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    A Caterpillar Inc. Equipment Dealer Ahead Of Earnings
    Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Lisa Von Ahn

    Caterpillar (CAT) slashed its 2015 revenue forecast Thursday and said it will cut as many as 10,000 jobs through 2018, joining a list of big U.S. industrial companies grappling with the mining and energy downturn.

    Shares of Caterpillar tumbled as much as 8 percent to a five-year low, pulling down the sector and knocking as much as 37 points off the Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI).

    Over the past year, miners and energy companies have chopped budgets and put expansion projects on hold as prices of raw materials such as crude oil, copper, coal and iron ore have plunged to six-year lows amid lingering worries about oversupplies and China's slowing economic growth. As a result, orders for equipment have dried up.

    Peoria, Illinois-based Caterpillar, the world's biggest construction and mining equipment-maker, has also been hit by a slowdown in industrial activity in China.

    S&P Capital IQ analyst Jim Corridore termed the restructuring "a strong reaction" to market conditions.

    "The company has shown a lack of revenue growth in the last few years [and] earnings are in a decline," he said. "That definitely puts pressure on the CEO to find a way to react to the environment, which at this time shows no near-term catalyst for improvement."

    Earlier this month, mining equipment-maker Joy Global (JOY) issued a profit warning as it struggled to adapt to slowing demand for its services.

    Deere & Co. (DE), the world's largest maker of farm equipment, announced layoffs of more than 900 plant employees in January as declining grain prices have hurt demand for agricultural machinery.

    Caterpillar had raised its 2015 profit forecast in April and affirmed it in July.

    "That they had hung in with their guidance for so long was probably the most surprising, given the ... accumulating evidence around them that things were slowing," said Morningstar analyst Kwame Webb.

    Caterpillar expects revenue to fall in 2015 for the third straight year, to $48 billion, below the average analyst estimate of $48.82 billion, as compiled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

    For 2016, the company forecast a 5 percent revenue decline, mainly in higher-margin products, to about $45.6 billion. Analysts had expected $47.36 billion.

    Caterpillar said it will update its 2015 profit forecast when it releases third-quarter results in late October. It expects to provide a 2016 earnings outlook in January.

    'Way, Way Too Much Capacity'

    "We are facing a convergence of challenging marketplace conditions in key regions and industry sectors -- namely in mining and energy," Chief Executive Officer Doug Oberhelman said in a statement.

    Caterpillar's announcement was no surprise to Bill Hickey, president of Chicago-based steel-mill operator Lapham-Hickey, which supplies the company's road construction and road equipment operations.

    "There is way, way too much capacity worldwide, and the question is, how long will the cycle last?" he said. "Our best guess is that there is going to be oversupply on steel and other commodities until maybe late next year."

    Caterpillar said it will cut 4,000 to 5,000 jobs by the end of 2016, most of them coming in 2015. It has already reduced its workforce by more than 31,000 since mid-2012.

    The company had 114,233 employees as of Dec. 31, 2014 according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    Caterpillar expects to incur about $2 billion in pretax costs from the restructuring and save about $1.5 billion annually.

    Caterpillar said it might close or consolidate more than 20 plants around the world across its three large businesses -- construction, resources, and energy and transportation.

    "2016 would mark the first time in Caterpillar's 90-year history that sales and revenues have decreased four years in a row," the company said in a statement.

    It last reported annual revenue growth in 2012, the first full year after it bought heavy equipment-maker Bucyrus International in its largest acquisition ever.

    Caterpillar's 2015 revenue forecast represents a 27 percent drop from 2012. Wall Street's net income outlook for this year is 50 percent lower than the company's 2012 profit.

    Shares of Caterpillar, which already had fallen 23 percent this year, were down 6.3 percent at $65.81 in afternoon trading. The S&P Industrials Index fell 0.7 percent.

    The company's market value was about $39 billion Thursday, down from nearly $60 billion at the end of 2012.

    -With reporting by Meredith Davis and Nick Carey in Chicago, and Ankit Ajmera and Sweta Singh in Bangalore.


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    Odd Andersen, AFP/Getty ImagesCEO of Porsche Matthias Mueller, left, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn, who resigned Wednesday, at the 66th IAA auto show last week in Frankfurt, Germany.
    By Andreas Cremer

    BERLIN -- Volkswagen (VLKAY) will name Matthias Mueller, the head of its Porsche sports car brand, as its chief executive as it tries to recover from a scandal over its rigging of U.S. vehicle emissions tests, a source close to the matter said Thursday.

    Mueller, 62, has been widely tipped to succeed Martin Winterkorn, who quit Wednesday, when the German carmaker's supervisory board meets Friday, and will take responsibility for the biggest business crisis in Volkswagen's 78-year history.

    We have been informed that also in Europe, vehicles with 1.6 and 2.0 liter diesel engines are affected by the manipulations that are being talked about.

    Shares in the world's largest carmaker by sales have plunged as much as 40 percent since Friday, when U.S. regulators said it had admitted to fitting software on hundreds of thousands of diesel cars to detect when they were being tested, and alter the running of their engines to conceal their true emissions.

    The crisis deepened Thursday, when Germany's transport minister said Volkswagen had manipulated tests in Europe too.

    "We have been informed that also in Europe, vehicles with 1.6 and 2.0 liter diesel engines are affected by the manipulations that are being talked about," Alexander Dobrindt told reporters, adding it was unclear how many vehicles in Europe were affected.

    Volkswagen has said 11 million cars globally had the software fitted, but it wasn't activated in the bulk of them. As well as the cost of regulatory fines and potentially refitting cars, Volkswagen faces criminal investigations and lawsuits from cheated customers and possibly shareholders.

    More immediately, the new CEO will have to restore the confidence of customers and car dealers, who have expressed frustration at a lack of information about how they will be affected by the scandal.

    Mueller has a majority on the 20-member supervisory board, the source said. Volkswagen declined to comment.

    The board will also dismiss the head of the company's U.S. operations and top engineers at its Audi and Porsche brands, a senior source told Reuters, as it seeks a fresh start.

    "He is a good choice even though he may be seen as a transitionary CEO until another internal candidate such as VW brand CEO [Herbert] Diess has earned their stripes," Arndt Ellinghorst, an analyst at Evercore ISI investment banking advisory firm, said of Mueller.

    The new CEO's priority would be to renew Volkswagen's leadership, restructure costs and create a "performance-driven company" where management was more accountable," he added.


    Mueller, who has worked for parts of the Volkswagen empire since the 1970s, is a management board member of Porsche SE and so is close to the Piech-Porsche family that controls Volkswagen through the holding company.

    The company is under pressure to act decisively, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel urging it to quickly restore confidence in a business held up for generations as a paragon of German engineering prowess.

    "There will be further personnel consequences in the next days and we are calling for those consequences," Volkswagen board member Olaf Lies told the Bavarian broadcasting network.

    The research and development chiefs of Audi and Porsche, Ulrich Hackenberg and Wolfgang Hatz, will be removed by the supervisory board, as will Volkswagen's top executive in the United States, Michael Horn, the senior source told Reuters.

    Hackenberg and Hatz had both held senior posts at VW in development, including of engines, before they switched to Audi and Porsche. They are among Volkswagen's top engineers.

    Horn acknowledged this week that the company had "totally screwed up" by deceiving U.S. regulators about how much its diesel cars pollute.

    The scandal has sent shockwaves through the car market, with manufacturers fearing a drop in demand for diesel cars and tougher regulations and customers worrying about the performance and re-sale value of their cars.

    Dobrindt said Europe would agree new emissions tests in coming months that should take place on roads, rather than in laboratories, and that random checks would be made on all manufacturers.

    The European Commission urged all member states to investigate the use of so-called "defeat devices" by carmakers to cheat emissions tests and said there would be "zero tolerance" of any wrongdoing.

    So far, no other carmaker has been found to have used the devices. German rival BMW said Thursday it had not manipulated tests, after a magazine reported some of its diesel cars were found to exceed emissions standards.

    Drivers Worried

    Friday's board meeting had originally been due to extend the contract of Winterkorn and set out a new management structure.

    Though Winterkorn oversaw a doubling in sales and a near tripling in profit during his eight-year reign, he faced criticism for Volkswagen's underperformance in the United States and for a micro-management style that critics say delayed model launches and hampered its ability to adapt to local markets.

    Analysts said a new management structure, possibly more decentralized but also with a clearer system of checks, was all the more urgent, with top executives apparently unaware of the emissions test cheating despite a tight control on decisions.

    They also called for more transparency, particularly in North America, where NordLB analyst Frank Schwope said Volkswagen hadn't published earnings figures since 2007.

    Two sources close to the matter said Volkswagen would create a special position for the United States on its management board Friday, with the head of its Skoda brand, Winfried Vahland, the favorite to get the job.

    The new CEO will also need to improve its communications with dealers and customers, with many frustrated that Volkswagen has yet to say which models and construction years are affected by the crisis and whether cars will have to be refitted.

    "We are getting lots of phone calls asking 'What is the likely impact of this?'" said an insider at a major Volkswagen dealership in Britain, who declined to be named.

