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    Countdown to Midnight 12 O'Clock New Year's Eve December 31
    Getty Images
    By Cameron Huddleston

    Do you have money on your mind? If so, you're not alone. A recent GOBankingRates survey found that 1 in 4 Americans think about money more than anything else.

    To make the most of your money this year in order to get ahead financially in 2016, now is the time to get serious. Take these 10 steps before year's end to rein in spending, save more and lower your tax bill.

    Create a Budget for the Holidays

    To avoid going overboard with holiday spending, create a budget now, said Nick Bradfield, founder of subscription-based financial advising firm Divvy Investments. "If we start to budget early, then we may be able to find some ways to either cut back on things or save up a bit for the holidays so that the credit cards don't swell," he said.

    Think of budgeting as making better choices rather than cutting out things, Bradfield said. Review your bank statement from the past month to see where your money went. Then pinpoint expenses that can be scaled back. Create a plan for the next month so you'll be on track to have enough cash to cover holiday expenses.

    Review Your Tax Withholding

    Now is a good time to make sure you're on track with your tax withholding so that you won't owe money next April, Stein Olavsrud, a certified financial planner at FBB Capital Partners. Otherwise, you'll need to increase your withholding during the final months of the year.

    On the flip side, if you received a big tax refund in the spring and didn't adjust your withholding, that means you're allowing Uncle Sam to hold your money interest-free. File a new W-4 form with your employer to claim additional allowances and get less tax withheld. IRS.gov has a withholding calculator you can use to figure out how many allowances to claim.

    If you received a refund of $3,000, for example, you should get an extra $250 in your paycheck each month by adjusting your withholding. Then use that money to cover extra expenses around the holidays, pay down debt or boost retirement savings.

    Check Your Credit Report

    Don't let the opportunity to check your credit report for free slip by. Every consumer is entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the three credit reporting agencies: Equifax (EFX), Experian and TransUnion, said Katie Ross, education and development manager for American Consumer Credit Counseling. You can get your free copies at AnnualCreditReport.com.

    Review your report to make sure it's accurate. Also review your outstanding debt and develop a plan to get your credit cards paid off, Ross said.

    Maximize Your 401k

    You can contribute up to $18,000 to a 401k in 2015 plus an additional $6,000 if you're 50 or older. If you can't set aside that much, at least make sure you're contributing enough to take advantage of the employer match, said Greg de Jong, a certified financial planner with Savant Capital Management.

    Talk with your workplace benefits coordinator or access your 401k account online to adjust your contribution before the end of the year. The more you contribute, the more you lower your taxable income because contributions are tax deferred.

    Because the stock market has taken a hit this year, you can buy some stocks at a lower cost, said Travis Sollinger, a certified financial planner with Fort Pitt Capital Group. "The golden rule is to buy low, and you can actually do this in 2015 because the market is down year-to-date," he said. "Don't let one performance deter you from saving for a retirement that is 15 to 20 years down the road."

    Open a Solo 401k

    A great way for the self-employed or business owners with no employees to save for retirement is the solo 401k Olavsrud said. Although you have until the tax-filing deadline in April to make a contribution, you must open an account before Dec. 31, he said.

    You can contribute $18,000 in 2015 and another 25 percent of compensation, up to a maximum contribution of $53,000. If you're 50 or older, you can contribute an additional $6,000. The 401khelpcenter.com has a list of solo 401(k) plan providers.

    Donate to Charity

    Make charitable contributions before the end of the year to take advantage of the tax break you'll get. Usually you can deduct donations of cash or property made to qualified organizations up to certain limits if you itemize on your federal tax return. Be sure to get receipts for all contributions.

    Sell Stock Losers to Offset Winners

    Now is a good time to review your portfolio to determine whether to cash in on winning stocks and sell losers to offset capital gains, Olavsrud said. If you hold an asset for more than a year and sell it at a profit, you must pay tax on your capital gains, typically 15 percent or 20 percent for high-income taxpayers. Those in the 10 percent and 15 percent brackets pay no tax. If your losses are more than your gains, you can deduct the difference up to $3,000 as a loss on your tax return to offset other income.

    Review Insurance Policies

    Before winter weather takes hold, review your homeowners insurance policy to make sure you have adequate coverage. Damage caused by wind, ice, snow and burst pipes typically is covered by standard policies.

    But sewage backup, which can be caused when melting snow overburdens sewer systems, isn't covered by most homeowners policies, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Adding this coverage costs $40 to $50 a year.

    You also might be able to save money on your insurance premium by raising your deductible. Boosting it from $500 to $1,000 could shave 25 percent off your premium.

    Make an Estate Plan

    "Investing in an estate plan at year end is a great way to not only plan for the future, but also to revisit your assets and financial circumstance," said Elise Rodriguez, an estate-planning attorney in Miami. Meet with an attorney to draft a will, a power of attorney and a living will to spell out end-of-life care wishes. Appoint a trusted relative or family member to make health care decisions for you if you are incapacitated.

    Do Take Required Minimum Distributions

    If you have an IRA and are 70½ or older, you must take a minimum required distribution by Dec. 31. However, for retirees who reach age 70½ during 2015, the deadline for taking their first RMD is April 1, 2016.

    The penalty for not taking that withdrawal is 50 percent of the required distribution amount. So if you're required to withdraw $10,000 but don't do this on time, you'll be hit with a $5,000 penalty.

    "This is mandatory and it's easy for some people to forget, especially if they don't need the money to live on," Sollinger said.

    Find worksheets to calculate your RMD at IRS.gov. Also be aware that you must take RMDs if you an inherit an IRA, Olavsrud said.

    This article, What You Should Do With Your Money Before 2015 Ends, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Couple calculating their home expenses
    Getty ImagesDitching your gym membership or finding an alternative to that $4 morning coffee can help you cut costs.
    By Stephanie Steinberg

    Household expenses often have a sneaky way of getting past you without you noticing. In fact, many of the costs you're shelling out for on a daily or weekly basis might be ones that you can cut from your budget altogether. Here are 10 expenses you should consider getting rid of today:

    Cable. The average 2015 cable bill is expected to reach $123 a month, according to the market research company NPD Group. But the Internet makes paying for cable unnecessary, says Ginger Dean, founder of girlsjustwannahavefunds.com. "If you only watch certain shows, then paying for a fully loaded cable package might not be the best deal for your wallet," she writes. Services such as Hulu, YouTube, Netflix and Roku can satisfy your TV fix for a drastically reduced rate or for free.

    Cellphone. The average monthly cellphone bill was $148 at the end of 2013, according to research firm Cowen and Company. The survey of 1,876 customers found other cellphone providers weren't much cheaper, with monthly Sprint bills running $144 and T-Mobile at $120. "Monthly plans like these must be wreaking havoc on family budgets all over the country," says Holly Johnson, founder of ClubThrifty.com. "And, even for those who can afford it, it has to hurt." Luckily, there's a way to ease that pain -- by not signing up for an expensive two-year contract. Many cellphone carriers offer low-cost plans with no long-term contract commitments. For instance, the average Republic Wireless no-contract plan was about $14 in August, and Straight Talk Wireless offers no-contract plans for as low as $30 a month.

    Energy bills. Nothing sets fire to your wallet like a blazing heating bill. But did you know you can save 3 percent on your heating bill for every one degree you lower the thermostat? "If you normally keep your apartment temperature at 75 degrees and lower it to 72 degrees, you'll save 9 percent on your utility bill or 9 cents on every dollar," says Niccole Schreck, rental expert for Rent.com.

    Transportation. If you live in a city, taking public transportation can help you save money on gas and auto expenses. "With cost-saving and eco-friendly options like buses, trains and subways available, there's no need for you to be making a car payment and paying for car insurance each month (and, let's face it, accruing a few parking tickets every now and then)," Schreck says.

    Dining out. "Eating out often costs more than cooking at home, so even if you hate cooking, it pays -- literally -- to do some reading up on easy, fast recipes," says Mint.com spokeswoman Holly Perez. Avoid the temptation to pop in a fast food joint or restaurant for lunch by making large dishes over the weekend, freezing them and then bringing portions to work the next week.

