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    NEW YORK (AP) -- An independent retailer may not look like the cutting edge of technology, but these small businesses increasingly turn to apps and sophisticated software to connect with customers.

    Small retailers use high-tech innovations to build relationships with customers; they often can't compete with big chains on prices, so they aim at better, individualized service. Some of the technology is designed for smaller companies, while some retailers find ways to turn a widely-used computer program or app to their advantage. They're also able to implement technology faster than many giant retailers because they're not operating hundreds or thousands of stores.

    "Using technology enables the small business to cater to a customer's needs," says Michael Moeser, a retailing executive with Javelin Strategy & Research, a consulting company based in Pleasanton, California.

    One example: an app called Belly that lets shoppers accumulate rewards points at thousands of small businesses. It helps create an emotional connection between the store and shopper, Moeser says.

    Another app called Dolly helps a retailer arrange for merchandise to be picked up from a store and quickly delivered to a customer, saving the shopper from lugging home big packages.

    More ways that small retailers use technology:


    Some small retailers sell on online marketplaces that specialize in one type of merchandise. The sites are similar to Etsy, the marketplace that focuses on goods like jewelry and clothes made by artisans.

    Cream City Music sells more than 1,800 items from guitar picks to vintage instruments on, a musical equipment marketplace. The retailer began selling on two years ago.

    "People on that website are specifically looking for (musical) products," says owner Brian Douglas, whose company is based in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

    Cream City Music has a brick-and-mortar store and a website, but wants to take advantage of any sales opportunity it can. It's getting results, Douglas says. Sales from are growing by double digit percentages each month.


    Soon after online shoppers land on the websites for O'Neill Clothing and Metal Mulisha, the retailers' software starts suggesting products to buy. The recommendations aren't random; the software, a computer program called Reflektion, finds out where the shopper is located, and a few clicks on surf or motorbike clothes tells the system enough to start suggesting more merchandise. The more a customer clicks, the more information the system gathers, and the more likely O'Neill and Metal Mulisha are to make a sale, says Daniel Neukomm, CEO of the retailers' parent, Irvine, California-based La Jolla Group.

    The software is more advanced than programs on other sites that make suggestions based on a shopper's order history, Neukomm says. If a shopper is looking at garments designed as active wear rather than fashion, the software will take that into account. If someone from Wisconsin visits the site, the software is likely to suggest hoodies rather than surfing shorts.

    The number of visits to O'Neill and Metal Mulisha that result in sales has increased 25 percent because of the software. The more time a shopper spends on the sites, the more likely the program is to select an item a customer will buy, Neukomm says.

    "Like a good wine, it gets better with age," he says.


    Tara Mikolay and her sales staff send hundreds of individual texts to her jewelry store's customers each week. About half lead to a purchase.

    Mikolay, owner of Desires by Mikolay in Chappaqua, New York, tailors each text to a particular customer, sending reminders to husbands about their wives' upcoming birthdays and including photos with suggestions about what they might buy. She texts women customers with photos of new merchandise that fit their style.

    While individual texts are labor-intensive, they're more effective than mass texting would be, Mikolay says. Even when a customer doesn't immediately make a purchase, they're likely to buy when the next big occasion like an anniversary comes around.

    "I could place full-page ad in a newspaper, but my chances for making a sale are next to none," she says. "But I spend time manually doing texting and get great results. It's a no-brainer.


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    Real estate agent shaking hands with couple

    By Cathie Ericson

    For many, buying a home can feel like childbirth: It's incredibly painful in the moment, but all is forgotten once you take delivery of that new (split-level) bundle of joy.

    Others, however, recall every excruciating detail-even some 10 years later.

    Regardless of what specifically you remember about the last time you bought a home, if you're planning to jump back into the market, there are some key changes you should know about.

    Don't worry-there's good stuff in store, like the fact that the mortgage process has gotten a bit easier to manage.

    So if a new home is on your wish list for the new year, we're giving you the 101 on three programs that may help make the home-buying journey less bumpy,

    The 101 on ... "Know Before You Owe" Mortgage Disclosure Docs

    With all the rules and regulations that typically come into play, it goes without saying that it can be tricky-and frankly overwhelming-to navigate the mortgage process.

    A 2014 study from Discover Home Loansfound that although 87% of respondents were confident that they could get a mortgage, fewer than half had calculated their down payment. And only 51% even knew what their projected monthly mortgage payment would be.

    But new mortgage-disclosure forms introduced on October 3 by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) should help make the mortgage process a bit more transparent.

    The Details: You'll now have more information-and more time to review it-thanks to these three new forms that would-be buyers receive:

    Your Home Loan Toolkit This 28-page document serves as a primer for the entire buying process. It provides definitions of mortgage terms, background on how mortgage insurance and closing costs work and more.
    Loan Estimate This new form is designed to make it easier for potential borrowers to compare different types of loans, including estimates of the monthly payment, the total amount owed, what you could expect to pay in closing costs and whether your interest rate could rise after closing.
    Closing Estimate The new rules require that the estimate be provided to a buyer three days prior to closing, so you can fully assess what you're committing to. It enables you to check the final numbers against your loan estimate and spells out your total monthly outlay-including taxes and insurance-so you're crystal clear on how your new mortgage will affect your monthly budget.

    Keep in mind ... Consumers may find that the closing process is lengthened by about 15 days as lenders and settlement agents adjust to the new forms, says Chris Polychron, president of the National Association of Realtors.


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  • 11/11/15--21:00: How to Win Black Friday
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    Black Friday

    Holiday shopping season is upon us, and this year, it's going to be capital-B Big. The average American plans to spend, on average, $1,128 this season, according to a recent survey by RetailMeNot. Broken down, that's $141 per person for eight people total.

    Translation: Expect your friends and neighbors to be out in full force on November 27, looking to scoop up the best deals. To help you keep your holiday spirit, despite the crowds and frenzied energy of the day, I've compiled a few of my favorite tips for Black Friday shopping. Try them out, and you'll not just survive the day, but you'll score the best bargains with the least amount of stress.

    Be the first to know: By signing up for stores' email lists in advance, including Target, Macy's, Best Buy and Toys "R" Us, or by downloading their shopping apps, you can get a sneak peak at their best deals before the circulars hit your doorstep. That may give you just enough of a head start to do your research on the sale items, so you can sort out the good from the not-quite-as-good.

    Make a list: Black Friday is not the day to browse or get ideas for the loved ones on your list. It's the day to just get in and get out. So don't even think of entering a store without a crystal-clear objective. In other words, knowing you want to get your son a new flat-screen TV isn't enough. On Black Friday, you should know the brand and model number, too. That may mean going to the store before Thanksgiving to determine which one you'd like to buy. The more focused you are, the more successful you'll be in achieving your goals.

    Map the store: There's nothing quite so stressful as walking into a large store and having to circle the place several times, through the crowds, to find what you're looking for, especially when what you're looking for is only being sold in limited quantities. Rather than wander aimlessly, go the store on any day before Black Friday, so you know at least in general where, say, the toy section is in relation to electronics.

    Bring snacks: Think of shopping on Black Friday as an endurance sport. You've got to be smart and quick, as you'll also likely be on your feet for hours and hours. To avoid wasting time in line for sub-par soft pretzels or a slice of barely warmed frozen pizza, take along your own energy snacks. Bring some trail mix, a handful of almonds or a couple of granola bars to nibble on while you're standing in line.

    Choose the best line: There's no bigger retail buzz kill than finding the perfect gift and then waiting in line for an hour just to pay for it. (Anyone who's ever been to Ikea surely knows this.) Two things to keep in mind, here, though: First, if you see a single monster line snaking to the back of the store but leading to multiple registers, rest easy. Those types of lines, known to queuing theorists as serpentine lines, where the first person is distributed to the first available cash register, look the longest but are the fastest. Second, f it's up to you to choose the best line, you may be better off heading to the left, according to "The Math Geek" by Raphael Rosen. "Approximately 90 percent of the population is right-handed, and so they tend to naturally head to the right," he writes. "So heading left is worth a try."

