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    Young woman shocked by online fees
    Getty Images
    By Louis DeNicola

    Even when fees are disclosed, there is something about them that is both irritating and frustrating. Why not show the total price upfront, with the fees clearly identified? When consumers don't notice the buried charges until right before payment, or when fees are kept out of sight for months on end, the sense of being ripped off is palpable. Here are 10 fees consumers may not see coming -- or pay without knowing it.

    Unauthorized phone charges. Even legitimate phone fees can be confusing and annoying, but some service providers have tried adding unauthorized fees as well -- a practice called "cramming." Look for and investigate fees listed with vague descriptions such as "calling plan," "membership," or "voicemail." If they don't check out, the Federal Communications Commission has advice on how consumers can protect themselves and file a complaint.

    Modem or router rental. The modems or routers rented out by Internet service providers may be necessary, but the recurring monthly rental fee is easy to forget and may go on long past the value of the device. Spend a little upfront to buy the hardware and avoid the extra monthly charge. The purchase can often pay for itself in less than a year.

    Closing costs. First-time homebuyers agree on a price but can be caught unaware by all the expenses required to finalize the purchase. Property appraisals and inspections, homeowners insurance (often mandatory to obtain a mortgage), and attorney fees are all common for a home sale. They can't be avoided, but some can be decreased by shopping around, and sellers can sometimes be convinced to pay closing costs. Don't forget to leave enough money after fees for moving.

    Overdraft protection. Many people sign up for overdraft protection with their bank because it seems like, well, protection from overdrawing an account. It is true that instead of paying an overdraft charge -- often more than $30 -- funds are transferred from a linked savings account or credit line to avoid bouncing a payment. The transfer, though, usually costs about $10. Instead, investigate whether a bank offers apps or text-message services that let customers transfer money on their own. (Automatic payments, such as subscriptions, may go through despite insufficient funds and can result in an overdrawn account.) Alternatively, opt out of overdraft protection and make sure the bank doesn't charge the service to your account; in that case, a purchase you can't pay for will be declined.

    Investment fees. Investing can be so complicated that many people do not realize the fees they are paying. For example, a financial adviser might take 1 percent each year of the money being managed. And some of the investments may charge fees on top of that: A mutual fund could charge a fee at the initial investment or when the investment is sold. Look out for 12b-1 fees, which pay for marketing but get wrapped up in the total expense ratio (what money managers get paid annually) and try to choose funds without them. Retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s or IRAs, may also impose management fees or make investments with all sorts of expenses. Use the free service FeeX to check current fees and test potential investments.

    Foreign transaction fees. Merchants around the world are happy to take credit cards, but making a purchase in a foreign currency can come with an extra charge. Many credit cards add 1 percent to 3 percent on top of the purchase as a foreign transaction fee. Avoid this by paying with cash, or use a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees.

    Hotel resort fees. Hotels in popular tourist destinations often charge resort fees ranging from $10 to more than $30 a night -- sometimes neither clearly disclosed nor included in the price shown on third-party booking sites. Ask upfront about fees to avoid the expensive surprise of learning about them upon check-in. Resort fees are sometimes charged even for rooms booked with points or free-stay vouchers.

    Rental car surcharges. Rental cars may cost more coming from airport locations. A quick cab ride can save money: Often there are lots -- even some from the same company -- close to the airport but not considered part of it, where daily and weekly rates are lower and the price includes fewer fees.

    In-room hotel services. Some hotels charge a fee for use of an in-room safe or delivery of a morning paper -- even for guests who don't need or request these services. Some minibars have sensors that detect weight changes, and moving items in the fridge or using it for your own drinks or leftovers can trigger a minibar fee. A call to the front desk should clear this up, but check the bill closely before signing. Even better, be wary of fees before checking in. That's the time to ask about potential charges and request that superfluous fees be waived.

    Prepaid card fees. Consumers who don't want, or can't get, a bank account may turn to a prepaid debit card as an alternative. Prepaid cards are like gift cards, but many are tied to a credit card network such as Visa or MasterCard. They are accepted in the same places and can be reloaded with money. Some charge users to activate the card, reload it, and check balances, and there may be monthly maintenance fees, as well as fees every time a card is swiped. The best prepaid cards have low fees and offer ways to avoid other fees, such as setting up direct deposit to have the monthly charge waived. The Simple Dollar recommends six cards and provides tips on how to avoid fees.

     

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    USA, New Jersey, Businesswoman using laptop in office
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    By Bonnie Gayle, as told to Marianne Hayes

    In our Money Mic series, we hand over the podium to people with controversial views about money. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.

    Today, Bonnie Gayle shares how her decision not to have kids allowed her to reach career and financial success -- and why she has no regrets about it.

    Right now, most 50-somethings are cashing out their savings to send their kids to college.

    And a great deal more are paying for their kids' weddings, embracing grandkids, or supporting Millennial children who are returning to the nest.

    Me? Let's just say my life doesn't exactly fit into the typical mold.

    Many years ago, I decided to opt out of having kids so that I could devote myself to building my career and growing my income. The choice, which seems unusual to some, has brought me happiness -- and financial success.

    At 51, my bookkeeping business is netting me six figures a year, and I have all the time in the world to explore my passions and live what I think is my best life.

    Had I been on the hook for everything from diapers to tuition, there's no way I'd be enjoying my current life.

    Many women feel a natural calling to motherhood. I think that's wonderful -- the world needs as many nurturing, devoted mothers as it can get.

    I simply don't fall into that camp.

    Why I Always Knew Motherhood Wasn't for Me

    When I was about 9 years old -- and testing my mother's patience -- she uttered something most moms find themselves saying to their kids at one time or another: "I hope you have kids just like you when you grow up," she said with a laugh.

    And I remember thinking even then that I didn't want to be a mommy when I grew up.

    When I voiced this response to my own mother, she assured me that I'd change my mind when I was older.

    But I didn't.

    By the time I hit my 20s, I felt certain motherhood simply wasn't in the cards for me.

    The shorthand reason was that I just didn't feel a maternal longing to have children. What's more, my desire for independence and self-discovery seemed to outweigh the allure of having kids. I was also skittish when it came to the enormous responsibility of actually raising children.

    But I'd be lying if I said that finances didn't also play a huge role in my decision. I was brought up in a stable, middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley -- and my work ethic took shape very early on.

    As a teenager, if I wanted to hit the mall more often or have extra fun money, it meant babysitting and taking after-school jobs to pay for it. And so I started working -- and spending my earnings. And I loved it.

    As the '80s came to a close, I graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising with a degree in fashion merchandising/marketing, then spent the bulk of my 20s trying to figure out exactly what I wanted from my career.

    A gig as a personal assistant made me realize I had a knack for bookkeeping, so I started taking on my own clients. At 28, I launched my own business.

    Since then, my company has grown by leaps and bounds, requiring tons of late nights and personal sacrifices, like giving up weekends and holidays to build the business. I threw myself into it headfirst, taking on new clients, hiring and training staff, and sharpening my skills.

    Even if I'd wanted kids during this time, the logistics would have been insane.

    I also enjoyed spending time with my friends without worrying about having to get home for the kids. I could see they got so much from their families, but it was clear to me that I wouldn't get the same out of being a parent.

    All this is not to say that my decision to be kid-free didn't come with some very real personal costs.

    While I did come close to marriage a few times, I never actually pulled the trigger. I was always upfront about not wanting to have kids early on in relationships -- but the handful of serious boyfriends I had thought I'd change my mind once I fell in love, leading to heartbreak on more than one occasion.

    And although my parents don't understand my decision to not have kids, it's my being single that they're most perplexed by. My mother continues to push for me to "lower my standards" so I can find a husband.

    The truth is that I've always been open to the idea of marriage -- I just haven't found the right person.

    Why I Honestly Have Zero Regrets

    Just as I had hoped, my decision to opt out of motherhood has come with tremendous financial freedom.

    In addition to charging full steam ahead with my bookkeeping business, I've been able to invest heavily in a side project that I'm incredibly passionate about -- helping women navigate midlife hormonal changes.

    If it sounds like I didn't think much about having children, that's not the case. It wasn't a decision I made lightly. It was something that took a lot of soul searching.

    At this point, it's still a passion project that isn't yet turning a profit, but it's an investment I consider to be well worth it. If I had children to support, there's no way I could have spent that kind of money on a side business.

    Being childless has also allowed me to invest in myself on a deeper level -- things that make me happy. I love going on regular spa visits with my friends, and enjoy attending women's retreats and personal-growth seminars, which have helped me with my side business.

