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DailyFinance.com

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    Woman not enjoying a meal
    Getty Images
    By Paul Michael

    Growing up, I often remember seeing my parents noticeably upset with the service they received or the products they had bought. After one particularly poor experience at a restaurant they said, "We just won't eat here again." But when asked, "How was the meal?" they both smiled and said "Fine, thanks."

    Now, maybe this is the classic reserve of the English or maybe they're too polite for their own good, but that was not the correct way to go about it.

    When you have a poor experience with anything, you need to speak up and also ask for compensation of some kind. It's the natural way to keep these places in check, so that bad service or poor quality products are not constantly being presented to the public. Always be polite and treat the people you're dealing with respectfully, but if any of the following eight instances occur... ask for a discount.

    1. When You Get Poor Service at a Restaurant

    Let's just clarify that the service should be uncharacteristically poor. If you wait a long time to get seated on a Friday evening or your server is so busy he or she forgets to bring the extra fries you ordered, give the place -- and your server -- a break. This is more about poor service that could easily be avoided.

    If the food arrives cold, the fish is raw, the meat is very overcooked or the server is just plain rude, you definitely have a reason to talk to the manager. Explain what has happened, how it impacted your dining experience and ask for a discount. In most cases, you will get at least a few of the items removed from your bill. In extreme cases, when everything went wrong, you may very well be told not to pay anything. However, if the server was great in spite of all the problems, don't forget to leave him or her a tip.

    2. When Your Event Seats Aren't Good

    Unless you are warned specifically before you buy them (some will say things like "obscured view" or "partial view of stage" and should already be discounted), there is no reason to pay the same price as other people if your seats are terrible. This happened to me when I went to see Cirque du Soleil. There was no warning that the seats I bought were right behind one of the poles holding up the big top. My wife and I were leaning left and right through the entire performance. After, I spoke to the staff and received a discount and a free CD of the music from that evening. If you have poor seats, ask to speak to the event manager. Demand a discount, if you can handle the poor seating or ask to be moved if it is possible.

    3. When Anything Is Not Quite as Described

    From the food or service, to the product attributes, if you were sold something based on information that was slightly incorrect, you should demand a discount. If the tool set indicates "25 great tools for around the home" and there are actually only 23 inside, that's misleading. This can sometimes happen when manufacturers change the product, but not the packaging. In any case where you have been a little misled, intentionally or not, you are entitled to a discount. You'll get it, too.

    4. When the Product Is a Floor Model

    Do not let the store clerk fool you with a bunch of tricky talk about this item not being able to be discounted any further. The floor models are used. They may not have been used in someone's home, but they're used nonetheless. In some cases, for much longer than if it was in a home; especially those TVs and computers that are on the shop floor day in, day out.

    So, find a manager and ask for the price to be reduced beyond what is shown on the sticker. They want to get rid of these items. They'd obviously prefer to sell it to someone who will pay sticker, but they will go lower. And as the item is used and most likely blemished, you should demand a discount. I do this every time and it has worked every time.

    5. When You Pay Cash

    Cash is king. That's as true today as it was fifty years ago and if you are lucky enough to have the money on hand to pay in cash, be it something small or a new home, you should definitely take advantage of it. "How much of a reduction can I get if I pay cash for this house, right now?" This is something buyers aren't expecting and it is incredibly tempting. Cash is a sure thing. Financing can fall through, interest rates fluctuate, but cash is cash. In stores, merchants pay fees for credit card transactions, so you could easily get a cash discount.

    However, don't expect this discount when buying a car. Dealerships get big incentives for financing offers and you take that away from them if you offer to pay cash. In fact, you may pay more if you pay cash, so don't do that. You can always pay off the loan a week or two later.

    6. When the Item is Broken, Scratched or Dented

    Why would you pay for a broken item at all? Well, it all depends what you want to use it for. If it's a superficial break, say on the case of the product, but the product itself works just fine, ask for a discount. The store is more than happy to oblige. If you notice a huge dent on the fridge that was just delivered, but the dent won't be seen or you just don't care, ask for a discount. If the item is scratched or damaged but it doesn't impair the function and you are okay with it, ask for your discount. And if the item is completely broken, but you want to repair it yourself or need it for parts, ask for a big discount.

    In all cases, you are doing the store a favor and they will be happy to negotiate a deal. This even goes for sellers on Craigslist or eBay. If the item is not as pristine as described, but you're happy to take it, ask for the discount.

    7. When the Seller Is in a Hurry

    If you ever encounter a "motivated seller" you know you're about to get a discount. Motivated sellers are those who need to sell and sell fast, usually because they're about to leave the state. Sometimes, they need money quickly, for reasons you probably don't want to ask about. Whatever the reason, you should take advantage of this. Flea market sellers will offer discounts as they are packing up for the day and so will people operating garage sales. Smile, ask for a discount and you'll usually get it.

    8. When the Store Is Closing or Going Out of Business

    Blockbuster. Circuit City. Sharper Image. They all bit the dust and they all had "closing down" sales. When this happens, start haggling. A store that is going out of business presents problems for buyers, especially when it comes to buying things that may have warranty issues. For this reason, you should demand a discount. When one store is closing, perhaps because a particular location is not performing as well as it should, you don't have as much leverage. But you can still ask for a discount, because they are "motivated" to sell and that, as just discussed, gives you bargaining power.

    When have you asked for a discount?

     

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    home construction housing starts economy august
    Lynne Sladky/APA builder works on the site of the Landmark community, a group of condos and townhouses built by Lennar Homes, in Doral, Fla.
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans filing new applications for unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level in eight weeks, suggesting the labor market continued to strengthen despite the recent tightening in financial market conditions.

    While other data on Thursday showed housing starts fell for a second straight month in August, they remained above the one million-unit mark, which signals a housing market growing at a solid clip. In addition, building permits rose last month.

    Speculation will now shift to December as the next most likely month for U.S. rates to start rising.

    The signs of a firming economy are supportive of an interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve later this year, after the U.S. central bank Thursday kept borrowing costs near zero, citing concerns about the global economy.

    "Speculation will now shift to December as the next most likely month for U.S. rates to start rising," said Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit in London.

    "The 'data dependent' Fed will want to see further robust non-farm payroll growth between now and then as well as indications that the pace of economic growth is not wilting under the pressure of China's slowdown."

    Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 11,000 to a seasonally adjusted 264,000 for the week ended Sept. 12, the Labor Department said. That was the best reading since the week ended July 18, when claims hit their lowest level since 1973.

    It marked the 28th straight week that claims remained below the 300,000 threshold, which is usually associated with a strengthening labor market. Economists had forecast claims holding at 275,000 last week.

    The dollar fell against a basket of currencies on the Fed's rate decision, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt rallied. Stocks on Wall Street rose in volatile trade.

    Firming Labor Market

    The claims data covered the period during which the government surveyed employers for the nonfarm payrolls portion of the September employment report. Claims fell 13,000 between the August and September survey weeks, suggesting some pickup in job growth after slowing in August.

    Labor market conditions are tightening, with record high job openings. At a 7½-year low of 5.1 percent, the unemployment rate is within the range most Fed officials think is consistent with a low but steady rate of inflation.

    In a second report, the Commerce Department said groundbreaking for new homes dropped 3 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 1.13 million units last month.

    Despite the fall, which reflected declines in groundbreaking on single and multifamily projects, starts remained above a one million-unit pace for the fifth straight month. Building permits increased 3.5 percent last month to a 1.17 million-unit pace, after declining 15.5 percent in July.

    "The small dip in August housing starts is minor considering the sustained momentum we've seen in housing overall in 2015," said Bill Banfield, vice president at Quicken loans in Detroit.

    "When you couple the slow but steady rise in single-family unit construction with an increase in builder confidence, it's further support that housing is returning to its place as a major player in driving economic growth."

    The firming labor market has unleashed pent-up demand for housing, especially among young adults. A report Wednesday showed confidence among homebuilders advancing to a near decade high in September.

    In August, groundbreaking for single-family homes, which accounts for the largest share of the market, fell 3 percent to a 739,000 unit pace. Single-family home building in the South, where most of the home construction takes place, rose 9.2 percent to the highest level since December 2007.

    Starts for the volatile multifamily segment fell 3 percent to a 387,000 unit rate. Single-family building permits rose 2.8 percent in August to their highest level since January 2008. Multifamily building permits rose 4.7 percent.

