again.

    Switch companies. If you don't have the desire or resources to change careers, switching to a different company in the same field could give you a bit of an energizing boost. Every company has its own culture, and you may find that you fit better into a new firm. Just because you are unhappy at your current job doesn't mean you are not fit for work anywhere. Don't give up. Find a place that's doing amazing things that you feel excited about.

    Spend to make life easier. Taking more vacations could help you to ease burnout. Hiring a few helpers around the house to do chores can also help you to feel less overwhelmed. Since you are staying at your job longer, you can afford to spend more of what is coming in to make life a little easier. You may think every frustration is work related, but feeling more relaxed because you have fewer chores and more time off may give you enough extra breathing room to have a better outlook when job tensions flare up.

    Make your work environment suit your lifestyle more. Speak up at work if there's a situation bothering you. Too few people are bold enough to voice their opinions, but chances are good that you aren't the only one with the same concern. Management may even appreciate your candidness. At the very least, your coworkers will show you more respect because you will become a voice of reason in a sea of messy corporate shenanigans.

    Find a hobby that forces you to exercise. I can't stress enough how much exercising helps. The long-term health benefits of exercise are well documented, and the increased energy can help you cope with the challenges of the everyday grind. Plus, exercising stimulates endorphin production, chemicals released by your body that trigger happiness.

    Try to climb the corporate ladder. Yes, there's still time to do this as you approach retirement. A job higher up in the hierarchy often means more autonomy at work, giving you power to make the work environment suit your personality. The increased freedom is at least part of the reason quite a few small business owners never want to quit. These individuals spent years finding people that work well with them, so there's no point leaving a job that meets their needs.

    Retired life can be incredibly rewarding, but that doesn't mean you should quit your job right away. If you are tired of the grind, try a few strategies to stay in the working world before you call it quits. Sometimes, a change of scenery is all it takes to inspire yourself to work a few years longer.

    David Ning is the founder of MoneyNing.com.

     

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    Inside Costco Wholesale Co. Ahead of Earnings ReleaseBy Raechel Conover

    When it comes to savings on household goods, groceries, and more, Costco (COST) has always been a winning solution in terms of slashing costs. Warehouse shopping is usually cheaper and Sam's Club, Costco and the like provide exceptional membership benefits. But what if you don't have a membership? All isn't lost. There are still ways to land discounts at Costco without paying the annual membership fee.

    Shop with a Member. The good old-fashioned way is to visit Costco with a member and fill your cart. While the member will need to pay for your order at checkout, Costco will kindly ring up two separate orders; just have cash or a check ready for the member upon leaving the store.

    Use a Costco Cash Card. Another option is to buy Costco cash cards in denominations up to $1,000 while at Costco with a member. Your member buddy will need to load the card for you, but then you can use it to enter the store and buy items without an escort. This is especially helpful for big-ticket purchases such as a TV, so you don't pay a membership fee for just one item.

    Use a Business Account. If your employer has a Costco business membership, lobby to be one of the two people whose name is on the account. While you may get stuck with a few office supply runs, you'll also be able to use the card for your own personal savings.

    Buy Alcohol. In about a dozen states, alcohol sales cannot be prohibited due to a club or membership. Check the laws in your state and, if it's allowed, explain to the door attendant that you are buying non-member goods. This can be a handy way to slash the cost of alcohol for parties or other events.

    Take Advantage of Health Services. Health services such as optical exams and hearing screenings are non-member allowances that Costco makes. However, if you need to buy glasses, contacts or hearing aids, a membership is required. Find a member willing to purchase and be reimbursed for these items or use a loaded Costco Cash Card.

    Use the Pharmacy. A Consumer Reports survey of generic drug prices found Costco to be the cheapest among more than 200 pharmacies, and prescription medications can be filled at the Costco pharmacy without a membership. Also available to non-members are immunizations such as the flu vaccine.

    Shop Online. Non-members can shop on Costco's website to take advantage of the warehouse club's bargain prices on certain items. Gift cards, for example, can be purchased at a discount online without a membership -- currently, score a $100 iTunes gift card for $84.49. The disadvantage is that non-members may be hit with a 5 percent surcharge on some orders.

    Use Instacart. The grocery delivery service Instacart will shop Costco on your behalf -- even if you don't have a membership. Consider this nice little loophole for Costco-priced groceries.

    Enjoy the Food Court. A Costco membership is required to get in the door and into the food court at many Costco locations. Yet if you live in a warmer climate where the food court is outside the store, food can be purchased without membership. Costco is known for serving pizza, hot dogs, and other morsels for less than $5.

    Buy a Membership. Although you can shop Costco without a membership, the $55 fee for a basic Costco membership may be worth the money if you expect to shop at the warehouse club regularly.

     

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    Family sitting on sofa watching television
    Erik Isakson/Getty Images
    By Naomi Mannino

    NEW YORK -- Ever click through all 700 HD channels on your cable or satellite service channel lineup only to announce, "Nothing's on..." with a long sigh?