    As I move into my 50s, retirement is obviously something that's on my mind. One smart money move I made in 2005 was to buy a three-bedroom house in Austin. It's an investment property located in an up-and-coming area that I currently rent out to bring in extra income.

    At this point, I've set aside about $125,000 for retirement. My plan is to continue investing in my businesses for the next two years or so, at which point I'll begin funneling more money into the retirement bucket.

    In the meantime, I have very little debt (less than $1,000 on credit cards) and $10,000 in my emergency savings. And if I had to make an estimate, I'd say that my accounting business is worth between $500,000 and $750,000.

    If it sounds like I didn't think much about having children, that's not the case. It wasn't a decision I made lightly. On the contrary, it was something that took a lot of soul searching on my part.

    When I was 40, I was in a serious relationship that I thought might lead to marriage -- but he really wanted a child. So I asked myself if maybe I was being too rigid about the whole baby thing. In the end, I just couldn't justify bringing a person into this world if I wasn't all in, and the relationship ended.

    It's not that I don't like kids -- I've been blessed with wonderful children in my life. My niece and nephew are such joys, and I love spending time with them and watching them grow.

    In the end, not having children turned out to be a wise personal and financial decision that just felt right to me. I followed my heart and listened to my intuition, and I really like the person I've grown into.

    Instead of investing in a family, I've invested in myself -- and the return on that investment has been well worth it.

     

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    USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Senior woman reading letter
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    By Kimberly Lankford

    Q. I read the Big Price Hikes for Medicare Premiums in 2016 article that said some people may have to pay a 52 percent increase for Medicare Part B premiums in 2016. Who has to pay this extra amount, and is there any way I can avoid the higher premiums?

    A. Only about 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries would be on the hook for higher premiums of $159.30 a month for Part B. This includes people who don't have their Medicare premiums deducted from their Social Security benefits (because they aren't collecting Social Security benefits yet) and people who enroll in Medicare in 2016.

    However, if your Medicare premiums are withheld from your Social Security benefits and Social Security does not have a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, for 2016 because of low inflation, you will continue to pay $104.90 a month for Part B. That's because the "hold harmless" provision prohibits Social Security benefits from being reduced because of an increase in Medicare premiums. Medicare cost increases are generally covered by the Social Security COLA.

    Individuals with annual incomes over $85,000, or $170,000 for joint filers, who are not protected by the hold-harmless provision, will pay the higher base amount plus a high-income surcharge. Total monthly premiums for them could range from $223.00 to $509.80 a month, depending on the size of their income. (People who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid would not be protected by the hold-harmless provision, either, but their state Medicaid program would pay the extra premium.)

    Medicare premiums are designed to cover 25 percent of total Part B costs each year. The premium would be $120.70 in 2016 if everyone were able to pay the increase, according to the Medicare trustees' report. But if premiums are frozen for 70 percent of Medicare beneficiaries, the remaining beneficiaries would have to pay $159.30 a month. The final numbers haven't been announced yet, and about 70 Medicare, health care and retiree advocacy groups are lobbying Congress to try to get the increase reduced. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should announce the official premiums within the next few weeks.

    If you end up having to pay the higher amount, the following strategies may help you reduce your premiums.
    • If your income has dropped since 2014 because of certain life-changing events, such as divorce, death of a spouse or retirement, you may be able to ask the Social Security Administration to use your more-recent income to determine your Medicare premiums and have the high-income surcharge reduced. Otherwise, your most recent tax return on file (for 2014) will be used to set your 2016 premiums. If that brings your income below $85,000 for single filers or $170,000 for joint filers, you may be able to continue to pay $104.90 a month, assuming your Medicare premiums are deducted from your Social Security benefits. See Medicare Premiums: Rules for Higher-Income Beneficiaries for more information about contesting the high-income surcharge.
    • If you get health insurance from a current employer with 20 or more employees, you can drop Part B or delay signing up for it while you're still working. You must sign up for Medicare within eight months of leaving your job to avoid a lifetime late-enrollment penalty. If your employer has fewer than 20 employees, this may not be an option; most small employers count Medicare as primary coverage and employer insurance as secondary, which could leave you with big coverage gaps if you don't sign up for Medicare. See When to Sign Up for Medicare for more information about the rules.
    • If you sign up for Social Security before Oct. 31 and have your Medicare premiums withheld from your checks, you will pay the lower premium, says Timothy Steffen, director of financial planning for R.W. Baird & Co., a wealth-management firm. Your Medicare premiums would be withheld from your November payment, which is received in December, and you'd be eligible for the hold-harmless provision, he says.
    Don't sign up for Social Security before you're eligible for full retirement benefits (currently age 66) just to save money on Medicare premiums for one year. The early sign-up will reduce your annual benefits for the rest of your life. But if you are at least full retirement age, you could apply for benefits in 2015 and make sure your Medicare premiums are withheld from your Social Security payments, then suspend Social Security benefits after you qualify for the hold-harmless provision, Steffen says. After you suspend the benefits, you start to earn an 8 percent delayed retirement credit for every year you wait before claiming Social Security benefits between full retirement age and age 70. You would lose a portion of the delayed retirement credit for the months you were receiving your Social Security payment. See The Power of Filing and Suspending for more on this strategy.

    For more information about Social Security rules, see Best Strategies to Boost Your Social Security Benefits. For more information about Medicare, see our Guide to Getting the Most Out of Medicare, 2015.

     

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    businesswoman with glasses and team on the back
    Getty ImagesDeveloping a budget early in your career can help you take charge of your financial future.
    By Jamie Ohl

    As you start your first job, retirement can seem very far away. You may have 30 or more years in the working world ahead of you, but if you are financially able, now is the time to start saving. Establishing good financial habits now will benefit you throughout your career and into your retirement.

    There's a lot for young savers to be optimistic about. According to a recent MOOD of America survey commissioned on behalf of Lincoln Financial Group, 78 percent of millennials say they feel in control of their financial future, and 85 percent say planning for their financial future is empowering. However, 79 percent say understanding their options for retirement planning can be overwhelming.

    One of the most important things you can do is to start saving now. By committing to saving from the very beginning of your career, you can take advantage of the power of compounding interest -- which ultimately amounts to earning interest, on interest.

    Saving is personal, and every person has different financial pressures, whether it's student loan debt, car payments or rent and living expenses. But developing a budget and starting to save now can help you take charge of your financial future.

    Here are some key tips to keep in mind as you kick off your career and your retirement savings.

    See the big picture. It's easy to spend every dollar you earn at first, without putting any money away. The good news is that, according to the MOOD survey, 83 percent of millennials report saving some money from every paycheck, even if it isn't a lot. As you save, look at your overall financial picture and create a budget that includes not only your immediate needs like rent, living expenses and student loans, but also short-term and retirement savings. Taking a holistic view will help you create a realistic budget and savings plan that you can stick to.

    Leverage retirement savings plans. You may have the opportunity to enroll in your employer's 401(k) or 403(b) retirement savings plan. They may also match a portion of the savings that you put into the plan, as an incentive for you to save. If you don't take full advantage of the match, you are turning down free money. If you are able, try to contribute at least up to the amount that the company will match. By utilizing your employer-sponsored plan, you are also reducing your taxable income, so you'll owe less on April 15. If your company doesn't offer an employer-sponsored retirement plan, consider putting your savings into an individual retirement account.

    Seek education and expert advice. Your employer may work with a retirement provider that offers financial education, through one-on-one meetings with a retirement consultant, or have educational materials available online or in print. These tools can help you understand your investment options. Some plans offer automatic enrollment, deferral and contribution increases, as a way to enhance retirement outcomes for savers.

    A financial professional can help you understand the different investment options available to you, and help you understand any fees that may be associated with the offerings. Consider scheduling an initial meeting with a financial adviser to get you started. Then try to commit to at least one annual checkup to assess the health of your savings and make sure you're on the right track. The MOOD survey shows that 71 percent of millennials feel empowered when they talk to a financial professional about planning for the future.

    Think of your future first. When a big expense comes up, whether it's a down payment on a house, a new car or something else, it's tempting to borrow from your retirement savings, withdraw funds or stop saving altogether. By borrowing from your plan you could incur taxes and penalties related to not paying the loan back, and also lose out on market gains. At times like these, stay focused on your long-term goals and put your future first. Starting to save early is one of the best things you can do to improve your retirement readiness. Steady savings can help you feel confident that you can live the life you envision, through your career and into retirement.