    A third report showed manufacturing continued to struggle against the headwinds of a strong dollar and soft global demand.

    The Philadelphia Fed said its business activity index fell to minus 6 in September from positive 8.3 in August. A reading below zero indicates contraction in the region's manufacturing.

    -Dan Burns contributed reporting from New York.

     

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    federal reserve interest rates economy janet yellen
    Susan Walsh/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
    By MARTIN CRUTSINGER

    WASHINGTON -- As it does once each quarter, the Federal Reserve will deliver a triple-dose of news Thursday afternoon -- a policy statement, economic forecasts and a news conference by Chair Janet Yellen. But all eyes will be on one question:

    Is the Fed raising interest rates from record lows?

    Economists remain unsure, though the consensus seems to have shifted against the likelihood of an increase in the Fed's benchmark short-term rate. Turbulence in financial markets, persistently low inflation and risks to the global economy from China's sharp slowdown could lead the Fed to delay a hike until December or later.

    Beyond that blockbuster decision, Fed watchers will be looking for other significant nuggets in the stream of information that will emerge Thursday.

    Here are five things to watch for:

    Interest Rates

    The biggest news, of course, is whether the Fed will announce in a statement at 2 p.m. Eastern time that it's raising its target for the federal funds rate -- the interest that banks charge each other on overnight loans. Back in 2008, the Fed slashed this rate to a record low near zero, where it's remained since, through more than 50 Fed policy meetings. In keeping the rate that low, the Fed has tried to bolster the economy's recovery from the worst downturn since the 1930s.

    Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer has suggested that when the central bank does move, the increase will be a modest quarter-point hike, from a range of between zero and 0.25 percent to a range of between 0.25 and 0.5 percent. This is the rate banks charge each other for overnight loans. But it influences other rates throughout the economy.

    Traditionally, the Fed has sold Treasurys to the banks as a way to shrink their reserves and raise rates. But with the banks swimming in reserves from all the cash the Fed has pumped into the financial system, the central bank plans to use additional tools to boost rates.

    These include raising the interest it pays banks on their reserves. This would push bank lending rates up because banks won't be willing to lend at lower rates than they're receiving from the Fed.

    Pace of a Rate Hike

    Chair Janet Yellen and other Fed officials have stressed that whenever they start raising rates, they will do so very incrementally. The goal is to assess the impact of a slight rate hike before going further. In doing so, the Fed would try to avoid derailing the economy or spooking investors.

    Some have speculated that the pattern of rate hikes will be four quarterly increases of a quarter-point each. If that held true and if the Fed began the process Thursday, the funds rate would equal a range of 0.75 percent to 1 percent by mid-2016 -- still low by historical standards. Consider that 1 percent was the previous record low for the funds rate reached in June 2003.

    The rate stayed at that level until June 2004, when the Fed began its previous round of rate hikes. Look to the Fed's policy statement and Yellen's remarks at her news conference for any clarity on the pace of rate hikes.

    Jobs and Wages

    At their most recent meeting, the Fed's policymakers said the job market had to show only "some further improvement" for them to consider raising rates. Previously, they had said they needed to see "further improvement." The addition of "some" was seen as a signal that the job market was closer to satisfying the Fed. Unemployment has reached a seven-year low of 5.1 percent, within the Fed's stated target of 5 percent to 5.1 percent.

    But the Fed's standards for a healthy job market go beyond the unemployment rate. The policymakers regard the proportion of adults who are either working or looking for work as too low. And the number of part-time workers who would prefer full-time jobs remains unusually high. Pay growth for workers has been generally meager, too. A more nuanced picture of how the Fed views the job market could emerge from its policy statement and updated economic forecasts or from Yellen's comments to reporters.

    Inflation

    In contrast to employment, the Fed is much further from achieving its other mandate: Maintaining price increases of around 2 percent. Its preferred measure of inflation, excluding volatile food and energy, has risen just 1.2 percent over the 12 months that ended in July and has stayed below its 2 percent goal for more than three years. A rise in the dollar's value and declines in energy prices have further depressed inflation.

    The Fed has been saying it doesn't want to start raising rates until it's "reasonably confident" that inflation is moving back to its 2 percent target. Last month, Fischer said his confidence was "pretty high" because of his belief that lower-priced energy and a higher-priced dollar were temporary factors that would eventually fade.

    The Fed might clarify its inflation views in its policy statement or through the inflation forecast in its updated economic projections. In June, the Fed predicted that inflation, excluding energy and food, would be near 2 percent by the end of 2016.

    If that expectation holds, it would signal that the Fed's confidence in moving toward its 2 percent inflation target hasn't been shaken.

    Yellen's Words

    Yellen, of course, is the most important voice on the Fed, and she hasn't spoken publicly in two months. Since then, China has devalued its currency, inciting fear that troubles in the world's second-largest economy were worse than previously thought. Some worry that a severe slowdown in China's economy would chill growth in the Unites States and other economies.

    Partly as a result, Wall Street and other financial markets around the world have endured a nerve-rattling streak of turbulence and sinking prices this summer.

    How are all these developments shaping the Fed's decision-making? Yellen's remarks at her news conference may shed some light.

     

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    Scarlett Johansson SodaStream Partnership
    Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SodaStream
    We have become a country of soda-jerk hobbyists, but we're not fizzing up our own soft drinks to save money. That became obvious last week when PepsiCo (PEP) announced that it is expanding its test of Pepsi-branded flavors that are available for SodaStream (SODA) machines in select Florida markets.

    SodaStream owners everywhere can now buy the Pepsi HomeMade, Sierra Mist HomeMade and Pepsi Wild Cherry HomeMade syrup caps (plastic capsules that contain enough flavoring to transform a liter of sparkling water into soda) through SodaStream's website or dozens of Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) stores. Making fresh Pepsi products from the convenience of your home sounds cool, but don't make the false assumption that it's cheaper than buying the traditional bottled and canned pop.

    A four-pack of the PepsiCo caps will set you back $3.49. Each cap is enough to make a half-liter serving, so you're basically paying $3.49 for 2 liters of Pepsi or Sierra Mist. That's a lot more than what the 2-liter bottles sell for at stores and it's not the final cost of the beverage. Don't forget that you have to pay for the carbonators and the math there starts at 50 cents for transforming two liters of still water into sparkling water. It all adds up to nearly $4 for 2 liters of Pepsi. If you were planning on buying a SodaStream beverage maker to save money on soda, you're going to be in for a rude (yet caffeinated) awakening.

    More Than Just Value

    SodaStream is a cost-effective purchase for folks who crave fresh sparkling water, coming in at just a quarter a liter. However, the math starts to get cruel when you're going for flavored soda. SodaStream's own bottled syrup flavors are available for a lot less than PepsiCo's caps, but it's never as cheap as generic store brands.

    That has never been the point for SodaStream, however. Its marketing message has emphasized convenience, freshness, and environmental benefits.

    Promoting convenience is easy. Lugging 12-packs of cans and 2-liter bottles from the supermarket every week can grow tiresome. The ability to make soda with a reusable bottle replaces the traditional round trip with a simple rinse. Yes, there is the cumbersome carbonator to exchange, but that's only necessary after every 60 or 130 liters.

    Freshness is debatable. The ability to brew carbonated soda on demand is nifty, but it's not as if unopened cans or bottles of soda taste stale. Some folks swear by the fresh taste of SodaStream, but others don't notice or care.

    The environmental message has been a big part of SodaStream's guerrilla marketing campaign, in which it has paraded around the world an exhibit featuring a cage full of disposed soda cans and bottles. It has also pointed to landfills and water pollution caused by consumption of retail soda. This isn't a message that's going to resonate with everyone, but it could strike a chord with eco-minded consumers.

    So, yes, making soda at home has its benefits -- just don't go thinking that it's the secret to saving money.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of SodaStream. The Motley Fool owns and recommends PepsiCo. The Motley Fool owns shares of SodaStream and recommends Bed Bath & Beyond. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Want a sweet deal? Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Amazon Cheap Tablet
    Eric Risberg/AP
    Amazon.com (AMZN) made it official Thursday, introducing a new entry-level tablet that will be available starting later this month for just $50. Its popularity is inevitable given the low sticker price, but let's break down the many reasons that one of its buyers might very well be you.