    Gym membership. The average gym membership costs $40 to $50 a month, which adds up to hundreds of dollars a year, says WiseBread blogger Sabah Karimi, but you can work out and not pay a penny. "You could sign up for fitness classes at a neighborhood recreational center, join the YMCA, take advantage of a corporate wellness program or commit to following DVD fitness programs at home," Karimi says. And, of course, it's always free to run or walk outdoors.

    Groceries. The average monthly cost to feed a family of four was between $568 and $1,107 last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you want to pare down your food budget, shop at a warehouse club where you can buy items in bulk that will last a while. But avoid the 10-pound bags of vegetables and perishables. "Think about how long it will really take to get through that box of candy or family pack of deli meat, and make sure you're buying items that won't expire any time soon," Karimi says.

    Coffee. "While a $4 morning coffee can satisfy the soul, it can also hurt the budget," says​ retail expert Hitha Prabhakar. Consider buying a French press or Keurig machine to brew your favorite coffee drinks at home. "It's a larger out-of-pocket expense, but it will easily pay for itself over time," she says.

    Medications. Prescription drugs can do some damage to your bank account, but you can likely find the medication you need at a cheaper price by choosing generic drugs. "Generics are the bio-equivalent of brand-name drugs, but cost 80 to 85 percent less," says Hal Bundrick, a certified financial planner and NerdWallet contributor. He recommends using apps such as GoodRx, LowestMed and Prescription Saver to compare drug prices at nearby pharmacies. Signing up for a pharmacy discount card can save you about 10 to 25 percent, too.

    Entertainment. Between the tickets, popcorn and soda, a date night at the movies could cost more than $35. But if you sign up for a loyalty club, you can pay less for tickets and concessions. "Regal Entertainment Group, for example, offers $2 popcorn on Tuesdays to club members," says Teresa Mears, publisher of Living on the Cheap. Other theaters, like AMC, offer kids snack packs and free popcorn and drink refills when you purchase a large size. You can also find free movie screenings at museums, libraries and parks. "In the summer, the major movie chains show free or discounted movies for kids on weekday mornings," Mears adds.

    Stephanie Steinberg is an Assistant Editor for Money and Health & Wellness at U.S. News. She is the editor of the new book "In the Name of Editorial Freedom." You can follow her on Twitter @Steph_Steinberg, connect with her on LinkedIn, circle her on Google Plus or email her at ssteinberg@usnews.com.

     

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    Credit Reports-Assistance
    Elise Amendola/AP
    By Nicholas Pell

    NEW YORK -- If you've ever gone to pull your credit report, you know that there are three different credit reporting bureaus. And if you've ever pulled your score, you've probably noticed that they're not all the same. So if you have three different scores and three different credit reports, why? What are the differences between the three major credit reporting bureaus?

    The Pre-History of Credit Reporting Agencies

    Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com, points out that part of the reason for different credit scores is the past of the credit reporting industry. The "big three" of TransUnion, Experian and Equifax (EFX) were the result of the consolidations of the late 1980s. The consolidation of smaller credit bureaus also gave a regional flavor to things.

    "Not every place reports to all three," says Randy Padawer, a consumer education specialist with LexingtonLaw. "Some smaller and middle-sized companies report to just one or two out of the three."

    This is a holdover from the regional days. "The larger lenders will report to all three," he says. "But that's not going to be true of smaller and medium-sized firms."

    Detweiler likens the differences to variations between soda pop brands. "They're each a little different, and when you go out to a restaurant, you don't get to pick what you want," she says. "Your creditor reports to them, or they don't." Similarly, your creditors will pull the report they want, not the report that makes you look the best.

    The Credit Score Arms Race ...

    Detweiler says that the scores are where things begin to get interesting.

    "The credit-reporting bureaus are for-profit businesses in competition with each other," she says. "Their customers are the lenders. They all claim to have the most complete and accurate reporting." However, they all use algorithms purchased from FICO, a separate company from all three. They then build custom scoring systems using the system purchased from FICO. "They have a menu of different scores they send to customers for different purposes," she adds.

    What's more, the three reporting bureaus have even come up with their own scoring system, called VantageScore. Detweiler says that the bureaus claim that their system is more consistent. But there are also in-house scores. "There's FICO and VantageScore and proprietary scores for each bureau," says Padawer. "When you use different scoring systems, even small variations create noticeable differences in the resulting credit scores."

    What You Need to Know as a Consumer

    There are some things, outside of major credit cards, that are always going to appear on all three credit reports. "A judgment is a public record, and it would be very unlikely that it would not be on all three credit reports," says Detweiler. And while big bank credit cards will be on all three, smaller credit unions might not be. What's more, some collection agencies might not report to all three. "It might save the company some money or it might be a compliance issue. Anyone who reports to a credit agency has to be set up to handle disputes," she says.

    Detweiler says that while you're often told to stagger getting your credit reports, you shouldn't do that the first time you pull your credit reports. "If there's a mistake on one and not on the others, that's going to be easier to spot once you get all three," she says. "After that you can stagger them."

    When you're repairing your credit, you're probably going to have some interactions with the credit bureaus. "Even though the three credit bureaus are in the same business, they're different countries with very different cultures," says Padawer. He notes that won't impact your credit score per se, but you will likely find something different in the way the companies communicate with you, as well as procedures for getting information changed. Don't assume that what you do at one agency is what you need to do at another to ensure accurate information on your credit report.

     

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    Inside A Target Corp. Store Ahead Of Earnings Figures
    David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By ANNE D'INNOCENZIO

    NEW YORK -- Starting Thursday, Target (TGT) will now match its online prices with more than two dozen online competitors including Amazon.com (AMZN) and Walmart.com (WMT).

    The change in policy marks a big step for the Minneapolis-based retailer, which until now only matched prices at its own stores. Target is also allowing 14 days, up from seven, for shoppers to get a price adjustment. And the retailer is increasing the number of online rivals that it will match from five to 29. That includes for the first time stores that require membership, such as Costco (COST) and Sam's Club.

    The latest move underscores how Target aims to rev up its e-commerce business, which increased by 30 percent in the latest quarter. It also wants to win market share from rivals, a key part of its strategy under its CEO Brian Cornell, who took the helm in August 2014.

    Target made a splash last holiday shopping season when it offered free shipping without any minimum dollar order. Earlier this year, it permanently lowered its free shipping threshold to $25 from $50. But the latest move underscores how Target is trying to align its online price-match policy with its brick-and-mortar stores and create a seamless experience for shoppers jumping from stores to online.

    "These are simple changes, but they mean a lot for our guests," Jason Goldberger, president of Target.com told a packed room of 13,000 store managers at a recent meeting held in Minneapolis.

    In January 2013, Target announced that year-round it would match the prices of its store purchases with five online retail rivals that included Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Bestbuy.com (BBY). Target had started to match prices of store purchases with a group of online rivals in 2012 but that was only during the holiday shopping season.

    Target's latest change in policy follows the lead of Walmart, Best Buy and Staples (SPLS), all of which match their online prices with online rivals. But Target's adjustment puts it ahead of other retailers like Toys R Us, which matches prices for in-store purchases with online rivals but only match their online prices with its own stores.

    Late last year, Walmart formalized its policy of matching its store purchases with online prices found on sites like Amazon.com. It also matches its online prices with select online rivals.

    Sucharita Mulpuru-Koadali, an analyst at Forrester Group (FORR), says fewer people take advantage of price matching when they buy a product online versus buying it in a store because the process is more tedious. Target's spokeswoman Jenna Reck says that shoppers can price match by calling a Target.com customer service team. That's similar to what other rivals like Walmart asks online shoppers to do.

    "They have to get on the price-matching bandwagon," Mulpuru-Kodali said of Target.

     

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    Jobless Claims In U.S. Rose More Than Forecast Last Week
    Laura Buckman/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Richard Leong

    NEW YORK -- U.S. companies hired workers at a solid clip in September, but data showed factory activity in the Midwest contracted, muddying the economic picture for the Federal Reserve on whether to raise interest rates later this year.

    U.S. private employers added 200,000 jobs in September, payroll processor ADP (ADP) said Wednesday, the strongest reading since June. It beat a forecast 194,000 increase among economists polled by Reuters.