    Score a plum parking spot: It's easy to waste your precious time and your equally precious patience looking for a good parking spot. Here's the key: Don't try following a shopper with bags to her car. If she cuts across the lot, even to just one row over, you'll have wasted your time. Also, don't keep circling in hopes that a spot right next to store's entrance will miraculously open at the exact moment you're passing by. Your best bet, according to the International Parking Institute: Commit to a row, any row, and then pull into the first available spot you see in it. Even if it's farther away than you'd hoped, you'll spend less time walking to the store than you would trolling for a closer spot. You'll also be able to start your shop in a good, rather than rageful, mood.

    Boost your buying confidence: To help you get the best deals and save the most money, download RetailMeNot's app before you shop. It gives you instant access to any available coupon at thousands of stores. No clipping (or printing) required. Just flash the code on your phone to the cashier to instantly save bucks.

    Just buy gift cards: Okay, so it's the not the cutest or most glamorous gift you could give, but it may in fact be the most thoughtful. According to the National Retail Federation, six in 10 people say they'd love to receive a gift card, making it the most frequently requested present for the past nine years running. The best part: Since you can order them online anytime, or pick them up when you're shopping for your Thanksgiving feast, you can spend Black Friday at home, relaxing with your loved ones.

    Procrastinate: If you just don't want to brave the crowds, that doesn't mean you'll miss every last great deal. There's always Cyber Monday, after all, and if you have a computer, iPad or smartphone, you can shop that sale at home in your pajamas. No lines, no crowds, no stress. Have fun!


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  • 11/11/15--21:00: How to Afford Your Next Cold
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    Woman blowing nose

    By Jon Lal

    If germs are hitting your home with a vengeance this time of year, you might be feeling the impact on your bank account. Taking care of yourself or a loved one when you're under the weather can be pricey. From stocking up on cold medicine to potentially missing out on work (and the related paycheck), the expenses add up quickly. Here are some ways to help keep those costs down while still taking care of yourself.

    1. Do what you can to prevent getting ill in the first place.

    First, consider getting a flu shot. Depending on your health coverage, it can be free or low cost. Look for opportunities to get one in your community or at a local pharmacy. Often no appointment is necessary. Even if you must pay a small fee for the shot, this investment in your health could protect you from wasting more time later in the winter season.

    After all, you could fork over the same amount to visit a doctor or more if you need to go to the hospital, and spending a little now can prevent your need to purchase medicine or take time off work. Using the same reasoning, you might want to consider investing in vitamins and healthy food, too. Simple steps, like washing your hands frequently, can also help reduce the chances of exposure o germs turning into a bigger deal.

    2. Prepare through well-time purchases.

    If you do come down with an illness, don't count on cold medicine being on sale when you need it. Instead, stock up when it's on sale. Take a moment before you go to the store and look at the weekly ads to see what's on sale. Then look for a coupon. You might even be able to use a coupon on an item that's already on sale for additional savings.

    Another way to save on medicine is to purchase the generic version. Each store usually has their own brand that uses many or all of the same ingredients and comes with a lower price tag.

    3. But don't necessarily buy the cheapest item.

    A word of caution before you buy the cheapest medicine you can find: When selecting medicine to buy at the drugstore, you might notice that the same drug is packaged in multiple size boxes and prices range from $5 to $20. Calculating the cost per dose will likely reveal that the larger package is a better value. Colds can last up to a few weeks; if you buy the smaller package, you may be back at the store to purchase a second box or bottle of medicine before your cold symptoms have gone away.

    4. Get rewarded.

    Now that you've selected a bottle or cough syrup or a box of decongestant, don't forget to rack up the rewards when you pay the cashier. Many drugstores - including Walgreens and CVS - have free memberships where you can accumulate rewards that are later redeemed for dollars off your future bill.

    If you're the kind of person that doesn't like carrying around keycards, then you have the option of downloading an app, like Key Ring, that tracks your loyalty programs for you. That way, you just need your phone handy when you're checking out at the register.

    5. Look for other discounts, too.

    Sometimes you'll also find manufacturer coupons can also reduce your final price. In addition to over-the-counter cold medicine, you might be soothing your illness with items such as hot water bottles, heating pads and herbal tea. Before stocking up on those items, you can check your paper's circular on Sunday for any available discounts. If you see them even when you're not sick, you might want to consider stocking up, just as with cold medicine. That way, you'll be prepared and guarantee yourself the best deal - plus you won't have to venture out when you're feeling lousy. Having a few cans of chicken soup in your cupboard doesn't hurt, either.

    I hope these five strategies help reduce the pain you feel in your wallet when you next come down with a cold. With any luck, you'll be able keep any illnesses to a minimum this season, for both yourself and your loved ones.


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    Smiling woman holding cute, small dog on lap

    By Tony Armstrong

    With the increasing popularity of the so-called sharing economy, more people than ever are getting paid for tasks like giving someone a lift, playing with dogs while their owners are on vacation or simply running an errand.

    Here's one task this new breed of freelance workers must not forget though: setting aside some cash for Uncle Sam.

    "People get into this and think, 'Here's an easy way to make a few extra bucks,'" says Robert Reed, a financial advisor in Columbus, Ohio. "It is. But you also become independent contractors."

    Nearly 54 million Americans, more than one-third of the U.S. workforce, did some type of freelance work in the past year, according to a 2015 report from Freelancers Union and Upwork. Unlike traditional employees - those who get a W-2, for example - independent contractors don't have income taxes and Social Security automatically withheld from their pay.

    That means those who earn income via the sharing economy need to give at least 30 percent of their profits back to the government, depending on their tax bracket. This includes people receiving income from companies such as Uber, Airbnb and DogVacay, which enable people to connect with customers via apps.

    Many first-timers don't fully understand their tax obligations and get an unpleasant surprise come tax season. Avoid that shock and minimize your tax burden by planning ahead. These four tips will help you do so.

    1. Do your research.

    A simple Google search of "taxes, Uber" (or Airbnb, or TaskRabbit, or Etsy) will present you with at least a dozen articles, including common expenses you can deduct and what to do with the 1099-K form you may or may not receive.

    Doing a little upfront research will put you a step ahead of most people who join the sharing economy, says Chris McDevitt, a tax professional and certified financial planner in Edmonds, Washington.

    "Most people ignore taxes until after the first year," McDevitt says. "It's a big, big surprise."

    2. Think like a business owner.

    You might not consider yourself a businesses owner - after all, you're just doing odd jobs or watching puppies - but the IRS sees it otherwise. Thinking of your side gig as a company, rather than a hobby, will help you get in the mindset of tracking income and expenses.

    McDevitt suggests setting up a separate bank account for your business and funneling all payments through that account. If you drive for Uber, for example, deposit any fares into your businesses account, and pay any business expenses such as gas, insurance and maintenance from that account.

    Keeping detailed records doesn't just apply to money coming in and going out. Sharing economy participants who use their car for business also need to log their mileage, separating business-related driving from personal use, for deduction purposes.

    Services such as Uber and DogVacay send tax forms to drivers and hosts, but only if they meet a certain earning threshold. For DogVacay, that limit can be as high as $20,000 or 200 transactions, meaning a lot of hosts won't receive a 1099 form to file their taxes.

    That doesn't mean you don't need to report the income, though. Keeping detailed records will make it easier to sort out what you earned for the year, after expenses are deducted.

    3. Seek out a tax pro.

    If this is your first time having to file taxes with anything other than a traditional W-2, consider working with a professional tax preparer.

    "Make sure you're hiring a real professional and not someone who just does this for two months out of the year for tax season and that's it," says Reed, who notes that tax law around the sharing economy is still evolving.

    A seasoned tax professional can help you identify business-related expenses to deduct, beyond more obvious ones such as gas or dog food.

    Yulia Blyndiuk, 25, makes a living as a sitter through DogVacay. After hosting her first clients, two huskies, Yulia realized she needed to fence in her yard. That expense could be deductible, along with the postcards she sends to clients and any toys she purchases for the pups she hosts.

    Working with a professional to prepare taxes your first year will help make you attuned to expenses and deductions. It will also familiarize you with the new set of tax forms you'll be dealing with, such as a 1099-K, a Schedule C or a Schedule E. Then, in future years, you'll likely know enough to do it yourself, if you choose.