    1. It's the anti-iPad. At a time when Apple (AAPL) is rolling out its priciest tablet ever -- the iPad Pro that starts at $799 -- Amazon's giving shoppers something cheaper.

    2. It has a reasonable display size of 7 inches. That's slightly smaller than the iPad mini with its 7.9-inch screen, but The Wall Street Journal was reporting earlier this month that Amazon's bargain-priced device would be just six inches.

    3. This is the first tablet that's so cheap that it's being sold as a discounted six-pack. Amazon is making a package of six Fire tablets available for $249.95. Order six tablets and enter the code FIRE6PACK on checkout and the sixth one will be free. That lowers the price to $41.66 apiece. Who says that beer and soda are the only things that are cheaper when sold as six-packs?

    4. At $50, it costs less than a single video game. Die-hard gamers will argue that it's not a fair comparison, but it's now an argument to be made.

    5. At $249.95 for the marked-down six-pack, we're talking about a half-dozen Fire tablets for less than a single iPad mini.

    6. The Fire has half the internal storage memory of the iPad mini, clocking in at a mere 8 gigabytes, but there's a microSD slot so you can dramatically expand capacity if you need to do that.

    7. The battery life is weak at seven hours, but that's more than enough time to entertain you on a trip, commute, or relaxation break.

    8. At less than $42 each in volume, we're probably at the point where newspaper and magazine publishers can bundle long-term digital subscriptions with free tablets as readers.

    9. You should never leave a tablet in your car, but as far as smash-and-grab robberies go, this could be the one time that replacing your window won't be cheaper than replacing the gadgetry that was stolen.

    10. The leading online retailer is also launching Amazon Underground, an app store experience where it claims that more than $10,000 in apps, games and even in-app items are available for free.

    11. Amazon is also claiming that the $50 Fire tablet is twice as durable as the iPad Air.

    12. That last point is notable, because you can now hand over a tablet to your child without freaking out as much whenever it takes a tumble. Durable or not, it's still less pain on your pocketbook to have it replaced.

    13. Yes, there's a camera in there -- two, actually. They're not great, of course, but the rear-facing one can record 720p HD video. The front-facing one is a weaker VGA camera that could make do for Skype and other purposes.

    14. The front-facing camera means that it's cheaper to videoconference with family and friends. You're now just $100 away from a pair of tablets as a videoconferencing solution.

    15. There will be more tablets in the classroom. Remember when only ritzy prep schools "went iPad" a couple of years ago? Now tablets will be accessible to even more knowledge-hungry students.

    Killer App

    There are a lot more than 15 reasons that the new Fire will be a hit this holiday shopping season. However, there is likely just one reason that Amazon is making this move: Amazon wants to drive more consumers to its thriving ecosystem of digitally delivered videos, books, music, games, and apps.

    Willing to sell hardware at or below cost -- and that's likely the case here -- is an investment in tablet owners engaging more in Amazon's playground. With the cover charge continuing to drop to dabble in the ecosystem, it's not a bad place to be.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Amazon.com and 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.


    Amazon's New Lineup

     

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    Federal Reserve
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
    By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Federal Reserve kept interest rates unchanged Thursday in a bow to worries about the global economy, financial market volatility and sluggish inflation at home, but left open the possibility of a modest policy tightening later this year.

    In what amounted to a tactical retreat, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said in a press conference that developments in a tightly linked global economy had in effect forced the U.S. central bank's hand.

    The U.S. economy has been performing well enough to perhaps justify a rate hike "and we expect it to continue to do so," Yellen said shortly after the Fed's policy-setting committee released its latest statement following a two-day meeting.

    But Yellen added that "the outlook abroad appears to have become less certain," driving down U.S.

    In light of the heightened uncertainty abroad ... the committee judged it appropriate to wait.

    equity prices, pushing up the dollar, and tightening financial conditions in a way that may slow U.S. growth regardless of what the Fed does.

    "In light of the heightened uncertainty abroad ... the committee judged it appropriate to wait," Yellen said. "Given the significant economic and financial interconnections between the U.S. and the rest of the world, the situation abroad bears close watching."

    The policy statement also nodded squarely to international events as a decisive variable within Yellen's "data-dependent" Fed.

    "Recent global economic and financial developments may restrain economic activity somewhat and are likely to put further downward pressure on inflation in the near term," the statement said.

    However, the Fed maintained its bias towards a rate hike sometime this year, while lowering its long-term outlook for the economy.

    Fresh economic projections showed 13 of 17 Fed policymakers foresee raising rates at least once in 2015, down from 15 at the last meeting in June. Four policymakers now say rates shouldn't be raised until at least 2016, compared to two who felt that way in June.

    The Fed has policy meetings in October and December.

    In deciding when to hike rates, the Fed repeated it wanted to see "some further improvement in the labor market," and be "reasonably confident" that inflation will increase.

    The dollar fell against a basket of currencies after the release of the statement, trading about 1 percent lower against the euro. Stocks initially edged higher before turning lower in choppy trade, while prices for U.S. Treasuries rose.

    'More Dovish'

    Taken as a whole, the latest Fed projections of slower GDP growth, low unemployment and continuing low inflation suggest that concerns of a so-called secular stagnation may be taking root among policymakers. One policymaker even suggested a negative federal funds rate.

    The median projection of the 17 policymakers showed the Fed expects the economy to grow 2.1 percent this year, slightly faster than previously thought. However, its forecasts for GDP growth in 2016 and 2017 were downgraded.

    The Fed also forecast inflation would creep only slowly toward its 2 percent target even as unemployment dips lower than previously expected. It sees the unemployment rate hitting 4.8 percent next year and remaining at that level for as long as three years.

    The Fed's projected interest rate path shifted downward, with the long-run federal funds rate now seen at 3.5 percent, compared to 3.75 percent at the last policy meeting.

    "The Fed has become more dovish, with growth projections revised down amid rumblings of 'secular stagnation.' But there's a clear signal that, in the absence of any serious derailing of the economy, rates will rise before the year is out," said Chris Williamson of financial information services firm Markit.

    The vote on the policy statement also was a sign of how China's economic slowdown and market slide left Fed officials unnerved about the state of the world economy. Only Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker dissented.

    Fed officials like board member Jerome Powell and Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart in recent months had publicly endorsed a September rate hike, forming a near majority along with longstanding inflation hawks like Lacker.

    In the end, however, they were left with a muddled picture marked by low U.S. unemployment and steady economic growth, but no sign that inflation has begun to rise towards the Fed's target.

     

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    Markets React To Fed Interest Rate Announcement
    Andrew Burton/Getty Images
    By Sinead Carew

    NEW YORK -- Major Wall Street indexes gave up a 1 percent rally to end lower Thursday after the Federal Reserve cited concerns about global economic growth in its decision to hold off on raising interest rates.

    The U.S. central bank held rates steady in a bow to worries about the global economy, financial market volatility and sluggish inflation at home, but it left open the possibility of a modest policy tightening later this year.

    The S&P financial index led the decline after being among the top performers throughout the prior five sessions.

    The decline in financial stocks, which benefit from higher rates, alongside the rise in utility stocks suggest that investors now believe interest rates will remain low for longer than previously expected.

    Investors' focus turned to the next Fed meeting on Oct. 27-28 as they were still left to figure out the timing for the Fed's first benchmark rate increase since 2006.

    All the uncertainty that was in the market leading up to this meeting is still in place.

    Trading was extremely choppy after the Fed's 2 p.m. statement, with major U.S. indexes swinging between session highs and lows. The three major U.S. indexes all rose more than 1 percent for a while during Fed Chair Janet Yellen's 2.30 p.m. press conference, but then retreated.

    "All the uncertainty that was in the market leading up to this meeting is still in place. There was very little clarity given," said John Culbertson, chief investment officer of Context Asset Management in Philadelphia.

    "You're going to hear the same conversation in the markets for the next 30 days that you heard in the last 90 days," he said, citing difficulties making "high-conviction trades."

    Questions about when the Fed will shift gears have dogged Wall Street for months -- a situation complicated in recent weeks by market turbulence linked to slowing growth in China and worries about the health of the global economy.