    Results for the 2015 MOOD (Measuring Optimism, Outlook and Direction) of America poll are based on a national survey conducted by Whitman Insight Strategies on behalf of Lincoln Financial Group from March 31 to April 9, 2015 among 2,273 adults 18 years and older across the United States. The sample was weighted to reflect the proportion of adults 18 years of age or older by gender, age, region, race and Hispanic ethnicity based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.9 percent at the 95 percent confidence interval for the entire sample.

    Jamie Ohl is president of Retirement Plan Services for Lincoln Financial Group. She is responsible for the overall strategy, growth and profitability of Lincoln's Retirement Plans Services business, which is committed to partnering with intermediaries and plan sponsors to provide solutions, services and education to help plan participants retire successfully.

     

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    the netflix web site
    Alamy
    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with the world's leading premium video platform growing its reach into three European countries and a Japanese maker of air bags expanding a recall after tragic events.

    Best Buy (BBY) -- Winner

    It's going to be a competitive holiday shopping season and Best Buy has thrown down the first gauntlet. The consumer electronics retailer announced Thursday that it will offer free shipping on all orders placed starting Sunday through early next year. Best Buy's online shipping strategy has been to offer complimentary delivery only on orders of $35 or more, but now everything's eligible.

    It's not the only initiative that Best Buy is launching this weekend. The superstore chain will offer free Geek Squad setup on many of its more popular tech gifts, and it's even offering up a gift card for an hour of in-home tech setup. Its mobile app also offers the ability to have a live chat with a Best Buy employee.

    Takata Air Bags -- Loser

    It was a bad week for automakers. There were a couple of recalls as everything from a defective window switch at Toyota (TM) and a flawed ignition switch at Mazda led car giants to scramble in reclaiming their older vehicles to fix the problems.

    However, the most problematic of the recalls has to be Takata's air bags. Exploding air bags are supposedly at the root of incidents that have killed at least eight people -- and injured at least 98 -- according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

    Netflix (NFLX) -- Winner

    The leading premium video service earned a few new passport stamps this week. Netflix rolled out its online platform in Spain on Tuesday, Portugal on Wednesday and Italy on Thursday.

    International expansion is a big part of the Netflix growth story. It has added more international subscribers than domestic members for six consecutive quarters, and its forecast for the current quarter calls for a record quarter in terms of international net additions.

    Apollo Education Group (APOL) -- Loser

    Online educators keep getting schooled. University of Phoenix parent Apollo Education Group saw its stock take another dive after posting a horrendous quarterly report. Apollo fell short of Wall Street expectations, and it's hosing down its guidance.

    Enrollment continues to decline at University of Phoenix. Apollo has come under fire in the past for its marketing practices, and the effectiveness of the genre itself has been called into question.

    Sirius XM Radio (SIRI) -- Winner

    Things are going well for the lone provider of satellite radio. Sirius XM posted strong quarterly results this week. There are now 29 million total subscribers, and the strong performance finds the media giant boosting its full-year guidance for subscribers, revenue and other metrics.

    Sirius XM has been able to grow its reach over the years. Three out of every four cars rolling into showrooms these days have either a Sirius or XM receiver.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix. 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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    Cracking the Egg
    Eric Risberg/APCEO Josh Tetrick holds a species of yellow pea used to make Just Mayo, a plant-based mayonnaise, at Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco.
    By CANDICE CHOI

    NEW YORK -- The CEO of the American Egg Board has stepped down earlier than planned, following the release of emails indicating she tried to stop the sale of a vegan mayonnaise at Whole Foods Market (WFM).

    Joanne Ivy retired at the end of September. Before the release of the emails, the egg board said Ivy would retire Dec. 31.

    Ivy and representatives of the egg board, which promotes the industry and is responsible for the "Incredible, Edible Egg" slogan, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the board, confirmed Ivy's retirement but declined to comment on the reason.

    The early departure comes as the USDA investigates the egg board regarding its actions related to Hampton Creek, a San Francisco startup that makes the eggless mayonnaise alternative Just Mayo. On Sept. 2, The Associated Press reported on emails in which Ivy told a consultant that she would "like to accept your offer to make that phone call to keep Just Mayo off Whole Foods shelves."

    The request, made in 2013, wasn't successful, as Just Mayo is still sold at Whole Foods.

    'Checkoff' Programs

    The communication nevertheless raised regulatory questions because the egg board is one of about 20 "checkoff" programs overseen by the USDA, making them quasi-governmental bodies. The programs, which include the National Pork Board and the Mushroom Council, are funded by producers and supposed to be promotional.

    In a statement regarding its investigation, the USDA said it is "committed to establishing a level playing field that protects and promotes all appropriate agricultural endeavors." It said it did not "condone any efforts to limit competing products in commerce" and that its administrative review would take "some time" to complete.

    Other emails by egg board executives illustrated the alarm over the media attention being showered on Hampton Creek, which makes plant-based alternatives to eggs it says are better for the environment. Publicly, egg board executives have sought to play down the company and avoided referring to it by name. Internally, however, the board was getting advice from public relations agency Edelman on how to respond to Hampton Creek.

    In one exchange, an Edelman employee alerted the board that Hampton Creek had just challenged it to a bakeoff on Twitter. The employee advised the board not to respond.

    Insufficient Oversight

    It's not the first time checkoff programs have come under scrutiny. In 2012, the USDA's inspector general issued a report saying departmental oversight should be improved.

    The emails by egg board executives were obtained through a public records request by Ryan Noah Shapiro, a Freedom of Information Act expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his attorney, Jeffrey Light, who specializes in FOIA matters. Shapiro knows Hampton Creek co-founder Josh Balk and provided the documents to the company, which provided them to the AP.

    In the meantime, Hampton Creek is dealing with a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration saying its name violates the federal standard of identity for mayonnaise. The agency said that "mayo" is often understood to be mayonnaise, which is defined as having eggs.

    A representative for the FDA said Friday there was no update on the matter.

    Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick said the company is scheduled to speak with FDA on the matter in coming weeks, and that he hopes to "find some common ground" with the agency.

    The company has retained The Glover Park Group, which describes itself as a strategic communications and government affairs firm. Glover Park says on its website that it helps clients "develop and execute legislative and regulatory strategies to advance their goals in Washington."

     

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    amazon fire $50 tablet review
    Eric Risberg/APAmazon's $50 Fire tablet
    By ANICK JESDANUN

    NEW YORK -- The thing to remember about Amazon's new $50 Fire tablet is that it's a $50 tablet.

    It's not as light or as thin as a tablet that costs five or six times more. The camera isn't as good, and the screen isn't as sharp. But it works well as a budget device for the basics -- reading, Facebook, video and, of course, shopping on Amazon.

    Over the years, Amazon.com (AMZN) has done a good job of making tablets affordable for the masses. The new Fire tablet is Amazon's cheapest yet, joining a fall lineup that maxes out at $230 ($15 more if you want Amazon to remove ads on the lock screen). By contrast, Apple's (AAPL) iPads start at $269, ad-free.

    Of course, you get less for $50.

    The Fire started shipping again Thursday after a limited run quickly sold out, despite these trade-offs:

    • The feel: The 7-inch tablet is bulky, about two-thirds as thick as a deck of cards. This runs counter to a trend of gadgets getting thinner and thinner. But this is reasonable for budget devices, as they use older, larger components to cut costs. At 11 ounces, the tablet also feels heavy for a device that size.
    • Lower resolution: The screen is just short of displaying video in full high definition, otherwise known as 1080p. As Amazon's HDX tablets and Apple's "Retina" iPads tout super-sharp displays, the screen on the new Fire feels retro.

      Photos and video display fine. Where the lower resolution is most noticeable is with small text. When reading, some of the vertical lines in d's and l's look fat. It feels like a typewriter with metal type that hasn't been cleaned of gunk, forming misshaped letters when some of that gunk hits the ink ribbon. (For our younger readers, typewriters are machines that produce letters on paper, rather than a screen. And paper is a sheet of writing material made from trees.)
    • Taking pictures: The main camera is just 2 megapixels, compared with 5 or 8 megapixels on higher-end Amazon tablets. Photos come out fuzzy, and low-light images have plenty of color distortion. The camera's lens also isn't able to capture as much as other gadgets from the same distance. It's as though the camera has a permanent zoom. That said, most people already have smartphones with decent cameras. There's no need to pay more to duplicate technology.
    • Wi-Fi: The Fire has an older, single-band form of Wi-Fi that doesn't support the highest available speeds, technically known as the 802.11ac standard. In practice, that means signal range and data speed might be lower. But in my limited testing, the new tablet downloaded a video file faster than last year's HDX 8.9 tablet from Amazon, which has dual-band Wi-Fi, so this is hardly cut-and-dried. Many other factors affect performance, even if you have top-of-the-line technology.
    In fact, the inexpensive Fire tablet surprised me in many ways. The display has in-plane switching technology, which means it can be viewed from an angle -- twice as wide as standard screens, according to Amazon. The tablet was also fast for Web surfing, email and other common tasks. It seemed to take an extra second or two to launch video on Hulu and Netflix (NFLX), but playback was smooth once it started.