    Maybe you added a streaming service such as Netflix (NFLX), Hulu Plus or Amazon (AMZN) Prime to get more shows when you want them. Or maybe you want to cut the cable cord entirely and just use video streaming but are worried about missing live sports and live news. To your cord-cutting arsenal, you can add SlingTV, a new streaming package by Dish Network (but without the dish) released in March that just might make cutting the cable cord a viable option.

    Sling TV includes ESPN and CNN among others and is a great option for people who want to cut the cable cord but can't live without those additional live sports and live news channels.

    Now there's another choice: CBS (CBS) will sell Showtime as a standalone over-the-top content through Hulu for $8.99 a month, cheaper than the $14.99-a-month HBONow.

    "Sling TV includes ESPN and CNN among others and is a great option for people who want to cut the cable cord but can't live without those additional live sports and live news channels," says Andrea Woroch, a consumer savings expert.

    Officially termed SVOD (subscription video-on-demand) and over-the-top TV-watching, online streaming services like these add more options to the traditional TV channel lineup from a paid cable or satellite provider.

    Digital TV Research projected the number of worldwide households using SVOD would grow from 21 million in 2010 to 83 million in 2014 and 199 million in 2020. Almost half (46 percent) of households in the U.S. have streaming service as of July, according to Nielsen. That percentage jumps to 62 percent among Millennials.

    This is all part of the changing tide -- less bland and general cable, more targeted on-demand. In fact, as TheStreet previously reported, when Disney (DIS) announced that ESPN had "modest subscriber losses" in its second quarter, shares tumbled 9.2 percent Wednesday. This is indicative of the future.

    With SVOD apps using a streaming device connecting your TV to the Internet, there is now the option of cutting out the paid cable subscription service (and bill) entirely, but there is a learning curve and you'll need a major attitude adjustment. Once you've learned to watch TV this new way, you'll be getting so much more from your TV while paying much less.

    Cancel the cable or satellite service ... and bill. Cord-cutting is all the rage. The cable industry shrank at a rate of 0.5 percent in the 12 months ending in May, according to media industry research firm MoffettNathanson. That's at least in part due to cost. If you've been paying for cable or satellite TV, you paid an average of $86 a month in 2011, according to The NPD Group. Rising to a 2015 prediction of $123 a month, you could be spending $1,476 a year, just for pay-TV programming. As a result, the U.S. in 2014 lost 176,000 subscribers to cable TV, satellite or fiber services, according to research firm SNL Kagan -- the second straight year of decline.

    Could you use that extra $100 elsewhere in your budget? If so, simply call up your provider and cancel your service. Be prepared for the provider to offer to reduce your rate or try to get you to bundle up and pay even more. Once the cable or satellite box is gone, you'll need to reconfigure your TV for SVOD viewing.

    Connect your TV to a video streaming device. If you hate watching TV on your iPad or computer, you'll need to connect your TV (via the HDMI port) to a video streaming device which connects it to the Internet wirelessly, as 47 percent of households already did in 2014, according to NPD Group. Then, you suddenly have access to a whole new world of viewing content in the form of "apps" that represent each channel you already know and love plus many more you've yet to discover. John Buffone, Connected Intelligence industry analyst for The NPD Group, says one of the big changes this year is increased affordability of these devices with an average one-time price as low as $35. "Since cost is removed from the equation, you can try the one that appeals to you most," he says.
    • Roku: ($47 to $99 on Amazon): This tiny device is loaded with hundreds of free and paid SVOD apps accessed with its own remote.
    • Chromecast: ($32.22 on Amazon): It uses your Smartphone, laptop or tablet as the remote. When accessed via a laptop it can pull up any webpage onto your TV.
    • Apple TV: ($67.87 on Amazon): If you're a big Apple user, the Apple TV (which now has a reduced price of $68) device can access all content from your iPhone and iPad as well as a huge library of TV and movie viewing apps. HBO Now will be available exclusively on Apple TV.
    • Amazon Fire TV Stick ($39 on Amazon): device plugs in directly to your TV's HDMI port and boasts four times the storage and two times the memory of Chromecast. It has a dedicated remote and remote app and voice search capability on the mobile app.
    Other choices include streaming devices from NetGear and the new Amazon Fire TV ($99 on Amazon.com). Blu-ray Disc players and gaming consoles such as PlayStation 3 or Xbox One also double as streaming video devices.