    "But we are not getting anything from Volkswagen, so we don't have anything to pass on to them."

    Volkswagen said in a statement on its website it was working to answer these questions as quickly as possible. "It goes without saying that we will take full responsibility and cover costs for the necessary arrangements and measures," it said.


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    Dow Soars Over 250 Points Ahead Of Fed Interest Rate Announcement
    Getty Images
    By Sinead Carew

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks closed lower Thursday in a volatile session on uncertainty about U.S. monetary policy and global economic growth, while market heavyweight Caterpillar cut in its sales forecast and health care investors fled for the exits.

    Six of the 10 major S&P sectors were lower, with the health sector's 1 percent fall leading the S&P declines and the Nasdaq biotech sector down 2 percent. Both health care indexes had their fifth straight day of losses.

    While the broader market pared losses somewhat in the afternoon, investors were cautious ahead of a speech by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, which could provide clues regarding the timing of an increase in U.S. interest rates.

    Yellen, due to deliver an inflation speech at 5 p.m. Eastern time, had cited concerns about slowing global growth as a key reason for holding off from a long-anticipated Fed rate hike last Thursday.

    Several investment strategists said Thursday that the market is on its way to retesting the lows of Aug. 24, when shares tanked due to a panic about slowing growth in China.

    "From a technical point of view, you have to test that low. Whether it's issues abroad or not being so sure about what's going on here in the U.S. with rates, we need to go lower," said Jeffrey Frankel, co-president of Stuart Frankel & Co. in New York.

    Almost 7.7 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the average of 7.5 billion in the previous 20 sessions according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    Shares in Caterpillar (CAT), the world's biggest mining and construction equipment maker, closed down 6.3 percent at $65.80, making it the biggest drag on the Dow and the third-biggest weight on the S&P 500. Caterpillar said it could cut up to 10,000 jobs as it faces challenging conditions in key regions and the mining and energy sector.

    "The [Caterpillar] news is not helping matters, it's emblematic of a weaker global economy," said Joseph Quinlan, chief market strategist for U.S. Trust, in New York.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 78.57 points, or 0.5 percent, to 16,201.32, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 6.52 points, or 0.3 percent, to 1,932.24 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 18.27 points, or 0.4 percent, to 4,734.48.

    'Fear Gauge' Rises

    The CBOE Volatility index, known as Wall Street's "fear gauge," settled up 6 percent at 23.47, compared with its long-term average of 20.

    Gilead Sciences (GILD) was the biggest drag on the S&P 500. Health care stocks have been under pressure since Hillary Clinton, the leading U.S. Democratic presidential candidate, vowed earlier this week to stop "price gouging" by drug companies.

    Utilities were the strongest sector with a 0.8 percent rise, while the energy index eked out a 0.4 percent gain. U.S. crude oil settled higher in what was also a volatile day for the commodity.

    A gauge of U.S. business investment plans fell slightly in August, jobless claims barely rose last week, and new single-family home sales rose more quickly than expected in August.

    NYSE declining issues outnumbered advancers on the NYSE by 1,816 to 1,235, for a 1.47-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,529 issues fell and 1,244 advanced, for a 1.23-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted no new 52-week highs and 69 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 25 new highs and 184 new lows.

    -Tanya Agrawal contributed reporting from Bangalore.

    What to watch Friday:
    • The Commerce Department releases second-quarter gross domestic product at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.


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    Views Of The Comic-Con International Convention
    Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesThe Lego Dimensions toys-to-life video game is demonstrated during July's Comic-Con International convention preview in San Diego.
    Lego fans and parents of Lego fans know how easy it is to blow through some serious dough in amassing a collection of the brick-building playthings, and now the Denmark-based company is aiming for the pocketbooks of gamers, too.

    "Lego Dimensions" hits stores Sunday, offering owners of Xbox One, PS4, Wii U and Xbox 360 systems a new way to engage with the objects that they create. Lego-licensed video games have been popular for years, but "Lego Dimensions" is different in that it incorporates actual brick figures into the gaming experience.

    The starter pack retails for $99.99, and it includes the console video game disc as well as three microchip-backed figures and the "toy pad" platform that connects to the gaming system. Players then place any of the mini-figures on the pad and the characters come alive in the game.

    If Something Works, Copy It

    If the process sounds familiar, it's because Activision Blizzard (ATVI) and Disney (DIS) have similar products in which action figures unlock access to virtual gaming realms through a video game system.

    Activision Blizzard -- the software publishing giant behind "Call of Duty" and "World of Warcraft" -- ushered in the format when it released "Skylanders" in late 2011. Disney followed two years later with "Disney Infinity," letting fans play as Disney, Marvel and now even Star Wars characters.

    It works, and as anyone who has played "Skylanders" and "Disney Infinity" knows, it's the desire to broaden the gaming experience with expansion packs that really starts eating away at the wallet. "Lego Dimensions" comes with Batman, Wyldstyle from "The Lego Movie" and Gandalf from "The Lord of the Rings," but additional characters with accessories can be purchased for less than $30 apiece. The accessories are important because players can bring up to seven vehicles or gadgets into the toy pad. It's also where traditional Lego fans can put their brick-building skills to use, since the actual action figures don't pose much of an assembly challenge.

    Expansion Packs Make Wallets Contract

    "Lego Dimensions" is going to be a hit, and outside of perhaps some retailer-subsidized Black Friday deals in November, you're probably not going to be paying a lot less than the retail price for the starter kit.

    The price cuts will come, but likely not until next year. We've seen prices for "Skylanders" and earlier generations of "Disney Infinity" get marked down, but that only typically happens once sales start to cool off. That's obviously not going to happen for Lego's latest toy line anytime soon.

    If you're going to pay full price, you may as well milk the most that you can out of it. There are apparently plenty of adventures packed in the starter kit and expansion packs, so exhaust all of the fun there before feeding another Lego addiction. Get ready to build something cool on your TV.

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


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    Markets React To Fed Interest Rate Announcement
    Getty ImagesThe Fed's October or December meetings are likely the next time for a potential rate hike.
    By Kira Brecht

    Unless you've had your head under a rock, you probably heard the Federal Reserve didn't change its interest rate policy at its meeting last week. Now that the dust has settled and the TV talking heads have quieted down, let's take a look at what the still ultra low interest rate environment could mean for stock investors.

    The bull market in stocks is not over. The current rising trend in U.S. stocks began at the March 2009 low in the Standard & Poor's 500 index. While concerns about a slowdown in Chinese economic growth and what that could mean for the U.S. economy have triggered significant volatility in U.S. equity markets in recent weeks, the stock market bull is not dead yet, analysts say.

    Even when the Federal Reserve does finally increase the federal funds rate from its ultralow zero to 0.25 percent, where it has been stuck since December 2008, the end of the rising equity trend will not be at hand. "There have been nine rate hike cycles since 1950. In eight of the nine cycles, stocks are up an average of 10 percent in the year after the first rate hike," says John Canally, vice president and economist at LPL Financial, a Boston-based broker-dealer.

    The first Fed rate hike is not the end of the bull market and it's not the end of the expansion.

    Economists now point to the Federal Reserve's October or December meetings as the next likely time for a potential rate hike, but Canally downplays the overall impact for the stock market. "The first Fed rate hike is not the end of the bull market and it's not the end of the expansion."

    High-yield dividend stocks remain attractive. With interest rates remaining at historically low levels, fixed-income investors don't get paid much to save in traditional certificates of deposit or even in T-bills, notes or bonds. "The zero interest-rate policy is killing seniors, savers and retirees," says Chris Bertelsen, chief investment officer at Global Financial Private Capital, a Sarasota, Florida-based wealth management firm.

    He points to the beaten-down energy stock sector as a potentially attractive area of the market to consider, especially with the Fed holding down interest rates for now. "The large oil companies like ConocoPhillips (COP), ExxonMobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX) are attractive because of their yields," Bertelsen says. "I wouldn't be afraid to look for something with a little higher yield, like Duke Energy (DUK) or Southern Co. (SO), because the Fed is still on hold."

    Consider international exposure. At its latest policy-making meeting last week, the Fed downgraded a bevy of its forecasts, which included lower interest rates, lower inflation and even lower overall economic growth. The central bank projected that the U.S. economy will expand by 1.8 to 2.2 percent over the long run, versus previous growth forecasts of 2 to 2.3 percent.

    While economists have worried of late about a slowdown in China, overall economic growth there is still strong compared with the U.S.

    Credit Suisse (CS) forecasts U.S. GDP growth at a 2.6 percent pace in 2015, versus a 6.8 percent in China and 8.1 percent in India. "Long-term investors looking five to 10 years out may want to start adding emerging market exposure. Their economies will still grow three times faster than our economy over the next five years," Canally says.

    Be selective. It's a stock picker's market now. The current environment, ripe with uncertainty over the timing of the first interest rate hike and the state of the Chinese economy, means this "is going to be a stock picker's market. If you are a long-term investor, there are opportunities to be selective in the right places," says Jeff Carbone, senior partner at Cornerstone Financial Partners, a wealth management firm in Charlotte, North Carolina.