    Private payroll gains in August were revised down to 186,000 from an originally reported 190,000 increase.

    The U.S. central bank's policy-setting group, the Federal Open Market Committee, decided against ending its near zero interest rate policy in September, citing concerns about global risks and market turbulence stemming from China.

    In recent days, several top Fed policymakers including Chair Janet Yellen have said the Fed could raise rates later this year if the economy shows further improvement.

    "As for the FOMC reacting to this report, the market can continue to view them as the suitor wondering why it should matter when he gives the engagement ring as long as she knows they are eventually going to be married," Steve Blitz, chief economist at ITG in New York.

    Interest rates futures implied traders see a 11 percent chance the Fed would raise rates in October and a 39 percent chance it would do so in December, according to CME Group's FedWatch program.

    The latest ADP data supported expectations for private and government jobs gains to be reported by the U.S. Labor Department at 8:30 a.m. Friday.

    Economists polled by Reuters expect Friday's report to show U.S. employers hired 203,000 workers in September, improving from August's 173,000 increase which was the smallest in five months. The unemployment rate was forecast to hold at 5.1 percent, a near 7½ year low.

    "If we are able to hold on this type of jobs growth, the odds are pretty good we'd be back to full employment in the summer of 2016," Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi told reporters on a conference call.

    Moody's Analytics jointly developed the private jobs report with ADP.

    U.S. stocks rose partly on the better-than-expected ADP data, while Treasuries prices stayed in negative territory and the dollar tacked on earlier gains.

    Midwest Factory Slump

    As the labor market seemed to hum along, manufacturing activity in the Midwest took an unexpected downturn as a strong dollar and weak overseas demand have hurt U.S. exports.

    The Chicago Purchasing Management Index fell in September to 48.7, its weakest since May, from August's 54.4. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast a reading of 53.

    A reading below 50 suggests the Chicago-area factory sector is contracting despite strong vehicle demand.

    A manufacturing gauge on the upper Midwest region fell to its lowest level since 2009.

    Marquette University and the Institute for Supply Management-Milwaukee said its regional business barometer fell to 39.44 in September from 47.67 in August.

    "In aggregate, growth still looks strong to keep the unemployment rate trending down," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, New York.

     

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    Ralph Lauren New CEO
    Jason DeCrow/APDesigner Ralph Lauren, right, poses in his office with Stefan Larsson, global brand president for Old Navy.
    By Siddharth Cavale and Kylie Gumpert

    NEW YORK -- American designer Ralph Lauren, who built a fashion powerhouse on luxury designs inspired by country club chic, announced Tuesday he is stepping down as chief executive officer and named the head of Gap Inc.'s (GPS) populist Old Navy brand to the position.

    Ralph Lauren Corp. (RL), founded by 75-year-old Lauren in 1967, appointed Stefan Larsson, the global president of Gap's Old Navy division, as CEO effective in November. Lauren will continue to serve as executive chairman and head its design team, the company said in a statement.

    Lauren, who got his start designing neckties, plans to stay active at the company and Larsson will report to him.

    When they start designing things I can't understand, I'll quit.

    "When they start designing things I can't understand, I'll quit," Lauren told the New York Times in an interview.

    The company has been struggling to boost profits as a stronger dollar reduces the value of sales from overseas. Net revenue in its first quarter ended June 27 fell 5 percent, mainly due to currency fluctuations.

    Odeon Capital analyst Rick Snyder said the company had grown to a size where it needed more "systems and controls." The change in CEO "is just a natural progression," Snyder said.

    Milton Pedraza, a fashion industry analyst at the Luxury Institute, said Larsson's appointment follows a trend of luxury brands hiring leaders from mass-market companies in recent months. He cited the appointment of Grita Loebsack, a former vice president at Unilever Plc, as CEO of Kering's emerging brands, which include Stella McCartney and Gucci.

    Larsson, 41, is credited with reviving sales at Old Navy, successfully implementing a model of offering trendy clothes at low prices.

    Annual sales at the division rose 8 percent in 2014 and became Gap's biggest business. Sales for the division were $6.62 billion, or 40.3 percent of Gap's total.

    Lauren's fashion empire includes some 25 brands including Polo, Club Monaco and Denim & Supply, and the company makes clothing, accessories, furniture, home decor items and footwear under its labels.

    Larsson, a Swede who before joining Gap was global head of sales at Hennes & Mauritz, brings experience of managing a fast fashion business with a supply chains considered to be among the most efficient within the apparel industry.

    His appointment would be a good fit for Ralph Lauren which is seeking to reorganize and centralize business units and brands, Snyder said.

    "If he comes from a place like H&M, he understands global supply chains and that's one of the things that Ralph Lauren is trying to implement right now," Snyder said. "It's going to be very positive for them."

    From Wild West to Hip Hop

    Despite the aura of Anglo-Saxon elitism around his company, Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx in 1939. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Belarus, and he changed his name to Lauren at age 16.

    Lauren's designs drew inspiration from elite and exotic realms including East Coast prepsters, the Wild West, colonists on African safari and czarist Russia. He designed the wardrobe for the 1974 film version of "The Great Gatsby" including a pink suit for star Robert Redford.

    The Ralph Lauren Polo shirt, which debuted in 1972, became a signature item for the company with a tiny polo player embroidered on the chest.

    His designs have been worn by presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, actress Gwyneth Paltrow and actor Johnny Depp.

    Lauren was also, perhaps surprisingly, influential in the hip hop world. His bright colors and bold clothing became staples for some New York gangs, and rappers such as Kanye West and Lil Wayne have mentioned Lauren and his designs in their rhymes.

    The company also said that Jackwyn Nemerov, chief operating officer, would retire in November at which time she will become an adviser to the company.

     

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    Credit Card Changes Q and A
    Matt Rourke/AP
    By Beth Pinsker

    NEW YORK -- The U.S. credit card industry and merchants face a Thursday deadline to make progress with the transition to cards with chip technology, but less than half of consumers have the new cards in their wallets.

    A new study from CreditCards.com found that only 40 percent of cardholders have chip cards, which employ an extra level of security above the traditional magnetic stripe to prevent fraud.

    We were expecting a little bigger number, but we also understood that this is going to be a long process.

    Known as EMV technology, the chips in the cards -- which can work in conjunction with PIN codes -- help prevent thieves from making copycat cards. Consumers dip the cards instead of swiping them, and then follow keypad instructions. Other areas of the world, particularly Europe, have already widely adopted the technology.

    This week's deadline was not about getting cards into the hands of consumers, but rather about a liability shift between credit card issuers and merchants. In fact, there is no firm deadline by which all consumers are supposed to get cards.

    "We were expecting a little bigger number, but we also understood that this is going to be a long process," says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

    MasterCard reported this week that 40 percent of all U.S.-branded consumer credit cards are chip cards. A quarter of U.S. merchants have already transitioned to accept these cards, according to a MasterCard press release. For stores that have not, the chip cards can still be swiped the old-fashioned way.

    Right now, you are most likely to see a chip payment station at a major national retailer like Target (TGT) or Home Depot (HD), Schulz said. Small merchants are likely to lag behind for years.

    Get Your Card

    The CreditCard.com study also found that those with annual income over $75,000 are more than twice as likely to have a chip card than people with lower incomes.

    That is because the earliest adopters of chip cards are frequent international travelers, according to Schulz.

    That transition to a broader group of consumers is just going to take time, he said, because card issuers are drawing it out due to the expense of replacing cards.

    For consumers impatient to get a chip card, they can call and request one from their issuer, or seek more information on the industry's explanation website. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also has information and can take complaints for consumers having issues.

    Otherwise, consumers are likely to just get a new card in the mail seemingly at random -- driven by a renewal date or by high-profile deadlines like the one this week.

    "It's not a coincidence to get a card around this time," said Carolyn Balfany, senior vice president, U.S. product delivery for MasterCard Worldwide (MA).

    The change consumers will likely notice most is that more and more stores will turn on their terminals as of Thursday. But don't expect too many problems, said Balfany: "It's not Y2K."