    "In our minds it was the correct decision. The inflation data does not support a rate hike at this time. You throw in some of the global turbulence and [that] supports the decision to leave rates unchanged," said Brian Rehling, co-head of global fixed income at Wells Fargo in St. Louis.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 65.21 points, or 0.4 percent, to 16,674.74, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 5.11 points, or 0.3 percent, to 1,990.2 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 4.71 points, or 0.1 percent, to 4,893.95.

    Slim Chance

    Ahead of the news, U.S. interest rates futures had indicated only a 25 percent chance the central bank would raise rates Thursday, and 35 of 80 economists polled by Reuters earlier this week expected an increase.

    Only four of the 10 major S&P sectors ended higher, with the utility index, up 1.3 percent, having the best day. The financial services index turned negative during Yellen's comments and ended down 1.3 percent while the telecommunications index dropped 1.1 percent.

    Trading was heavy with nearly 8 billion shares changing hands Wednesday on U.S. exchanges, in line with the 8.1 billion daily average for the previous 20 trading days, which saw a spike in volume according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE 1,866 to 1,201, for a 1.55-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,546 issues rose and 1,244 fell for a 1.24-to-1 ratio favoring advancers. The S&P 500 posted 15 new 52-week highs and 2 lows; the Nasdaq recorded 59 new highs and 31 lows.

    -Rory Carroll contributed reporting from San Francisco.

    What to watch Friday:
    • At 10 a.m.: The Conference Board releases leading indicators for August, and the Labor Department releases state unemployment data for August.

     

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    Hispanic couple shopping in grocery store
    Getty Images
    By Raechel Conover

    Grocery shopping on a budget is tough for anyone, but throw in the fact that I usually shop with a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, and the outing is hardly the most fun part of my week. Every month when we look at our budget, the supermarket is one place I think I can save more. At the same time, I'm picky about what I buy and where I shop; I strongly prefer to eat and feed my family organic and fresh foods. In general we spend roughly $150 a week on groceries, including all paper products and cleaning supplies -- and the four gallons of milk my two boys drink every week. Here are some tricks I use to try to limit grocery spending.

    Buy meats in bulk. Meat is one food that's definitely worth buying organic. Why? Because I don't want my family to eat meat pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones, or from animals fed a diet of genetically modified corn. I used to buy our meat from Whole Foods but eventually wised up. After visiting a few local farmers markets, I found a farmer willing to sell me organic meat in bulk three or four times a year. We have a chest freezer in the basement that's handy for storing all the extra meat.

    Hit Costco once a month. Costco really helps me stretch my grocery budget. All the paper goods we use (paper towels, toilet paper, tissues, napkins, paper plates) are available at cheaper prices in bulk. Ditto on cleaning supplies. I believe in chemical-free cleaning, so we barely use household cleaners, but dishwasher detergent, dish soap, and laundry detergent all come from Costco. Additionally, we buy certain bulk food items at the warehouse club once a month. Did you know Costco has a wide selection of organic food? We buy organic maple syrup, fruit snacks, applesauce pouches, and frozen fruit and vegetables. Costco carries the best fresh organic berries I've seen this summer, so we always grab those, as well as anything else that looks good in the produce section.

    Make a list and stick to it. I don't enter any grocery store without a list. Sticking to a list is hard -- especially with two youngsters begging for everything they see. To avoid a grocery store meltdown over wants vs. needs, I give my kids choices. When looking at cereals, for instance, I let them choose between two options. I just make sure that each is cheap or on sale and I'm okay with whichever they pick. I do this for fruit snack flavors, types of crackers, yogurt varieties, etc. This makes them feel as though they're getting what they want, yet the items are already on my list.

    Make a meal plan. One thing that makes it easier to make a list and stick to it: a weekly meal plan. If I know what we'll be having for dinner each night, creating a list takes very little extra effort. (Breakfast and lunch during the week are simple affairs, so I don't need a meal plan for those.)

    Plan a meatless dinner once or twice a week. In our weekly meal plan, I always include one dinner without meat. If our budget is tight for the month, or I exceeded the grocery budget the week before, I'll throw in a second meatless dinner to save some cash. Often we have vegetable omelets, homemade veggie pizza, or bean burritos. During the summer, vegetable pasta salad and caprese salad with crusty bread are rotated in. If we're really feeling lazy, sometimes we have grilled cheese and soup. I always make sure everyone feels satisfied on these nights by setting out extra protein, such as apple slices with peanut butter or cottage cheese and sliced fruit.

    Make your own at home. Another component of saving at the grocery store is making food at home that I could easily buy. "Easy" is the sticking point for many people -- yes, it takes more effort to make certain things, but shelling out extra cash for packaged items hurts the budget. Foods I make at home include sandwich bread, snacks (e.g., energy balls, cookies and muffins), tortilla shells, salad dressing, and pasta sauce. I also buy whole heads of lettuce, whole carrots, and other vegetables and prepare them myself rather than pay more for pre-cut produce. Ditto on cheese: Buying in large blocks and using a good shredder saves a lot.

    Cook in bulk and freeze. Another way I stretch our budget is to make large portions -- more than we can eat in one meal. This way I know I can rely on leftovers later in the week rather than buy ingredients for a whole new meal. Sometimes I prepare enough to freeze half and help the budget in another week. I do this most often with spaghetti sauce, certain slow-cooker meals, and potpies.

    Use coupons. This one is pretty self-explanatory, but you would not believe how hard it is in our busy life to find the time to search out coupons. I usually do this as I'm getting the shopping list ready, starting with paper coupons and store apps. I also search coupon sites such as Coupons.com, Red Plum, and Smart Source for printable coupons. Certain brands send out coupons on a regular basis. I signed up for the Driscoll's mailing list and regularly receive emailed coupons for produce we buy regularly. I use coupons only for products I would be buying anyway, and if the coupon requires me to buy more than I need just to get the discount, I don't do it.

    Sign up for store rewards cards. Aside from Costco, our primary shopping destination is Kroger, where the Kroger Plus Card helps save big bucks on groceries and gas. The grocery chain mails coupons for specific foods or money off a total purchase, and the card gets us discounts on stocked products that vary by the week. It's definitely worth the time to sign up for the loyalty cards offered by nearby grocers.

    Shop at more than one store. I am a loyal Kroger customer in part because of the store's Simple Truth Organic line. It makes buying organic much cheaper. That said, there are some things that can't be beat at Whole Foods (such as certain organic produce) or Trader Joe's (such as pre-made pizza dough and pizza sauce).

    Shop the sales. No matter where I'm shopping, I look for the weekly sales list first. Kroger places weekly circulars at the store entrance, while the local Whole Foods and Trader Joe's use chalkboards. This information lets me know immediately what's on sale so I can check it against my list, grab it, and move on.

    Go to the store only on grocery day. This may be the single most important thing I've started doing: We never -- I repeat, never -- set foot in the store anytime during the week except on grocery day. That means buying enough staples to get us through the week and avoid repeat visits. I know if we break this rule we will surpass our grocery budget, because if we go to the store, we always think we need (really, want) something else besides what we went in to buy.

    Check out strategically. Remember that make-a-list-and-stick-to-it tip from earlier? Sure, stuff makes it into our cart that wasn't on the list. My solution to this is the way I check out: I unload the cart first with the things on our list. After the cashier rings up those items, I ask for the total. If we're under budget, I pick a few items that weren't on the list and add them to the haul. An occasional splurge is fine, so long as we're not overspending.

     

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    USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Young woman looking at jar with coins in it
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    By Mark Henricks

    NEW YORK -- So ... are you single? If you are a 20-something, chances are nearly 2 out of 3 that you are. A 2014, Gallup poll found 64 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds reported being single and living alone. Gallup also found the percentage of young adults not in a committed relationship has jumped from 52 percent a decade earlier. And that makes it strange that so much of today's retirement planning advice ignores the special challenges of the single saver.

    Single, unmarried people planning for retirement face a host of differences, including reduced need for life insurance (but higher need for long-term care coverage) compared to their hitched-for-life colleagues. The biggest difference may be lower income, especially since today both members of most married couples are working, notes Beth Lynch, a financial planner with Schneider Downs Wealth Management Advisors in Pittsburgh. Less income, basically, makes it harder to save.

    Single people need to make sure they save a greater amount to their tax-deferred accounts and start early.

    "Single people need to make sure they save a greater amount to their tax-deferred accounts and start early," Lynch says. "They also need to build a larger emergency savings account than that of a two-person income household. They do not have anyone else to lean on should they lose their job, or have an extended illness."