    "Typically, once you know what's going on, the bookkeeping is usually pretty darn simple," Reed says.

    4. Pay quarterly.

    The IRS expects the self-employed to pay their taxes over the course of the year, rather than in one lump sum on April 15. This typically applies whether you're a full-time business owner or you simply make a little extra cash on the side.

    These quarterly estimated tax payments are due annually on 15th day of April, June, September and January. Not paying these on time could result in fees and penalties, even if you're due a refund at the end of the year. Tools such as QuickBooks Self-Employed can help you calculate and pay your quarterly taxes.

    If you have questions about tax forms, expenses, deductions and the like, don't bury your head in the sand. Ask a financial advisor now, and save yourself a headache come April 15.


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    Digital Life Review Smartwatches

    Even that cartoon-strip cop Dick Tracy, with that fancy two-way wrist radio in 1946, could never have envisioned that folks would be trotting around 70 years later with digital fitness devices and miniature computers strapped around their arms.

    "You don't have to look far to catch a glimpse of someone wearing the latest wearable technology, such as an Apple watch (ticker: AAPL) or Fitbit (FIT)," says Terence Pitre, an accounting professor at Saint Mary's College of California. "It's logical to wonder just how good of an investment in this technology would be."

    Then again, that's not exactly an issue your tech bauble can surf the Internet to answer - not even Apple's over-the-top watch, complete with a 38 mm, 18-karat yellow gold case and bright red belt buckle that retails for $17,000. (But there's free shipping!)

    No matter how many of those fly off the shelves, or waddle pretentiously, it takes a different measure to determine how watches and fitness devices in the 21st century translate to value for the companies that make them. And a good place to start is with Fitbit, which got into the game well before anyone, in 2007. Its pantheon of products, which track data including steps walked, sleep quality and heart rate, helped the company go public in June.

    Apple and Fitbit are at the top of the heap. Fitbit controls almost a quarter of the wearable tech market, according to Pitre. And that slice of the pie has been mirrored by solid Wall Street performance. Since going public, Fitbit has seen its share prices jump more than 20 percent.

    One appeal of Fitbit is that its products work with Android or Apple devices, whereas the Apple Watch ... well, you know the drill. "Additionally, firms like Fitbit have since added text capability and music to their products, thus rendering both models comparable in functionality," Pitre says.

    Yet Apple's new gizmo, which starts at $349, hasn't been a flop, either. For the year, Apple's revenue grew an astounding 28 percent to nearly $234 billion, after its fiscal fourth quarter profit rose 31 percent. And in its earnings statement, CEO Tim Cook singled out the Apple Watch as part of the recent success.

    That said, the stock bounce factor is harder to measure for behemoth companies where a watch or fitness device represents one in a large line of products. "Even if it's a hot product, they often make up a minuscule percentage of the total sales," says Will Hsu, managing partner of Mucker Capital, a venture capital firm in Los Angeles.

    In fact, sales of the Apple Watch will create three to four times as much revenue as Fitbit models. But as Pitre points out, "The financial impact to Apple will barely register the proverbial blip on the radar screen. ... Investing in Apple or Samsung (SSNLF) because of their presence in the wearables market would be like buying a hamburger for the lettuce."

    Looking ahead. As for taking a tasty bite of the future, "We're just beginning to scratch the surface of what's possible, says M.S. Krishnan, professor of technology and operations at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "The key is going to be how relevant these applications are going to be." Krishnan predicts innovations in the health care market could arrive first - and indeed, that could be a very profitable frontier in the years ahead.

    "The next big step for wearables will be a shift toward medical grade sensors for health care," says Carla Kriwet, CEO of Philips Patient Care and Monitoring Solutions "Today's devices are able to successfully track data, but this alone is not enough to improve patient outcomes and won't lead to broader, healthier changes overall - as these devices are not yet helping meet the very real medical needs of patients who would benefit most."

    But there have been advances. Healthwatch Technology, for example, has come out with a shirt that employs electrodes to monitor vital signs for patients with cardiac issues and interfaces with a smartphone app. It promises to not only help hospital patients and outpatients, but also drive sales.

    "The greatest benefit will be the fact vital information can be collected over time, allowing health professionals a better view into potential problems of the patient using actual data points and trends," says Eric Spackey, CEO of Bluewater Defense, a company that mass produces combat apparel and equipment for the Department of Defense.

    Already seeing a top? Some experts already spot tech fatigue settling in among everyday consumers.

    "We are starting to see performance degradation in favor of feature-rich devices," says TJ Dailey, national products manager at TCC, a retailer of Verizon premium wireless products. "Where is the tipping point, and when is too much connectivity too much?"

    "One of the challenges with wearables is whether or not someone will actually wear it," adds Joel Evans, vice president of mobile enablement at Mobiquity, a professional services firm in the mobile and digital sectors.

    So let's say you already wear a Seiko or Timex "dumbwatch" you love. Chronos is expected to release $99 smartwatch disc in the spring. "It attaches to the back of the watch you already like to wear, lasts 36 hours and brings many of the features that a traditional smart watch will bring, even responding to taps and gestures," Evans says.

    But whether that propels Chronos to an initial public offering is another story. And not all wearables have caught on. Some major companies that tried wearable technology in athletic clothing have tanked, including Adidas (ADDYY) and Under Armour (UA), says Steven LeBoeuf, president and co-founder of Valencell, a provider of biometric sensor technology in fitness gear.

    That said, things could get exciting over at your favorite consumer electronics store. "Be on the lookout for 'hearables,' smart wearables worn at the ear," LeBoeuf says.

    Or if you prefer: Keep your ear to the ground.


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    Side view of couple having a hard time paying their bills

    By Geoff Williams

    You may love your significant other, but you hate how he or she spends money. Even worse, you may feel like there's little to nothing you can do about it.

    And maybe you're right. After all, you know your situation far better than anyone. Maybe a divorce, bankruptcy or foreclosure is looming.

    But many experts say that if your spouse is constantly behaving in ways that are wrecking your budget, there is a thought process to adopt and steps you should take to see if you can keep your household finances from completely falling apart. So before you give up on your significant other - and the idea of ever getting your finances under control - try this first.

    Change whomever is paying the bills. There are many ways someone can mess up a household budget, or, to be blunt, commit financial abuse. If your spouse is the one mucking things up by paying bills late, then take the reins. Likewise, if your spouse doesn't pay the bills, and is going on shopping sprees and never paying attention to the bank balance, consider suggesting that he or she begin the bill paying.

    It may sound like a crazy idea, putting the reckless spender in charge of paying the bills. But as Paul Moyer, a Greenville, South Carolina, resident who has a personal finance blog,, and does financial coaching, says, "the best progress I've seen from budget saboteurs is to have them start making up the family budget."

    At least for a while, it may be worth testing out. "By putting them in charge of drawing up the budget, they get a full view of exactly what their spending is doing," Moyer says. "The vast majority of people do not want to put their family in trouble."

    Accept that you may be to blame, too. This one is hard, especially if you know you're a responsible person who doesn't impulse shop and monitors the money carefully. But maybe you monitor the money a little too carefully, causing resentment in your spouse, who then subconsciously or purposefully tries to spend his or her way to freedom.

    Or maybe you never communicate with your spouse, leaving your significant other in the dark and unaware of your tight budget.

    That latter scenario happens a lot, says Anthony Leonardi, founding partner at Paladin Family Wealth in Rye Brook, New York. "Typically one spouse - normally, but not always, the male - takes the lead on areas involving finances, while the other spouse handles the nonfinancial aspects of running the household," Leonardi says.

    Of the partner who has no clue what's going on, he adds: "Either they trust that their spouse has everything under control, or they just don't care to know, preferring to keep their head in the sand."

    So if you've been ignoring red flags for a while, maybe you need to accept some responsibility for what's happened as well.

    As April Masini, online advice columnist at, says, "What most people consider sabotage doesn't usually happen in a vacuum. And if you say it happened behind your back, ask yourself if you turned your back."

    She says that if you've been willfully ignoring a husband or wife's "questionable financial moves, it's unfair to call it sabotage. Both spouses have a responsibility to stay informed."