     

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    AUTO INDUSTRY
    Getty ImagesA Ford Windstar minivan
    DETROIT -- Ford (F) is recalling some older Windstar minivans to because a previous rear-axle recall repair might not work.

    The recall covers about 342,000 vans from 1998 through 2003. The company said Wednesday that the Windstars were recalled in 2010 due to axle cracks that could grow and lead to complete failure and a crash.

    They're being recalled again because a reinforcement bracket from the first recall could have been installed incorrectly. The bracket was designed to mitigate problems if the axle failed. The company says it has reports of a small number of accidents but no injuries. The exact number of wrecks wasn't available.

    Dealers will inspect the vans, and if the brackets weren't installed right, replace the axles. If they were correctly installed, customers will be offered a $300 discount on the price of an axle replacement. The recall is taking place in the U.S. and Canada.

    Also Wednesday, Ford said it was recalling 37,000 F-150 pickups from the 2015 model year in the U.S. and Canada to fix a problem with the adaptive cruise control system that automatically brakes the trucks to avoid a crash.

    The company said that when passing a large truck, the radar could incorrectly determine that it's in the F-150's travel lane when it isn't. The system could apply the brakes until it senses that the truck is no longer in the way.

    Ford says it has a report of one crash caused by the problem but no injuries. Dealers will update software to fix the problem.

     

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    Stocks Drop Sharply On Economic Data From China
    Andrew Burton/Getty Images
    By Sinead Carew

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks closed sharply higher Wednesday as investors sought bargains among beaten-down stocks and the recently battered biotechnology index bounced back on the last day of Wall Street's worst quarter since 2011.

    For much of the third quarter, global markets were rocked by fears of slowing growth in China and uncertainty over timing for a U.S. Federal Reserve hike of interest rates. Biotech had a seven-day sell-off kicked off by drug price regulation worries.

    I don't think there was a specific piece of news driving the market today. We got very oversold.

    "I don't think there was a specific piece of news driving the market today. We got very oversold," said Brian Fenske, head of sales trading at ITG in New York. "When everybody gets bearish quickly, you tend to get these bounces."

    Investment strategists and traders said it was too soon to expect Wednesday's rally to be sustainable. However, instead of trying to bet on the rate hike timing, Fenske said that investors will now focus on economic data and look ahead to the third-quarter earnings season, which begins next week.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 235.57 points, or 1.5 percent, to 16,284.7, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 35.94 points, or 1.9 percent, to 1,920.03, and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 102.84 points, or 2.3 percent, to 4,620.17.

    For the quarter, the Dow fell 7.6 percent, the S&P lost 6.9 percent and Nasdaq fell 7.4 percent. For September, the Dow fell 1.5 percent while the S&P dropped 2.6 percent and Nasdaq fell 3.3 percent.

    Trading was heavy Wednesday with 8.52 billion shares changing hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 7.28 billion average for the previous 20 sessions, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    Economic Concerns

    The Fed has said it needs to see more improvement in the labor market and be confident that inflation will increase before raising rates for the first time since 2006. Inflation remains below the Fed's 2 percent target.

    Yellen said last week the central bank remained on track to raise rates this year. The Fed meets next on Oct. 27-28.

    Data released Wednesday showed the U.S. private sector added more jobs than expected in September, raising hopes for a strong reading in the government's payrolls report due Friday.

    All 10 S&P sectors were higher, with the consumer discretionary index's 2.7 percent rise leading the gains. The Nasdaq biotechnology index closed up 4.5 percent as investors sought bargains in the sector, but was still down 11.5 percent for the month after Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton criticized drug pricing last week.

    Although the market's recent rout has forced many strategists to slash expectations, a Reuters poll showed the S&P 500 is expected to end 2015 roughly 11 percent above current levels.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2,340 to 758, for a 3.09-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 2,063 issues rose and 783 fell for a 2.63-to-1 ratio favoring advancers. The S&P 500 posted 3 new 52-week highs and 18 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 22 new highs and 179 new lows.

    -Abhiram Nandakumar and Tanya Agrawal contributed reporting.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • The Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • At 10 a.m., the Institute for Supply Management releases its manufacturing index for September; the Commerce Department releases construction spending for August; and Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates.
    • McCormick & Co. (MKC) and Micron Technology (MU) report quarterly financial results.

     

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    Couple Watching 3D Film In Cinema
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    It's that creepy time of the year when Hollywood tries to frighten you. Several horror movies will be making their theatrical debuts in the coming weeks, hoping to cash in on the Halloween frenzy that tends to dominate October.

    Let's go over some of the more promising slated releases and then wrap things up with a few tips to save money as you test your jump-scare mettle at the local multiplex.

    'The Final Girls' -- Oct. 9

    The first of October's horror flicks is more campy than creepy. "The Final Girls" stars Taissa Farmiga from "American Horror Story" fame as a girl who gets transported back to a 1980s camp-based slasher flick that starred her now-deceased mother. There's humor. There's blood. There's family bonding. Think of it as "The Purple Rose of Cairo" meets "Scream" and you will be in the ballpark of what to expect.

    The film gets its title from the slasher flick trend where the last female character left standing -- the final girl -- is often the one that does in the baddie at the end of the movie.

    'Crimson Peak' -- Oct. 16

    If you're hungry for highbrow horror, the art-house pick this season will be Guillermo del Toro's latest release. "Crimson Peak" details an aspiring author torn between two lovers as she takes up residency in a haunted house with a bloody past.

    Golden Globe winner Jessica Chastain stars. When del Toro takes on horror -- as he did in "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" -- it's usually in a cerebral way. Did I mention that "Crimson Peak" is a period piece?

    'Goosebumps' -- Oct. 16

    What could very well be the top box office draw in October is the highly anticipated return of R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" series that entertained readers and viewers through the 1990s. Nostalgia will play a big part in packing movie houses, and the plot -- where classic "Goosebumps" characters are freed into a Maryland town -- should pique the interest of adults who grew up enjoying Stine's work.

    "Goosebumps" stars Jack Black, and director Rob Letterman's earlier works include kid-friendly fare "Monsters vs. Aliens" and "Shark Tale." The PG rating suggests that the movie is the one entry this season targeting families.

    'Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension' -- Oct. 23

    There's apparently still some life left in the found-footage genre that was initially popularized by "The Blair Witch Project" in 1999. The genre features stories that are told from the perspective of recorded footage, lending an element of realism.

    The original "Paranormal Activity" was made on a shoestring budget, and now we're up to the sixth installment in the franchise. As long as folks keep watching them, the studio will probably keep making them.

    'Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse' -- Oct. 30

    We'll get to see three scouts and a cocktail waitress take on zombie strippers, partygoers, and even a cat on the eve of Halloween. It's a lighthearted zombie romp, along the lines of "Zombieland" and "Shaun of the Dead," where the joke counts often get as high as the body counts.

    The film stars Patrick Schwarzenegger as the head scout, notable because he's the son of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.

    Treats for Tricks

    If you're looking to save some money at the movies this October, your first thought may be of stuffing your pockets with Halloween candy to save on concessions -- something that's frowned upon by most multiplex operators. You naturally know that you can save money by attending matinees earlier in the day as well as other ways to make a theater outing cheaper, but one option you might not know about is monthly movie passes.

    MoviePass offers a way to get into roughly 90 percent of the theaters out there for as little as $30 a month. You are limited to one movie a day, and you can't see the same movie twice. It also won't work on 3D or IMAX (IMAX) screenings. However, if you plan on seeing all or even most of the horror films coming out in October, you may never find a situation where the pass presents a better value.

    The MoviePass takes about a week to arrive after ordering it, and you will want to cancel after your first month unless you are looking forward to the slate of not-so-scary fare in November. The horror flicks are coming. Don't be caught by surprise.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends IMAX. 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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    approved real estate mortgage...
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    If you've ever taken out a mortgage loan, you know just how long and arduous a process it can be to get financing to buy your dream home. Between gathering all your financial information, completing bank applications, waiting for credit reports to get pulled, and navigating various state and federal regulations, the home-loan process has been a nightmare for many homebuyers. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is aiming to change that, and with its new disclosure rules taking effect on Oct. 3, the CFPB hopes that mortgage borrowers will have a much improved experience in buying a home going forward.