    Eye on the Upside

    Carbone points to the recent correction in stock prices as an "opportunity to average in and buy at a lower point." He highlights the consumer discretionary, technology and health care sectors as areas that "should give you upside" in the current environment.

    The consumer discretionary sector includes companies that sell nonessential services, such as automotive, restaurants, hotels, leisure equipment and consumer retailing services.

    "The lower oil prices can help the consumer discretionary sector," says Bill Northey, chief investment officer at U.S. Bank's Private Client Group in Minneapolis. More cash in consumers' pockets means they could be spending more on items they normally wouldn't.

    Northey also is favorably disposed to the technology sector, as it "still represents opportunity for material earnings gains," he says. The health care sector has benefited from a wider demographic base in the wake of the Affordable Care Act, as more insured means increased demand as more people have access to health care.

    While the Fed failed to deliver any blockbuster news, investors can now refocus on the true fundamentals of the market. "Get back to assessing company earnings," Northey says. Third-quarter earnings results will start hitting the market by the end of September. He still expects stocks to end the year higher than current levels, with a 2,100 year-end target for the S&P 500 (^GSPC).


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    Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images
    Q. I saw a study that said a lot of people who qualify for the Obamacare cost-sharing subsidy aren't taking advantage of it. How do I know if I qualify?

    A. If your household income is less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level (for 2015 plans, that's $46,680 if you're single or $95,400 for a family of four), you qualify for a government subsidy to help pay your health insurance premiums if you buy coverage through your state's health insurance exchange. If your household income is less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($29,175 if single or $59,625 for a family of four), you can get an extra break: a cost-sharing subsidy that reduces your deductibles, coinsurance and co-payments when you receive care. You can get the extra cost-sharing subsidy only if you buy a silver-level policy on the exchange; you won't get the break if you buy a bronze-, gold- or platinum-level policy.

    The study you saw, by Avalere Health, discovered that more than 2 million people who bought coverage on the exchanges and are eligible for the cost-sharing subsidy aren't receiving that extra benefit because they didn't sign up for a silver policy. They may have chosen a bronze-level policy during open enrollment because the premiums were lower, but if they have even a few medical expenses, they could end up paying less out of pocket by the end of the year by choosing a silver plan with cost sharing.

    You generally can't switch policies until open enrollment in the fall unless you've experienced certain life changes (such as getting married, having a baby, losing other health coverage, moving, or experiencing changes in income that affect your eligibility for a subsidy). See the Special Enrollment Period tool for more information. But the cost-sharing subsidy is important to keep in mind when picking a plan for 2016 during open enrollment, which runs from November 1 through Jan. 31. Don't just compare premiums; compare your out-of-pocket costs for your typical drugs and medical care, and factor in the value of the cost-sharing subsidy if you qualify for it.

    Insurers automatically apply the cost-sharing subsidy if you qualify. They can use the cost-sharing subsidy to reduce the deductible or limit co-payments or coinsurance rates for medical care and prescription drugs. Insurers must limit the maximum amount you can spend out of pocket for the year to $2,250 to $5,200 for individual plans (the limit is based on your income) or $4,500 to $10,400 for family plans. (Without the cost-sharing subsidy, the out-of-pocket maximum for policies sold on the exchanges can be up to $6,600 for individual coverage and $13,200 for family plans.) Compare each plan's details at your state exchange website. You can find links at


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    lifebuoy with dollars
    Getty Images
    By Rebecca Reisner

    Ah, the emergency fund.

    That cushion of cash you're so glad to have when your company announces it's downsizing staff, or when your plumber tells you that the water stain on the ceiling is coming from a giant leak behind the walls.

    These unexpected life "surprises" are the reason we at LearnVest advocate having one month of your take-home pay in a rainy day fund before tackling any other financial goals -- including big ones like paying off a credit card.

    Even better? Working your way up to six months of take-home pay -- or nine months' worth, if you're self-employed.

    But even if you're hovering closer to the one-month-of-pay mark, consider yourself ahead of the pack: A 2015 Bankrate Money Pulse poll found that only 38 percent of respondents had enough savings to be able to cover even a small disaster, like an emergency room visit or a car repair.

    And once you've joined the ranks of those who've reached their emergency savings fund goal, you hope, of course, that everything remains peachy enough to leave that rainy day stash untouched.

    But if a disaster actually does happen, how do you go about, well, touching it?

    According to financial pros, it all depends on the cost of your mishap and the size of your emergency savings.

    For added insight, we asked LearnVest Certified Financial Planner Matt Shapiro to assess three common hypothetical "I need to tap my emergency fund" scenarios and offer advice for how to draw down from a rainy day fund wisely.

    Scenario No. 1: The Sputtering Transmission

    Nick, 25, earns $41,000 a year as a computer help desk technician. After two years on the job, he's managed to build an emergency fund of $2,500, which is about a month of his take-home pay.

    He wants to keep growing his cushion, but his 10-year-old coupe gets in the way. The car needs a rebuilt transmission -- a $2,800 job that his mechanic says should buy the vehicle another few years.

    Nick could pay for it by tapping his entire emergency fund and siphoning an additional $300 from his checking account -- which would mean cutting back on some happy hours and takeout for the month.

    But he has a good credit rating, which has kept the annual percentage rate on his credit card low, so he could also charge all or some of the $2,800, paying the balance off over several months.

    What the financial planner says: First and foremost, Nick should avoid using a credit card to finance the transmission repair.

    "If it took him two years to save $2,500, it's going to be hard for him to pay off a credit card balance of $2,800, with an APR of something like 10 percent -- which will amount to a few hundred dollars in interest," Shapiro says.

    So Shapiro's preference would be for Nick to tap his entire $2,500 emergency fund, and squeeze the $300 from his current budget -- and then work on rebuilding the fund as soon as possible.

    "I'd really like to see him cut back on flexible expenses, or work some overtime to build it more quickly [than over two years]," Shapiro says. "I'd suggest he aim for putting away at least 8 percent of his income." That would work to replenish his emergency fund in about a year.

    Another option? If his car may need more repairs in the future, Nick could consider buying a used car for about the same amount it would cost to fix his coupe now.

    "If he can trade in his current car, and get a new one for $2,000 or so, that might be a solution," Shapiro says. "Twenty-eight hundred dollars seems really expensive to fix an old transmission."

    Scenario No. 2: The Fallen Oak

    Meeting planners Andrea and Bruce, both 33, have a combined annual income of $120,000. They earn roughly the same amount, and are diligent about funneling $500 each month into their emergency fund.

    As of today, they've managed to sock away six months' worth of one of their paychecks, for a total of $19,500 -- a cushion that helps give them peace of mind.

    Unfortunately, an accident involving a rotting tree on their property has them stressing out: Two huge branches fell onto their garage, collapsing the roof and damaging the structure. Since they neglected to take care of the sickly tree, their homeowners insurance won't pay for the repairs.

    And there's more bad news: All of the general contractors they've contacted have said that, in addition to removing the branches, they'll need to rebuild the garage -- with the lowest estimate coming in at $18,000.

    The couple's emergency fund would cover the total, but they feel uneasy about nearly depleting their account.

    That said, they believe that they can cut about $1,500 from their disposable income for a while to either put toward the contractor bill or rebuild their emergency fund -- although they aren't sure how long they can maintain that level of belt-tightening.

    What the financial planner says: Shapiro isn't as quick to recommend that Andrea and Bruce sap their savings right off the bat, seeing as having a safety net is important to them.

    In order to help them maintain at least some of their emergency cushion, Shapiro suggests that the couple consider applying for a home equity line of credit, or HELOC.

    While financing a repair normally wouldn't be preferable, Shapiro believes that Andrea and Bruce's diligence with saving would enable them to pay off any credit they use quickly. Plus, with interest rates low right now, he adds, the couple may qualify for a HELOC with an APR of less than 5 percent.

    After two or three months of being unemployed, it's time to get realistic. Often, the higher your salary, the longer it takes to get a new job.

    To pay off the HELOC, Shapiro says, they could take their $2,000 a month -- the $500 they've been putting into their emergency fund, plus the $1,500 they can squeeze from their budget -- and put that toward the borrowed money.

    In theory, this could help them pay off $20,000 in less than a year, leaving their emergency fund untouched.

    But if freeing up $1,500 a month from their budget will be too difficult to maintain, another option could be to split the cost of the repair between the HELOC and their emergency fund.

    For instance, they may find that cutting $700 a month feels more reasonable, and choose to use their savings to make up for the deficit.

    However Andrea and Bruce choose to divvy up the repair bill, a key consideration, Shapiro says, is that they borrow only what they can pay off in one to two years -- any longer than that and they'll be paying too much in interest.

    Scenario No. 3: The Pink Slip

    Susan and Ben, both in their mid-40s, have built up an emergency fund equaling nine months of Ben's take-home pay -- or about $54,000.

    As vice president at a menswear manufacturer, Ben makes $110,000, while Susan brings home $105,000 as a technology sales rep.

    But a round of layoffs eliminates Ben's job, and because of his short tenure at the company, his severance is minimal.