    Unfortunately, as the proverb suggests, one person can't live half as cheaply as two.

    The biggest single expense for most people is housing, and single people still have to pay rent and mortgage bills, often on a residence that could house two. In fact, married people in their late 20s spend about $7,200 less per person, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that means singles have that much less left over for saving.

    On the plus side, singles will find it easier to decide how to spend what they do have. "Couples may be on two different sheets of music when it comes to money," notes Larry Rosenthal, a financial planner in Manassas, Virginia. "One may be a saver, one may be a spender."

    Whether they are savers or spenders, some decisions are likely to be different for singles, because they lack dependents. Life insurance represents one of those. "If somebody passes, you have to ask the question, 'Is there going to be someone else who will suffer a financial hardship?'" says Rosenthal. "If the answer is 'No,' they may not need it."

    On the other hand, singles have greater need for long-term care insurance. Married people can hope that a spouse will help out in case of declining health due to old age or medical issues. "Singles need a plan to take care of themselves mentally and physically as they age, often with long-term care insurance," notes Jacob Gold, a financial planner with Voya Financial in Scottsdale, Arizona.

    When it comes to annuities, singles also have different needs and opportunities. Annuities are insurance company products that allow savers to put aside money, usually in a single large lump sum, in return for future monthly payments that are guaranteed for life. Annuity buyers can opt for higher monthly payments that stop when the individual passes away or lower payments that will continue to be paid to a surviving spouse. "A single person may not have anyone else relying on those retirement dollars, so opting for the larger monthly payments may make more sense and increase retirement income," Gold says.

    Additional wrinkles pop up with regard to Social Security. A married, divorced or widowed retiree can opt to get benefits based on a current or former partner's lifetime earning record, which may allow for higher Social Security payments, notes Lynch.

    "The individual who has never been married can only receive benefits on their income record," she says. "This means more planning on when to retire and when to start taking Social Security benefits."

     

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    Woman Studying and Reading Food Label in Front of Refrigerator
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    Are you one of the millions of Americans tossing hundreds of dollars in the trash each year?

    Probably so if you don't understand those "sell by," "use by" and "best before" labels stamped on groceries you buy.

    A report by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the vast majority of Americans misinterpret food labels and throw out perfectly good food. By understanding some simple terms, you can keep that money in your pocket, rather than toss it in the trash can.

    'Sell By' Date

    If you throw out food based on the "sell by" date, you aren't alone. The study found that more than 90 percent of consumers make that mistake. Yet keeping food past that date doesn't mean it's unsafe.

    In reality, the "sell by" date is used by manufacturers to let grocery stores know they should not sell food past that date simply to ensure it still has some shelf life remaining after a consumer purchases it, according to the report.

    'Best Before' Date and 'Use By' Date

    "Best before" and "use by" dates don't mean you should toss that food away. Those labels typically indicate the manufacturer's estimate of when the food will be past its peak for quality. But that doesn't mean the food is unsafe, the report says.

    There is no standard that establishes those dates. Laws vary by state, and manufacturers have their own rules for setting dates. Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stepped in to address the confusion.

    Infant formula is the only product for which the date on the label is federally regulated.

    Staying Safe

    Given the confusion over dates, you are probably wondering how long you can safely keep food without jeopardizing your family's health -- or your own pocketbook.

    The federal government gives you good starting points. At FoodSafety.gov, you'll find recommended refrigerator and freezer storage times for various meat products.

    Most meats can be safely stored in the refrigerator for a few days and in the freezer for a few months. But the site points out that freezer storage guidelines are only for quality, and that foods can stay safely frozen indefinitely.

    You'll find more in-depth information on food safety and the limits of labeling on the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service website.

    Those eggs you bought last week can be safely refrigerated for three to five weeks. And who knew that shelf-stable canned meat and poultry is still good after two to five years?

    The Whole Foods Market website has helpful information on storing dairy products and cheese. Storage times vary greatly, so you might want to take that into consideration when deciding what to buy. Opened butter, for example, will last one to two weeks, while opened margarine will last four to six months.

    On the Spice Islands site, you'll find information on the shelf life of spices and herbs. Buying whole spices rather than ground spices is a better choice because they last longer.

    And you'll find safety and storage recommendations for nearly every product under the sun at StillTasty.com. Wonder how long you can keep that raw shrimp in the fridge or freezer, or whether that unopened package of spaghetti that got buried in the back of the pantry is still good? The answer is just a click away.

    What guidelines do you use for determining how long food remains safe? 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.

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


    How to Stop Throwing Away So Much Food

     

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    PlentiTogether LIVE - Show
    Getty ImagesRadio personality Elvis Duran at the PlentiTogether Live concert in New York City in July.
    By JOSEPH PISANI

    NEW YORK -- Filling up on gas at an Exxon station can now earn you a discount on a T-shirt at Macy's: That's the idea behind Plenti, a loyalty program launched earlier this year that lets users earn rewards for purchases from a variety of businesses.

    I tried Plenti for a few months, and although it takes a few minutes to set up, I found it to be an easy way to earn a few bucks back on money I was spending anyway.

    How It Works:

    Plenti uses a point-based system that converts back into cash that can be used at certain business that take part.

    Spending that earns points includes paying AT&T (T) cellphone bills, buying gas at Exxon Mobil (XOM) stations, shopping at Macy's (M) department stores or Rite Aid (RAD) drugstores, paying auto or property insurance premiums at Nationwide, paying bills from energy provider Direct Energy, signing up for online video streaming company Hulu, or renting a car from Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National or Alamo.

    Signing up for Plenti is free and can be done on its website or inside a partner's store. Although Plenti is run by credit card company American Express (AXP), no credit card is needed to use it.

    Plenti gives users a plastic card that can be scanned in stores or gas stations. Plenti's app has a copy of your card, too, so you don't have to carry around the plastic one everywhere. If you want to earn Plenti points through a credit card, the company offers a Plenti-branded American Express card that earns one point for every $1 spent anywhere. Its other cards don't earn Plenti points, but American Express reward points can be converted into Plenti points.

    The amount of points you can earn varies at each partner, but in most cases, every $1 spent earns one point. There are exceptions: At Exxon Mobil gas stations, one point is earned for every gallon of gas bought.

    There are also ways to earn more. At Macy's, for example, buying clothing earns one point for each $1 dollar spent, but buying perfume or makeup earns two points for each $1. Check each partner's website to see how Plenti points can be earned.

    Once 200 points are earned, they can be used as cash at certain Plenti partners. Each 100 points is equal to $1, so cashing in 200 points will get you a $2 discount. Point balances can be checked on the Plenti website or app.

    The Good

    Plenti is easy to use, especially if you already frequent the partners that are part of the program. I linked my Macy's credit card to my Plenti account, so any purchases I make at the department store automatically earn points, without me having to pull out the Plenti card. You can also link Plenti to your AT&T or Nationwide account once, and it will automatically earn points.

    There are also chances to earn more points through special offers. Rite Aid, for example, offered 100 points for buying three packs of Halloween candy. The bonuses are posted in stores and also on Plenti's website and app. Sometimes you need to click on the bonus deal to activate them, but many are activated automatically.

    The Not-So-Good

    The places you can earn points are limited. Out of the seven corporate partners, I use only two regularly: Macy's and Rite Aid. American Express says it expects to add more partners soon. Another drawback: You can't spend Plenti points at certain partners, such as Nationwide. But that may change, too. AT&T, for example, started letting Plenti users cash in their points at stores last month.

    Plenti requires some time setting up. You'll need to go to the each partner's website to make sure your Plenti card is registered. You can also do this inside Macy's or Rite Aid stores.

    The Bottom Line

    Plenti is worth the minimal effort required to set it up. Even though it doesn't work many places yet, it is likely to get better as more businesses take part.

    It won't save you a wheelbarrow full of cash, but since June, I earned 247 Plenti points, mostly from a shopping trip at Macy's. I cashed the points at Rite Aid after a message on the cash register said I could use them on my purchase. I agreed, and got $2.47 off batteries and soda, a discount I wouldn't have had otherwise.

     

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    Beautiful Woman holding up Car Key
    Getty ImagesIf you're ready to lease new wheels, make sure you research your options in advance.