    What the New Mortgage Rules Require

    The purpose of the CFPB in modifying its mortgage disclosure rules is to ease the process of taking out a mortgage. The rule changes contribute to that goal in two ways. First, instead of having four disclosure forms, some of which present the same information multiple times, mortgage borrowers will only have to look at two disclosure forms, the Loan Estimate and the Closing Disclosure. Second, the period of time you have to review mortgage documents will extend from 24 hours to three days, with the previous requirement of having to specifically request advance notice no longer applying.

    The CFPB anticipates several positive benefits from the rule changes. It believes that the new disclosure forms will be a vast improvement on the old forms, presenting information in a way that's easier for most borrowers to understand. In particular, the CFPB helped to design the Loan Estimate in a manner that makes it easier for would-be borrowers to take offers from different lenders and compare them more easily, and the agency clearly wants borrowers to shop around for the best terms possible rather than relying on a single lender's offer.

    Meanwhile, the three-day waiting period gives borrowers a long enough period to get any lingering questions answered about their mortgages. Whether you go to your lender directly or consult a professional like a real-estate lawyer or a specialized housing counselor, three days often gives you opportunities to get more information that a shorter 24-hour period didn't.

    Getting the Scoop on the New Forms

    Even with these streamlined disclosure rules, homeowners can still have a tough time figuring out what the documents they see actually mean. That's one reason the CFPB has provided a guide to help borrowers go through the forms and get the information they need. The new "Your Home Loan Toolkit" will be sent directly to mortgage applicants when they first apply for a home loan, but it's also available from the CFPB's website. The guides take you step-by-step through the disclosure documents, helping you understand what information they contain and making sure it matches up to your expectations of what your mortgage loan terms include. You can also get definitions of key legal terms included in the disclosures, allowing you to ensure that an unfamiliar provision doesn't get the better of you during the loan process.

    Despite the CFPB's positive view on the changes, it's likely that home borrowers will have to endure some short-term challenges after the provisions take effect. Whenever industry professionals have to use a different form than they've worked with in the past, it takes some time to get used to using the new disclosures. Similarly, the three-day waiting period will make it somewhat more difficult for lenders and borrowers to work together to make last-minute changes, as any revisions will restart the clock on a new waiting period. That could jeopardize a rate lock or other aspects of the loan.

    Overall, though, the new mortgage disclosure rules could go a long way toward helping mortgage borrowers understand what they're getting into when they take out a home loan. By making information available to them, the CFPB believes that its latest efforts will help borrowers "know before they owe" -- and that could help prevent a repeat of the housing bust nearly a decade ago.

    Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger sees mortgage loans as a necessary evil. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger or on Google Plus. 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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    Kold as Ice? Watch the $300 Keurig Kold in Action

    The same company that revolutionized the way you drink coffee at home is now trying to give carbonated beverages a shot. Keurig Green Mountain (GMCR) began selling Keurig Kold on Tuesday, a beverage maker that fizzes up carbonated drinks at a cool 39 degrees Fahrenheit in all of 90 seconds.

    Keurig is the same company behind the namesake brewers that redefined the way we consume single servings of coffee, introducing "K-Cup" into the vocabulary of tens of millions of java junkies. Now it's teaming up with Coca-Cola (KO) and Dr Pepper Group (DPS) to let folks make fresh eight-ounce servings of brand-name soda at home or anywhere else.

    If you're even a casual soda sipper, you might be tempted to want one, but let's go over the three important questions whose answers will dictate if you actually want to buy one.

    1. Is Keurig Kold Worth the Initial Investment?

    Making your own soda is a novel concept, but the cover charge is a bit steep. Keurig Kold starts at $299 and the initial model that comes with two glasses retails for $369. That's a lot of money for a soda maker, especially when SodaStream (SODA) has a few models available for less than $100.

    To be fair, Keurig Kold is a far more sophisticated machine than anything that SodaStream has put out. Keurig Kold serves beverages at a chilled temperature, something that SodaStream doesn't offer even though it means that you have to have your Keurig Kold turned on for at least two hours before use. Keurig Kold also doesn't need CO2 canisters like SodaStream: The fizzing elements are contained within the K-Cup-like pods. The benefits are neat, but is it worth an initial investment of at least $300 to see if it's right for you?

    2. Am I Cool With Paying More for Soda I Make at Home?

    Crafting your own Diet Coke, Fanta, Sprite or Dr Pepper at home is convenient, but it's not cheaper than buying it in bottles or cans at the store. The brand-name soda pods cost $4.99 for a box that contains four pods. We're talking about $1.25 a serving, and we're talking about 8 ounces here. A traditional can of soda contains 12 ounces.

    The Keurig Kold serving is comparable to the petite cans that began rolling out a few years ago, and buying those in a six-pack at your local supermarket will cost you roughly half as much per serving as using Keurig Kold.

    3. Am I Comfortable with the Risks of Being an Early Adopter?

    Folks who need to get shiny new toys first take on the risks of overpaying or buying into flops that get abandoned. Just as entry-level Keurig coffee brewers got cheaper over time, it's a safe bet that Keurig Kold machines -- if successful -- will get more affordable in future generations.

    The big question is whether there will be future generations. Keurig Kold was supposed to be available everywhere by now, but as of now it's limited to Keurig's website. In a few weeks it will start popping up in select markets. Keurig doesn't expect mass-market penetration until next year. If you're comfortable buying your pods online, that may not be a problem, but you might want to wait for it to actually take off. You would hate to spend $300 on a machine that flops, especially since you need production to continue so you can restock your machine with Kold pods.

    Keurig Kold is cool, and even the steep initial investment may be worth it if it makes you the star of your holiday parties this year. However, there are also plenty of reasons to be cautious at a time when soda consumption in general is on the decline.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Keurig Green Mountain and SodaStream. The Motley Fool owns shares of SodaStream and has the following options: long January 2016 $37 calls on Coca-Cola, short January 2016 $43 calls on Coca-Cola and short January 2016 $37 puts on Coca-Cola. The Motley Fool recommends Coca-Cola and Keurig Green Mountain. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    The Spirit Halloween pop-up store in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York attempts to unload unsold merchandise
    Alamy
    By Louis Ramirez

    October can be a precarious month for shoppers. Although it's packed with respectable sales thanks to Columbus Day and Halloween, it's also the month when we first see Black Friday ads and leaks. As a result, some shoppers may feel the need to abstain from making any purchases this month.

    But we're here to tell you that October is actually a great month for some purchases, as long as you're making the right ones. Below, we've created a list of nine items you should buy this month, alongside a list of nine items that will be cheaper in November. That way you know you're getting the most out of your buck.

    Still uncertain about what to buy? Be sure to sign up for the DealNews Select Newsletter so you don't miss one of the best deals.

    Nine Deals You Should Buy in October

    If you're putting off the following purchases because you think that you'll score a better deal next month, then think again! These items are at their hottest this month.

    Cars. October is traditionally one of the best months to purchase a new car. By now, hundreds of 2016 models have entered the market and dealerships are more eager than ever to clear 2015's inventory. That means consumers have the upper hand when it comes time to negotiations. According to MarketWatch, the longer you wait to buy a car, the greater the bargain you'll find. However, don't wait too long; by November and December, selection can become an issue. So head to the dealership now that the time is ripe and remember that you have the upper hand.

    Costumes. Make no mistake, the best time to buy a Halloween costume is on the day after Halloween, when retailers discount all of their unsold costumes by as much as 75 percent with stackable coupons and free shipping. However, most people don't buy their costumes that far in advance, so the second-best time to purchase a Halloween costume is during the week before Halloween. That week you'll find sales that range from 20 to 70 percent off from retailers like Costume Express, Pottery Ban Kids, ThinkGeek and BuyCostumes.

    Gamers should also take note that for the past few years Steam has been holding its own Halloween sale, taking up to 90 percent off a selection of horror- and zombie-based video games like "The Walking Dead" and "Plants vs. Zombies," with prices starting as low as 19 cents.

    European vacations. According to travel expert Rick Steves, October can be an excellent time to book a European vacation, since October is the start of Europe's off-season. That means travelers will "find more budget rooms, spend less time in lines, and meet more Europeans than tourists." Combined with a strong dollar, that means travelers can expect to have an overall better vacation experience while saving money on the side.