    Before the job loss, the couple were using Ben's salary to pay for such fixed costs as their mortgage and cars and their daughter's private-school tuition. Susan's paycheck went toward groceries, dining out, clothing, entertainment and other flexible expenses.

    With their income reduced by more than half, they aren't sure how to begin tapping their emergency fund. Should they see how long they can go without touching it? Or is better to start dipping into it now, with the hope that Ben will find a new job quickly?

    What the financial planner says: Because Ben's job loss directly impacts their ability to pay for the essentials, tapping into the emergency fund right away to cover fixed expenses makes sense. It's a "that's what it's for" situation, Shapiro says.

    But Ben needs to take a look at his industry's hiring landscape fast and assess the likelihood that he'll snag another job that pays equally well. Positions at his pay level may be hard to come by quickly -- and if that's the case, belt tightening may be in order.

    "After two or three months of being unemployed, it's time to get realistic," Shapiro says. "Often, the higher your salary, the longer it takes to get a new job. And people with their kind of money have probably been enjoying expensive dinners out."

    If Ben is staring down the barrel of a pay cut, it's time for the couple to start rethinking their lifestyle. Perhaps they can cut some flexible expenses and redistribute those savings to fixed bills, or nix a few monthly services they no longer really need. Those moves could help their income -- and their emergency fund -- go further.

    The good news is that having a hefty nine-month savings cushion means they aren't in dire straits. "If they can cut just $1,000 from their monthly expenses, that fund could last them almost a year," Shapiro says.


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    An Amazon Prime box
    By Krystal Steinmetz

    It's only September, but the holiday shopping season has already begun.

    Many retailers have already decorated their stores and unboxed items for Christmas gifts.

    So where are Americans planning to shop this holiday season? A survey from Pitney Bowes found that most Americans plan to do their holiday shopping both in-store and online. Although big holiday sales are typically an effective way to drum up business, online retailers who want to lure customers to shop in their stores could also benefit from expanding their shipping options.

    According to the survey, a variety of shipping alternatives is the best way to shoppers' hearts and wallets.

    "Options are no longer a privilege during the shopping experience. This holiday season consumers will expect the ability to choose their preference," Christoph Stehmann, chief operating officer of Pitney Bowe's digital commerce solutions, said in a statement. "Retailers must focus on offering diverse options -- whether for shopping channel, shipping and return methods or even promotional offers -- in order to attract consumers throughout their shopping experiences."

    More than 93 percent of consumers -- a 23 percent increase from 2014 -- said that the availability of shipping options is an important factor in their overall shopping experience.

    The survey found that consumers are willing to give up quicker shipping or increase their spending in order to qualify for free shipping. In the survey, 3 out of 5 respondents said they would buy more things to meet the free shipping threshold, and 68 percent of shoppers said they would use a coupon or promotional code to get a shipping discount.

    Looking for some more green this holiday season? Check out "11 Easy Ways to Raise Holiday Shopping Cash."

    I hate paying shipping fees. It's one of the reasons that I love Amazon Prime. Sure, I pay an annual fee so I can get free two-day shipping, but with as many items as I order, I still come out ahead.

    How important are shipping options to you when making an online purchase? 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!

    How to Save $500 by Christmas


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    Hyundai Recalls
    Ahn Young-joon/AP

    DETROIT -- Hyundai is recalling nearly a half-million midsize cars in the U.S. to replace the engines because a manufacturing problem could cause them to fail.

    The recall covers 470,000 Sonata sedans from the 2011 and 2012 model years equipped with 2-liter or 2.4-liter gasoline engines. At the time, the Sonata was Hyundai's top-selling vehicle in the U.S.

    The company also is recalling nearly 100,000 Accent small cars because the brake lights can fail.

    In documents on the Sonata recall posted Friday by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Hyundai says that metal debris may not have been fully removed from the crankshaft area during manufacturing at Hyundai's Alabama engine plant. That can restrict oil flow to the connecting rod bearings, and since they are cooled by oil, they could fail. If that happens, the engines could stall and cause a crash.

    So far, Hyundai said it has no reports of crashes or injuries from the problem. The company said in documents that a worn connecting rod bearing will make a cyclical knocking noise, and it also could cause the oil pressure warning light to illuminate. Continued driving with the problem can cause the bearing to fail and engine stalling.

    The company said that the 2011 Sonata was the first Hyundai vehicle to use engines made in Alabama, where the company initially used a mechanical process to remove machining debris from the crankshaft. That process was changed to a high pressure wet blasting system in April of 2012.

    Hyundai discovered the problem when owners started reporting engine noise. In June of 2015, NHTSA raised the issue with Hyundai, which said it didn't consider the issue to be a safety problem because owners would get warnings. But NHTSA told the company it was concerned about the possibility of high-speed stalling. Hyundai decided to recall the cars on Sept. 2, according to the documents.

    Dealers will inspect the cars and replace engines at no cost to owners, a company spokesman said. The company also will increase the engine warranty for 10 years or 120,000 miles.

    Owners will be notified Nov. 2, and they'll get a second notice when the replacement engines are available.

    Hyundai spokesman Jim Trainor declined to disclose how much it will cost to replace each engine.

    The Accent recall covers certain 2009 to 2011 models. It's an expansion of a recall issued in 2013. Hyundai says the brake light switch can fail, and the lights won't come on when a driver steps on the brakes. Also, the cruise control may not be deactivated by stepping on the brake, and the gear shifter may get stuck in the "park" position.

    The company says in documents posted by NHTSA that it has no reports of crashes or injuries.

    Hyundai will replace the brake switch at no cost to owners starting Nov. 2, the company said.


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    New Home Construction
    Gerry Broome/AP
    By Krista Hughes

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. economy expanded more than previously estimated in the second quarter on stronger consumer spending and construction, backing the case for an interest rate rise before the end of the year despite data sounding a note of caution for September.

    The Commerce Department said Friday gross domestic product rose at a 3.9 percent annual pace in the April-June quarter, up from the 3.7 percent pace reported last month.

    The data supports the case that the U.S. economy may be gaining enough strength to withstand an increase in benchmark interest rates from record low levels despite growing concerns about the global economy.

    There are a lot of things to like about the domestic side of the economy for the second half of the year despite all the global malaise.

    Still, many economists are expecting a cooler pace of growth in the third quarter, a view bolstered by separate data showing slower growth in services and a drop in consumer sentiment in September.

    The U.S. Federal Reserve last week held off on hiking rates, but Fed Chair Janet Yellen kept the door open to an increase this year in a speech on Thursday night, as long as inflation remains stable and growth is strong enough to boost employment.

    "There are a lot of things to like about the domestic side of the economy for the second half of the year despite all the global malaise," said Jacob Oubina, senior economist at RBC Capital Markets in New York. "If the domestic economy holds in there, [Fed policymakers] are going to hike in December."

    Second-quarter growth, which beat expectations in a Reuters poll for the third GDP reading to be unchanged at 3.7 percent, was bolstered by higher consumer spending, mainly on services like healthcare and transport.

    Treasury debt prices extended losses and the dollar hit a fresh five-week high against a basket of currencies on the second-quarter figures, although U.S. stock index futures pared some gains after the September data was released.

    The preliminary Purchasing Managers Index for the services sector from Markit slipped to 55.6 in September from the final 56.1 reading in August. A reading over 50 signals expansion in economic activity.

    "The survey data point to sustained steady expansion of the U.S. economy at the end of the third quarter, but various warning lights are now flashing brighter, meaning growth may continue to weaken in coming months," said Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit.

    The University of Michigan's final reading on consumer sentiment for September slipped to 87.2 from 91.9 in August, although it was higher than expectations.

    Stronger Base

    But the stronger consumer spending and a smaller inventory build reported for the second quarter are a good sign for growth in the July-September period.

    Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two thirds of U.S. economic activity, was revised up to a 3.6 percent growth pace from the 3.1 percent rate reported in August, helped by cheap gasoline prices and relatively higher house prices boosting household wealth.

    Revised construction spending data helped to push up the headline figure, with non-residential fixed investment expanding 4.1 percent in the quarter. Business investment on structures was revised upwards along with residential fixed investment.

    The revisions to second-quarter growth also reflected a smaller accumulation of inventories than earlier estimated, reducing the chance that a sharp unwinding in inventories would drag on growth.

    "For the Fed, the forward-looking part is most important and the one positive take-away is inventory contribution," said Gennadiy Goldberg, interest rates strategist at TD Securities.

    "There had been quite a bit of fear that strong inventory building in Q2 would be unwound in Q3. It actually shows GDP should be a little firmer in the next quarter, but not by a whole lot."

    After-tax corporate profits were also stronger in the second quarter than previously thought. Profits after tax with inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments showed a 2.6 percent rebound from a slump in late 2014 and early 2015.

    -Richard Leong, Michael Connor and Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss contributed reporting from New York.


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    Taco Bell Alcohol
    Matt Marton/APThe first Taco Bell Cantina restaurant, along Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, opened Tuesday.
    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with an iconic automaker caught trying to cheat emission standards and a leading fast-food burrito roller introducing a new fast-casual concept. (AMZN) -- Winner

    The spotlight was on Amazon's video initiatives this week. The leading online retailer kicked things off by winning five Emmy awards for its hit show "Transparent." It then went on to announce six new shows that it's considering bankrolling.