    Leasing a car doesn't have to be difficult. Whether it's negotiating yourself or hiring a broker, you can get a good deal on your next lease.

    While I've only had positive experiences with brokers because they do save time, money and lots of energy, I also know that it is possible to get the same deal, if not a little bit better, if you can invest some time into it. Here are some easy tips to consider when negotiating your next lease deal:

    Research, especially online.

    Start thinking like a broker. Research and negotiating skills are essential tools that help brokers make their money. During the research process, you can look at the dealer specials and incentives, but you can also find out what your local brokers are offering as well. I also found that the Edmunds.com discussion board is helpful in comparing what other customers have gotten on their leases for similar cars or even asking for advice. Having a baseline for negotiation will work in your favor.

    You can even use the discussion forums, located at forums.edmunds.com, to ask your own questions. You just have to set up an account to start posting.

    Ask questions.

    Once you've done your research, you should know what model, make, trim and options you want on your next vehicle. Locate that vehicle in your area. To save some time, you can go to Edmunds.com and search inventory under the year, make and model of the car. You can set the search to find anywhere from a 50 to 200 mile radius. Once you find the car you're looking for, you can start to ask questions of the dealer over the Internet or by phone. Ideally, you'll find more than one car that you like, so you can compare your prices and options.

    Make an appointment with an Internet fleet manager.

    If you've ever worked with a broker, the Internet fleet manager is the one they negotiate with. In most cases, you've already pre-negotiated over the phone with one or more dealers. Once you have an offer that's right around the ballpark figure you're looking at, it's time to pay them a visit.

    Continue to negotiate.

    Just think of your pre-negotiated price as a number that is very close to what you want to pay, but still not close enough. You can use many factors to negotiate. First, check if the car's been sitting on the lot longer than 90 days. You can do that by checking the manufacturer's date on the car. If it has, more than likely the dealer will be aggressive in trying to move the car. Sometime during your negotiating process, you may want to mention that you also worked with a broker in the past and you would like the pre-negotiated fee as a savings passed onto you for not going through a broker. It doesn't hurt to ask.

    Be honest.

    I've dealt with dealers who've ripped me off when I was pregnant with my first child, so I get when people automatically assume the worse when they enter a dealership. Many stereotypes and movie clips come to mind. Having said that, dealers also deal with customers who probably aren't the nicest people in the world, either.

    Remember, dealers are people, too. If you've already pre-negotiated an offer, you should have a good sense of what type of person you're dealing with. Come with an open mind and if you're really close to getting the deal that you want, it doesn't hurt to tell them the perfect magic number that will close the deal. Hiding it and making them guess while wasting hours on end isn't productive for you or the dealer.

    Just in case your in-person negotiations take longer than expected and you're stuck at the dealership for several hours, try to pack snacks, as well as toys for any kids you have along. If you don't feel rushed, then you can take your time and make the best choice for you and your budget.

    Susan Yoo-Lee is a mother of two and will be launching her new money-savings blog, Minus the Price, later this year. You can find her on Twitter @SusanYooLee.

     

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    Apple Worldwide Developers Conference Opens In San Francisco
    Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesCraig Federighi, Apple senior vice president of software engineering, left, shakes hands with Apple CEO Tim Cook during the Apple WWDC in June.
    By Heather Somerville and Jane Wardell

    SAN FRANCISCO and SYDNEY -- A significant number of Apple (AAPL) customers are reporting their mobile devices have crashed after attempting to upload the new iOS 9 operating system, the latest in a line of launch glitches for the tech giant.

    Twitter and other social media were awash with disgruntled customers reporting two distinct faults, with one appearing to be linked specifically to older models of Apple iPhones and iPads.

    They said they were aware of the problem and their engineers were working on it 24/7, but they couldn't tell me when -- or how -- I would get a solution.

    "It is beyond inconvenient to not be able to use your phone for a day," said student Pip Cordi as staff in the Apple store in central Sydney looked at her phone Friday. "I have a lot of apps that I use for school -- things like language apps and dictionaries and that's all really important for my studies."

    Another iPhone user, Zorry Coates, said she had spent three hours in the Apple store and had been left with the option of either returning her phone to factory settings -- losing any non-backed-up data -- or waiting until Apple technicians announced an update.

    "They said they were aware of the problem and their engineers were working on it 24/7, but they couldn't tell me when -- or how -- I would get a solution," Zorry said.

    "I'm very annoyed because it's wasted half my day. They pride themselves on being a company that's flawless."

    Apple's headquarters in San Francisco didn't respond to a request for comment late Thursday. An Apple spokesman in Sydney said the company had no comment.

    Despite any troubles, significant numbers of iOS users had upgraded; more than 16 percent, according to Mixpanel, a San Francisco, California-based analytics company, as of 4 p.m. Pacific time Thursday.

    Error Message

    Charlie Brown, a technology expert at Sydney-based Cybershack, said any number of dissatisfied customers was significant in the social media era, particularly following the troubled rollout of iOS 8. Apple released several further updates to iOS8, but some of the bugs were never fully fixed.

    "The risk to Apple in terms of having dissatisfied customers is that as their customer base grows, so will the number of those dissatisfied customers," said Brown.

    One group of users reported that iOS 9 upgrade would fail after several minutes, requiring them to start the process over. Many posted screen shots of the error message they received: "Software Update Failed."

    That problem was likely caused by servers that were overloaded when too many people tried to download the upgrade simultaneously, tech analysts said.

    "It's like the Black Friday thing," said Bob O'Donnell of Technalysis Research, referring to the major U.S. shopping sale day after Thanksgiving. "Some websites get creamed on the traffic on Black Friday."

    Other users, many of them with older devices, reported their devices seizing up on a "swipe to upgrade" page. The latest upgrade had been deemed by Apple as "friendly" to the older devices after the iOS 8 problems.

    "Apple were saying the downloading mechanism doesn't take as much space to download," said Sydney-based Graham McKay, an IT support specialist.

    McKay and Brown said they always advised clients to wait several days before downloading any new upgrades from Apple, Google (GOOG) or Microsoft (MSFT) to make sure any glitches had been found and ironed out.

    Metering the upgrade, or allowing users to upgrade in waves rather than all at once, would have been a smarter approach, O'Donnell said.

    "It's a lot about setting expectations," he said.

    Apple did this week delay the release of watch OS 2, its updated operating system for the Apple Watch after it discovered a bug in development.

    -Melissa Redman contributed reporting.

     

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    Federal Reserve
    Jacquelyn Martin/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
    By JOSH BOAK

    WASHINGTON -- So what will it take for the Federal Reserve to finally raise interest rates?

    The U.S. economy is now in its seventh straight year of expansion. It's growing at a steady if unexciting 2.2 percent annual rate. Unemployment has sunk from a 10 percent peak to a reassuring 5.1 percent. Auto and home sales have accelerated.

    Yet on Thursday, Fed officials declined to lift rates from record lows.

    The decision left some Fed watchers mystified over what the central bank needs to see to begin phasing out a policy it launched in 2008 to help save a collapsing economy. Many consumers and businesses wouldn't even likely feel the consequences of a single rate hike, at least not immediately. And Yellen has stressed that the Fed's rate increases would be modest and gradual.

    At a news conference, Fed Chair Janet Yellen declined to spell out what exactly would give the Fed enough confidence to raise the federal funds rate -- the interest that banks charge each other -- from near-zero.

    "I can't give you a recipe for exactly what we're looking to see," she said.

    What she does see now are too many lingering risks.

    Inflation is still undershooting the 2 percent target that the Fed regards as consistent with stable growth. Financial markets have turned stormy as doubts have spread about whether Chinese officials can sustain decent growth in the world's second-largest economy.

    Emerging markets from Brazil to Malaysia are struggling. Europe is straining to avoid stagnation. And falling oil prices have pulled Canada -- the largest U.S. trading partner -- into recession.

    The doubts remain so severe that the Fed appears to consider even a mild rate hike -- one that many economists say will barely affect most Americans -- a step too far.

    Yellen signaled some concern Thursday about China's slowdown and volatile financial markets. But many economists say the Fed is paying particular attention to three key gauges in weighing whether to raise rates. They say the Fed needs to see:

    A Stable Dollar

    The dollar has risen 14.8 percent against a basket of currencies in the past year. This has hurt U.S. manufacturers by causing their American-made goods to become more expensive abroad. It also reduces inflationary pressures because foreign-made goods become cheaper. A stronger dollar can put inflation further below the Fed's target rate.