    Ban your partner from paying the bills. Maybe your hair is sand-free, thanks. Maybe you haven't ignored anything. Maybe your significant other has a real problem with money, but is otherwise your soul mate (or close enough).

    Then it may be time to take charge, completely. Some couples do it.

    Betsy Pass, an operations coordinator at TrueWealth LLC, a wealth management firm in Atlanta, says that a co-worker had a client implement an envelope policy. "The spouse received a monthly cash allowance that was kept in an envelope; whenever the allowance was spent, that was it until the next month. Surprisingly, the spouse liked this method because he or she knew the exact amount of money he or she could spend and plan accordingly," Pass says.

    Gary Borowiec, a financial advisor at Atlas Advisory Group in New York City, has a client whose husband gambled, and 17 years ago, the wife ultimately had to take over the finances. Today, the husband still attends Gamblers Anonymous and is a highly respected professional at a great company, Borowiec says.

    "Only a handful of people ever knew what happened," Borowiec adds.

    "The key is to identify the problem, get help for the addict, and then take care of the financial damage as soon as possible," says George Guerin, a certified financial planner in Denver, who has also worked with clients married to gamblers.

    Communicate. If there's a theme in all of these steps, it's to talk to your spouse about your money problems - or his or her money problems.

    Mathew Dahlberg, who owns the wealth management services company Main Street Investments, in Kansas City, Missouri, says he's seen his share of scenarios in which one partner is committing some sort of financial abuse with the household budget. He believes these problems can often be solved by talking things out and considering each other's point of view.

    "I often advise couples that unless they get more in tune with one another's feelings toward money and their marriage, they will not continue to be married for much longer," Dahlberg says, adding that couples are often shocked to hear this from him, since he isn't a marriage counselor.

    But he probably almost could be. At least, you can't argue with his logic when he says that while talking things over is crucial, it's easier said than done, and it can take time to sort through everything.

    "The communication problems in these [types of] cases are more deeply rooted," Dahlberg says. "There can be years of layers of misunderstandings, misconstrued intentions and ultimately resentment that needs to be peeled away and discussed."


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    Group of friends having dinner party in lodge

    The cost of food over the holiday season may be among your biggest expenses through the end of the year. As you get busy making plans to entertain your guests and put together that holiday food shopping list, don't overlook opportunities to pare down some costs of that grocery bill. There's still time to find great deals on specialty ingredients, baking items and other holiday recipe must-haves.

    Here are six ways you can save some money on holiday meals.

    1. Plan around seasonal ingredients. Whether you're cooking up casseroles or whipping up a few baked goods, make sure the majority of the recipes you choose use in-season ingredients. Sweet potatoes, zucchini, winter squash, pumpkin and cranberries are some of the most versatile ingredients you can cook and bake with over the holidays. Incorporate them into your sweet and savory dishes to save money on the cost of core ingredients for those much-loved holiday recipes. You could also make these dishes well ahead of time and freeze them to save on meal preparation time later.

    2. Stock up on nonperishables. Avoid running out of essential items when stores close early around the holidays or run out completely as holiday event planning gets underway. You can stock up on nonperishable items that you plan to use this year and also for your regular recipes after the holidays are over. Shop your grocery store for specials, and make a trip out to a warehouse club to buy bulk items such as flour, sugar, canned goods, chocolate, candy and other foods you can keep in the pantry for at least a few months.

    3. Schedule your turkey pickup at the right time. Paul Socia, CEO and president of Miramar Federal Credit Union, suggests postponing the turkey pickup until closer to holiday meal time because turkey can be found at a discounted price around Thanksgiving Day. However, if you're worried that your local store might run out, consider buying turkey and other meat well ahead of time - even as early as a few weeks before - and freezing them for holiday meal prep.

    4. Take advantage of in-store holiday deals. Whether you're in charge of baking large batches of Christmas cookies this year or preparing the entire holiday meal, start checking store flyers and circulars each week for the best prices on all those holiday recipe must-haves. Stock up right when a store is running a promotion, and take advantage of in-store coupons. Socia also suggests stocking up on holiday pantry staples that you can use for a few months, pointing out that cranberry sauce, black olives and pureed pumpkin "will be just as welcome at Christmas and New Year's." Shopping for these items around Thanksgiving may be the perfect time to take advantage of buy one, get one free specials, manufacturer's coupons and other discounts.

    5. Do your holiday baking from scratch. As convenient as it may be to buy pre-made cookie dough, cake mixes and other baking necessities for your holiday baking productions, you will pay a premium for store-bought foods. When you outline the cost of baking ingredients such as flour, sugar, butter and cocoa powder - especially when you buy in bulk - you will find that the total cost of making those tasty treats is significantly less than any pre-made dough. Lifestyle blogger Kristy Howard of Kristy's Cottage blog points out how it costs just 41 cents to prepare yellow cake mix versus spending $1 to $2 or more for a cake mix from a grocery store.

    Make a master plan for your holiday baking so you can calculate exactly how much of each ingredient you will be using. Estimate the costs to break down the price of each recipe so you can see how much you are saving.

    6. Host a holiday potluck. Take some of the pressure of food buying off your shoulders by asking guests to pitch in by bringing a meal to share. You can create a master menu and have guests choose a dish they want to bring, or brainstorm some ideas with guests beforehand to delegate dishes for the holiday gathering. Taking care of the turkey or main meal, and then having guests bring side dishes, desserts and drinks can help you offset some of the costs of a traditional holiday spread.


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    How to Buy Dress Shoes That Last
    It's never a bad idea to have a nice pair of dress shoes in your wardrobe, but they can be expensive. So, how do you make sure you're getting what you pay for? Let's walk through a few tips that won't trip up your savings.

    There are three things to look for when buying new dress shoes. The first one is quality leather. Check for little scars or imperfections in the hide. These blemishes could be a sign of untreated leather that won't last as long. Next, check the stitching, it should be neat and be barely noticeable. And lastly, the soles should be made out of leather and at least a quarter-inch thick.

    Spending a little more on a good pair of shoes can really pay off in the long run. Experts recommend paying between $150 to $300 to get the best value. Do your homework and see what works for you.

    Now that you know how to find the perfect pair, it's important to know how to maintain them to make them last. Keep your shoes on a shoe tree. This will allow them to contract and dry out to their ideal shape. And if your brand new shoes stain from water, snow or salt, there's no need to worry. Just dip a soft-bristled toothbrush in white vinegar and gently rub your shoe to remove the stain.

    Before you run to the shoe store, remember these tips. You'll see that buying new dress shoes doesn't have to tread on your budget.

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    African-American father lifts his son into a cloudy white sky, with mother close by

    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    Having a child is a major commitment - a commitment that requires spending a significant amount of money. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates parents with a baby born last year will shell out an average of $245,340 to raise the child to age 18.

    There's no denying children cost money, but not everyone agrees parents have to spend a quarter million to raise a baby to adulthood. U.S. News spoke with four experts to see how parents can save on kid-related expenses at every stage and age.

    In the Beginning: All They Need Is Food, Diapers and Love

    When babies are born, they don't need much more than food and diapers, says Sandra Gordon, founder of the savings site And even those necessities can often be bought for less.

    Feed babies inexpensively. You can't beat free, and breast-feeding is the cheapest way to nourish an infant. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends moms breast-feed exclusively for the first six months and then continue to nurse until children are 12 months old. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, health insurance companies are required to cover the cost of electric pumps for mothers or other nursing women who need them.

    Gordon is quick to affirm that breast-feeding is best to save money, but she also notes not every woman is able to nurse her child. "If you have to use formula, don't feel guilty," she says. While brand-name formula is pricey, Gordon says the Food and Drug Administration requires store brands to be nutritionally equivalent and can cost 50 percent less.

    Give cloth diapers a try. Today's cloth diapers are a far cry from those your mother or grandmother used. Pins and plastic pants are a thing of the past, and modern cloth diapers have Velcro or snap closures and come in cute patterns.

    According to Gordon, parents could spend as much as $2,500 on disposable diapers for a child from birth until toilet training, or they could invest $300 in a cloth diaper stash. "The downside is you have to do a lot of laundry," she says. "There is some sweat equity involved."