    Amazon will make the pilots to all six shows available later this year. It will then weigh viewer ratings and comments in deciding which ones to produce. It's not a conventional approach, but Amazon doesn't really do things the conventional way.

    Volkswagen (VLKAY) -- Loser

    It was a brand-tarnishing week for the once-beloved German automaker. Volkswagen came under fire for installing software into its diesel vehicles that delivers bogus results of emission tests.

    Having to recall 500,000 of its diesel cars to meet U.S. federal standards was just the beginning. Volkswagen eventually conceded that as many as 11 million cars could have discrepancies, setting aside $7.3 billion to cover the fallout. Its CEO stepped down, and now the real damage left to assess will be how hard sales will drop until it's able to win back consumer trust.

    Yum Brands (YUM) -- Winner

    After months of buzz, Taco Bell is finally starting to deliver some buzz. Parent company Yum Brands opened the first Taco Bell Cantina on Tuesday in Chicago, the first Taco Bell-branded restaurant to serve alcohol. We're talking about a full line of craft beers, wine and sangria, as well as rum, vodka and tequila that can be added to any fountain or frozen beverage.

    This isn't a winning move just because you can now get your drink on at an experimental Taco Bell eatery in Illinois. Taco Bell Cantina offers many trademarks that make it more fast casual than fast food, including an open exhibition kitchen, a lack of drive-thru windows and food served unwrapped on open baskets. If the concept takes off, it can quickly ramp up the concept by converting some of its more than 6,000 traditional Taco Bell locations.

    Yelp (YELP) -- Loser

    Be careful the next time that you rant on Yelp. A judge has decided that a woman in New York owes a floor refinisher provider $1,000 after badmouthing the service provider in a Yelp review.

    To be fair, she called the refinishing company a scam, liar, and robber. Two out of those three insults carry criminal implications, and that's why the judge ruled against her. She will appeal -- and Yelp will want to make sure that she wins. The last thing that the merchant reviews website wants is for folks to feel that posting an opinion can prove costly down the line.

    Facebook (FB) -- Winner

    The leading social networking website wants to wrap you in eye candy. Facebook introduced videos shot in 360 degrees. Viewers can play the video and pan the perspective while it plays.

    The first video that went viral is in promotion of the upcoming "Star Wars" movie, but you can be sure that others will take advantage of the new platform to promote movies, video games, and even travel destinations. Once again, Facebook is an early adopter of something that could be an important online tool for marketers.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends and Facebook. The Motley Fool recommends Yelp. 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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    Germany Volkswagen
    Michael Sohn/APNewly appointed Volkswagen CEO Matthias Mueller
    By Andreas Cremer

    WOLFSBURG, Germany -- Volkswagen (VLKAY) named company veteran Matthias Mueller as its chief executive Friday as the German carmaker struggles to get to grips with a crisis over rigged diesel emission tests that its chairman called "a moral and political disaster."

    After a marathon board meeting at its headquarters in Wolfsburg, the world's biggest automaker said Mueller, the 62-year-old head of its Porsche sports car division, would replace Martin Winterkorn, who resigned Wednesday as CEO.

    As Mueller took the helm, however, Germany's transport minister announced the carmaker had manipulated test results for about 2.8 million vehicles in the country, nearly six times as many as it has admitted to falsifying in the United States, pointing to cheating on a bigger scale than previously thought.

    Under my leadership, Volkswagen will do all it can to develop and implement the strictest compliance and governance standards in the whole industry.

    Volkswagen, for generations a model of German engineering prowess, is under huge pressure to take decisive action over the biggest business-related scandal in its 78-year history.

    "Under my leadership, Volkswagen will do all it can to develop and implement the strictest compliance and governance standards in the whole industry," Mueller said in a statement.

    The company said it would appoint a U.S. law firm to conduct a full investigation, suspend an unspecified number of staff and adopt a more decentralized structure with a slimmed down management board.

    But the scandal keeps growing. German transport minister Alexander Dobrindt said Thursday that Volkswagen had also cheated tests in Europe, where its sales are much higher than in the United States. On Friday, Dobrindt put the number of affected vehicles in Germany at 2.8 million.

    Regulators and prosecutors across the world are investigating the scandal, while customers and investors are launching lawsuits.

    The wider car market has been rocked, too, with manufacturers fearing a drop in sales of diesel cars and tougher testing.

    Regulators in Europe and the United States said Friday they would take a harder line on enforcing compliance with pollution standards and would be less tolerant of gaps between real world emissions and laboratory results.

    Volkswagen said on Tuesday 11 million vehicles worldwide were fitted with the software that allowed it to cheat U.S. tests, while adding it wasn't turned on in the bulk of them.

    Customers and motor dealers are furious that Volkswagen has yet to say which models and construction years are affected, and whether it will have to recall any cars for refits.

    The Right Man?

    The task facing Mueller is enormous, with the latest issue of influential German weekly Der Spiegel showing pall-bearers carrying a Volkswagen car decked out as a coffin under the headline "The Suicide."

    "His appointment is a step towards cleaning-up," said LBBW analyst Frank Biller about Mueller, a former head of product strategy close to the Piech-Porsche family that controls Volkswagen.

    But Henning Gebhardt, global head of equity at Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management, said Volkswagen had missed an opportunity.

    "He won't be able to lead the company for 10 years due to his age alone. That means there will be discussions about succession in the foreseeable future again," he said.

    Bernstein analyst Max Warburton also questioned whether a man who has spent more than three decades at the company was the right man to signal a break with the past.

    He urged "big and bold action," saying the new CEO should offer to buy back and scrap almost 500,000 diesel cars sold in the United States, which would cost about $6 billion.

    Volkswagen said sales chief Christian Klingler would leave the company, but that U.S. head Michael Horn -- also widely tipped to go -- would stay.

    Acting Chairman Berthold Huber apologized to "our customers, the public, authorities and investors" and asked them to give Volkswagen a chance to make good on the damage from the emissions scandal.

    "I want to be very clear, the manipulation of tests for diesel engines is a moral and political disaster," Huber said.

    Volkswagen will hold an extraordinary shareholder meeting on Nov. 9 in Berlin to approve its proposed changes.

    Frank Schellenberg, a taxi driver in Wolfsburg where the carmaker employs around 70,000 people, said locals felt betrayed and feared the worst.

    "They have lost any contact with the real world, the customers who have been buying their cars in good faith," he said, pointing to the firm's 13-story administrative building. "Everyone in Wolfsburg is expecting tough times and job cuts."


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    Stocks Close Down Day After Federal Reserve Leaves interest Rate Unchanged
    Spencer Platt/Getty Images
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- The S&P 500 erased an early Fed-driven rally to close down slightly Friday, as a sell-off in biotechs offset gains in banking shares.

    The Nasdaq fell 1 percent, while the Nasdaq Biotech Index tumbled 5.1 percent and retested its low from August, when it entered bear market territory.

    The Dow ended solidly in positive territory, helped by shares of Nike (NKE), which hit a record high after its profit topped expectations on strong China growth. The stock, up 8.9 percent at $125, gave the biggest boost to the Dow and the S&P 500.

    The market started the day higher after Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen late Thursday said she and other Fed policymakers don't expect recent economic and financial market turmoil to significantly alter the U.S. central bank's policy, easing concerns about the world's economic health. She said she expects interest rates to be raised this year.

    The declines in the biotech index extended this week's drop to 13 percent, its biggest weekly decline in seven years. On Monday, U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said she would announce a plan to stop "price gouging" for specialty drugs, sparking a drop in the shares.

    The S&P 500 health care index was down 2.7 percent, leading the decline in the S&P 500 while the S&P financial index was up 1.5 percent.

    "Biotechs had been an area that had been doing really well so it could be as the market has gotten worse that people are selling stuff that's less painful to sell. Valuations were pretty stretched," said Eric Kuby, chief investment officer at North Star Investment Management in Chicago.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 113.35 points, or 0.7 percent, to 16,314.67, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 0.9 points, or 0.05 percent, to 1,931.34 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 47.98 points, or 1 percent, to 4,686.50.

    Skittish Markets

    Markets have been skittish since last Thursday, when Yellen cited concerns about slowing global growth as a key reason for holding off from a much-anticipated rate hike.

    For the week, the Dow was down 0.4 percent, the S&P 500 was down 1.4 percent and the Nasdaq was down 2.9 percent.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 1,587 to 1,459, for a 1.09-to-1 ratio on the downside; on the Nasdaq, 1,907 issues fell and 920 advanced for a 2.07-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted six new 52-week highs and 17 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 41 new highs and 179 new lows. About 7.2 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, compared with the 7.4 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    -Tanya Agrawal and Abhiram Nandakumar contributed reporting.

    What to watch Monday:
    • The Commerce Department releases personal income and spending for August at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The National Association of Realtors releases pending home sales index for August at 10 a.m.
    • The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas releases its survey of manufacturing conditions in Texas at 10:30 a.m.