    Patio furniture. New patio furniture is probably the last thing on your shopping list this month, but the truth is October can be a great time for patio furniture deals. Retailers are desperately clearing out their inventory and furniture that didn't sell in September. Last year, for instance, Sears took 70 percent off its patio furniture in September and added a stackable dollar-off coupon during the month of October. By comparison, patio furniture deals in November were significantly harder to come by and discounts generally topped off at 40 percent.

    55-inch 1080p LCD HDTVs. We've said it before and we'll say it again, Black Friday is the best time of the year to purchase a new HDTV. However, last Black Friday we noticed that 55-inch sets didn't drop much in price and that's because this category size has hit a price plateau, meaning retailers have discounted them as much as they're willing to.

    You can currently find deals on 55-inch HDTVs for about $400, which is the same price we're predicting for Black Friday. So if you're in the market for a TV in this size range, you might as well purchase it this month, as it won't drop significantly next month. Moreover, by making your purchase this month, you can shop at your leisure and avoid the stress of shopping during the holidays.

    Jeans. Back-to-school sales have come and gone, but certain back-to-school items -- such as denim -- are still on sale this month with deals that won't get any better next month. For instance, Lucky, Nautica and Levi's have all slashed their jeans with discounts that range from 40 to 60 percent off. Come November, these discounts won't be as strong, or if they are, they'll have certain purchase or shipping requirements. So your best bet is to shop now and enjoy the same discounts without the purchase requirements.

    Pizza. October is National Pizza Month, which means you can expect to find numerous deals this month from the likes of Pizza Hut, Papa John's, California Pizza Kitchen and Domino's, to name a few. Last year Pizza Hut offered its best BOGO offer of the year, whereas Papa John's offered its best percent off discount, taking 50 percent off a regular or large pizza.

    Camping gear. Although you won't find sales on winter sports gear, October is still a great month for deals on end-of-season gear like water sports and hiking equipment. Check stores like REI and Sierra Trading Post for sales that knock from 40 to 60 percent off select merchandise. While it's likely you'll see similar sales in November, the sales are more frequent in October and come with no minimum purchase requirements.

    Select produce. According to Oprah.com, October is the best time of the year to purchase certain kinds of produce because they're at their peak season and lowest price of the year. Some of the produce you should purchase this month includes pumpkins, cranberries, grapes, oranges, sweet potatoes and yams.

    Wait Until Black Friday to Buy ...

    While there are some great deals in October, there's no denying that November is a month full of stunningly low prices on a variety of electronics and other goods. Below we've focused on some of the bigger Black Friday deals that you should plan to buy in November.

    Appliances. Although appliance manufacturers tend to release their new models in September and October, it turns out that November is actually the better month for deals on large appliances. That's because many of these items will be deeply discounted during Black Friday as stores like Home Depot, Sears and Lowe's kick off their sitewide sales. Our deal archives show that November will on average offer more than twice as many appliance deals as we see on any other month of the year. Also, roughly 35 percent of our November appliance deals were marked Editors' Choice last year. By comparison, only 15 percent are marked as such throughout the rest of the year.

    Cold weather apparel. As a general rule of thumb, you should never buy apparel that's in-season because you'll wind up paying higher prices for it. However, Black Friday is the exception. Every clothing retailer from Macy's to J.Crew will discount its cold weather apparel and accessories, which means it's worth waiting until November to refresh your wardrobe. Expect apparel retailers to offer their best coupons of the year with discounts that can take up to 50 percent off or more from your purchase.

    Most apple devices. Retailers crushed the Apple Store's Black Friday sale last November with discounts that undercut Apple's prices by as much as 13 percent. And although we're used to seeing that every year, last November was an exceptionally great month for Apple deals as we saw dozens of deals on Apple's MacBook Air, iPad, iPhone, iMac and iPad mini. This year we expect to see a repeat, particularly on the 11-inch MacBook Air and iPad Air 2, which have been gradually dropping in price since the summer.

    Laptops. November is the best time of the year to buy a new laptop. If your budget is tight, we expect to see 11-inch budget notebooks as low as $99, a price we saw last November. If you require a more sophisticated machine with current-generation hardware, such as one of Intel's latest processors, then you'll want to look at 15-inch mainstream models, which could hit as low as $300. Expect to find these sales from retailers like Amazon, Best Buy and Staples.

    HDTVs. HDTVs are the meat and potatoes of most Black Friday sales. For many screen sizes, you simply won't find better deals any other time of the year. And with prices that start as low as $70 (for a 32-inch set), it's no wonder most shoppers wait all year to buy their TVs in November. And if you think its only off-brand TVs that see discounts, think again. Last year we saw an increase in the number of name-brand 4K HDTV deals, and we can expect that to occur again this November.

    General electronics. November is the best month of the year for making general electronics purchases. That means you'll find price lows on tablets, cameras, home theater gear and media players. Unfortunately, there's no way of guaranteeing that the specific device you want will go on sale next month, but the chances are in your favor that at least one retailer will discount it.

    Domestic travel. According to Hopper, which tracks airfare prices throughout the year, domestic flights will be up to 5 percent cheaper this fall and winter than they were last year. However, whereas Hopper predicts October prices will be in the $248 range, they predict December rates will be slightly cheaper, averaging just $244.

    Video games. October promises to be a busy month for video games, with major releases like "Assassin's Creed Syndicate" and "Halo 5: Guardians" scheduled to drop on Oct. 23 and 27, respectively. For gamers looking to save money, that means October will be somewhat of a quiet month in terms of deals. Instead, leave your shopping for November, which is when we traditionally begin to see the first deals on those late-2015 releases.

    Photo services. The holidays are a great time not just for taking pictures, but also printing them. During the week of Black Friday we traditionally see sales from a variety of photo printing services. Last year, for instance, Vistaprint saved its biggest percent-off discount of the year for the week of Black Friday, taking 60 percent off sitewide. Other services like Shutterfly followed suit, as it announced its biggest sale of the year during the lead up to Black Friday.

    Ready to put this information to use? Sign up for the DealNews Select Newsletter or download the DealNews app in order to keep abreast of any and all of these best buys in October. Want to jump ahead through the year? Check out all our monthly guides.

     

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    U.S. Gas Prices Continue Long Decline
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
    Rick Hudnett recently pulled into a Chevron station near his home in Orlando. He wishes he hadn't.

    The $2.41 price a gallon was a few cents lower than average, so he assumed he had found a bargain. And he did, except for one teensy detail. When he swiped his credit card, Hudnett saw that the rate had jumped to $2.45. He asked an employee why.

    "The clerk mentioned that the rate advertised is only for those who have a Chevron credit card," says Hudnett, a marketing executive based in Florida. "Once he pointed out the tiny sentence under the advertised price on the corner sign and it indicated that particular price was only for Chevron credit card holders, I knew he got me."

    Hudnett's not the only one who feels that way. With the summer driving season over, many motorists are scratching their heads as they review their gas receipts. Simply put, they paid more than they expected. Did they get duped?

    A Chevron (CVX) representative said a "vast majority" of its service stations are independently owned and operated, and that most states also regulate the display of motor fuel prices on signs and dispensers at gas stations.

    "It is the responsibility of Chevron-branded retailers to investigate and comply with all applicable legal requirements," said Braden Reddall, a Chevron spokesman. "We do not track how many elect to offer multitiered pricing."

    Chevron's website prominently offers 3-cents-a-gallon fuel credits when you use one of its credit cards. It is less clear about how it advertises the card's benefits to motorists who may be looking for a low price.

    Hudnett, for his part, thinks it wasn't clear enough.

    "I refuse to buy gas from that location again," he says.

    Gas price shenanigans aren't new, but I'm hearing more complaints about them. Maybe it's because American motorists drove 1.54 trillion miles in the first half of 2015, beating the previous record, 1.5 trillion, set in 2007, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

    High Drama Schemes

    The schemes include price misrepresentations, restrictive terms and conditions that force you to use a particular payment method and -- in some cases -- outright fraud.