    Forget the expensive nursery. "The nursery is the thing people get obsessed over," Gordon says. However, she argues there is no reason to spend thousands on an elaborately decorated nursery when all a baby needs is a crib, a firm mattress and maybe a changing table.

    Parents should also consider the future when decorating a nursery and make sure it will easily transition to suit an older child. Inexpensive décor can be found at Goodwill or discount stores like HomeGoods.

    Buy secondhand to save. Bob Gavlak, a father of three and wealth advisor with Strategic Wealth Partners in Columbus, Ohio, encourages parents to buy gently used items whenever possible. "A 1-year-old doesn't need a brand-new wardrobe from the Gap," he says.

    Infants quickly outgrow clothes, accessories and toys, which means many items sold used are actually nearly new. Gavlak notes his daughter was too big for her newborn clothes, and he and his wife ended up selling them for a quarter of what they initially cost.

    The 'Need-This' Kid Stage: Rethink Those 'Must-Haves'

    Once kids move out of the baby and toddler stage, their wants may expand, but don't confuse what they'd like with what they need. "Sometimes we spend money we didn't have to," says Denise Daniels, a psychologist and child development expert. "Kids don't need things; they need you."

    Skip blowout birthday parties. At some point, birthday parties transitioned from pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey followed by cake and ice cream to elaborate affairs complete with princess carriage rides and fake snow for sledding in the summer. However, a Merrill Edge survey of 1,001 adults in September found that 22 percent of parents wished they spent less on nonessentials in the last five years. "As a parent myself, when we talk about expensive toys or parties, I know I 'm guilty of it," says Sharon Miller, an executive with Merrill Edge.

    Your child may want to have a party every year at the local jump house or ski resort, but save those for milestone birthdays and have low-key parties with family and close friends on the other years. "There's nothing wrong with saying 'no' to your child," Daniels says.

    Carefully consider child care. "The cost of child care is through the roof," Daniels says. "That's a big nut for parents to swallow." However, it might not be a necessary expense.

    Child care can cost as much as a mortgage for some families. In fact, a 2015 report found the national average for two children in day care is $18,000, while housing is $17,000. Gavlak says parents may want to consider whether they actually come out ahead by having both parents work. If extra income is needed, working an opposite shift as your spouse, while not ideal, is another way to eliminate or reduce child care costs.

    Parents should also do the math before paying someone under the table to watch their children. An unlicensed child care provider may be cheaper, but parents could miss out on a child care credit that could save them a significant amount at tax time.

    Let kids share a room. Housing is the biggest expense related to raising kids, according to the USDA. It may seem as though your house needs to grow along with your family, but there is no reason every child needs his or her own room.

    While scientific research on the issue is in short supply, plenty of anecdotal evidence points to room-sharing as being a tolerable, and even positive, experience for siblings. If storage is an issue, work with children to declutter toys and clothes so they will fit in a smaller space.

    Teens: Everything Gets Expensive

    By the time kids hit their teen years, parents may be buying cellphones, cars and other big-ticket items. Insisting an older teen get a job and pick up the tab for some expenses is one way to rein in costs, and here are three more.

    Limit extracurricular activities. Club sports, music lessons and other interests can cost families thousands of dollars in fees, equipment and travel expenses. Despite the cost, Daniels says it's no surprise parents make these activities a priority. "They want to give their kids the best," she points out.

    Unfortunately, overscheduled teens not only cost their parents money, but they also lose the opportunity to gain important skills. "Back in the day, kids used their imagination and creativity in a way they don't nowadays," Daniels says. For families stretched thin, limiting extracurricular activities to one per season or year may benefit a household's wallet and sanity.

    Ask others to pitch in. Grandparents have long been giving savings bonds to help with college funds, but today's crowdfunding websites open up new possibilities for kid-related fundraising. With a parent's help, teens can set up fundraising accounts for whatever major purchase they have in mind, whether that's a study abroad program or a new car. Then, they can request donations in lieu of birthday or holiday gifts.

    Parents can also use crowdfunding to simplify school and activity fundraising and eliminate the need to hawk overpriced goods to friends and family. "One thing people love about [crowdfunding] is that they don't have to hassle people," says Mary Yap, a program manager with crowdfunding site Other popular sites include Piggybackr, GoFundMe and DreamFund.

    Focus on less expensive college options. Remember that $245,340 figure from the USDA? It is missing one very large expense: college tuition. Depending on the school your child chooses, that could cost you another $3,400 to $32,400 per year plus room and board, according to the College Board's 2015-2016 rates.

    While a private school may be prestigious, a community college or state public university may provide a degree at a fraction of the cost. In addition to selecting a lower cost school, families should look for scholarships and grants. "It's important children apply for financial aid," Miller says. Even if you don't think you're eligible, "it doesn't hurt to try."

    Kids cost money, but you may be surprised by how little they actually need. Daniels recalls one year when her family's house burnt down Christmas Eve. Even though they lost everything, the community rallied around them. "We look back at that year as one of the best experiences," she says. It's proof kids may not be as attached to their stuff as we think they are.


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    Couple with packages,shopping in city.

    Ah, the holidays. A time to get together, celebrate with family and make questionable life choices.

    Whether it is drinking way too much egg nog, or bringing up old resentments at the dinner table, something about the holidays switches off the usual filters in our brains.

    But new survey data reveals the dumbest choice of all: Many of us are drawing down emergency funds, or even raiding retirement accounts, to pay holiday bills.

    Some 62 percent of parents admit to spending more than they should over the holidays, according to the 2015 Parents, Kids & Money Survey by Baltimore-based money managers T. Rowe Price. To compound the hurt, 9 percent of parents are tapping emergency family cash to do so, and 7 percent are dipping into 401(k)s or IRAs.

    Dads are the biggest culprit, with 11 percent admitting they dipped into emergency savings and retirement accounts to make it through the holidays. In comparison, only 6 percent of moms tapped emergency funds, and barely 3 percent made withdrawals from retirement funds.

    "People feel like if they don't spend, spend, spend, it means they aren't doing anything," said Stuart Ritter, a senior financial planner with T. Rowe. "That 'all-or-nothing' mindset is used to rationalize buying more than they really should. As a result, a huge percentage of people say they end up overspending."

    While every family's financial situation is unique, there are some tips everyone can use to keep out of spending trouble.


    The typical American household spends around 1 percent of pretax income on holiday shopping, according to Hersh Shefrin, a professor and behavioral economist at Santa Clara University. Low-income families are slightly more than that, at 1.5 percent, and high-income families slightly less, at 0.5 percent.

    Stick to those guidelines to make sure your purchases are not spinning out of control. Shefrin suggests starting early to avoid overspending and the stress of last-minute shopping.

    "Then throw in something small and meaningful for yourself which you earn at the end of the holiday season, but only if you stick to your budget," he said.


    Spending with discipline means fewer family arguments. Half of those who overspent reported having money squabbles, according to the Parents, Kids & Money Survey. Among those who did not overspend, only 27 percent argued.

    Remember that the most thoughtful presents usually do not come with a big price tag: Hand-make a photo album, for instance, or put together a genealogy tree.

    Another idea: Offer family members a book of certificates they can cash in to do favorite activities together. After all, kids value your time most of all, even if they are too cool to say so.


    Form a united front with your partner to keep you both from overspending. After all, the less your spend on holiday gifts, the more you will have to fund other key goals like college savings, family vacations, and retirement accounts.

    "Don't think of cutting back as getting less of the things you want; think of it as getting more of the things you want," said Ritter.

    You can also use peer pressure to your advantage. Make it public, so you cannot backtrack on your savings goals.

    "Tell someone whose respect you crave what you plan to do, and ask them to check in with you at the end to see if you lived within your budget," advised Shefrin. "There's no pressure like peer pressure from people whose respect you crave."

    (Editing by Beth Pinsker and David Gregorio)


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    finger pointing at pie chart on tablet

    By Nancy Mann Jackson

    You may be quick to try a new food or the latest thrill ride, but when it comes to taking risks with your finances ... ?

    If you're like most Americans, you're playing it safe-maybe even too safe.