    Unlike iPads, the Fire allows you to set up multiple profiles, including ones for kids, and to establish parental limits on apps and usage time. But the Amazon tablet doesn't have anti-glare technology found in the latest iPads, nor does it have a fingerprint reader to bypass passcodes.

    Promised battery life is seven hours, which is reasonable for $50.

    And as with other Amazon devices, the Fire tablet works nicely with other Amazon services, including Kindle e-books, Audible audiobooks, Prime video streaming and e-commerce. Just swipe right from the home screen to scroll through the various services. After signing in with my Amazon account, the shopping page reminded me what type of replacement vacuum bags I need. I also found a mini plunger to deal with that nagging clogged sink in my kitchen.

    A swipe to the left gets you recently accessed content and apps, plus recommendations. It's a good way to get to frequent tasks without spending a lot of time moving around icons on the home screen. Older Amazon devices will get this feature, too, with an upcoming software update.

    The app selection isn't as robust as what's available on iPads, Android and Windows devices. Amazon tablets run a custom version of Android, and many Android apps haven't been adapted. You get many of the major ones, but not all.

    The Fire is a good option for kids. They won't complain about what's missing, and if they lose the device, it's only $50 to replace. Amazon will even sell you six for the price of five, so each family member can have one.

    I'd be highly disappointed with the Fire if its price tag were $250 or more. But it's not -- not even close.

     

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    New health law premiums available online this weekend
    Andrew Harnik/AP
    By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR

    WASHINGTON -- Premiums are expected to rise in many parts of the country as a new sign-up season under President Barack Obama's health care law starts Nov. 1. But consumers have options if they shop around, and an upgraded government website will help them compare.

    Consumers can see their own premiums for 2016 starting this Sunday night on HealthCare.gov, officials said Friday. The federal website will serve 38 states this time. States running their own sites may have different timetables.

    Online health insurance markets are entering their third year, offering taxpayer-subsidized private coverage. That's helped cut the share of Americans who are uninsured to about 9 percent, a historical low. Still, the many moving parts of the Affordable Care Act don't always click smoothly, and Americans remain divided about "Obamacare."

    Here's a look at what's new for 2016:

    Average Premium? No Such Thing

    Independent experts are forecasting bigger premium increases in 2016 than last year, averaging from the high single digits to the teens. Next week the government will release a master file that researchers use to piece together national trends.

    Averages won't tell the story, because health care is local. Premiums can vary widely from state to state, and within a state.

    Most states won't be like Minnesota, where all five carriers selling individual policies on the insurance exchange have posted double-digit hikes, from 14 percent to 49 percent.

    They're not likely to be like southern California either, where officials forecast an average rise of 1.8 percent for consumers who stay with their current plan.

    For more than 8 in 10 customers, premium increases will be cushioned by taxpayer subsidies. That will absorb most of the cost, but it still may pay to shop around.

    New Help Figuring Out Costs

    Too many consumers look only at the monthly premium when picking a plan. They shouldn't. Other costs can be just as important. These include the deductible -- the amount individuals must pay each year before their plan kicks in -- and cost-sharing or copays for medical services.

    Trying to demystify the process, HealthCare.gov will feature a new calculator that estimates total costs based on a consumer's expected medical needs.

    Tip: Even if consumers use the calculator, the website will still rank options starting with the lowest premium plan. Look below that figure for total costs.

    Patients who need medical follow-up for ongoing health issues may come out ahead by paying a higher monthly premium for a plan that has lower out-of-pocket costs. Instead of picking a plan at the "bronze" coverage level, they might look at "silver," which also offers subsidies for cost sharing, based on the consumer's income.

    Smoother Renewals?

    As before, returning customers who don't want to make any changes will get automatically re-enrolled. That process will be smoother this year, insurers say, because the government has better information to update subsidies for customers who just want to keep the same plan.

    Tip: Returning customers must make sure to file a tax return. Those who got subsidies in 2014 could lose their financial assistance next year if they have not filed.

    Some New Features Still in Testing

    Consumer advocates have been clamoring for an upgrade that allows patients to easily search for insurance plans that their doctor participates in.

    That's coming, but it may not be ready by Nov. 1, the date when consumers can start signing up.

    Administration officials say the doctor look-up -- as well as a prescription drug finder -- are in final testing. They want to be sure the information is accurate before flipping the switch.

    Tip: Trust but verify. Call doctors and insurers to check doctor and hospital listings.

    Penalty Peril

    The tax penalty for people remaining uninsured in 2016 is no slap on the wrist. It's high enough to cover several weeks of groceries.

    The fine will rise to the greater of either $695 or 2.5 percent of taxable income. That's for someone without coverage for a full 12 months. This year the comparable numbers are $325 or 2 percent of income, whichever is greater.

    Several organizations, from TurboTax to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, will be offering online tax penalty calculators. That can put a dollar figure on the trade-offs for those who are on the fence about signing up.

    Website Upgrades

    Changes for HealthCare.gov include new privacy protections. A "privacy manager" will let consumers opt out of embedded connections to third-party websites. If customers have enabled the "Do Not Track" setting on their browsers, the government will automatically honor their preferences.

    In another improvement, consumers will get real-time reminders to enter Social Security numbers and key details from immigration documents. That can head off major problems later on by helping the government quickly verify a person's identity.

    Officials say a maddening glitch that resulted in some consumers getting locked out of their accounts has been fixed. Call center operators can now help reset passwords for consumers who no longer have access to the email address they used to set up their HealthCare.gov accounts.

    Date Change

    For the third year in a row, the dates for HealthCare.gov's sign-up season have changed.

    This time, it's Nov. 1 through Jan. 31, 2016.

    Tip: For coverage to start Jan. 1, consumers must enroll by Dec. 15.

    Note: This version corrects when 2016 premiums become available to Sunday night, not Sunday morning.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK - A tech share rally drove U.S. stocks up sharply for a second day Friday as earnings from companies including Microsoft beat analyst expectations, while health care shares rebounded from recent losses.

    The gains left the S&P 500 in positive territory for the year and above its 200-day moving average for the first time since Aug. 19.

    An unexpected rate cut in China added to the positive tone for U.S. stocks, which also registered gains for the week.

    Microsoft (MSFT) shares rose 10.1 percent to $52.87, their highest in 15 years, after adjusted revenue beat expectations for the ninth quarter in a row.

    Microsoft gave the biggest boost to the three indexes, accounting for nearly a fifth of the Dow's gain and leading a strong rally in technology stocks. The S&P technology sector jumped 3 percent, leading gains among major sectors.

    Alphabet, Google's new holding company, and Amazon soared to record intraday highs after results beat expectations. Alphabet (GOOGL) ended up 5.6 percent at $719.33, while Amazon (AMZN) rose 6.2 percent to $599.03.

    Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) also jumped, with Facebook rising above $100 for the first time.

    "It's being driven by the good earnings" from a number of companies, said Giri Cherukuri, head trader at OakBrook Investments in Lisle, Illinois. That may change the view on earnings "as people sit back and evaluate."

    "Companies with big international exposure have a big drag due to forex, but looking past that, companies are doing well."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 157.54 points, or 0.9 percent, to 17,646.7, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 22.64 points, or 1.1 percent, to 2,075.15 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 111.81 points, or 2.3 percent, to 5,031.86.

    Big Weekly Gains

    For the week, the Dow rose 2.5 percent, the S&P 500 gained 2.1 percent and the Nasdaq jumped 3 percent.

    The S&P 500 is now up 0.8 percent for the year so far and up 7.1 percent for October.

    Analyst sentiment on overall third-quarter earnings has improved following the string of strong results from blue chips.

    S&P 500 earnings for the period are now expected to have declined a more modest 2.8 percent, compared with a decline of 4.9 percent forecast at the start of the reporting season, according to Thomson Reuters data.

    Among other gainers, Procter & Gamble (PG) rose 2.9 percent to $77.03 after its profit beat estimates.

    On the Downside

    Not all of the day's earnings news was upbeat, though.