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    Happy people
    Getty ImagesYou can take a whack at your budget without chopping the purchases you enjoy.
    By Deacon Hayes

    When you are in debt, it can be very overwhelming. Often the pressures of debt can motivate you to make a plan to pay it off sooner than if you just made the minimum payments required by your lender. I know this from firsthand experience when my wife and I had $52,000 in debt when we got married in 2008. We were just starting off in life, and we had a negative net worth that was very discouraging.

    There's a happy ending to our story though. We were able to pay off all $52,000 of debt in only 18 months! It was a liberating feeling, and it's something that motivated me to teach others to get out of debt in a short period of time.

    Two Ways to Pay Off Your Debt Quickly

    The first way is to increase your income. Traditionally, people will take on a second job, but that could cause a significant change in the way they are currently living. So the best way to earn some extra cash fast is to sell items around the house that you rarely use or just don't need any more. You may be surprised to find there are power tools in your garage that could be worth hundreds of dollars. Perhaps you are into designer clothes, and there are outfits you haven't worn in ages. Consider selling these items online or in a garage sale to earn some additional money to throw toward your debt.

    The other way to demolish your debt is to reduce your expenses. You may be thinking, "Isn't this supposed to be about helping me get out of debt without affecting my lifestyle?" The answer is still "yes."

    Before getting into what expenses you should cut, you need to make a list of all your expenses on a piece of paper. If you are into spreadsheets, then that might be an easier solution. You can adjust the sheet so it automatically totals all your expenses so you know exactly how much money you are spending each month. Once you determine which method of tracking you want to use, collect all of your statements for from the last month and begin writing down each expense.

    There are some expenses that aren't "fixed" and need to be addressed differently. Categories such as groceries, eating out or entertainment tend to include expenses that fluctuate from month to month, which makes them variable expenses. The best way to see what you spend in these areas is to take the last three months of your bank statements, and total up how much you spent in each category. Divide that number by three, and you will get your average spending for each category over the past 90 days.

    Expenses to Consider Cutting

    Now that you have a clear understanding of what your expenses are, go through your sheet line by line and ask yourself, "Is this category necessary?" If the answer is "no," eliminate it. If it is still something you want to spend money on, it is now your mission to see if you can get that item or service cheaper somewhere else. Here are a few categories in your budget that are easy to trim (or cut completely):

    Cable. Nowadays, there are so many options to watch TV shows and movies, including Redbox, Netflix and Hulu. Many of these options are significantly cheaper then premium cable. There is even an option to get major cable channels such as ESPN, AMC and others through Sling TV, which only costs about $20 a month.

    Groceries. With the average family spending around $4,000 a year for groceries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this can be one of the biggest budget busters. However, if you plan ahead and write a shopping list before going to the grocery store, it will help you avoid buying unnecessary items and stay within your budget.

    Entertainment. Perhaps you love to go to the movies, and you don't want to give that up. You don't have to. Most movie theaters give a discounted rate if you go before 5 p.m., and some will offer even lower ticket prices if you see a movie before noon.

    Cellphone. It's common to pay over $100 a month for a cellphone plan, but there are several companies making cellphone plans more affordable. For example, at Republic Wireless, you can get an unlimited talk and text plan with 2 GB of data for only $40 a month.

    There are several ways you can eliminate your expenses. If you take the time to create a budget, you may be amazed by areas you can trim that won't affect your lifestyle.

    Deacon Hayes is a financial expert and founder of Well Kept Wallet, a financial education company that provides personal finance curriculum for people across the world.


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    Doctor Talking with Patient
    Getty Images
    By Kimberly Lankford

    Q. What changes can I expect from my employer's health insurance plan during open enrollment for 2016?

    A. Employers are just starting to announce their health insurance options for 2016, and you may need to make your decisions during open enrollment in the next month or two. The National Business Group on Health recently came out with its annual survey of large employers, which offers the first glimpse of the changes employees are likely to see in their health plans for 2016.

    1. Higher premiums. Large employers expect their health care costs to increase by about 5 percent for 2016 -- the same size increase they expected in 2014 and 2015. They plan to pass along some of the extra cost to employees but more of it to dependents, with employees contributing 20 percent of their own premiums and 24 percent of the premiums for dependents (higher-income employees may pay more). About one-third of the companies plan to add a surcharge for spouses who could get coverage elsewhere but don't. But very few (only 4 percent) plan to exclude spouses who have similar coverage available through their own employer.

    2. More high-deductible health plans. Employers are continuing to try to contain rising costs by forcing employees to take more control of their health care: 83 percent of large employers plan to offer a consumer-directed health insurance plan in 2016 (primarily high-deductible health insurance paired with a health savings account). Half of the employers plan to offer the high-deductible plan as an option, and 33 percent plan to offer it as the only option. More than half contribute to employees' HSAs, giving them tax-free money for medical expenses; some add more if you participate in a wellness program or take a health risk assessment. For more information about HSAs, see FAQs About Health Savings Accounts.

    3. Restrictions on expensive drugs. Employers identified the cost of specialty drugs as one of the major causes for health care cost increases, and they're imposing more restrictions on coverage. More than three-quarters of the employers surveyed plan to use prior authorization for some of these specialty medications -- requiring physicians to fill out forms explaining why you need the specific drug. Three-quarters plan to use step therapy, covering the drug only after you've tried a list of less-expensive medications first.

    4. New telemedicine options. Nearly three-quarters of the employers will offer telemedicine, which provides virtual visits with a doctor, as an option. "It's still primarily phone-based, but the video component is starting to take off," says Karen Marlo, vice president of benchmarking and analysis for the National Business Group on Health. "You can take a picture of a rash with your phone and e-mail it to someone who can look at it, for example. It's a good way to provide good quality care at a lower cost, and it improves access in parts of the country where you have to travel a long distance to go to a physician." A telemedicine doctor's appointment may cost $40 or $50, while an actual office visit may cost $150.

    5. Cash for wellness programs. Employers continue to focus on plans to improve your health, which they hope will ultimately help lower their medical expenses, and they're giving employees more incentives to participate. Thirty-nine percent plan to offer a break on health insurance premiums or cost sharing for employees who participate in a wellness program, health assessment or biometric exam. Thirteen percent plan to offer breaks for participating in a disease management program, which provides special care and resources for people with complex conditions, such as diabetes. You may also get more money in your HSA: Nearly one-third of employers plan to contribute to an HSA for employees who complete a wellness or health education program, and 8 percent plan to make HSA contributions if you achieve a health goal.

    For more information about what to expect from your health plan in 2016 -- whether you get coverage through your employer or on your own -- see Tactics to Get the Most from Your Health Plan in 2016.


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    Retirement Plans: Roth or Regular?

    By Kentin Waits

    If you've been considering a Roth IRA as part of your retirement investment portfolio, now's the time to start one.

    With tax-free growth and tax-free withdrawal opportunities, Roth IRAs can offer strategic benefits throughout retirement and provide the investment flexibility to help you achieve other financial goals along the way.

    Here's more on why a Roth should be part of your retirement investment mix:

    1. Grow tax-free and withdraw tax-free. Unlike a traditional IRA, contributions to a Roth are made using money that's already been taxed. While there's no tax benefit up front, your earnings within the account grow tax-free and withdrawals made during retirement are also tax-free.

    Once a five-year aging period has been met (generally speaking, this means the first withdrawal occurs no sooner than five years after the original contribution was made) and the account owner is at least age 59½, the money you take out of your Roth IRA is tax-free.

    2. Withdraw contributions at any time. The money you contribute to a Roth IRA can be removed at any time for any reason. Though it's not a great long-term investment strategy, you always have access to the money you've put in without penalty. But the earnings within your Roth are another story: The five-year aging rule and minimum retirement age rules apply to withdrawals that include earnings.

    Some investors use the liberal withdrawal rules of a Roth IRA to build emergency savings, knowing that as long as their contributions are invested in a money market or cash-equivalent account, the funds are easily accessible and available penalty-free.

    3. Contribute as long as you're working, regardless of age. You can keep adding to your Roth IRA well into retirement. No matter your age, if you earn a paycheck or receive 1099 wages for contract work, you can still contribute to your Roth. By contrast, with a traditional IRA contributions must stop when an earner reaches age 70½.

    4. Avoid required minimum distributions. Unlike a 401(k), 403(b) or traditional IRA, Roth IRAs don't mandate minimum distributions during the lifetime of the original owner. That can be a big relief for those who don't need additional income in retirement or for those who'd rather have a Roth to bequeath as part of their estate.

    Minimum distributions do apply to heirs. If you're considering making your Roth IRA a significant part of your estate, consult an attorney or investment adviser for details on how a Roth inheritance might affect your survivors' taxes.

    5. Balance your future tax liability. The biggest and best benefit of a Roth IRA is hidden in plain sight -- namely, the ability to choose whether you take your income in retirement tax-free or taxed.

    It used to be said that a regular IRA or 401(k) was wisest because your income tax rate was likely to be lower after retirement. It made sense to save pretax and then pay taxes on that income when you withdrew it later in life. But shifting political realities have some wondering if we could actually face higher tax rates in retirement.