    Almost three-quarters of investors would rather avoid or mitigate risk than manage it, according to a new Ameriprise study.

    It highlights four investing personalities: risk avoiders (31%), risk mitigators (42%), risk managers (25%) and risk embracers (3%).

    Young investors might seem more likely to embrace risk, but age didn't turn out to be a factor. The general hesitation to take financial gambles was consistent among Millennials, Gen Xers and boomers alike.

    "Given the recent market volatility, it's not hard to see why some people are cautious," notes Marcy Keckler, Certified Financial Planner[TM] and VP of Advice Strategy & Programs for Ameriprise, in the report. "The key is to arm yourself with knowledge to help you make informed decisions."

    Here are some lessons to consider from the survey's results.

    On creating a strategic plan ... Among risk avoiders, 73% lack financial plans. So it seems like no coincidence that only 24% of this group feel confident about their nest eggs. Formalizing a financial plan can help you get on track for retirement and other goals-which may make you more confident about taking calculated risks.

    On seeing the bigger, unclouded picture ... Risk mitigators focus specifically on investments with a guaranteed return. And 64% regret losing money in the stock market more than missing out on potential gains. Keckler describes this approach as "triggered by doubt." It's an example of how emotions can negatively impact your money moves-one of six common portfolio mistakes.

    On playing an active role in money management ... Risk managers tend to see risk as opportunity, and 67% take the time to research their decisions. They pay attention to how their 401(k) is invested and its rate of returns.

    On knowing the wrong kind of risk ... The fraction of investors who identify as risk embracers also turn out to be less likely to weigh their financial opportunities than risk managers or mitigators. They're the segment least likely to have a diversified portfolio-and 16% are inclined to overpay for a house.

    To better understand what amount of risk is right for you, consider consulting with a financial planner.


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    USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Couple talking on sofa
    By Molly Triffin

    When Ali Green* and her husband, Craig, met, she was a recent grad earning $28,000 a year as a newspaper columnist, and he was a chef pulling in $50,000.

    But before long, Ali's paycheck started to climb -- moving well past Craig's.

    In 2012 she got a huge promotion and began raking in $90,000 a year. The income gap between them had turned into a chasm -- and it was taking a serious toll on their relationship.

    "He'd always been excited whenever I got a salary boost, but now I noticed there was an edge to his comments," Ali, 34, says. "Once, he mentioned that if we weren't together, he'd have to live with four people in a studio. He said it jokingly, but there was tension."

    And her salary has only continued to climb -- she now owns an SEO consulting company -- while 33-year-old Craig's earning potential is limited.

    "He makes one third of what I make now, and will often compare us, griping that even though he works long hours, he earns a fraction of what I do," Ali says.

    "When there's a big difference between a couple, the inequality can threaten to erode your bond, unless you address it head on," says psychotherapist Kate Levinson, Ph.D., author of "Emotional Currency." "Unfortunately, we don't like to acknowledge that money influences our intimate relationships -- it's like a hidden operating system whose presence is undetected, but has the potential to influence everything."

    The need to constantly compare salaries isn't the only issue that can creep into a relationship. With the help of relationship and money pros, we dig into four common dilemmas that couples often face when the digits on their paychecks don't align.

    Dilemma No. 1: The High Earner Makes Unilateral Money Decisions

    Joseph Morgan*, 34, a real estate investor who makes five times as much as his freelance writer wife, Jenny, 34, once purchased pricey concert tickets for them and two friends. When Jenny asked whether their friends had paid him back, he told her that he'd never asked them.

    "I was annoyed that she was making such a big deal about it," Joseph says. "So I replied, 'Why do you care how I spend my money?' "

    Big mistake.

    Jenny then asked if he believed that she shouldn't have a say in such situations because he made more money.

    "I realized that she was right, and apologized on the spot," Joseph says.

    While the Morgans addressed their power imbalance head on, many couples either avoid the matter -- or may not even realize it exists.

    "We often make tiny bargains that are largely unconscious," Levinson explains. "But each time the underearner feels disempowered, it builds a brick of resentment."

    If you feel like your voice is being ignored -- or perhaps you're the one taking advantage of the extra digits on your paycheck through power plays -- Levinson suggests jotting down your thoughts about a recent decision-making scenario like the one the Morgans had.

    And before you roll your eyes at the idea, consider that numerous studies have shown that expressing your emotions on paper can help you better process them.

    "Ask yourself how the influence of money played out in the situation," Levinson says. "The goal is to really shine a light on the problem, so you can begin to disentangle it."

    So let's say your partner is footing the bill for the family vacation -- and feels the destination is his decision to make. Even though you'd rather go to the sea than the mountains, you give in and Tahoe it is.

    Once you've had time to put pen to paper to reflect on how finances factored into the outcome, then broach the topic with your partner. "And be sure to harness an attitude of curiosity, rather than confrontation," Levinson says.

    You may have to go through this exercise a few times before the real equity lessons seep in, says Levinson, but in time, whenever you have a difference of opinion, you'll likely both be more cognizant of how money may be affecting your dynamic.

    Dilemma No. 2: One Person Ends Up Paying All the Bills

    When it comes to managing household finances, it isn't just the breadwinner who's guilty of missing the big financial picture.

    "One of the most common issues I see is that the person who earns less views the breadwinner's income as 'our money,' but considers their own salary 'their money,' " says Deborah Price, author of "The Heart of Money. "If left unmanaged, this attitude can start to fracture the relationship."

    One culprit, say our experts, is a sense of entitlement. The underearner may feel jealous and think that they shouldn't be expected to pitch in, since their partner makes so much more. Or the non-contributor may be doing it because they feel financially vulnerable, and hoarding their own cash gives them a sense of security.

    The solution?

    Well, it's not that simple. Understanding what's driving the behavior is the first step toward changing it. But it can take a long time to overhaul deep-rooted patterns, so start by tackling the problem from a more practical place.

    One strategy, says Price, is to have the lower earner manage the household budget -- and help decide who's going to pay for what.

    "Often, [individuals who exhibit this behavior] tend to be avoidant about financial matters," Price says. "But in order to move from a place of helplessness to empowerment, you need to be knowledgeable about money."

    In the Green household, for example, Craig keeps track of the family's bottom line, paying bills and even depositing Ali's paychecks. "It allows him to take responsibility and have a more equal say," Ali explains.

    Dilemma No. 3: The Breadwinner Feels Burdened -- and Resentful

    For breadwinners, feeling like they are responsible for supporting the whole family can be overwhelming.

    "Animosity can arise if you start to feel like you're keeping everybody else afloat," Levinson says.

    It's a sentiment that certainly resonates with Ali.

    "A couple of years ago, I was stuck in a job I hated, but I couldn't leave because we had a mortgage," Ali says. "While Craig was supportive, he also reminded me that we needed to make a certain income. The responsibility is always hanging over my head. If I lose my job, we're screwed. If he loses his, it's just a blip."

    Ali's annoyance over Craig's paycheck came to a head when they were forced to move because they couldn't afford the cost of living in their area.

    "I felt frustrated knowing that if he made as much as I did, we could send our kid to a better day care, and we wouldn't have to leave this place that we loved," she says.

    If you're in this predicament, one thing that can help diffuse your anger is to recognize there are more ways to contribute than simply opening a wallet.

    Perhaps your partner supports you emotionally, keeps the household running smoothly, or takes care of time-consuming projects such as vacation planning and home repairs. So try to shift your focus from how they fall short fiscally to where they excel in other areas.

    And whatever you do, don't just sit there seething.

    "Talking about your worries with your partner can bring some comfort," Levinson says. "Your spouse might be limited in terms of how much they can contribute financially, but at least you can split the emotional load."

    You can also discuss reworking your current arrangement. "Even if you came to an agreement when one person was making more in the beginning of your relationship, you aren't beholden to that forever," Price points out.

    One way to bring more balance to the equation is to periodically revisit your household budget -- especially when one of you changes jobs or nabs a raise or promotion -- by setting ongoing monthly money meetings.

    Dilemma No. 4: One Person Isn't Pulling Their Weight ... at Home

    Another common issue that can creep up for couples with uneven income situations: The high earner skips out on household cleanup detail and child care duties.