    Steady Oil Prices

    A barrel of oil has more than halved in value to $44.07 over the past 12 months. That decline has suppressed inflation. The Fed forecasts that its preferred inflation measure will be just 0.4 percent this year -- a fraction of its 2 percent objective. Fed officials may be reluctant to act until they believe that oil prices have bottomed.

    An Even Stronger Job Market

    Over the past year, employers have added 2.9 million jobs, and the unemployment rate has dropped a full percentage point to 5.1 percent. The Fed considers that level consistent with a "balanced" economy. But the hiring has yet to spur faster wage growth -- a trend that would improve people's well-being and, Yellen stressed, help inflation reach the Fed's objective.

    The Fed doesn't want to assume that all three of these economic measures will naturally improve. So on Thursday, it said essentially that it needs more time before finalizing a decision.

    But even by the time of the Fed's October or December meeting, the direction of the world economy might remain hazy. China might be unable to show within a few months that it can manage a transition to slower growth now that its years of 10 percent annual gains are over. Europe might face continued softness.

    "It might not be definitive," said Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West. "We might have another nail-biter come the December meeting."

     

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    APTOPIX Financial Markets Wall Street Shopify IPO
    Richard Drew/APShopify and New York Stock Exchange officials gather May 21 to celebrate the start of trading of Shopify stock.
    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with the world's largest social networking website operator ready to give its 1.5 billion active users a new way to express empathy and a casual-dining chain offering a promotion that tarnishes its own brand.

    Shopify (SHOP) -- Winner

    You may not know Shopify, but it has friends in high places. The provider of cloud-based e-commerce solutions got a double shot of validation this week. On Wednesday it announced that retailers will be able to sell products on the Shopify platform right through their Facebook (FB) pages.

    Then it was revealed that it was teaming up with Amazon.com (AMZN) as the online retail giant's preferred platform as it migrates small and midsize merchants off the Amazon Webstore platform that is in the process of shutting down. Shopify is promising merchants that it can complete the migration of Amazon Webstore data with no downtime, and having Amazon's blessing can only help.

    Olive Garden -- Loser

    Darden Restaurants (DRI) is giving Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Pass another shot. The chain repeated last year's promotion, offering 1,000 cards allowing you unlimited pasta meals during a seven-week run for just $100. This time it added a family pass at $300, good for the passholder and three guests.

    Some will argue that the pass is a winner. The chain sold out of the 2,000 passes just as quickly as they were made available online. However, associating Olive Garden with gluttony and cheap pasta isn't the kind of free advertising that does a struggling brand any favors. Olive Garden has struggled with drawing guest traffic for more than two years, and this isn't going to change that.

    Cheap Tablet Seekers -- Winners

    If you are holding out for a tablet but can't afford an iPad, Amazon has a tempting value proposition for you. The dot-com darling is expanding its line of Fire tablets and that now includes a seven-inch device that retails for a mere $49.99.

    It's a price point low enough to make some serious noise this holiday shopping season. It's not going to be confused with the new iPad Pro, but its spec sheet is more than enough for you to use it as an everyday tablet if the petite size works for you. Amazon will likely be introducing millions of people to its digital ecosystem later this year as a result of the aggressively priced tablet.

    Conn's (CONN) -- Loser

    There are lingering concerns when it comes to consumer electronics retailing. An analyst at Stifel Nicolaus downgraded shares of Conn's on Tuesday, pointing to the problematic credit performance of the chain's deadbeat customers. Average account balances from borrowers and delinquency levels continue to rise and the analyst finds that more troublesome than any potential turnaround in sales.

    Facebook (FB) -- Winner

    The leading social networking website may not be a lovefest for much longer. Mark Zuckerberg revealed at a town hall meeting Tuesday that Facebook should be rolling out a "dislike" option soon.

    Facebook users have been asking for the option for years. It would give them the appropriate way to express empathy during times of crisis as well as voice displeasure when products, services, media and other things disappoint.

    There may be some legitimate concerns that the thumbs-down option could make it easier to bully others or generate friction, but the best value of any data is when it's honest and covers positive and negative feedback. It may be controversial, but I'm giving the thumbs-down a thumbs-up.

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

     

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    Construction At A Lennar Homes Development Ahead Of New Home Sales Data
    Mark Elias/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By MARTIN CRUTSINGER

    WASHINGTON -- An index of future U.S. economic health edged up slightly in August after a flat reading in July. The outcome in both months signaled economic growth could be moderating.

    The Conference Board said Friday that its index of leading indicators rose 0.1 percent in August following no change in July and a 0.6 percent jump in June. The July reading had initially been reported as a decline of 0.2 percent.

    Conference Board economist Ataman Ozyildirim said the index was signaling that growth will be moderate through the rest of the year "with little reason to expect growth to pick up substantially."

    Economists at BMO Capital Markets said the performance of the index in August mirrored the mixed signals facing the Federal Reserve, which wrapped up a highly anticipated two-day meeting Thursday with a decision to leave interest rates unchanged given all the uncertainty facing the global economy.

    Five of the 10 forward-pointing indicators that make up the index increased with the largest contributions coming from favorable interest rates and a rise in building permits.

    The biggest negative factor weighing on the index was the sharp fall in stock prices during the month, a turbulent period when investors grew concerned about developments in China, the world's second largest economy.

    While the Fed decided not to boost a key interest rate, which has been at a record low near zero since late 2008, many economists expect the central bank will raise rates at least once this year. The Fed has two more meetings this year -- in October and December.

     

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    Germany Volkswagen
    AP
    By MATTHEW DALY

    WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday that Volkswagen intentionally skirted clean air laws by using a piece of software that enabled about 500,000 of its diesel cars to emit fewer smog-causing pollutants during testing than in real-world driving conditions.

    The agency ordered VW to fix the cars at its own expense. The German automaker also faces billions of dollars in fines, although exact amounts weren't determined.

    The cars, all built in the last seven years, are the VW Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat models, as well as the Audi A3. The vehicles all contain a device programmed to detect when they are undergoing official emissions testing, the EPA said, adding that the cars only turn on full emissions control systems during that testing. The controls are turned off during normal driving situations, the EPA said.

    The EPA called the company's use of the so-called "defeat device" illegal and a threat to public health.

    "EPA is committed to making sure that all automakers play by the same rules," said Cynthia Giles, assistant EPA administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance.

    The EPA called on VW to fix the cars' emissions systems, but said car owners don't need to take any immediate action. The violations don't present a safety hazard and the cars remain legal to drive and sell, the EPA said.

    The German automaker said in a statement it is cooperating with the investigation, but declined further comment.

    The EPA said VW faces fines of up to $37,500 per vehicle for the violations -- a total of more than $18 billion. No final total was announced. California issued a separate compliance order to VW, and officials announced an investigation by the California Air Resources Board.

    Despite the seriousness of the violation, the EPA said VW will be given "a reasonable amount of time to develop a plan to complete the repairs," including both the repair procedure and manufacture of any needed parts.

    It could take up to a year to identify corrective actions, develop a recall plan and issue recall notices, the EPA said.

    Environmental groups hailed the EPA and California for moving aggressively to enforce clean air laws.

    "The charges here are truly appalling: that Volkswagen knowingly installed software that produced much higher smog-forming emissions from diesel vehicles in the real world than in pre-sale tests," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group.

    O'Donnell accused VW of "cheating not just car buyers but the breathing public." He said the charges undercut industry rhetoric about "clean diesel" cars.

    The Volkswagens likely perform better with the emissions controls defeated than they do with them on, said Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief for the Cars.com automotive shopping and research site. Otherwise, he said, there would be no reason to have a setting that turns on the controls for tests and turns them off for regular driving.

    "Obviously it's changing the way the engine operates somehow that may not be pleasing to consumers," he said. "It would follow that it would put it into a very different feel in terms of operation of the vehicle."

    But Bragman said other countries may allow different modes for testing and normal driving.