    Pay for a few cheap SVOD services.
    • SVOD or OTT paid subscriptions are extremely inexpensive, a mere fraction of what your cable TV bill was. It used to be if you didn't know about a show you simply missed it or you'd jump in mid-season. Now you can "marathon" or "binge-watch" as many episodes as you want when you want, some from the very beginning of the series. At $7 to $10 a month, these services each offer something different, with a lot of cross over, so choose the one(s) most meaningful to you.Netflix: You can watch an entire production, every season from the pilot to series finale or the last completed year for most major TV series (updated often) such as "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" plus have access to some exclusive, original award-worthy Netflix series you may have heard about: "House of Cards," "Orange is The New Black" and "Hemlock Grove" among many 2014 newcomers. There's also a huge catalog of documentaries, kids' shows, reality TV, stand-up comedy and movies. Netflix learns what you like and suggests new shows and movies without ads or added fees. New 2014 members pay $8.99 monthly while existing subscribers keep their $7.99 monthly fee. Use the Netflix free trial month to see if shows you want are available. If not, you might also need Hulu Plus.
    • Hulu Plus: This SVOD service differs in providing current season TV viewing the next day after episodes actually aired. So, for example, if I love to watch Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" (not available on Netflix), I can watch it whenever I want on Hulu Plus which offers many episodes of the current season, but not the entire season or series like Netflix. Hulu Plus also has many original and exclusive shows and costs $7.99 a month (with ads) with no additional fees, although the ads are annoying. If you don't want to suffer through ads, you can pay $11.99 a month for an interruption-free experience. Hulu also added movies from Epix after Netflix dropped its Epix deal, and it has offerings from in-season episodes of hits like Fox's "Empire." Now, some networks are getting smart and not selling the rights to their shows universally or on Netflix or Hulu Plus, and that's when you need Amazon Prime.
    • Amazon Prime: CBS's "Extant" with Halle Berry and "Under the Dome" have exclusive streaming agreements with Amazon Prime, the only place you can see the show on-demand and if you do not have local network access. It's also the only place you can find all previous seasons (1-4) of "Downton Abbey" included (but not the current season, which you can access for free on the PBS app on a Roku every week after each episode airs). And most recently, Amazon gained permission to exclusively stream a vast amount of past and present HBO content and has been pumping out original shows such as the Golden Globe-winning series "Transparent." While they do offer viewing from the pilot to present, the current season and sometimes the prior season are pay per view which defeats the purpose of having Amazon Prime, although you do also get that free two-day shipping. And, they just raised the yearly price to $99 from $79 last year, (still, that's just $8.25 a month).
    • Sling TV: Now you can finally close the gap on some cable channels that are just not available on any other TV streaming service such as ESPN, ESPN2 and CNN. Sling TV by Dish Network (DISH) offers an app for any Roku (it isn't currently available on Apple TV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast). Still the current hook-up availability includes 22 popular channels you may have been missing for just $20 a month. Sling TV will also offer you AMC (for your "Walking Dead" fix), IFC and a movie package. Beware: while you can download the app onto all your devices, only one person can watch Sling TV on your account at one time. Sling TV has a 7-day free trial so you can evaluate whether you watch it enough to warrant the additional $20 a month.
    • HBO NOW: For $14.99 a month, Time Warner (TWC) is offering HBO's Internet-based stand-alone service HBO Now, which allows consumers to HBO's award-winning original programming like "VEEP" and "Girls."
    • Showtime: Starting on July 12 in advance of shows Ray Donovan andMasters of Sex, the commercial broadcast network will offer, Showtime will be offered for $8.99 a month through Hulu as the first premium service to be offered through to Hulu's subscriber base of almost 9 million people nationwide. Of course, new and existing subscribers will have to also pay $7.99 for Hulu use. Showtime had previously said it would offer a $10.99-a-month stand-alone Internet iteration of premium channel Showtime -- including an Apple partnership.
    • Custom TV: This offer from Verizon (VZ) FiOS offers a bulky bundle at $79.99 a month -- including Internet and phone. But it does provide a skinnier bundle and allows consumers to eschew certain channels, like ESPN, while still having access to premium channels like HBO and Showtime at no extra cost for 12 months.
    • CNBC Pro: The business news juggernaut is offering CNBC TV in streaming form for $29.99 a month as part of CNBC Pro, the station's subscription offering. As an added benefit, you get it commercial free.
    So for the three major SVOD services, you have a massive amount of new, current and past programming to explore via apps on your streaming device to use at will for just about $24 a month compared to that $100 monthly paid cable or satellite subscription. If you add SlingTV, you're up to $44 a month plus tax. Woroch advises you use all the free trials for streaming subscriptions if you want to cut the cable or satellite cord entirely too see which you want to watch the most.

    And, there are hundreds more free TV channel apps including those from most network and cable TV channels offering a lot of free content such as History Channel and PBS.

    Do you want local network channels? Sports? Now, if there is still a network show in season that you can't live without such as "The Big Bang Theory" or your local news or even special network events such as the Olympics or local market sports coverage which you want to watch as it airs or it is not available or it is not available on any of SVOD services or devices, then you might want to get a local network antenna.

    Depending on many factors, they can range in their one-time price from $30 for an indoor antenna to $250 for a large outdoor antenna installed. There is no single type of antenna that will work for everyone as TV reception depends on your distance from the broadcast signal, its strength, obstructions and more.

    Check the Consumer Electronics Association's www.AntennaWeb.org website to identify appropriate antenna attributes based on your location. Do you need full market sports coverage?

    With your network antenna you'll have the local market sports coverage from Fox and CBS plus NBC's Sunday Night Football and CBS's Thursday Night Football. The offering includes a special game between the Dolphins and the Jets in London on Oct. 4.

    DirecTV will sell you NFL Sunday Ticket without a full satellite subscription, but it costs hundreds of dollars per season.