    Just take it from Monica Miller*, a 26-year-old entrepreneur in Cheyenne, Wyoming, who's still building her business and only makes several hundred dollars a month -- compared to her engineer husband's $35,000 salary.

    "Even though I'm busy working during the day, the brunt of household chores falls on me," Monica says. "At times I feel taken advantage of, like a maid instead of a wife."

    According to Price, this imbalance often manifests when the underearner feels guilty about their lack of earning power. "They overcompensate by pitching in more around the house, but may end up doing the equivalent of two jobs," she says.

    Miller can relate.

    "I sometimes feel like a burden to my husband," she says. "I want to put money on the table, too -- and when I can't, I get frustrated. Even though my husband is very kind, I feel like I'm failing him and not showing him my true worth."

    Price's advice to Miller? Resist the urge to make up for the lack of zeroes in your paycheck by overdoing it on the home front.

    While things don't necessarily have to be split down the middle, she says, both of you should be doing a reasonable amount respective to your other obligations.

    To get back on even footing, tell your partner, "I've been feeling stressed out lately about managing things. Can we talk about how to divide and conquer a bit better?"

    Chances are, your spouse isn't upset that you're not pulling your weight financially -- and simply hearing them say so can help you devise a more equal household workload plan.

    Ultimately, regardless of your unique income dilemma, it all comes down (surprise! surprise!) to communication, which can help minimize the fiscal gulf in any relationship.

    *Names have been changed.


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    By Kaitlin Pitsker

    Applying for financial aid will soon be less of a hassle for college students and their families for Federal Student Aid -- used to determine financial aid from the government as well as colleges -- can be filed three months earlier, or as early as October 1, nearly a year before a student would start classes the following fall. This shift in timing will allow completed tax returns to be used to report income and assets on the FAFSA.

    Under current rules, families have to wait until January 1 to start filling out the FAFSA and often file the aid application before completing the income tax return required to verify income for the previous year. For example, if you file the FAFSA in January 2016 for the 2016-17 academic year, you'll have to scramble to file your tax return early or estimate your 2015 income and verify it later, after you've filed your 2015 tax return. But under the new rules, when you file the FAFSA for the 2017-18 academic year, you'll use your 2015 tax return rather than your 2016 return to report income and assets.

    With the new FAFSA schedule, you'll be able to start thinking about financial aid earlier in order to maximize an aid award. You'll still have until June 30 to complete the form, but applying as early as possible remains important. Most schools dole out financial aid on a first-come, first-served basis, and a college's free money runs out fast.

    Steps to Take Before the End of 2015

    If your child is currently a high school senior, college freshman or college sophomore, your 2015 tax information is doubly important because 2015 income will count twice for financial aid purposes -- first for the 2016-17 academic year, before the FAFSA changes go into effect, and then again for the 2017-18 academic year, when FAFSA switches to the new timeline. Taking steps to reduce income before the end of 2015 could lower your expected family income and boost your student's financial aid award two years in a row.

    Few colleges fill all of the gap between your expected family contribution and the cost of attendance, but lowering your income can lead to substantial increases in financial aid. Income, not assets, is by far the biggest factor in financial aid. "Generally, every $10,000 increase in parent income will cause about a $3,000 decrease in need-based financial aid," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, a college planning Web site. If possible, hold off on taking distributions from retirement plans or realizing capital gains because the money will count as income on the FAFSA.The financial aid formula excludes assets held in retirement accounts, the cash value of life insurance policies , and the value of your home and other personal property (including cars, clothing and furniture). So consider directing a larger portion of your paycheck to your retirement accounts during your FAFSA-filing years.

    A fat savings account can also lower financial aid because the federal financial aid formula considers up to 5.6 percent of parents' assets to be available to pay for college. If you're planning to use cash to buy a new car, do a home-renovation project or make some other large purchase -- even to pay down debt -- pull the trigger before you file the FAFSA.


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    Build a sizable nest egg? Check. Purchase a new set of golf clubs? Check. Plan for taxes on your retirement income? Chhhh ... Wait a minute. Plan for what?

    Lots of retirees are surprised by the big bite that taxes can take out of their savings . And depending on where you live, the tax hit can be especially painful. In fact, some states even tax Social Security benefits , the most important source of income for many retirees.

    The 13 states that tax Social Security are Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia.

    But just because a state taxes Social Security doesn't mean it's a bad place to retire. Overall, Colorado and West Virginia are actually tax-friendly places to live in retirement despite the tax on Social Security. Weigh a state's entire tax picture -- from income tax to sales tax to property tax -- to better understand how your money will be taxed and how you can budget for those costs.

    Kiplinger's tax maps can help. Check out the most tax-friendly states for retirees and the least tax-friendly states for retirees to identify your best place for retirement.


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    Add it the list: women are better than men at stewarding their retirement accounts, at least if we define better as "more likely to be in the game."

    Earlier studies have already indicated that women outperform as hedge fund chiefs and as stock traders, but now a study from Vanguard shows they do better in important respects with their 401(k) accounts, too.

    Crucially, not only are women saving at higher rates within given income bands, they are 14 percent more likely overall to participate in workplace savings plans.

    If, as the saying goes, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take, participating has to have an outsized value when it comes to retirement saving.

    Compared to men, women trade less, about a third less among the more than 3.6 million plan participants for which Vanguard directly provides record-keeping. As the typical investor destroys value through frequent trading, that's a wise choice.

    Women also save more, at least as a percent of their incomes, which are lower. When you control for wages, age, tenure on the job and other factors, women 401(k) savers defer salary into plans at a rate 3 percent higher than men.

    Interestingly, that's true up and down the earnings scale, including at lower wage levels, where saving for retirement can be difficult.

    Crucially, not only are they saving at higher rates within given income bands, women are 14 percent more likely overall to participate in workplace savings plans. Interestingly, the spread of automatic enrollment in plans is therefore likely benefiting male employees more because more of them would, for whatever reason, otherwise pass.

    "Despite a commonly held view that women are more risk-averse than men, equity allocations for women and men are similar in their defined contribution plan accounts," according to the study.

    Women are more likely to use target date plans, which shift allocations gradually ahead of a planned retirement date. Those plans have their shortcomings, but they are usually far better than simply making your own trading decisions. Women overall are more likely to turn over their asset allocation decision to a professional, and as a result tend to have better constructed portfolios.

    Men also are more likely to hold shares in their employers in retirement accounts. Employees are already making a substantial bet on their company by working there. From a diversification and risk management point of view owning too much of an employer's stock can be a mistake.

    Being Right vs. Making More

    Here is the funny thing: at least during the period the survey covered, men did slightly better in terms of annual return. The average annualized five-year total return for men was 10.1 percent for the period ending 2014, against 9.7 percent for women. Data wasn't supplied for the rockier previous five-year period.

    None of this should be surprising, particularly the propensity to not trade needlessly. A survey by hedge fund research company HFR released this year showed that hedge funds run by women racked up 59 percent total returns since 2007, against 37 percent for the average fund.

    It also tends to rhyme with a 2014 report from Merrill Lynch based on a survey of their investors showing that women were less likely to want to personally make regular changes to their investment approach in order to beat the market. Women were also more likely to say that they know less than average about finance and investing. Given how poorly the typical investor does on his or her own, that kind of humility is a good thing.

    Analysis firm Dalbar, which for 21 years has been monitoring how poorly individual investors actually do, found that in 2014 the average investor in a stock market mutual fund underperformed the market by 8.19 percentage points. Fixed income investors also trailed. Both do poorly mostly because of bad decisions about getting in and out.

    Far be it from me to say why women are less overconfident, but men, if they'd like to be better investors, might want to take note.

    Knowing that you don't know is the difference between a settled ignorance and a proper caution. For women as investors, it seems, that makes all the difference.

    (At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund. You can email him at and find more columns at


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    Bride and groom figurines standing on two separated slices of wedding cake

    By Krystal Steinmetz

    If you and your spouse are headed to Divorceville, it's often necessary to have someone - or some people - in your corner, looking out for your best interests. Although hiring an attorney seems the most obvious choice, contracting with a financial adviser is often equally as important.