    Judy Colbert, a writer based in Glen Burnie, Maryland, tells the story of a friend who saw a sign for $2.53 gas at an independent station in Waldorf, Maryland, a few weeks ago. When he checked his receipt, he found the rate had jumped to $2.69. He was upset but wasn't going to drive back to the station to complain.

    "Two weeks later, the police called my friend for details," she says. "Apparently, the guy who worked at the station pocketed the difference and the rest of it, too, and fled the country."

    Run of the Mill Deception

    But a majority of gas-price high jinks don't result in an arrest. I know, because I've been tracking this issue since 2012, when I became ensnared in a deceptive pricing scheme at an Arco station in Oregon.

    At the time, fuel prices were pushing $4 a gallon, so everyone was looking for a way to save. And I thought I'd hit the jackpot. The station was offering gas a full 10 cents lower than the competition. But as I prepared to swipe my card, a gas station employee approached me.

    "I'm sorry," he said. "Our credit card machine isn't working."

    No problem. I walked into the station and handed the cashier my credit card. That's when I saw the sign. Arco accepted only debit cards, which added a 50 cent "transaction" fee. In my case, it would have negated the savings on the gas. How clever.

    A year later, while driving through California, I encountered a similar bait-and-switch, this time at a Safeway in Willits, California. The price was a then-reasonable $3.87 a gallon. But as I rolled closer, I saw the price was available only to Safeway card members. All others had to pay 10 cents a gallon extra.

    I remember confronting the employee about the price difference. How could Safeway prominently advertise gas at one price that was available to only a select few?

    She told me, as a teacher explains to a new student, how earlier that year "the credit card companies" had raised their fees and that Safeway had to pass the costs along to customers.

    Slow to Catch On

    Regulators are slow to catch up with these advertising tricks. An Oregon jury recently sided with consumers in a case against BP West Coast Products, which also operated numerous Arco-branded stations. The jury said the stations charged more for gas than the amount registered at the pump and failed to properly disclose its prices when it charged a 35 cent fee to consumers who used debit cards to pay.

    You have to be vigilant. One of the newest gas-price scams is the "with car wash" rate. That's when a below-market price is displayed, usually for regular unleaded gas, with the phrase "with car wash" in small print. In fact, the Mobil station around the corner from my house shows its gas prices this way. Without a car wash, the price is 20 cents higher.

    With fuel prices near historic lows and fewer drivers on the road now that summer is wrapping up, expect to see more price discrepancies. Look at the rate before you pump, then review the receipt after you're done fueling. You may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

    Christopher Elliott's latest book is "How To Be The World's Smartest Traveler" (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, elliott.org/forum or by emailing him at chris@elliott.org.

    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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    How to Choose a Financial Advisor

    By Landon Dowdy

    If you could have Jessica Alba or Warren Buffett as your financial adviser, who would you choose? Nearly half of millennials said they'd pick the so-called Oracle of Omaha, according to a survey by the Insured Retirement Institute and the Center for Generational Kinetics. But more than 1 in 10 preferred to get financial advice from Alba, the actress and co-founder of The Honest Company. Another 32 percent would turn to Oprah Winfrey, and 4 percent said they'd choose NBA superstar LeBron James.

    Of course, just because someone has a successful brand -- or even a successful investing history -- doesn't mean he or she would be the right choice as your financial adviser. "These are successful superstars and [some] have successful companies, but I'm sure they have knowledgeable financial planners who help them ... plan financially and diversify their money," said Hans-Christian Winkler, a certified financial planner at Claraphi Advisory Network in New York City.

    Still, mapping out a long-term financial plan, or even finding a financial adviser, can feel daunting to many -- especially younger investors. In fact, 60 percent of millennials in the same survey said it's harder to plan for retirement than to stick with a diet, and about the same percentage said they'd like to be walked through every step of the retirement planning process.

    If you're looking for someone to help you manage your money and financial planning, here's what to keep in mind.

    Know your needs. Think about your goals before you begin the search for an adviser. Maybe you're just starting out and need help setting up a basic budget and financial plan. Or, perhaps, you're a little further into your career and are wondering how best to invest the money you've saved. Finding the right adviser depends both on your specific needs and your financial goals.

    Check credentials. Anyone can call themselves a financial adviser. But certified financial planners must pass strenuous exams to get their certification and adhere to a fiduciary standard when providing financial planning, meaning they must put your interests above their own with their financial advice. If you are looking for specific investment advice, consider a registered investment adviser, an adviser who is registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission or a state's securities agency and must also adhere to the fiduciary standard.

    Be sure you're clear on how they're paid. Some are fee-based or fee-only, meaning they charge a flat fee. Others charge a percentage of what they manage and some are commission based. For a directory of CFPs, you can check the CFP Board's site or the Garrett Planning Network, which lists more than 300 independent, fee-only financial planners. You can also find a fee-only adviser through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors and look for an investment adviser through the Securities and Exchange Commissionor the financial information company BrightScope. Check to see if an investment adviser has had any disciplinary or regulatory problems, and be sure that he or she is registered or licensed, through the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

    Test the chemistry. Once you've done your research, narrow it down to two or three advisers and try to schedule meetings with each one. (That should also give you a good idea of how accessible each is, too.) It's a relationship like any other relationship: You want someone you can trust and are able to build up trust with over time. "I'm a big fan of the gut feeling [when choosing an adviser]," said certified financial planner Elizabeth Scheiderer for NCA Financial Planners in Cleveland. Ask them what kind of results you can expect under their guidance, and ask enough questions to make sure their services, values and products align with your goals.

    "It's almost like a first date because you are establishing that relationship" to see if you trust that person with your money and want to move forward with him or her, said Winkler. And, if it goes well, it could last a lifetime.

     

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    ConAgra Brand Products On the Shelf Ahead of Earnings Figures
    Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Anjali Athavaley and Sruthi Ramakrishnan

    ConAgra Foods (CAG) said it would cut about 1,500 jobs and move its headquarters to Chicago from Omaha as part of a plan to save at least $300 million in three years.

    The maker of Chef Boyardee pasta and Healthy Choice dinners is under pressure to cut costs and accelerate growth as consumers shift from packaged food to options they consider fresher, healthier alternatives. In July, the company added two directors to its board as part of an agreement with Jana Partners after the activist hedge fund took a stake in the company.

    While we believe that we can create a lot of value with ConAgra Foods, that's only going to happen if we make bold change, and we're going to continue to push for change.

    The job cuts mark the latest changes implemented by ConAgra Chief Executive Officer Sean Connolly, who joined in April. The company also announced in June that it would divest its struggling private-label business.

    "While we believe that we can create a lot of value with ConAgra Foods, that's only going to happen if we make bold change, and we're going to continue to push for change," Connolly said in an interview. He added that the move to Chicago allowed the company to consolidate its consumer foods business in one location.

    The job cuts, which exclude the private label business, represent about 30 percent of ConAgra's office-based workforce. Overall, ConAgra had about 32,900 employees as of May.

    About 1,200 employees will be left in Omaha following the cuts, down from roughly 2,400, excluding ConAgra's private brands workers, Connolly said.

    Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a statement that he regretted ConAgra's decision, and that the government would be ready to assist Nebraskans seeking reemployment due to the restructuring.

    Beginning next summer, about 700 employees, including the company's senior leadership, will be located at the new Chicago headquarters.

    The workforce reductions, in addition to the company's adoption of zero-based budgeting, which requires managers to justify each year's costs from scratch, will account for $200 million in savings. The other $100 million will come from more efficient spending on promoting products within stores, ConAgra said.

    "While we view these efforts as prudent, we don't believe ConAgra is poised to post operating margins on par with the midteens generated by industry peers, given its lagging brand set," said Morningstar analyst Erin Lash, noting that increased investments in marketing and innovation would partly offset savings.

    ConAgra estimated restructuring-related cash charges of about $345 million over the next two to three years.

    Shares of ConAgra were little changed Wednesday at $40.54.

     

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    A Car Dealership Ahead Of Motor Vehicle Sales Figures
    Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By DEE-ANN DURBIN and TOM MURPHY

    DETROIT -- September was a blockbuster sales month for the U.S. auto industry -- except at Volkswagen, where an emissions scandal forced the company to halt sales of most of its diesel-powered vehicles.