    This fall, Yahoo (YHOO) will stream one NFL game, a deal that cost the technology company a reported $20 million. To boot, fans of America's pastime can get wide access to baseball diamonds across the country: the MLB streams out-of-market games for $99 a year, available through Roku, Xbox, AppleTV andSony PlayStation.

    But if that's not enough, you may need a pricier SVOD app such as MLB.TV which cost $125 last season ($10 a month) for access to every out-of-market season game. For the uninitiated, the out-of-market arrangement means you can't stream your local team when it's being shown in your local TV market.

    Forget TV schedules forever. Back when DVR became popular, you could record shows and watch when convenient for you, but with limitations.

    "These new apps coupled with the devices remove the need to remember schedules or record shows," Buffone says. "They are simply there when you want to watch them."

    For those addicted to "Game of Thrones," there's HBO Now. Or for those desperate to watch the current Season 5 of "The Walking Dead" or the much-awaited prequel to "Breaking Bad" -- "Better Call Saul," which premiered on AMC this past February -- there's Sling TV. Inevitably, in some cases, it's impossible to see some show sand current episodes without paying for cable or paying per episode on Amazon Prime. But, channel lineups and licensing agreements are constantly changing and many other major players are scrambling to get into the streaming game.

    Woroch adds, ""The problem now is that people want it all and now that Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime are all producing exclusive shows -- think: Netflix's "House of Cards" among many others -- consumers may want to keep all the streaming subscriptions including the paid cable."

    For this reason, Buffone says most people won't actually cancel their cable subscription and adopt this cheaper, more flexible way of watching TV and instead add SVOD on to their paid subscriptions. What about you?

     

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    Chicken farms must convert to cage free in California
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
    By CANDICE CHOI

    NEW YORK -- McDonald's says it will switch to cage-free eggs in the U.S. and Canada over the next decade, marking the latest push under CEO Steve Easterbrook to try and reinvent the Big Mac-maker as a "modern, progressive burger company."

    Under pressure to revive slumping sales, McDonald's (MCD) has already announced a number of changes since Easterbrook stepped into his role earlier this year. In March, the Oak Brook, Illinois, company said it would switch to chickens raised without most antibiotics. And in April, it said it would raise pay for workers at company-owned stores, which represent about 10 percent of its domestic locations.

    The decision to switch to cage-free eggs, meanwhile, signals a growing sensitivity among customers to animal welfare issues. That has been fueled in part by places such as Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) that have made animal welfare standards part of their marketing.

    It's a real watershed moment. It makes it clearer than ever that cages just do not have a future in the egg industry.

    Animal welfare activists also have long called for the banishment of battery cages, which confine hens to spaces so small they're barely able to move. For at least the past 10 years, the Humane Society of the United States has pressed McDonald's to switch to cage-free eggs at the company's annual shareholders meeting, said Paul Shapiro, the group's vice president of farm and animal protection.

    "It's a real watershed moment," Shapiro said of the decision by McDonald's. "It makes it clearer than ever that cages just do not have a future in the egg industry."

    Regulatory changes could also be making it easier for companies to agree to change. In California, a law now requires that egg-laying hens be given enough space to stretch, turn around and flap their wings.

    Among the companies that have said they will switch to cage-free eggs are Subway and Starbucks, although neither of those chains has laid out a timeline for when they expect the transition to be complete.

    Already, McDonald's says it buys about 13 million cage-free eggs a year in the U.S. But that is still less than 1 percent of the 2 billion eggs it uses annually to make menu items such as Egg McMuffins. Overall, only about 6 percent of the nation's egg-laying hens are cage-free, according to the United Egg Producers. Chad Gregory, CEO of the industry group, said he expects that figure to climb.

    Marion Gross, senior vice president of the North American supply chain at McDonald's, said the company is working with its existing egg suppliers to convert housing systems for hens. Gross said she thinks the change will be "truly meaningful" to customers.

    "They know how big we are, and the impact we can make on the industry," Gross said.

    McDonald' is also likely to increase its egg purchasing over time; starting Oct. 6, the company plans to offer select breakfast items all day in the U.S.

     

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    Gas Prices
    Lynne Sladky/AP
    By John Kemp

    LONDON -- As the summer driving season ends, U.S. gasoline prices have fallen to the lowest level for the time of year since 2004, wiping out the effect of more than a decade of rising fuel bills.

    The average retail price of gasoline across the United States was just $2.53 a gallon Monday, including federal, state and local taxes, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

    Retail prices have fallen by $1 a gallon, approximately 30 percent, compared with the same time last year and haven't been this low at the end of the driving season since 2004.

    Reuters
    Gasoline prices are seasonal, reflecting higher demand in summer than winter and the limited capacity of the refining system.

    Over the last decade, gasoline prices have generally fallen on average by 50 cents a gallon between the close of the driving season and the end of the year.

    If that pattern is repeated, average gasoline prices could finish the year around $2 a gallon, which would again be the lowest in nominal terms since 2004.

    On the West Coast, fuel remains relatively expensive, owing to problems with the region's refineries, which have left gasoline stocks unusually low.

    But in the rest of the country, fuel is comparatively cheap and prices are sending a strong signal to consumers that it is okay to use more of it.