    Shares of Whirlpool (WHR) dropped 8.7 percent to $145.90 after executives said currency would subtract $2.5 billion from the appliance-maker's annual revenue. Whirlpool lowered its 2015 expectations even as it posted higher-than-expected third-quarter earnings.

    Overseas, China's central bank cut interest rates for the sixth time since November in another attempt to jumpstart a slowing economy.

    NYSE advancers outnumbered decliners 1,806 to 1,252, for a 1.44-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,872 issues rose and 956 fell, for a 1.96-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The S&P 500 posted 54 new 52-week highs and 14 lows; the Nasdaq recorded 133 new highs and 65 lows.

    About 7.6 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 7.3 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    What to watch Monday:
    • The Commerce Department releases new home sales for September at 10 a.m. Eastern time
    • The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas releases its survey of manufacturing conditions in Texas for October at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to report quarterly financial results:
    • Cheesecake Factory (CAKE)
    • Hartford Financial Services (HIG)
    • Xerox (XRX)


     

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    Scary Great Ways to Save on Halloween Candy
    Halloween's almost here, and that means trick-or-treaters and lots of candy, but how do you get all those sweets without taking a big bite out of your savings? We'll show you how with these scary great ways to save this Halloween.

    First, it's important to know when to buy your candy. When it comes to this holiday, it actually pays to procrastinate. A lot of the time, stores are in such a hurry to get Christmas merchandise on the shelves that they start discounting Halloween candy before the festivities even begin. So wait to buy your treats until a day or two before the holiday to get the best prices.

    Now that you know when to shop, let's take a look at where to shop. Stay away from dollar stores and supermarkets, because when it comes to candy, their sales are not all they're cracked up to be. Pharmacies actually have tons of candy sales leading up to Halloween at rock-bottom prices, so shop there first.

    Finally, with so many candy options, it can be hard to know what to actually buy. Halloween themed treats can cost more than less festive sweets so go to the regular candy aisle and compare prices. And if you really want to stretch your penny, skip chocolate. It will cost you more than hard candies.

    When you head to the store for Halloween treats, don't let the high prices get to you. You'll see that by shopping wisely, you can scare up some savings.

    View Poll

     

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    Uneasy woman doing her accounts
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    By Dan Rafter

    The due date for your mortgage loan payment slipped past without you sending a check to your lender. Or maybe you didn't have enough money in your checking account to send an on-time payment to your credit card provider.

    Don't panic. Your financial misstep might not hurt your credit score just yet.

    Missed payments are a sure way to send your three-digit credit score plummeting by as many as 100 points. This financial mistake will remain on your credit report for seven years.

    But late payments aren't immediately reported to the three national credit bureaus of Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Often, lenders and credit providers won't report missed payments until they are at least 30 days late. This means that even if you miss your initial due date, you can still avoid a hit to your credit score by paying before 30 days pass. But first consider these variables.

    Late Isn't Always 'Officially' Late

    Whitney Fite, president of Angel Oak Home Loans in Atlanta, said that most mortgage loans today come with a 15-day grace period. Your mortgage might be due on the first of the month, but lenders won't assess a late fee unless you fail to pay by the 15th of the month. This late fee will vary by the size of your loan, but could be about $100.

    Credit card companies will also charge late fees if you miss your payment. Those fees vary, but what might hurt more is when your card provider increases your interest rate to the penalty rate. Under rules spelled out in the Credit CARD Act of 2009, your card provider can impose a penalty interest rate if you become more than 60 days late on your payment. These penalty rates are a true punishment, often running as high as 29 percent.

    But as long as you pay your mortgage, auto loan, or credit card payment within 30 days of its due date, most lenders won't report a missed payment to the credit bureaus. This means that your credit score itself will not be harmed.

    Fite warns that you need to be careful when paying after the official due date on auto loans, mortgages, or credit card payments. If you wait too long to send in your check, you might be tempting fate and you might find yourself facing a late fee or credit hit after all.

    "It can be a dangerous game to squeeze out a few extra days with the grace period," Fite said. "Any delay by the mail carrier could result in the lender receiving the payment after the 15th and late fees being assessed."

    Actually Late Can Hurt, However

    If you can, be sure to send in that payment before the 30-day grace period ends. A single reported missed payment can lower your score by 100 points or more, especially if you had a relatively unblemished credit history before your missed payment.

    You don't want a low credit score. Lenders today rely on these three-digit scores to determine how much interest you'll pay on loans and credit cards. If your score is too low, you won't even qualify for loans or credit.

    Lenders consider a FICO credit score of 740 or higher to be a strong one. If your FICO score is under 640, you might struggle to qualify for loans or credit cards, and when you do qualify, you can expect to pay high interest rates on the money you borrow.

    Some missed payments are more damaging to your score than others.

    "Recent late payments on mortgages are more damaging than late payments on other consumer loans," Fite said.

    Unwanted Calls

    You might not have to be 30 days late to begin receiving unwanted collection calls, too. Fite said that some lenders will begin making collection calls shortly after the first of the month. He said that almost all mortgage lenders will begin calling about missed payments on the 10th or 12th of the month.

    So if you don't want to hear from collection agencies? Make those payments on or before your due date. And it goes without saying that paying your bills on time -- every time -- is always the best policy.

    How do you stay on top of your bills -- and on time?

     

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  • 10/23/15--22:00: 4 Investing Rules to Live By
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    business man hand holding a...
    Shutterstock
    By Kathy Kristof

    1. Diversify. Stocks, bonds, cash, real estate and other investments provide varying rewards: Some protect against inflation, and others provide the growth or income you might need for specific goals. Plus, their prices move at different speeds and, sometimes, in opposite directions. Owning something in each investment category allows you to take reasonable risks without producing unreasonable volatility for your portfolio. Likewise, you should diversify within each category.

    2. Rebalance. The normal (and sometimes abnormal) moves of any given investment category can derail your well-thought-out plans if you fail to rebalance regularly. Rebalancing requires nothing more complicated than reviewing your investments annually to make sure that the percentages you hold in each investment class (and sometimes in each specific investment) have not strayed wildly from your original goals. Then, you sell investments that have performed relatively well and use the proceeds to invest in relative laggards.

    3. Dollar-cost average. Another simple and effective way to buy low is to put your investments on autopilot by subscribing to a dollar-cost-averaging plan. Dollar-cost averaging simply means that you invest the same amount of money in the same investments on a regular basis. If you're contributing to a 401(k) plan, you're already practicing dollar-cost averaging. If you receive a windfall, averaging keeps you from putting all of your money into an investment at an inopportune time and forces you to bravely keep buying even if the market tumbles.

    4. Keep costs down. It's hard to gauge ahead of time what your investments will earn. But investment costs are something you know in advance and can control. For starters, you can save money on brokerage commissions by using an online discount broker, such as Fidelity, E-Trade (ETFC), Schwab (SCHW) or TD Ameritrade (AMTD). If you're okay with just earning a market's return, buy index mutual funds from firms such as Vanguard and Fidelity; many of their index funds charge just 0.1 percent or so a year. If you prefer active management, give extra credit to funds with below-average fees. The Kiplinger 25, the list of our favorite mutual funds, is a good place to start.

     

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    DIY Home Security

    By Marilyn Lewis

    How secure is your castle?

    If you are unsure, there is some good news: There are several easy, no-tech ways to improve your home's security for free, or next to nothing.

    Remember, the most effective improvements are the ones that persuade a burglar to move on to the next guy's home.

    1. Enlist local police. Local police departments typically will send a trained officer to your home to do a walk-through with you, pointing out your vulnerabilities and suggesting simple fixes.

    Also, check your police department's website for crime statistics and tips. For example, here is the Los Angeles Police Department's detailed list of home-security tips for residents.

    Finally, remember to alert police when you'll be out of town so they can keep a watch over your home.

    2. Chat up the neighbors. Join the local Neighborhood Watch program or start one. Chatting with neighbors updates you on local crime problems and enlists allies who'll watch your home while you're away. Neighbors are terrific watchdogs.

    3. Use your locks. Even if your neighborhood feels safe, make locking up a habit. Burglars often test a home by knocking on a door and, if no one answers, opening it. Keep every exterior door and window locked, including the door between the garage and house.

    4. Pretend you have a dog. Getting a dog is a great security move. But if you can't, pretend to have one. Buy a couple of "Beware of Dog" signs at a hardware store and put them up. When a stranger is at the door, make a show of putting the "dog" in the other room before you open the door.

    5. Keep your home looking theft-proof. Appearances count, especially when you are trying to keep burglars away. So keep your place looking lived in. Rotate lights on timers when you're gone. Ask the post office to hold your mail, reschedule expected deliveries, and get friends to drop by randomly to water plants or just walk around.