    The allegations cover roughly 482,000 diesel passenger cars sold in the United States since 2008. Affected models include:
    • Jetta (Model Years 2009 -- 2015)
    • Beetle (Model Years 2009 -- 2015)
    • Audi A3 (Model Years 2009 -- 2015)
    • Golf (Model Years 2009 -- 2015)
    • Passat (Model Years 2014-2015)
    -AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this story.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Sinead Carew

    NEW YORK -- Wall Street stocks closed lower Friday in heavy trading as the Federal Reserve's decision to keep interest rates near zero fueled concerns about the potential impact of continuing weak global growth on U.S. corporate earnings.

    Apart from the state of the world economy, the Fed cited financial market volatility and sluggish inflation at home in its decision Thursday, while leaving the door open for a modest policy tightening later this year.

    Friday's volatility was also likely exacerbated by so-called "quadruple-witching," when options on stocks and indexes, and futures on indexes and single-stocks all expire, prompting investors to buy or sell shares to cover expiring contracts.

    The three major stock indexes each fell more than 1 percent, with all 30 Dow components in the red.

    "People are taking this to be another data point of a potentially deflationary environment. Deflation is bad for corporate profits and that leads to lower share prices," said Stephen Massocca, Chief Investment Officer at Wedbush Equity Management in San Francisco.

    The Fed's decision suggested a global economic environment that is unlikely to foster the kind of earnings growth needed to support stocks at their current, above-average valuations.

    Despite recent declines, the benchmark S&P 500 is still trading around 15.6 times forward 12 month earnings, above the 10-year median of 14.7 times, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine data.

    "What they introduced [Thursday] was that they're worried about the effects on U.S. growth based on foreign economies," said Scott Colyer, chief executive officer of Advisors Asset Management in Monument, Colorado.

    More than 10.9 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, compared with 8.1 billion average for the previous 20 sessions, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    It was the most active trading day since Aug. 24 when 14.2 billion shares changed hands as markets sold off on concerns about China's economic growth.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) closed down 289.95 points, or 1.7 percent, to 16,384.79, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 32.12 points, or 1.6 percent, to 1,958.08 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 66.72 points, or 1.4 percent, to 4,827.23.

    Oil Price Slide

    All 10 major S&P sectors ended lower, with the energy index's 2.6 percent fall leading the decline on falling oil prices. Industrials and materials also dropped more than 2 percent. Financials fell 1.9 percent as banks would have benefited from an interest rate increase.

    For the week, the Dow shed 0.3 percent, the S&P fell 0.1 percent and the Nasdaq rose 0.1 percent.

    Investors are now focusing on the next Fed meeting on Oct. 27-28, though a growing number of economists, including those at Morgan Stanley and Barclays, now wonder whether the Fed will raise rates at all this year.

    The CBOE volatility index, known as the "fear gauge," jumped 5.4 percent to 22.28, above its long-term average of 20.

    NYSE declining issues outnumbered advancers 2,139 to 929, for a 2.30-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,856 issues fell and 1,026 advanced, for a 1.81-to-1 ratio. The S&P 500 posted 4 new 52-week highs and 18 lows; the Nasdaq recorded 51 new highs and 65 lows.

    -With additional reporting by Saqib Ahmed in New York and Tanya Agrawal in Bangalore.

    What to watch Monday:
    • The National Association of Realtors releases existing home sales for August at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:

     

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    Holiday Shopping Black Friday
    Damian Dovarganes/APBlack Friday shoppers take advantage of bargains at Macy's last November.


    The first day of fall is still days away, and many of us are still in our shorts and flip-flops, but the Christmas season is already underway -- and not just for retailers.

    Many retail stores across the country have already stocked their shelves and decorated their stores for Christmas. The push for holiday sales seems to start earlier with each passing year.

    More surprisingly, nearly 32 million Americans have already begun their holiday shopping, according to a recent poll by CreditCards.com. And get this: Nearly 4.6 million Americans have already crossed the last gift off their holiday shopping list, the poll found. That's right -- it's only September, and their Christmas shopping is complete.

    "We love to complain about stores putting up holiday displays earlier and earlier each year," said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com. "But the truth is that millions of Americans start holiday shopping long before the first Christmas tree appears in a store."

    The CreditCards.com poll found that parents are twice as likely to have already started Christmas shopping (20 percent) compared with adults without children (11 percent).

    According to eMarketer, retail holiday sales are expected to jump 5.7 percent this year, with Americans spending nearly $886 billion on holiday-related purchases.

    Early holiday shoppers said buying up holiday goodies now helps keep their stress levels down, and it's also a way for them save time and money because they have time to comparison shop for the best prices, according to CreditCards.com.

    Melanie DeCarolis, a wine educator from Boston, told CreditCards.com that she starts shopping for the holidays in July and wraps it up in August.

    "If I put shopping off until December, I have only two paychecks left for it," she explained. "This way I can spread the cost out and the financial burden isn't so onerous."

    For more ideas on easing the burden of the gift-giving season, read "How to Save $500 for Christmas Shopping."

    Have you started Christmas shopping yet? Share your 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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  • 09/18/15--22:00: Ready for the Robo-401(k)?
  • Filed under: , , , ,

    Retirement Plan
    Getty Images
    By Mark Henricks

    NEW YORK -- If you don't participate in your employer's 401(k) plan because signing up and working with it is too much hassle, or you do participate but think fees are too high, Betterment may have an answer. The nation's largest purveyor of automated investment advice is rolling out a new 401(k) platform called Betterment for Biz that aims to address both those issues. While it is aimed first at small employers, larger companies are also potential users.

    Betterment CEO Joe Stein says the New York-based company decided to enter the $5.5 trillion defined contribution retirement plan market, because it couldn't find a good platform for its employees. "After five months of a painful process and a really unsatisfactory client experience and a very expensive end result, we found ourselves scratching our heads and saying, 'How can the industry be so far behind the times?' " Stein said. "It spurred us to action."

    When Betterment for Biz becomes available in 2016, it will compete largely on cost. Stein says costs will be no more than 60 basis points of assets under management. That is similar to the average expense ratio 401(k) plan participants paid to invest in equity mutual funds in 2014, according to an Investment Company Institute study. However, small employers with fewer than 500 employees commonly pay more. Stein said options presented to Betterment cost more than 80 basis points.

    Betterment for Biz promises employers and participants easy-to-use, paperless online enrollment and management. Stein said that should encourage more employees to participate. The 2015 edition of the annual Transamerica Retirement Survey found that 80 percent of workers who were offered an employee-funded retirement plan took advantage of it, a number that has been steady the last few years.

    The 401(k) industry, including competitors, seems accepting of the new entrant. Lower cost is always good, said Chad Parks, CEO of San Francisco-based Ubiquity, which has offered flat-fee online 401(k)s to small employers since 1999. "The higher the fees, the worse it is for participants because of the compounding effects," he said.

    However, Parks said automated investment advice presents little improvement over available offerings. Ubiquity does not give advice directly to participants, instead contracting with outside fiduciary advisers for that service. And Betterment for Biz won't necessarily be cheaper, he said. According to Parks, Ubiquity's costs for small plans including advice are 30 basis points or less, or about half the high end of Betterment's expected costs.

    "In order to do something better and different, they can't just stop with lower cost and automated investing," Parks said. He says the industry needs to boost participation and increase amounts beyond the 8 percent of annual pay the ICI study found was the median contribution in 2015.

    "The main issue is coverage, not enough people in plans saving," Parks said. "At the end of the day, if there's not enough money in the account, it's not going to matter."

    Other providers are working to boost enrollment. Alison Daigle, product manager for ALEX, an employee benefits communication platform from Chicago-based Jellyvision, says clients report significant increases in participation in 401 (k) plans after beginning to use the platform. An easy-to-use and engaging interface is key, she said. "It's not generally enough to tell employees that they need to be saving for retirement and giving them the tools to do that," Daigle said.

    Cal Brown, a financial planner with Savant Capital Wealth Management, in McLean, Virginia, offers employers a 401(k) enrollment, management and advice platform developed by his company. He feels that Betterment's roboadviser technology will suit younger participants, but may not be for everyone. "One of our competitive advantages is we have a human being that is going to be an adviser that the owner or the administrator or any employee can call and talk of it they have question so issues," Brown said.

    Ubiquity's Parks predicted many large financial service companies would follow Betterment with improved 401(k) platforms. "We're all going to look at each others best practices," he said, "and come up with the next-generation small business 401(k)."


    Cramer: My #1 Investing Rule

     

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