    Economic expansion and rising employment are also boosting driving but cheaper fuel is turbo-charging fuel consumption.

    Demand Responds

    In response to lower gasoline prices, motorists are using their cars more and buying larger vehicles which offer more power and more space but get fewer miles a gallon.

    Statistics on gasoline consumption, traffic volumes and auto sales all tell a consistent story about strongly rising demand.

    Gasoline consumption averaged 9.5 million barrels per day during August, according to the EIA, the highest seasonal level since 2007.

    low gas prices fuel demand
    Reuters
    As the summer drew to a close, consumption was up by around 400,000 bpd, about 5 percent, compared with 2014.

    The volume of traffic on U.S. roads is also rising fast, and the increase is apparent in states as diverse as New Hampshire and Florida.

    Florida's traffic rose by almost 3 percent in the first six months of 2015 compared with the same period in 2014, the fastest increase since 2005, according to the state department of transportation.

    New Hampshire's traffic was up by around 2.5 percent between January and July compared with the same months in 2014, the fastest increase in more than a decade.

    Motorists are also buying larger, more fuel-hungry vehicles. Car sales were up by 2.7 percent in August compared with the prior year but light truck sales surged 5.5 percent, according to Wards Auto.

    For the first eight months of the year, car sales actually edged down slightly while truck sales soared by almost 10 percent, according to Wards.

    International Sales

    In general, traffic volumes and fuel sales are more closely related to macroeconomic variables like income and employment rather than fuel prices ("Dynamic demand analyzes for gasoline and residential electricity" 1974).

    But the drop in fuel prices over the last 12 months has been so large it is having a measurable impact on both the type of vehicles motorists are choosing and the amount they drive.

    As the driving season ends, traffic volumes and fuel consumption volumes will slow seasonally through the end of the year.

    But the structural increase in demand from larger vehicles and more usage will continue to boost fuel consumption compared with prior year levels.

    Moreover, it isn't confined to the United States. Traffic volumes and fuel consumption are also growing rapidly in Britain, according to the U.K. Department for Transport.

    low gas prices fuel demand
    Reuters
    Most OECD countries tax fuel much more heavily than the United States so changes in the cost of crude oil have a smaller percentage impact on the final cost of fuel.

    Heavy fuel taxes make consumption even less responsive to changes in oil prices than in the United States. But the drop in fuel prices over the last 12 months has been so large it is having a measurable impact even in high-tax countries.

    Traffic on Britain's roads increased almost 3 percent in the second quarter compared with the same period in 2014, the fastest increase since 2002 (excluding periods affected by unusually bad weather).

    Low fuel prices are stimulating the fastest growth in rich-country oil demand in a decade which will gradually help force the oil market back into balance.

    (John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.)

     

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    Unemployment Benefits
    Alan Diaz/AP
    By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER

    WASHINGTON -- The number of available jobs jumped sharply in July to the highest level in 15 years, evidence that confident employers sought to step up hiring to meet greater demand for their goods and services.

    Job openings soared 8 percent to 5.75 million, the most since records began in 2000, the Labor Department said Wednesday. Yet overall hiring slumped, suggesting that employers are slow to fill the jobs they have advertised.

    The big jump in openings in July would typically point to greater hiring in the months ahead. Yet China's economy stumbled in August, raising fears among investors of weaker global growth and causing violent swings in the U.S. and overseas stock markets.

    That may cause employers to take a cautious approach in coming months toward actually placing people in open positions.

    At the same time, the sharp rise in available jobs could lead to larger paychecks. As more employers compete to fill available jobs, they may be forced to raise wages to attract candidates from the dwindling number of unemployed.

    The data ... now signal unambiguously that the labor market is unable to supply the people companies need.

    The surge in openings may also be a sign that employers are having difficulty finding workers with the skills they need. That would leave jobs open for longer periods and boost the number of positions available.

    "The data ... now signal unambiguously that the labor market is unable to supply the people companies need," Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, wrote in a note to clients. "Usually, that means wages will accelerate, though the evidence for that now is mixed."

    In the past 12 months, average hourly pay has increased just 2.2 percent, up from a 2 percent pace in July. But that is below the 3.5 percent to 4 percent that is typical in a healthy economy.

    The figures come after last Friday's jobs report pointed to steady, if modest, hiring. Employers added 173,000 jobs in August, the fewest in five months, but job gains in June and July were revised higher.

    As a result, in the three months from May through August, job gains averaged a solid 221,000 a month, up from an average of 189,000 in the preceding three months.

    The unemployment rate fell to 5.1 percent, the lowest in seven years, from 5.3 percent. Still, a broader measure that includes those looking for work, people working part-time but who would prefer full-time jobs, and Americans who have stopped looking for jobs, stood at 10.3 percent.

    That suggests the job market isn't quite as healthy as the unemployment rate would indicate.

    The job gains reported by the government on Friday are a net total: Jobs gained minus jobs lost. The data reported Wednesday, in the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, are more detailed. They calculate total hires, as well as quits and layoffs.

    Wednesday's JOLTS data contain figures for July, a month behind last week's jobs report.