    Strong consumer demand, easy credit and generous incentives combined to fill dealer showrooms. The industry sold 1.44 million cars and light trucks last month, up 15.8 percent from a year ago.

    Ford's U.S. sales grew 23 percent in September, Nissan surged 18 percent and Fiat Chrysler's U.S. sales jumped nearly 14 percent. Sales at General Motors rose 12 percent, while Toyota posted a 16 percent gain. Honda's sales were up 13 percent.

    Analysts had expected big increases because Labor Day was included in September this year versus August a year ago. Labor Day weekend is typically one of the biggest sales periods of the year, as dealers offer discounts to clear cars off their lots before the new model-year vehicles arrive.

    The Volkswagen brand struggled after Sept. 18, when the U.S. government revealed that nearly 500,000 VW and Audi diesels sold in the U.S. had software that let them cheat on emissions tests. Volkswagen halted sales of 2015 and 2016 diesel models of the Passat, Jetta, Golf and Beetle.

    Right now, the scandal appears to only be hurting only the German automaker. VW's sales were up less than 1 percent over last September. Diesels accounted for just 11.7 percent of the company's total sales, compared with the usual 20 percent.

    The U.S. market has remained a bright spot for automakers as the Chinese economy slows. China is still the No. 1 market globally, but sales there were up just 2.6 percent in the first eight months of the year. U.S. sales grew nearly 4 percent in that time period.

    "The economy still has room to grow and so do auto sales, particularly now that the [millennials] are entering the workforce and starting households," said GM's chief economist, Mustafa Mohatarem, in a statement from the company.

    There is some concern that the momentum could cease if an impasse in contract talks between the Detroit automakers and the United Auto Workers isn't resolved soon.

    Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with KBB, said sales could drop significantly if automakers and the UAW can't come to an agreement on new contracts for GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler. It wouldn't take long for a strike at their U.S. plants to crimp vehicle availability. On Thursday, the union said Fiat Chrysler's factory workers rejected a proposed contract; 65 percent of workers voted against it.

    Here are more details of automakers' September sales, which were released Thursday:
    • There was a bright spot for Volkswagen. Its luxury Audi brand -- which has one model, the A3, involved in the scandal -- saw sales climb 16 percent and said September was a record month for the brand in the U.S. Sales of Audi's big SUVs like the Q5 and Q7 were strong, and A3 sales rose 16 percent.
    • General Motors Co. (GM) sold 251,310 cars and trucks. Total Chevrolet sales rose 11 percent, and the company said GMC had its best September since 2004.
    • Ford (F) sold 221,599 vehicles, with its F-Series pickup truck -- the top-selling vehicle in the country -- climbing 16 percent to more than 69,000 trucks. Ford's Lincoln luxury brand notched a 20 percent sales increase thanks to new SUVs.
    • Toyota (TM) sold 194,370 vehicles. Prius hybrid sales rose 12 percent despite relatively low gas prices, while RAV4 SUV sales jumped 18 percent.
    • Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) sold more than 193,000 vehicles for its best September since 2000. Jeep sales rose 40 percent, offsetting slower growth elsewhere. Sales for the company's Ram and Dodge brands climbed 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
    • Honda (HMC) sold 133,750 vehicles. The CR-V small SUV set a monthly record, with sales up 26 percent to nearly 30,000.
    • Nissan sales rose to 121,782, helped by a 30 percent increase for its Infiniti luxury brand.
    -Murphy reported from Indianapolis.

     

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    US-FOOD-DOUGHNUT
    Eva Hambach, AFP/Getty Images
    By Sruthi Ramakrishnan and Ramkumar Iyer

    Dunkin' Brands comparable sales growth slowed at its U.S. Dunkin' Donuts restaurants in the third quarter and the company said 100 U.S outlets would be closed.

    The company also maintained the full-year profit and revenue forecasts it had issued in April, helping send its shares down as much as 12.7 percent, their biggest intraday percentage decline ever.

    Dunkin' on Thursday said comparable sales at its U.S. Dunkin' Donuts outlets rose 1.1 percent in the quarter ended September, compared with a 2 percent rise a year earlier.

    The restaurants are being closed in 2015 and 2016 as convenience store chain Speedway plans to exit about 100 locations with Dunkin' Donuts franchise outlets, Dunkin' said.

    Speedway will continue to remain a franchisee of Dunkin' Brands.

    Nearly all of the roughly 8,200 Dunkin' Donuts restaurants in the United States are owned and operated by franchisees.

    Dunkin' said the restaurants being closed accounted for 0.1 percent of its U.S. sales. The company gets about three-quarters of its revenue from Dunkin' Donuts U.S. outlets.

    The company still expects full-year adjusted earnings of $1.87 to $1.91 a share and revenue growth of 6-8 percent, it said in a presentation on its investor day.

    Analysts on average are expecting earnings of $1.92 a share and revenue to grow 7.3 percent, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

    Dunkin' (DNKN) shares were down about 10 percent at $44 in afternoon trading, recouping some losses after hitting a near nine-month low of $42.75.

     

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    economy ism factory manufacturing weekly jobless claims
    Rick Bowmer/APA Boeing employee works on a horizontal stabilizer for a Boeing 787 Dreamliner at the company's plant in Salt Lake City.
    By Jason Lange

    WASHINGTON -- The pace of growth at U.S. factories slowed in September, a sign that the chill falling over the global economy could complicate the Federal Reserve's plans to raise interest rates.

    Other data released Thursday pointed to a tightening labor market and stronger spending on home construction, highlighting the split in the economy between strong domestic growth and weakness abroad.

    This is causing headaches at the Fed, which cited concerns last month about "global economic and financial developments" when it surprised much of Wall Street by holding off on hiking rates.

    The Institute for Supply Management said its index of national factory activity fell to 50.2, its lowest since May 2013 and just below the median forecast in a Reuters poll.

    While any reading above 50 indicates expansion in manufacturing, growth has slowed sharply over the last year as a strong dollar has crimped exports.

    More recently, a slowdown in China has sent a chill throughout the global economy. The ISM's index for exports held steady at 46.5, marking a contraction in activity for the fourth straight month.

    The dollar drifted lower while yields on Treasury debt also declined. Wall Street stocks were trading lower.

    Despite the weakness abroad, the domestic economy and the labor market have appeared on more solid footing, which has boosted expectations the Fed could hike rates this year or in early 2016.

    The Labor Department said the number of new applications for U.S. jobless benefits rose modestly last week, although they remained near 15-year lows and a gauge of the trend in claims fell.

    Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 277,000 for the week ended Sept. 26.

    "Filings at this level are incredibly low by historical standards, speaking to how tight labor markets are getting," said Stephen Stanley, an economist at Amherst Pierpont Securities.

    U.S. construction spending climbed in August to the highest level since 2008, the Commerce Department said in a separate report. The gains were boosted by a surge in outlays for residential projects and gave a sign the housing market was helping the overall economy.

    In another sign of domestic strength, the three U.S. automakers -- General Motors (GM), Ford Motor (F) and the U.S. operations of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU) -- reported a jump in September sales as cheap gasoline and ultra-low interest rates drove demand for sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.

    -Sam Forgione contributed reporting from New York.

     

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    man pays bills and writes check with money
    Getty Images
    By JOSH BOAK

    WASHINGTON -- Los Angeles-based auto lender Westlake Services faces $48.35 million in cash relief and penalties for deceiving customers and falsely threatening criminal prosecution, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says.

    The CFPB found that Westlake and its subsidiary Wilshire Consumer Credit masked their identities when phoning borrowers, faking calls from pizza delivery shops, florists and family members. Beginning in 2010 through the middle of last year, the companies falsely told borrowers they faced criminal charges, pressuring them into making urgent payments to avoid an investigation.

    The companies also contacted borrowers' employers, friends and family members without permission, implying to them that the borrowers were behind on loan payments and that their vehicles would be repossessed in addition to the risk of criminal charges.

    The CFPB has ordered Westlake and its subsidiary to provide customers with $44.1 million in cash relief and balance reductions. The federal agency also announced a $4.25 million civil penalty against the companies.

     

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