    Many folks are betting that it's smarter to pay the taxes now instead of kicking the can down the road and risking higher rates later. Regardless, having at least a portion of your retirement in a Roth IRA offers the option of managing your tax liability by diversifying your sources of income.

    Who qualifies?. It's important to note that not everyone qualifies to invest in a Roth IRA, and for those who do, there are annual contribution limits. For 2015, the upper income limit for single filers to make a full contribution is $116,000. As income increases, the amount that can be contributed diminishes, and goes to zero at an income of $131,000. For couples who file jointly, the income limit is $183,000 for a full contribution, with an upper limit of $193,000 for a partial one.

    If you exceed those income limits, you can't contribute new money to a Roth IRA, but you are allowed to convert money from an existing traditional IRA or other qualified plan to a Roth.

    For those who can contribute the maximum to a Roth, that amount is $5,500 ($6,500 if you're age 50 or older).

    To learn more about Roth IRAs, check out the IRS's complete guide. And remember, the sooner you make a Roth part of your retirement planning, the longer that tax-free balance can grow. Get started today!

    Do you have a Roth IRA, regular IRA or both? Share your knowledge and experience 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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    Couple shaking hands with financial adviser
    Getty Images

    NEW YORK -- A new fiduciary rule proposed by the Department of Labor would tighten rules on brokers who work with millions of Americans' retirement accounts. The change would change the way retirement plan advisers are paid, with the goal of eliminating conflicts of interest, and require them to always act in their clients' best interests.

    The White House, which is behind the proposal, says the conflicts of interest it is intended to address are costing investors $17 billion a year. That is based on an estimate that $1.7 trillion of IRA assets are invested in products that generate conflicts of interest resulting in 1 percentage point in extra yearly costs.

    Backers of the rule say brokers not held to the fiduciary standard encourage savers to move nest eggs from low-cost employer-sponsored plans to IRA accounts, which typically charge higher fees. They also, according to the White House critique, steer savers into higher-cost IRA products.

    Practical effects of the change, described as the first major overhaul of retirement adviser regulation in 40 years, could be significant. "It is a huge deal," said Brian Menickella, head of retirement and financial planning at The Beacon Group in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. "It's going to be enormously impactful," added Menickella, who supports the rule change.

    Brokers commonly receive commissions when they sell IRA investment products such as mutual funds. Commissions are higher on some products than others, critics say brokers too often recommend products that pay high commissions when others would be more in line with the client's interests. Brokers can do this under current rules, as long as the investment is suitable to the client's needs. The new standard would raise the bar to require advisers act in clients' best interests.

    Joe Pieffer, an attorney and acting president of the New Orleans-based Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association who is in favor of the change, says that will put more money in savers' pockets. "For some people, it's the difference between having enough money to retire and not having enough money to retire," he says. White House figures show reducing returns by 1 percentage point, the estimated average cost from conflicted recommendations, could reduce a saver's nest egg by more than 25 percent over 35 years.

    Advisers currently licensed as registered investment advisers, rather than as broker-dealers, are already held to the fiduciary standard. RIAs such as Menickella anticipate that many brokers will seek to go through the more rigorous RIA licensing process.

    Critics say conforming to the rule will place undue cost burdens on broker-dealer firms. The Financial Services Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group of independent broker firms, says it will cost firms nearly $3.9 billion to implement the rule.

    The FSI and others warn that if it goes into effect smaller investors may find it impossible to get advice for investing their retirement savings. Menickella is doubtful. "RIAs have been doing this all along," he says. "It's not like the model doesn't work."

    Pieffer says the financial services industry often makes similarly dire predictions about regulatory proposals, but they aren't always fulfilled. "When we deregulated commissions you could make on stock trading, they predicted calamity," he says. "They've survived."

    The Department of Labor oversees worker retirement accounts, so it is the federal agency charged with creating the rule. That process is currently at the comment stage and many observers feel a final rule is likely soon. "This is going to happen," says Pieffer. "I think it's going to happen by the end of the year."


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    Budgeting for Baby

    Christine Ryan Jyoti

    When baby makes three, all kinds of seeming "must-haves" can take a toll on your bottom line -- from hand-knit nursery blankets to souped-up strollers.

    According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average middle-income family shells out about $13,000 in just the first year of a baby's life.

    So how can moms and dads navigate the budget-busting new-baby minefield? By going to the source for nuggets of advice: parents who've been there, done that -- and spent that.

    First-time parents like the moms and dads we're profiling have made decisions early on that are paying off now ... and for years to come.

    Baby on Board! New Parents Dish on 'The Best Baby Money Decision I Ever Made'
    Courtesy: Christie Gettler
    'We Buy Cloth Diapers'

    Christie Gettler, 27, co-founder, Rhode Island

    "When we learned that we were pregnant, my husband, Matt, and I had student loans, wedding debt, and astronomical monthly rent payments to make.

    Financially speaking, it was not an opportune time to be procreating.

    I wanted to use cloth diapers for financial and environmental reasons, but Matt wasn't convinced. So our deal was that we'd try it, and if it became too much, we'd move on.

    Now he's a bigger advocate than I am!

    Our stash of 40 washable diapers, 70 cloth wipes, two pail liners, and three wet bags cost less than $450 -- and will last us until Max, 1, gets potty trained. (And in terms of effort, we do a dedicated load of laundry every three to four days.)

    Compare that to the cost of disposables over two and a half years (roughly $2,500), plus wipes, and we'll save about $2,000. When you add in any future children, the cash really piles up.

    Whenever we go past the diaper aisle at the grocery store, we have the satisfaction of saying, 'At least we don't have to spend money on that.' "

    Baby on Board! New Parents Dish on 'The Best Baby Money Decision I Ever Ma
    Courtesy: Ivonne Medina
    'We Joined an Online Forum for Discounted Baby Gear'

    Ivonne Medina, 32, business development manager, Montreal

    "Anything catering to new parents tends to sell at a premium. So in looking for ways to save, my husband, Ryan, and I joined a local online forum, the Plateau Play Group, when I was pregnant.

    There are similar forums across the U.S. that connect parents looking to sell or give away gently used stuff. You can find them through online searches, pediatricians' offices, and local parenting publications.

    We've been lucky enough to source all kinds of items at a hefty discount, including an exersaucer, a stroller bassinet, a car seat adapter, toys and feeding covers.

    My favorite find was a barely used, still-in-the-box breast pump for $60, instead of the $400-plus we expected to pay. (I just had to get new tubing for it.) It feels good to buy something that's served someone, and will probably serve someone after us.

    The group also helps free up our two-bedroom condo of things we don't need. We sell a lot of what we don't use anymore with Noah, who's now 7 months old. And we usually give away the clothing for free.

    Joining this online forum is a gift that keeps on giving."

    Baby on Board! New Parents Dish on 'The Best Baby Money Decision I Ever Ma
    Courtesy: Alexa von Tobel
    'We Opened a 529 Plan'

    Alexa von Tobel, 31, LearnVest founder and CEO, New York City

    "Bee was born during one of the craziest points of my professional career -- our company was acquired just days before her birth -- so we didn't have tons of time to do things like decorate her nursery or purchase adorable outfits.

    But one of the first things we did do before Bee's arrival was set up a 529 Savings Plan. We also made sure that all of our family's gift contributions went straight into it.

    It's a state-sponsored, tax-advantaged account that can be used in the future to pay for certain college costs, like tuition, fees, room and board, books and technology.

    According to the College Board, the average price of a four-year private college in the U.S. now tops $40,000 per year -- and college costs rise at around 5 percent per year.

    So setting aside savings in a 529 plan now will go a long way toward helping pay for her education."

    Baby on Board! New Parents Dish on 'The Best Baby Money Decision I Ever Ma
    Courtesy: Sarah Vogel
    'I Went Freelance to Save on Child Care'

    Sarah Vogel, 32, part-time yoga instructor and freelancer, Washington, D.C.

    "I was working as a writer and project manager at a PR firm when my husband, Abe, and I decided to start our family.

    We had a lot to consider: our financial and emotional quality of life, our lack of family support in D.C., the availability of part-time and freelance positions in my field, and the value I felt in spending one-on-one time with my child.

    My gut told me that staying home would work well for our family, and after six weeks of maternity leave, I resigned.

    The high cost of child care in D.C. was a big factor in my decision: Approximately 50 percent of my paycheck would have gone to cover care for our son, Hardy.

    To supplement our household income, I started teaching yoga at a studio in our area, and now lead three classes weekly. I'm also doing about 10 hours of freelance communications work per week. The extra earnings have helped us enjoy such luxuries as dinners out and vacations worry-free.

    Hardy is now 16 months old, and I'm still forming my long-term career plan, based on the possibility of having other children and my desire for flexibility."

    Baby on Board! New Parents Dish on 'The Best Baby Money Decision I Ever Ma
    Courtesy: Annie Callahan
    'We Road-Tested Baby Gear Before Buying'

    Annie Callahan, 31, physician assistant, Pleasanton, California

    "As first-time parents, my husband, Todd, and I found it hard to predict what gear would end up being worth the investment.

    So to avoid committing to the wrong baby carrier -- which can easily top $150 -- we joined our local chapter of the nonprofit Babywearing International.