     

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    APTOPIX Apple
    Eric Risberg/APApple CEO Tim Cook discusses the new iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus during the Apple event Wednesday in San Francisco.
    SAN FRANCISCO -- Apple is taking a small step with its latest iPhone while trying to make a bigger leap in other key markets with its largest iPad yet and a long-awaited overhaul of its online video box for TVs.

    The trend-setting company unveiled its newest twists on technology Wednesday in San Francisco before the usual packed house that turned out for a glimpse at a product line that Apple is counting on to retain its faithful disciples and win new converts.

    As expected, Apple's next iPhone is making relatively minor improvements to the model last year that generated more excitement because it boasted a larger screen. The iPhone 6S hews to Apple's recent strategy of releasing major redesigns of its top-selling device every other year.

    The iPhone 6S will go on sale Sept. 25 in the U.S., China, the U.K. and nine other countries at prices starting at $200 with a commitment to a two-year wireless contract. Pre-orders begin starting Saturday.

    Perhaps just as importantly to the millions of consumers who still own older iPhone models with smaller screens, the price for last year's iPhone 6 model is dropping to $99 with a two-year contract. Some analysts believe that price reduction will unleash a wave of sales to consumers who stayed on the sidelines because they didn't want to spend so much for the bigger screen.

    A new tablet coming out in November may also give more people a reason to buy an iPad. Called the iPad Pro, it features a nearly 13-inch, diagonal screen and is designed to appeal to corporate customers and government agencies.

    Since releasing its original iPad, Apple has confined the screen size to 10 inches and focused on selling the tablet to consumers. But iPad sales have been falling since 2013 amid competition from lower-priced tablets and consumers' reluctance to upgrade from earlier models.

    Prices for the iPad Pro will range from $799 to more than $1,000. A stylus for the tablet will cost $100 and a detachable keyboard will sell for an additional $170.

    The redesigned Apple TV box relies on a system that revolves around apps and voice controls. Its price will start at $150, more expensive than competing devices from competitors such as Roku, Amazon's Fire TV and Google's Chromecast that already have been offering some of the same features that will now be available in the new Apple TV box.

    Investors seemed unimpressed with Apple's line-up. Apple Inc. (AAPL) stock slipped $1.20 to $111.10 in Wednesday's late afternoon trading them, leaving the shares 17 percent below their peak reached earlier this year.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks ended more than 1 percent lower Wednesday after rallying the day before, led by declines in Apple shares and in energy companies, which fell with oil prices.

    Apple (AAPL) shares ended down 1.9 percent at $110.15 in heavy trading, erasing earlier gains as it launched new products in San Francisco.

    Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook announced a new version of the Apple TV with an app store and voice-controlled remote control. Some analysts said investors sold Apple shares because expectations were so high heading into the event.

    Among Apple's suppliers, Qualcomm (QCOM) shares fell 1.6 percent at $54.32, Skyworks Solutions (SWKS) was down 1.5 percent at $86.42 and Avago Technologies (AVGO) was down 1.5 percent at $127.17. U.S.-traded shares of STMicroelectronics (STM) fell 6 percent to $7.04.

    Investors are still looking for policy developments out of China, and also wary of what might come out of the Fed next week.

    Energy led declines among S&P 500 sectors, falling 1.9 percent as U.S. oil prices settled down 3.9 percent. Chevron (CVX) was down 2.5 percent at $74.92.

    The volatile session reversed early gains of as much as 1 percent. Indexes had rallied more than 2 percent Tuesday.

    "We had a nice rally yesterday based on an oversold position. There really wasn't anything to create a follow-through, so the buying just kind of ran out of steam," said Bucky Hellwig, senior vice president at BB&T Wealth Management in Birmingham, Alabama.

    "Investors are still looking for policy developments out of China, and also wary of what might come out of the Fed next week."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI)​ fell 239.11 points, or 1.5 percent, to 16,253.57, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC)​ lost 27.37 points, or 1.4 percent, to 1,942.04 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC)​ dropped 55.40 points, or 1.2 percent, to 4,756.53.

    U.S. job openings surged in July, Labor Department data showed, suggesting strength in the economy ahead of the U.S. Federal Reserve's interest rate meeting next week.

    Overseas, China's Ministry of Finance said the government will strengthen fiscal policy, boost infrastructure spending and speed up tax reform, adding steps to reenergize growth.

    Global financial markets have been rattled in recent weeks by fears that China's slowdown could drag on already sluggish global growth, prompting some investors to bet that the U.S. central bank will delay a hike until the end of the year.

    Movers and Shakers

    Barnes & Noble (BKS) fell 27.6 percent to $11.80. The largest U.S. bookstore chain reported a decline in sales for the fifth consecutive quarter.

    Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals (TTPH) sank 78.8 percent to $9.49 after its experimental bowel drug failed to meet the main goal in a late-stage study.

    Netflix (NFLX), which was up 4.4 percent at $99.18, broke a seven-day losing streak and was among the biggest boosts to the S&P 500.