    Also, make cosmetic changes to your home that will deter thieves. Remember that bushy trees and shrubs provide cover for bad deeds. Keep the foliage well-trimmed. Paste a local security company's sticker on your front window.

    6. Use your head. Don't open the door -- and don't let kids open the door -- to uninvited strangers. Stay home when workers are in or around your home.

    Don't put keys in obvious places like fake rocks and under pots and doormats. Train children (especially teens) to keep key locations, alarm codes and other family security information private from their friends.

    Have you tried installing any of these or other improvements in your home? Sound off in our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth, and post questions and get answers.

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

     

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    Senior Man Using Laptop At Home
    Getty ImagesYour other retirement funds could be affected by the loss of a Social Security COLA.
    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    For only the third time in 40 years, Social Security recipients won't be getting a bump in their monthly benefits.

    Actually, David Leland, a managing director with Merrill Lynch in Boston, says the last eight years have been rough for Social Security beneficiaries. Since 2008, the total of all cost-of-living adjustments, known as COLA, has been 14.3 percent. Those years include all three times when there was no increase in monthly payments.

    For comparison, from 1975 to 1982, the first eight years COLAs were offered, Social Security recipients received increases totaling 69.6 percent.

    Social Security COLAs are tied to the Consumer Price Index, which dropped 0.2 percent in September. In theory, that means the cost-of-living for Americans should be going down slightly as well. However, the price of gasoline weighs heavily into the index calculation, a cost that doesn't affect retirees as much as medical costs which is expected to trend upward by 6.5 percent in 2016, according to PwC's Health Research Institute.

    Leland says it's a perfect storm that has potential to seriously impact people living on a fixed income. "Think of the senior citizen on a tight budget," he says. "They're getting a 0 percent COLA, nearly 0 percent interest on savings and health care expenses are taking off."

    Regardless of whether you have a tight budget, here are three ways the loss of a Social Security COLA might affect you next year.

    1. Your Social Security benefits will remain flat for 2016. The most obvious impact of having no COLA is that Social Security benefits for 2016 will remain the same as the benefits in 2015.

    Willie Schuette, a national Social Security adviser and financial coach with the JL Smith Group in Avon, Ohio, tries to put a positive spin on the situation: "Recipients of Social Security don't have a benefit loss, even though the [Consumer Price Index] has dropped."

    Still, it isn't welcome news for those who may have been planning to use a cost-of-living increase to offset rising medical bills or other expenses. Sharon Miller, a managing director for Merrill Edge, says retirees may be tempted to pull additional money from their other retirement accounts to compensate, but they should exercise caution. "Make sure, as a very general rule, you're not drawing down more than 4 percent of your assets every year," she says.

    Taking too much out of retirement accounts could mean you don't have enough cash to last through your later years.

    2. Your Medicare premiums could go up. The loss of the Social Security COLA also means some Medicare beneficiaries could see their Part B premiums increase 52 percent next year.

    Normally, all Medicare beneficiaries see their premiums increase each year. However, a provision of the law states if there is no Social Security COLA, then premiums cannot be increased for those who have them deducted from their Social Security benefits. That means about 70 percent of Medicare beneficiaries will see their Part B premiums remain at $105 a month next year.

    However, someone has to pay for increasing Medicare costs, and that means the remaining 30 percent of beneficiaries -- those who aren't yet receiving Social Security benefits or who pay their Medicare premiums out-of-pocket -- need to cover the expense. "New recipients into Medicare [next year] are going to bear the brunt of that increase," Schuette says. Their premiums will be $159 a month in 2016.

    You could avoid the increase by applying for Social Security now before the premium increase goes into effect, but financial planners say don't be hasty. "It looks like a one-year event, not a five- or 10-year event," Leland says. "Don't confuse a short-term Medicare decision with a long-term Social Security decision."

    In other words, the Social Security COLA could return in a year, and that will level the playing field for Medicare premiums. In that case, the 70 percent who had flat premiums in 2016 will see their premiums increase in 2017, while the remaining 30 percent could see their premiums drop.

    However, by applying for Social Security now, you could lock in a lower rate of monthly benefits than you would otherwise get. "We're telling people to be very careful," Leland says. "If you change your Social Security election now, it's possible you could cost yourself tens of thousands of dollars later."

    3. Your other retirement funds could be affected. Finally, the loss of a Social Security COLA could impact your other retirement accounts as well. Some pensions may tie their cost-of-living adjustments to the one approved for Social Security.

    Miller says it's not just retirees who should be paying attention to this issue either. "This doesn't only impact people going into retirement," she says. There is speculation the lack of a COLA means the IRS will keep contribution caps on 401(k)s and IRAs the same as this year, limiting workers' ability to save more in tax-advantaged retirement plans.

    While it's possible Congress could step in and find money for a COLA, Schuette says it'd be best to not hold your breath. "[Congress] can do whatever they want," he says, "but they've never come in and added to it [in the past]."

    Unfortunately, the only thing for some retirees to do may be to stay close to home in 2016 and cut expenses wherever they can.

    Maryalene LaPonsie is freelance writer who has been reporting on personal finance, retirement, higher education and insurance for more than seven years. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, circle her on Google Plus or check out her personal website at The Mighty Widow.

     

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    You've been great about saving and not going on a spending spree, but every now and then, it'd be nice to loosen the budget belt a little. Ever feel that way? It's healthy. In fact, some experts say that splurging or spending freely on something you don't need can be good for you.

    Financial expert Kyle Winkfield put it this way:

    "When you splurge responsibly, it's like a successful diet with built-in cheat days. With any great budget that's successful, you build in a splurge. It's your cheat day."

    So, can you cheat with a splurge and not blow your budget completely? If you plan for the splurge with a "fun money" account and stay within your budget limits, it's doable. Everyone has the urge to splurge, especially as the holidays approach. Nevertheless, smart spending is still within your grasp. Read on to find out how to splurge on a budget.

    1. Use Credit Card Rewards

    Using the money you've already spent to buy a little something extra is genius. "If your credit card offers rewards, check your statement and add up the available rewards points," said consumer finance expert and Freedom Financial Network vice president of sales and Phoenix operations, Kevin Gallegos. "Visit the rewards website -- your splurge area -- to see what you can get by converting rewards into gifts, cash or gift cards."

    People with cash-back credit cards typically earn about $25 a month in rewards, estimated one 2010 study. And if you use your card for reimbursed business travel and expenses, you might earn a nice-sized reward for your purchases.

    Especially nice are the cards that offer discounts to your favorite stores, like Chase's Amazon.com Rewards Visa Card. It rewards you 3 percent cash back at Amazon.com. Redeem your points, and you can fund some holiday shopping and pick up a little something extra for yourself, too.

    But don't go into credit card debt by getting a credit card for the sole purpose of earning points; only get a new cash-back credit card if you don't have any credit card debt and you can pay off the monthly balance.

    2. Go Big After a Little Research

    If you've saved your splurge money for a big-ticket item like a TV or laptop, practice smart spending. "You'll be able to score the best deals on major items with good research," Gallegos said. "If you are choosing a high-dollar item, check reputable online review sources like Amazon and CNET. Then, use comparison-shopping sites such as PriceGrabber, Pronto or Shopping.com to find the best online prices. Finally, search for coupon codes online at sites, including RetailMeNot, FatWallet and DiscountCodes."

    Comparison shopping alone can save you significant dollars. PriceBlink, a browser add-on, alerts you as you online shop if there's a lower price available elsewhere on the web. Sites such as Offers.com track product pricing over time, which "can help you decide if the splurge is a good one," said Offer.com's Kerry Sherin. Add a coupon code, and you could save even more on your splurge. Coupon code offers can range from free shipping to 25 percent or more off purchases. For purchases more than $100, that 25 percent can add up to significant savings.

    To really amp up the savings, however, fill your virtual shopping cart with your intended purchase and abandon the sale. Many online retailers will email you a discount offer for the abandoned items to nudge you to make the purchase.

    3. Spend Money on Small Items

    Control the urge to splurge on items you can't afford by buying small items that feel splurge-worthy. "To gain the feeling of purchasing something special, do so on little things," said Gallegos. "Maybe it's purchasing a $5 bar of handmade soap, a small amount of an expensive spice for holiday baking, a top-quality chocolate bar or a craft beer."

    Benjamin Glaser, features editor at DealNews.com, added, "Smaller luxuries can still make a big difference in how you feel. Fine cosmetics, bed linens, good razor blades, and yes, quality toilet paper, are all affordable treats that will leave you feeling like a million bucks."