    Hiring a financial adviser is critical if you have been married for a long time or you're part of a high-net-worth household, according to MarketWatch. While some people do seek out the help of a financial adviser, it's often after the divorce, when many financial matters - short-term cash needs, insurance, child support, trusts and retirement - have already been finalized.

    And relying on an attorney to counsel you on financial matters could end up costing you.

    "Too many people rely on an attorney to assist them in dividing assets, without having a clear financial plan that takes in all of the future needs - college plans, home maintenance, retirement income needs, insurance, long-term care, Social Security, and more," MarketWatch explains.

    If you already have a financial planner, one you've shared with your spouse, you may also want to divorce that adviser and hire somebody else. Although it's legal for a financial adviser to advise opposing parties in a divorce, it creates a conflict of interest, or an awkward situation at the very least.

    "You want your financial adviser to represent your interests, and your interests alone," MarketWatch explained.

    There are several divorce scenarios where hiring a new financial planner is especially important, including this one: "Some women, particularly in older generations, may not have been part of the budgeting or bill-paying process while married," MarketWatch explained. "They need the education a financial planner can provide to be prepared to go out on their own."

    Getting a divorce is often a stressful and emotional time, which makes hiring objective professionals all the more important.

    "One of the biggest reasons people should work with a financial planner is so that they don't make emotional mistakes," Richard Wald, managing director of Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management, told U.S. News & World Report.

    Wald said an example of a costly emotional mistake in a divorce could be when one partner feels attached to a family home and insists on keeping it as part of a divorce settlement. Although that situation isn't inherently bad, it could be an expensive mistake if the partner agreed to keep the home and as a result, ended up losing out on retirement savings that could prove to be much more valuable in the long run.

    It's important to do your homework before you hire a financial adviser. While word-of-mouth recommendations are typically the best way to find a good adviser, the Financial Planning Association can also help. MarketWatch said:

    There are different types of advisers. Some are fee-only; others charge by assets under management. Some manage money; others provide only advice. A few also specialize in financial planning during a divorce, working with your divorce attorney to make sure you are protected.

    For more details, and questions you should ask when shopping for an adviser, check out "How to Choose the Right Financial Adviser."

    Are you divorced or going through a divorce? What's your experience in dividing the property and financial assets? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

    Sign up for our free newsletter

    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! We'll also email you a PDF of Stacy Johnson's "205 Ways to Save Money" as soon as you've subscribed. It's full of great tips that'll help you save a ton of extra cash. It doesn't cost a dime, so why wait? Click here to sign up now.


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    By Karla Bowsher

    The average amount that employees contribute to their health care has increased by more 134 percent over the past 10 years -- and is projected to increase again next year.

    That's according to Aon Hewitt, which analyzed data for more than 600 large U.S. employers representing 11.7 million participants, more than 1,200 health plans and nearly $59 billion in 2015 health care spending.

    The firm found that in 2015 employees contributed a total of $4,698 for their share of the premium cost ($2,490) and their out-of-pocket costs such as co-payments and deductibles ($2,208). In 2005, their premium and out-of-pocket costs totaled $2,001.

    From our Solutions Center: How to quickly shop insurance

    Next year, the average employee's share of the costs is projected to continue to increase to a total of $5,068 ($2,635 toward the premium and $2,433 in out-of-pocket costs).

    The employer share of health care costs also has been increasing, and that rise also is projected to continue next year.

    The increase in costs was actually relatively modest in 2015. The 3.2 percent rise was the lowest increase since Aon began tracking the data in 1996.

    Mike Morrow, senior vice president of Aon Health, attributes the slower growth in costs to a couple of factors:

    "The sluggish growth in the economy has deterred many individuals from using medical services, and there's also been modest price inflation -- both factors have been primary drivers for the low rates of premium increases over the past few years."

    However, he adds that premium rates are expected to climb in the future partly due to prescription drug costs continuing to grow at a double-digit pace and to the economy picking up steam.

    According to data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau, employer-based plans are the most common type of health insurance. They comprise 55.4 percent of plans -- more than twice as much as any other type of insurance.

    To learn more about health insurance costs, check out:

    "Obamacare Open Enrollment Is Coming: 5 Things You Need to Know"
    "Ask Stacy: Can Obamacare Help Me Retire Early?"
    "5 Health Care Myths Debunked"
    "10 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Buying Health Insurance"

    Do you obtain your health insurance through your employer? If so, have your costs increased? Let us know in our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth, and post questions and get answers.


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    DIY Spice Blends for Thanksgiving
    Buying spices at the store can be expensive. Spice up Thanksgiving dinner for only a fraction of the cost with these easy, low-cost recipes you can make yourself.

    First, to give your classic pumpkin pie that fresh flavor, try this easy blend. Just mix 4 teaspoons of cinnamon, 2 teaspoons of ginger, 1 teaspoon allspice and 1 teaspoon nutmeg.

    And for an Apple pie spice that's easy to make, simply mix 1 tablespoon ground of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg, 1 teaspoon of allspice, half a teaspoon of ground cloves and 1 dash of cardamom.

    This year, keep these quick blends handy. You can spice up Thanksgiving, and your savings, by making your own spice blends.

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    By Liz Weston

    It is National Scholarship Month, which means high school seniors are being exhorted to scoop up free money for college.

    What they are often not told is that scholarships won from corporations, non-profits and other "outside" sources can reduce -- dollar for dollar -- the grants and cost-reducing financial aid they might get from colleges.

    Students with financial need should be aware of this potential disincentive before they spend countless hours pursuing scholarships that may leave them no better off. The same scholarships could, however, benefit affluent families by reducing the amount they have to pay or borrow.

    I felt it was so unfair that I'd worked so hard and was bringing a huge amount to the school but not seeing it reflected in my own package.

    Casey Lu Simon-Plumb, a sophomore at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, won more than a dozen scholarships during her senior year of high school, including a $20,000 Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation award.

    She thought her winnings would dramatically reduce the $60,000 annual cost of attending the school. Instead, the outside money replaced other aid Swarthmore had offered her, leaving her family's contribution about the same.

    "I felt it was so unfair that I'd worked so hard and was bringing a huge amount to the school but not seeing it reflected in my own package," said Simon-Plumb of Hampden, Massachusetts.

    Federal rules require schools to reduce need-based financial aid when students win outside scholarships to ensure that their total financial aid doesn't exceed their costs by more than $300.

    Colleges have some flexibility in how they implement this "award displacement," said financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, co-author of the book, "Filing the FAFSA."

    If the college does not meet students' full financial need - and most do not - it may opt to let the outside money help fill that gap.

    "But most will reduce aid dollar for dollar," Kantrowitz said.

    Swarthmore's policy is more generous than many. The small liberal arts college uses outside scholarships first to reduce the earnings students are expected to contribute from summer jobs, said Varo Duffins, the college's financial aid director.

    Once those expected earnings are offset, the next category of aid to be reduced is federal work study, in which students contribute to the cost of college through part-time jobs. After that, the college reduces the institutional scholarships it offers students.

    Like many elite schools, Swarthmore meets 100 percent of student financial need and does not include loans as part of its need-based financial aid packages, Duffins said.

    When colleges do include loans as part of a need-based package, some use outside scholarships to reduce those loans and thus the ultimate cost of going to college. Others don't.

    Because colleges' policies vary so much, the only way to know how an outside scholarship might affect financial aid is for families to ask the individual schools, said Lynn O'Shaughnessy, a college consultant and author of "The College Solution."

    Kantrowitz recommends doing so early enough in the application process that the colleges' scholarship policies can be factored into the decision of where to go to school.

    If outside scholarships can reduce the loan portion of an aid package or out-of-pocket costs, personal finance author John Wasik, author of "The Debt-Free Degree," recommends casting a wide net. FinAid, FastWeb and Sallie Mae all offer search engines.

    Simon-Plumb said some of her scholarships offered other benefits, such as networking or prestige, which made the hours spent writing essays and filling out applications worthwhile.

    Had she known about award displacement, she said she would have focused more on landing those awards and not bothered with the rest.

    "You don't have to kill yourself doing it if there's no payoff," Simon-Plumb said.

    (The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)


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