    NYSE declining issues outnumbered advancers 2,301 to 744, for a 3.09-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,949 issues fell and 865 advanced, for a 2.25-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted 4 new 52-week highs and 3 lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 43 new highs and 51 lows.

    About 7.2 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 7.4 billion daily average for the month to date, according to data from BATS Global Markets.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • The Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • At 10 a.m., Commerce Department releases wholesale trade inventories for July, and Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Lululemon Athletica (LULU)
    • Restoration Hardware (RH)

     

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    Save Thousands With Used Baby Gear
    Whether you're a new or expecting parent, you know that the costs of buying new gear for your newborn can quickly get old. Here are some tips on how to raise your bundle of joy without spending a bundle of cash.

    First, babies will outgrow everything in just a few months. Instead of buying new, go online to SwapMamas.com for a great selection of hand-me-downs. At Swapmamas, there's absolutely no money exchanged. Simply browse for an item you want and trade other parents for their used baby goods.

    Next, buying pre-owned baby furniture is great, but some items are best bought new. Car seats have a lifespan of about six years and should withstand only one crash before being replaced. Be sure to check the bottom of the seat to find its expiration date. Also, you should only buy cribs new. This will ensure it was made after June 28, 2011, when the latest government mandated safety codes went into effect.

    Lastly, buying used clothes is a fantastic way to save money, but for your child's safety, be sure to avoid anything with drawstrings, and check that all buttons, zippers and clasps are secure.

    As you stock up on used items for your new baby, remember these tips to keep both your child and budget safe. You'll see that buying used things for your little one doesn't have to mean big prices.

    View Poll

     

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    Churchill Downs
    Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty ImagesRiders at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
    Companies aren't as generous with shareholder perks as they used to be, but there are still a handful of publicly traded companies that give investors more than just dividend checks and the potential for capital gains.

    It didn't always used to be that way. Two decades ago I was receiving gift packs of Wrigley's gum over the holidays, hotel discounts at Disney's (DIS) resorts and front-of-the-line passes at Rainforest Cafe just for being a shareholder.

    Perks were already drying up a decade later when I decided to chronicle the thinning list of companies still rewarding investors at ShareholderPerks.org. There were still some occasional benefits. Shareholders of Starbucks (SBUX) and McDonald's (MCD) were treated to free beverage vouchers in their annual reports, but as digital delivery began to become the communications platform of choice, we found most consumer-oriented companies put an end to their treats for investors.

    Let's go over some of the few companies that still shell out shareholder perks.

    Churchill Downs (CHDN)

    Churchill Downs is a provider of pari-mutuel horse racing and other casino gaming services. It's the company behind the Kentucky Derby, and folks who own at least 100 shares receive two free passes that allow free general admission at all of its racing and off-track-betting facilities.

    Shareholders get access to Churchill Downs' namesake venue, and that means the passes are also good for general admission to attend the Kentucky Oaks and the Kentucky Derby.

    Carnival Cruises (CCL)

    The world's largest cruise line wishes its stakeholders a little extra bon voyage. Shareholders who own at least 100 shares of Carnival can apply for a stateroom credit on sailings. How much investors get in onboard spending money depends on the length of the cruise. Sailings of six days or fewer get $50, but that ramps up to $100 for journeys between seven and 13 days and $150 for sailings of at least two weeks. The credit isn't usable for gratuities or casino credits.

    Reservations must be made by the end of February for sailings through the end of July. Carnival updates the perk annually, but it's had the same credit levels over the past few years.

    If you want to save even more money, rival Royal Caribbean (RCL) offers a similar plan with higher levels of onboard credit that top out at $250 for sailings of 14 nights or longer.

    Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A) (BRK-B)

    Warren Buffett is arguably the best investor of our time, and Berkshire Hathaway has certainly rewarded investors over the long haul. Owners who can afford at least a single share of Berkshire Hathaway also are entitled to discounts on Geico insurance. The rate varies by state, but it can be as much as 8 percent.

    However, the biggest perk of Berkshire Hathaway ownership is access to the annual shareholder meeting. Beyond getting to be in attendance while Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger offer investing insight for hours, shareholders also get to shop at the exclusive store during the meeting that offers markdowns from Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. He has run a site listing shareholder perks since 2006. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Berkshire Hathaway, Starbucks and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    The Best Birthday Freebies

    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    Are you ready for some freebies? (For maximum effect, say that again in your best Michael Buffer voice.)

    OK, good. Now that we've established you are in fact ready for freebies, I sincerely hope you have a birthday coming up sometime in the next 12 months.

    Yes? Excellent.

    Because there are dozens of businesses that want to give you free stuff on your birthday. Even better, they don't all have to be claimed on your actual birthday. Some may be used in the weeks before or after your big day. Play your cards right, and you could be enjoying free food all month long. Beyond food, you could be in line for discounts, coupons and goodies from other retailers.

    The catch is, you usually have to be signed up for a company's email newsletter in order to get the birthday freebie coupon. Make sure you sign up well in advance, because email subscriptions don't always kick immediately.

    In addition, since newsletter lists have the potential to fill your inbox with junk as well as freebies, I recommend setting up a separate email account to use specifically for these sign-ups. Live.com is one place to get a free email address.