    When you're working toward achieving long-term budgeting goals, splurging can take a back seat. But buying a little something that makes you feel special can diffuse the feeling of "I never have any fun!" that could lead to a big budget blowout later. Even personal finance guru Dave Ramsey agreed. "When buying stuff that you really need, it's okay to spend a little extra to avoid financial, or even physical, pain in the long run," Ramsey wrote on his blog.

    4. Buy Experiences Instead of Material Things

    Research cited in The Wall Street Journal suggests that people are happier when they spend money on experiences rather than material goods. According to San Francisco State University associate professor Ryan Howell, "people think that experiences are only going to provide temporary happiness, but they actually provide both more happiness and more lasting value."

    An evening with friends, a vacation with family or a date night with a spouse all count as experiential splurges with a high return on happy memories. And, these experiences don't need to derail your budget.

    So, splurge on taking a day off to spend with your family, planning a special holiday dinner with loved ones or attending a concert to see your favorite band. As an added bonus, another study -- this one published in PsychologicalScience.org -- found that just the anticipation of the experience can be more exciting than buying a material item.

    5. Buy at the Right Time

    Many experts say certain months offer better deals on some products. For example, some of the best things to buy in October include air conditioning units, a new car and outdoor equipment. If your practice smart spending and buy your splurge item when it's at its lowest price, you'll probably feel better about spending the money.

    For an everyday example, let's say you're itching to splurge on a fancy homemade dinner. With some pre-planning, you can usually buy what you need to make the meal more without spending a lot and still feel like you're treating yourself. According to TheGroceryGame.com CEO, Teri Gault, holiday sales at grocery stores offer an average of 67 percent savings on steaks, whole rib roasts, shrimp, lobster and champagne. She said December is a great time to stock up on all these items so you'll have them handy year-round for your next meal splurge.

    Sticking to a budget doesn't have to mean you deprive yourself every day. Allow yourself a cheat day every now and then to stay on track. Just plan for your splurge, make it proportional to your budget, don't go on spending sprees, and you'll avoid morning-after regrets and overspending fallout.

    This story, 5 Ways to Splurge on a Budget, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Getty Images
    By Emily Lugg

    Eating out can be bad for your waistline and put a dent in your bank account. There's no doubt that heading to the nearest restaurant is more convenient and can be less stressful than getting a home-cooked meal on the table, but it should be saved as a treat, not a daily occurrence. Here are a few suggestions that can help you fight the urge to dine out.

    Plan ahead. This seems like it should go without saying, but the No. 1 way to avoid a last-minute trip to the drive-thru is to plan ahead. Devise menus, go grocery shopping and do the necessary prep work well before dinner time. These tasks can be accomplished a couple of weeks or even months ahead, or as last-minute as the day before. Try putting a dry-erase board or chalkboard in the kitchen to write out the week's menu for the whole family to see.

    Use a slow cooker. Set it and forget it. There are an endless number of slow-cooker recipes that require little preparation and can be ready to eat the minute you walk in the door. It's one of the simplest ways to cook and removes the guesswork from the inevitable question, "What's for dinner?" Pulled chicken, for example, is as effortless as putting chicken breasts and broth in a slow cooker until the meat is moist and falling apart. With a little barbecue sauce and a few buns, you've prepared quick, easy and tasty pulled chicken sandwiches that will help eliminate thoughts of eating out.

    Keep it easy. Choose meals to make at home that have the fewest ingredients as possible. This will not only make grocery shopping simpler and less expensive, but will expedite cooking and make it harder to abandon plans to dine at home. Start with BLTs, omelets, or spaghetti and meatballs.

    Make double. Every time you cook, make twice as much. Put some in the refrigerator to have for lunch throughout the week or freeze the extra to have for dinner weeks or even months down the road. When freezing soup or a casserole, consider freezing the meal in individual servings. This makes it easy to pull out as many servings as needed at one time for a quick meal option.

    Eat before leaving. When headed out to meet friends, grab a bite at home first. You'll still partake in the social aspect of going out with friends, but ordering just a small appetizer or cup of soup avoids the hefty bill and calorie count in an entire restaurant meal.

    Carry snacks. Out doing errands all day and starving? There will be an endless number of fast food and carry-out restaurants along the way. But keeping a few snacks in the glove compartment, purse, briefcase or backpack can buy time until you get home to eat.

    Splurge a little. Sometimes convenience is worth paying for. Specialty ingredients, individual servings and the like all cost a little more at the grocery store, but the cost is almost always less than dining out at a restaurant.

    Set a cash budget. Each week, designate a certain amount of money, in cash, for eating out. Once it's gone, it's gone. This money should include paying for that iced cappuccino on the way to work; the baked good grabbed after lunch; and the milkshake after dinner. While these extras seem small at the time, they add up quickly when indulged frequently.

    Replicate faves at home. When craving the lo mein from your favorite Chinese restaurant, try making it at home. The Internet is a never-ending source of recipes and restaurant "hacks" that can get a home cook close to the real thing. Sure, this may be more labor intensive, but will no doubt be healthier and ultimately cheaper.

    Cut out some of the work. If part of what is unappealing about home-cooked meals is all the work, find short cuts wherever possible. Try using disposable utensils and plates as a start -- if the whole dinner table can be swept into the recycling bin afterward, it may be less stressful to eat in. While this may seem costly (in resources and money), it's cheaper than restaurant food and may produce less waste than a fast food meal.

     

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    Which Debt to Pay: Lowest Balance or Highest Rate?

    By Brandon Ballenger

    The average American household debt is $15,706, and $7,327 of it comes from credit cards alone, Nerdwallet found this year in an analysis of government data and other statistics. About 44 percent of those polled pay off their card balances monthly (good for them!), which leaves the other 56 percent holding some expensive debt.

    Taboo topic. While people have a hard time dealing with debt, they also have a hard time talking about it. A poll by CreditCards.com found that Americans would rather discuss their salary, weight, politics or religion with a stranger. They found the only topic of discussion rivaling debt as a taboo was "details of your love life," with only 19 percent willing to discuss.

    And if people can't talk about debt, maybe that's why research shows most of us take the wrong (or at least more expensive) approach to paying it back -- paying off the smallest accounts first. There's a more cost-effective way to do it, as we'll explain, but both approaches require one common element: motivation. If you aren't going to make consistently paying down debt a priority, you lose out regardless of strategy. So while there is a clear, mathematically correct approach to dealing with debt, it's important to do what works best for you. Here are the two common approaches:

    Prioritizing high-interest accounts. In this model, you make the minimum payment on every debt except the one with the highest interest rate, which is the one costing you the most money over time. For that debt, you throw in whatever you can regularly afford beyond the minimum until it's paid off.

    Once that debt's gone, your debt-paying budget stays the same -- you just shift the higher payment to the debt with the next-highest interest rate, and go on down the line.

    The obvious advantage to this model is you save the most money possible over the long term. The downside: Progress may appear to be slower than it actually is. Having a large number of debts may feel more stressful even though you're paying down the debts in the most effective way to eliminate them.

    Paying off low balances first. As with the first model, you pay the minimum on all but one debt and "snowball" the payments from one debt to the next as they disappear. The difference here is that you focus on the smallest debts, allowing you to knock accounts off the list faster.

    The advantage? Having fewer accounts to juggle feels good. It's a result we can easily see: Balances shifting downward is not as impressive or obvious as a big zero. Some people need that to stay motivated. Unfortunately, this means you're actually making slower progress on your overall debt because those big-interest accounts are accruing.

    New research at Texas A&M University finds that paying off low balances first (described below) may help build motivation, although the subject needs more study, the authors say.

    "[I]ndividuals increase their performance in tedious tasks when those tasks are broken down and put in ascending rather than descending order," they write.

    Is all this hard to visualize? Imagine it this way: You're trying to bail out your sinking ship, but a bunch of creditors are standing behind you with little kiddie beach pails, pouring more water in. While it may feel good to turn and shove those guys off your boat right away, there's a jerk with a huge bucket standing -- and grinning -- at the other end of the ship. You really ought to run and tackle him first.

    How to decide on the best approach. The fact is, the bucket sizes are different for everybody. We all have different situations, with a number of debts of varying sizes and interest rates, and with different income levels. Fortunately, there's a much more concrete way to figure out how to handle debt that works for everybody. Being able to plug your specific numbers in and see how much money you lose by flipping between the two methods can help decide.