    You can rent carriers from BWI ($10 each per month) to decide which one suits you best before making a purchase. I'd recommend one that works for many ages and stages. My personal top picks turned out to be the ErgoBaby Four Position 360 and the Boba Wrap.

    It also took trial and error to find the right sleeping setup. We splurged on a beautiful heirloom bassinet for over $500 -- and our daughter, Josephine, hated it. She wouldn't sleep more than an hour or two.

    Word of mouth and online reviews eventually tipped us off to the Fisher-Price Rock 'n Play Portable Bassinet for $70 -- but worth 10 times that, as Todd says.

    Our daughter slept for a solid six hours. She's now 12 weeks old, and hasn't slept any less since! It works like a charm because of the incline, rocking motion and built-in white noise.

    We even bought a new one and had it shipped to use on an extended trip -- and then donated it to a local kids' group before heading home. It's seriously that great."

    Baby on Board! New Parents Dish on 'The Best Baby Money Decision I Ever Ma
    Courtesy: Rachel Moring
    'We Hired a Live-in Au Pair'

    Rachel Moring, 34, regional sales director, New Orleans

    "My husband, Parker, and I knew our crazy schedules would make child care a challenge.
    My job calls for long hours and travel, while his work as a commercial real estate appraiser can be unpredictable.

    As we weighed our options, a live-in au pair initially didn't seem realistic. It's not a common choice in our area, plus we didn't think it would work with our budget. But after doing some research, we were sold.

    Through Go Au Pair, we learned that an au pair can provide child care up to 45 hours per week at $7.85 per hour. So while we would spend about the same if we opted for a more traditional form of child care, an au pair would save us money on after care.

    An added perk of welcoming our au pair, Angelia, from Colombia into our home? She's helping our five-month-old son, Dev, pick up Spanish."

    Baby on Board! New Parents Dish on 'The Best Baby Money Decision I Ever Ma
    Courtesy: Cary Shiwarski
    'We Built a Postbaby Budget That Cut Out Discretionary Spending'

    Cary Shiwarski, 36, doctor, Pittsburgh

    "My husband, Dan, and I had our daughter Piper, now 1, during my fellowship training -- not because it was a good financial time, but because we felt that we were running out of time.

    Our biggest baby expense -- day care -- is equivalent to our mortgage payment at $1,400 per month. When the first bill arrived, we knew things had to change.

    So we took a hard look at our spending, and calculated that we had to trim $450 each month from our budget.

    How did we do it?

    We canceled cable, decreased our cell phone data plan, cut back on dining out, put travel plans on hold, and quit impulse buys. I also said goodbye to pedicures and yoga classes, while Dan gave up his hockey league.

    Now we watch TV online, use coupons, and make iced coffee at home. About once a month, we'll eat out with friends during happy hour.

    We've also become more financially accountable to each other, and discuss purchases ahead of time.

    Piper is the sunshine in our life, and we wouldn't change anything!"


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    Young Couple Discussing Personal Finances In Modern Kitchen
    Getty ImagesUse these strategies to become debt-free.

    Are you swimming in debt and don't know how you're ever going to pay it off? You're not alone. In fact, the average U.S. household has more than $15,000 in credit card debt, according to a 2014 NerdWallet analysis. If you're looking for some easy ways to cut down your debt, follow the advice of these U.S. News My Money bloggers.

    1. Create a Budget. "The first step to solving your debt problem is to establish a budget," writes Money Crashers contributor David Bakke. You can use personal finance tools like, or make your own Excel spreadsheet that includes your monthly income and expenses. Then scrutinize those budget categories to see where you can cut costs. "If you don't scale back your spending, you'll dig yourself into a deeper hole," Bakke warns.

    2. Pay off the most expensive debt first. Sort your credit card interest rates from highest to lowest, then tackle the card with the highest rate first. "By paying off the balance with the highest interest first, you increase your payment on the credit card with the highest annual percentage rate while continuing to make the minimum payment on the rest of your credit cards," writes spokeswoman Hitha Prabhakar.

    3. Pay more than the minimum balance. To make a dent in your debt, you need to pay more than the minimum balance on your credit card statements each month. "Paying the minimum -- usually 2 to 3 percent of the outstanding balance -- only prolongs a debt payoff strategy," Prabhakar writes. "Strengthen your commitment to pay everything off by making weekly, instead of monthly, payments." Or if your minimum payment is $100, try doubling it and paying off $200 or more.

    4. Take advantage of balance transfers. If you have a high-interest card with a balance that you're confident you can pay off in a few months, Trent Hamm, founder of, recommends moving the debt to a card that offers a zero-interest balance transfer. "You'll need to pay off the debt before the balance transfer expires, or else you're often hit with a much higher interest rate," he warns. "If you do it carefully, you can save hundreds on interest this way."

    5. Halt your credit card spending. Want to stop accumulating debt? Remove all credit cards from your wallet, and leave them at home when you go shopping, advises WiseBread contributor Sabah Karimi. "Even if you earn cash back or other rewards with credit card purchases, stop spending with your credit cards until you have your finances under control," she writes. 6. Put work bonuses toward debt.

    If you receive a job bonus around the holidays or during the year, allocate that money toward your debt payoff plan. "Avoid the temptation to spend that bonus on a vacation or other luxury purchase," Karimi writes. It's more important to fix your financial situation than own the latest designer bag.

    7. Delete credit card information from online stores. If you do a lot of online shopping at one retailer, you may have stored your credit card information on the site to make the checkout process easier. But that also makes it easier to charge items you don't need. So clear that information. "If you're paying for a recurring service, use a debit card issued from a major credit card service linked to your checking account," Hamm writes.

    8. Sell unwanted gifts and household items. Have any birthday gifts or old wedding presents collecting dust in your closet? Search through your home, and look for items you can sell on eBay or Craigslist. "Do some research to make sure you list these items at a fair and reasonable price," Karimi writes. "Take quality photos, and write an attention-grabbing headline and description to sell the item as quickly as possible." Any profits from sales should go toward your debt.

    9. Change your habits. "Your daily habits and routines are the reason you got into this mess," Hamm writes. "Spend some time thinking about how you spend money each day, each week and each month." Do you really need your daily latte? Can you bring your lunch to work instead of buying it four times a week? Ask yourself: What can I change without sacrificing my lifestyle too much? 10. Reward yourself when you reach milestones.

    You won't pay down your debt any faster if you view it as a form of punishment. So reward yourself when you reach debt payoff goals. "The only way to completely pay off your credit card debt is to keep at it, and to do that, you must keep yourself motivated," Bakke writes. Just make sure to reward yourself within reason. For example, instead of a weeklong vacation, plan a weekend camping trip. "If you aim to reduce your credit card debt from $10,000 to $5,000 in two months," Bakke writes, "give yourself more than a pat on the back when you do it."


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    Operations At The Port Of Savannah As Trade Deficit Grew In June
    Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesThe strong U.S. dollar makes U.S.-made goods more expensive overseas and hampers exports.
    By Simon Constable

    NEW YORK -- The great thing about pain is that the moment it stops, you feel better. And the agony the strong dollar inflicted on stocks -- and consequently, your portfolio -- may soon be over.

    The U.S. Dollar Index, which measures the greenback against major world currencies, surged 22 percent from July 2014 through mid-March, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. It stalled then, however, and has moved in a mostly sideways range since.

    The reason the rally had such a destructive impact on stocks is that it crushed reported earnings. For big companies, the rest of the world is just as important as domestic U.S. sales. In fact, for the members of the Standard & Poor's 500 Index and the SPDR S&P 500 (SPY) exchange-traded fund that tracks the index, non-dollar revenue amounted to 48 percent of total sales in 2014, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

    Put another way, for large multinationals, approximately one out of every two dollars in revenue came from outside the U.S. So when companies reported their financial results at the end of each quarter, the stronger dollar meant even robust businesses started to look bad when compared to the prior year. First, sales in overseas currencies were worth less when converted to dollars. And second, dollar-denominated sales declined because customers shied away from the higher costs.

    So the dollar's stall is good news for stocks. Even if the dollar doesn't weaken, starting in March 2016, the year-over-year comparisons for quarterly earnings reports will be easier. Sure, some companies will be affected more and some less, depending on exactly where their sales come from. But the conversion of euros, pounds and yen back into dollars won't be universally damaging across the board. Better than that, because investors tend to look forward by approximately nine months, the positive effects are probably already starting.

    There is a risk that the dollar will start to climb once again, and if it does, then year-over-year comparisons will start to deteriorate once more. Why could that happen? For one, if the European Central Bank expands its money printing program, then the euro will weaken, and the dollar will be stronger.

    In a recent report, Brown Brothers Harriman references "growing expectation" that such a thing may occur. It just hasn't happened yet -- and may never -- because, as PNC says, "the Eurozone's consumers in 2015 are still their most upbeat since before the Great Recession in 2007."

    To be sure, there are a lot of problems outside the United States, many of which could dampen that outlook: continued weakness in southern Europe, the sluggish Japanese economy and the dramatic slowdown in China and resource-based economies like Australia and Canada.

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


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