    And finally, we need to, of course, put in the disclaimer that companies can and do change promotions without advance notice. However, these were all, to the best of our knowledge, accurate and available at the time of writing. If you find a freebie doesn't work or if you know of one we missed, please leave a message in the comments below.

    Now that the details are out of the way -- on to the freebies!

    30 Restaurant Birthday Freebies

    It seems as if just about every restaurant offers a birthday deal. They are hoping you'll not only come in for your birthday freebie, but also bring along 10 of your closest family members and friends who will spend big bucks.

    If you don't see your favorite restaurant on the list, check out their website and sign up for their mailing list anyway. You may just get a freebie coupon in your inbox. Plus, it never hurts to tell your server it's your birthday (assuming it actually is your birthday) to see if they do anything special in-house. 15 Retail Birthday Freebies Food seems to be the main event when it comes to birthday freebies, but don't overlook retail store offers. Here's a rundown of some of the retailers offering free stuff to help you celebrate another year of your feet on the ground. 5 Other Birthday Discounts These aren't freebies, but they are discounts that are only available to the birthday boy or girl. Again, sign up for the company newsletter to have the discounts sent to your inbox. How do you like to celebrate your birthday? Do discounts and freebies influence the way you spend your day? Share with us in comments below 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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    US dollars covered with autumn leaves
    Getty ImagesStruggling to save each month? Now's the time to rework your budget, so you don't fall behind in the last months of the year.
    By Sabah Karimi

    The year is coming to a close in a few short months, and if you're still struggling to meet your savings goals or are worried about upcoming expenses, now is the time to take control of your financial life. Autumn is the perfect time to review your spending habits and make some much-needed changes before holiday spending season gets underway.

    Here are seven budget moves you need to be making this fall:

    1. Take advantage of open enrollment season. If your employer offers a great health insurance benefits package, make sure you sign up for the right plan during open enrollment season. Most employers schedule their open enrollment during the fall months since your new coverage will start in January of the upcoming year. Get in touch with your human resources department if they haven't reached out to you yet so you can maximize your benefits, set up a flexible spending account for the upcoming year and make adjustments to your insurance plans as needed.

    2. Set new savings goals. Whether you want to save for your teen's college expenses or establish an emergency fund, there's no better time to start. The 2015 "How America Saves for College" report from Sallie Mae revealed that parents who plan for college have saved 46 percent more money than non-planners. Sallie Mae spokesman Rick Castellano recommends simply getting started. His approach: "Start by setting a specific goal and saving toward it and track your progress. By being able to take smaller, digestible bites out of long-term goals, saving becomes a more manageable task." Even if you fell short of some of those financial resolutions and savings goals you set at the beginning of the year, there's still time to end this year on a good note.

    3. Start or grow a holiday spending account. Are you ready for this year's holiday shopping season? If you ended up using credit cards or dipping in to a savings account to cover some of those holiday expenses last year, don't make those bad financial moves again by starting a savings account now. The average American planned on spending $765 on holiday gifts in 2014, according to a CNBC All-America Economic Survey. If you don't have money set aside to take care of holiday shopping duties this season, now is a great time to start. Even setting aside $50 a week will help you save up to half or more of your annual holiday shopping budget, so there is no need to turn to credit cards or a savings account to cover this year's costs. Tighten up your budget for the next few months so that you can set aside some extra cash specifically for those holiday shopping sprees.

    4. Start winterizing your home. Cleaning out the gutters, installing insulated windows and hanging insulated curtains are a few tasks that need to be taken care of around the home as temperatures drop. Get a head start on these activities and put together a to-do list with estimated costs. Starting now will give you a chance to get quotes from local service providers and shop around for the best deals on supplies and tools you might need to get the job done yourself.

    5. Prepare your vehicle for the colder months. Get your car ready for the cooler months so you aren't stressing about worn tires, window replacements or transmission issues in the dead of winter. Take the car in for a maintenance check, and take care of basic tasks such as oil changes, radiator flushing and other necessities. Seek out special deals and promos from area dealerships or service providers to save on car maintenance costs.

    6. Be smart with a wardrobe refresh. Fall is a great time to update your wardrobe, but make sure you do it without overspending. Take inventory of your closet and donate anything that you will most likely never wear again. Be sure to get a receipt for tax benefits. Clearing out your closet will give you a better idea of what you truly need so you can put together a shopping list of must-haves. Invest in some basics that you can wear for several months to come, and don't overlook the option to shop the clearance racks of summer inventory to pick out some pieces you can layer.

    7. Revisit your monthly budget. When was the last time you looked at your budget? Are you even working with a current one? If you're having a hard time saving money each month or always seem to be living paycheck to paycheck, now is a great time to create or rework your budget so you can get yourself ahead as the new year unfolds. Use tools such as You Need a Budget or the Mint smartphone app to track expenses and create a customized budget that works for you. Starting or updating your budget now can set you up for financial success just in time for the holidays and in to the new year.

    Sabah Karimi is a columnist for the blog Wise Bread, where you can find consumer tips like how to select the best balance transfer credit cards.

     

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