    Check out Unbury.me, a clean and easy-to-use calculator that can test both methods with your input. You can add as many loan balances as you want and you'll get back a graph and payment breakdown, along with total interest paid and a debt-free date. You only have to plug the numbers in once, and you can switch between "Avalanche" (high-interest style) and "Snowball" (low-balance style) with one click. Try your numbers and see what makes sense to you.

    Need more debt help? Check out a step-by-step guide to debt strategy, or how to find free or low-cost non-profit credit counseling. Also, Money Talks News has partnered with Debt.com, which offers trustworthy debt management services for a fee. Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson has written the book on debt ($6 to $11 on Amazon) that's helped hundreds of people. It's called Life or Debt.

    -Marilyn Lewis contributed to this post.

    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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    Greed
    Getty ImagesYou can be happy and frugal at the same time.
    By John Schmoll

    Many people often confuse frugality with being cheap. It's an understandable thought, as their definitions share similarities. Both traits are considered economical. Both want items at a lower price. Both want to use as few resources as possible. The end result in many of these situations is saving money.

    There is, however, a key difference. We all love to save money, but it's the approach taken that makes all the difference. It's this difference that separates someone who is frugal from someone who is considered cheap. So, before you confuse a frugal person with someone who likes to be cheap, take a look at some of the following traits.

    1. Frugal people take a macro-level view of finances. I've found that most frugal individuals often take a big picture view of their money. Yes, they're concerned with what they might spend on a certain item. That's a given for a frugal person. The amount spent isn't the determining factor of the spending decision, however. The determining factor is the value the item will bring into their lives.

    For example, if there is a certain hobby they enjoy, they will spend the money necessary to enjoy that item. They won't cut every corner; they will get value because they'll derive value out of what the item will add to their lives. On the other hand, someone who is cheap will simply look to spend as little money as possible. While understandable, cheapness misses the bigger picture for the sake of saving a few dollars.

    2. Frugal people look at quality. Similar to taking a macro level view of finances, frugal people look for quality. They also realize quality might mean spending a little more to get it. The simple reason is spending a little more, in the beginning, will mean less money spent in the long run. Not only does this desire to spend on quality mean less money spent overall, but it also means less waste -- another hallmark of frugality.

    3. Frugal people don't steal. When was the last time you were at a restaurant and saw someone grab a bunch of extra napkins or sauce packets and thought the person was frugal. We've all seen it happen. Perhaps we've even been guilty of it at times.

    This isn't frugality; it's theft. While it may help you save some money in the long run, it's not worth the hassle or embarrassment to a frugal person. You're betraying your values, which are worth more than money.

    4. Frugal people look at time. A frugal person is keenly aware of the time spent on an item or task. A cheap person, on the other hand, forgets about the aspect of time and looks simply at the money saved. For example, when was the last time you heard someone brag about buying gas for ten cents less a gallon than you did?

    That might sound great, on the surface, until they tell you it took them 20 minutes to drive across town to get the savings. A frugal person sees that 20 minutes and extra few dollars as a waste. They'd rather spend their time on something that brings greater value than chasing savings.

    5. Frugal people splurge on occasion. Splurging on an item sounds like it might be contrary to a frugal mindset. It really isn't. In fact, it's a key part of frugality. Frugality is concerned with value, not being so miserly that you never have anything you want.

    A frugal person is going to order their spending to get something they want, even if it's seemingly expensive. Whether that be a nice vacation, a certain brand name or more expensive and healthier food, a frugal person is going to adjust spending to allow for that splurge.

    The bottom line is that frugal people are not overly worried about money. Frugal people simply want to make money work for them in the best way possible. They want their money to grow. They want to receive quality for their spending. They want more time to do the things they enjoy and they use wisdom to accomplish those things.

    Frugality and cheapness are often confused. That's understandable. Before you confuse frugality with being cheap, look at the kind of life the person is living and the value they're receiving from it.

    John Schmoll is the founder of Frugal Rules, a finance blog that regularly discusses investing, budgeting and frugal living. He is a father, husband and veteran of the financial services industry who's passionate about helping people find freedom through frugality.

     

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    Inside The Microsoft Corp. Windows 10 Devices Event
    John Taggart/Bloomberg via Getty Image
    From the country's largest software developer making another big bet on hardware to the leading premium coffeehouse chain pouring out its latest quarterly results, here are some of the things that will help shape the week that lies ahead on Wall Street.

    Monday -- Beneath the Surface

    Microsoft (MSFT) has seen its once dominant market position in computing challenged in recent years. Folks are shifting to smartphones and tablets, categories in which Microsoft's Windows is a distant third to iOS and Android.

    It hopes to change things with the arrival Monday of Surface Pro 4. The high-end tablet with its slick keyboard aims to eliminate the need for owning both a laptop and an iPad. Access to run Windows 10 means that users can run Office, desktop apps and other Windows programs.

    Some of Microsoft's partners may not like seeing the software giant grow its presence in hardware, but it's the right move. Initial reviews are positive, but save up: Surface Pro 4 starts at $899.

    Tuesday -- An Apple a Day

    We're in the heart of earnings season and that finds the world's most valuable consumer tech company reporting after Tuesday's market close. Apple (AAPL) has a lot to prove. Will it offer up more concrete sales metrics for the Apple Watch line it rolled out earlier this year? How much longer can the iPhone carry the company?

    Apple remains a market darling, but investors will want to make sure that it's succeeding without sacrificing margins.

    Wednesday -- Red Is the New Green for YouTube

    The top site for video clips launches a premium platform Wednesday. YouTube Red is a new membership that lets subscribers enjoy the site without ads. It also allows subscribers to download clips for offline viewing and have access to YouTube Music.

    At $9.99 a month it will be a hard sell for folks who are used to enjoying Alphabet's (GOOG, GOOGL) YouTube for free, but it could succeed with folks wanting a premium experience with extra perks.

    Thursday -- Java Nice Day

    We can get back on track with earnings season Thursday with Starbucks (SBUX) brewing fresh financials. Shares of the top dog in premium coffee hit new all-time highs last week ahead of Thursday's report.

    Things have gone well for Starbucks. It seems as if there's always expansion space for the chain to take up, and store-level sales continue to be positive. Starbucks has turned a simple beverage into a luxury product. You don't see that very often.

    Friday -- Room Service

    Choice Hotels (CHH) wraps up a busy week of earnings reports -- and the last trading day of October -- with its own updated financials. This is the hotelier behind Comfort Inn, EconoLodge, Rodeway Inn and several other value-priced lodging establishments.

    It's a good time to be a hotel operator. The economy's holding up, and that encourages business travel. Gas prices are cheap, and that naturally makes it easier to justify a road trip. Wall Street's ready to check in. Analysts see revenue and earnings per share climbing in the high single digits.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares), Apple, and Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days, and click here to check out our free report for one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Earns Fedex
    Mark Lennihan/AP
    By Nick Carey

    CHICAGO -- Package delivery company FedEx (FDX) said Monday that it expects to see a record number of shipments during this year's busy holiday season, driven by rising retail sales and a jump in e-commerce.

    The Memphis-based company said it expects to handle 317 million shipments between Black Friday, traditionally the busiest U.S. shopping day of the year, and Christmas Eve, an increase of 12.4 percent over the previous year.

    "Each year we face a challenge that's greater and that's driven by e-commerce," Patrick Fitzgerald, FedEx senior vice president for integrated marketing and communications told Reuters. "We've learned that planning and preparation is key."

    The National Retail Federation has predicted retail sales in November and December -- excluding automobiles, fuel and restaurant sales -- will increase 3.7 percent to $630.5 billion after a 4.1 percent increase last year. The NRF said online retail sales could increase up to 8 percent, to as much as $105 billion.

    FedEx said that it expects to see three spikes in package volumes during peak season, on Cyber Monday and the first two Mondays in December. The company said its holiday projections are included in its full-year fiscal 2016 earnings guidance of between $10.40 and $10.90 a share.

    The rapid rise of e-commerce poses challenges for retailers and package delivery companies alike. In 2013 bad weather and a late surge in online retail packages caught FedEx and main rival United Parcel Service (UPS) off guard, leaving an estimated 2 million packages undelivered on Christmas Eve, the majority in UPS' network.

    Last year both companies touted investments in their networks and close collaboration with major retailers to manage package flows during the holidays. UPS ended up over-spending to prepare for package volume spikes that didn't materialize, hurting its fourth-quarter earnings. FedEx didn't report any problems.

    This year FedEx has invested $1.6 billion in capacity and automation projects at FedEx Ground to help with peak season.

    FedEx's Fitzgerald said that if retailers come in way above forecast with a sudden surge in packages, the company may "need to cap volumes" in order to protect its network.

     

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