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DailyFinance.com

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    Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit - Day 2
    Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Fortune/Time Inc.Billionaire investor Warren Buffett
    By Nicholas Pell

    Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, is pretty much a one-man investing machine. If you're going to follow anyone's example of how to invest, it should be his. But with shares of Berkshire Hathaway trading at over $200,000 each, you can't exactly hitch your star to his wagon. So how do you invest like Buffett in a way that makes sense for your budget, circumstances and family? Lend us your ear.

    Don't Pick Stocks

    Of course, picking stocks is how Buffett made his fortune, but it's not going to work for you. "If you're not an expert at picking stocks, you have no business picking stocks," says Maz Jadallah, founder and CEO of AlphaClone, a company that uses technology to help people invest wisely. He advises people who aren't experts at picking stocks to throw their money into the S&P 500 (^GSPC) with a 10 percent cash cushion and leave it. "It's so simple it takes your breath away, and that's why it appeals to so many people." It might not be as sexy as day trading, but it's probably what Buffett himself would tell you to do. In fact, it's what's going to happen to his money after he dies.

    "If you want to be a passive mutual fund investor, index funds are the place to be," says Steve Wallman, CEO of Folio Investing. "They offer low fees and are reasonably diversified. You're not going to knock it out of the park, but the S&P isn't going to drop to zero like Enron stock."

    Still, Wallman admits that there are people who both want a higher return and want to be more engaged. Ultimately, what you can do depends on several factors, including your current income, projected income and responsibilities. Wallman notes the world of difference between a family where two people are working and earning a decent wage with no kids against the same income level with three kids and aging parents to support. In the former case, there's more risk tolerance. In the latter, there's less. "Should you be doing a little bit more or even a little less with your money?" he asks. "It depends on your circumstances." Still, no matter what you decide, Wallman thinks you should have an index fund as part of your investment strategy.

    Manager Selection Is Even Harder

    "The biggest pain point is manager selection," says Jadallah. Because even when you concede that you're not the best person to manage your money, that doesn't mean you know who the right person to manage your money is. AlphaClone's entire business model is helping people to pick competent money managers based on their previous track records using current technology.

    He points out that there are basically three problems when investing. Market risk is the risk of the overall market. This is an area where you have zero control. Company risk is the risk specific to the company your manager is investing in and can be mitigated by picking the right manager. Finally, there's the manager risk, which is where the rubber meets the road. So look for a manager who isn't putting all your eggs in one basket and knows how to mitigate market and company risk.

    Don't Go All Long or All Short

    Jadallah says that one mistake people make is that they go "all long." This means they put all their money into an exchange-traded fund that tracks an index like the S&P 500. And while Buffett is bullish on the ETFs, urging investors to put 90 percent of their money there, he also keeps a 10 percent cash cushion in the form of short-term bonds. For his part, Jadallah suggests that you increase that to 20 percent. "If the market has a 40 percent drawdown event, it takes years to recover," he says. "You want to align with what the market is doing over a long-term trend." Do that, he adds, while also having something to protect you in the event of a major drawdown event.

    Find Funds that Are Diversified

    One of the main reasons the S&P 500 is such a safe bet is that it's diversified. "Having 10 airline stocks isn't being diversified," says Wallman. In fact, it's an incredibly concentrated way of investing, but that doesn't stop a lot of investors from investing primarily in tech, energy or other industry-specific stocks. Here you're not getting much of the benefit of an index fund at all. You're sharpening your overall market risks, because when you invest heavily in one specific industry, the entire economy doesn't have to have a downturn -- just the one that you're in.

     

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    closeup portrait of grumpy...
    Shutterstock


    The holidays can be a social landmine. There are so many emotions and expectations tied up in gift-giving. Rather than risk offending someone, we often go overboard and end up with a gift list nearly as long as Santa's.

    Whether your budget is stretched thin or you have had it up to here with Christmas commercialism, there are simple ways to reduce the number of gifts you're giving without looking like a skinflint.
    Following are five tips for doing this successfully.

    1. Start with the low-hanging fruit. I'm talking about the people you give to out of habit or obligation. The nephew you haven't seen in three years who never says thank you for the holiday check? Cross him off the list. The neighbors who moved in 2008 and are your Facebook friends now? They don't need a gift either.

    Likely, many of the people who fall into the casual acquaintance category aren't expecting a gift and won't even notice if you stop mailing them the annual fruitcake.

    In the event you do get caught off-guard with a present from someone you crossed off your list, it is always a good idea to have a couple of relatively inexpensive, but nicely presented, gifts at the ready.
    For example, soap that is beautifully wrapped with a sparkly bow, a bottle of wine in a gift bag, or goodies such as jam or candies can make great presents.

    For more inspiration on how to use holiday deals to buy discounted presents for the entire year, check out Tips to Score a Year's Worth of Gifts at Rock Bottom Prices. You can also find cheap gift ideas on our Deals page.

    2. Tackle the family and office Christmas party. Gift-giving expectations run the gamut during family and office parties. Some parties may not include any gift exchange while others operate under the expectation everyone will be gifting to everyone else.

    If yours falls into the latter category, it's time to rein in the madness. The key is to find a couple of like-minded people on your side. If you have a co-worker or cousin living on a tight budget, he or she could be your ally.

    Once you have a couple of people who are ready for a change, approach the person in charge to propose an alternative. It could be your boss, the HR director or the grandma who hosts the holiday party each year.

    Be sure to stress you have loved past parties but budgets are really tight this year -- or your kids simply have too much stuff. Then, propose something different, such as secret Santa arrangements or the "white elephant" game.

    3. Consider the creative use of cards. You may like some people, yet don't interact with them on a regular basis -- the postman, co-workers the next department over or the custodial staff at your kids' school.

    Rather than eliminate them completely, move them from the gift category to the card category. Read The 20-Cent Greeting Card for ideas on making something that's both inexpensive and impressive.
    If you're short on time, hit your local craft shows to find some handmade cards -- in my area, you can regularly find crafters selling cards for $1-$2 each. Then write a heartfelt note and attach a piece of candy to the outside.

    4. Use charitable donations with caution. Giving charitable donations in someone's name can come across as either very thoughtful or very cheap.

    Typically, I only recommend this strategy if you know of a cause that is particularly dear to the recipient. For example, if Grandpa Joe died of cancer this year, you could make a donation to the American Cancer Society or a hospice in the name of the "Smith Family."

    5. Keep it real with those who understand. Finally, don't be afraid to be open and honest with good friends and close relatives. Tell them you love the holidays but hate the commercialism. Or explain you lost your job and are flat broke this December. Perhaps you simply have too much stuff.

    Whatever the reason, ask if you can skip your traditional gift exchange. You could suggest going to the Christmas concert, seeing the latest blockbuster or maybe even ordering pizza and hanging out for the night instead.

    Have you cut back on your holiday spending? Who got the boot and did they notice? Tell us about it in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

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

    Reasons You Keep Blowing Your Holiday Budget

     

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    GM November Sales Up 1.5% Vs. 2.3% Est.

    By DEE-ANN DURBIN

    DETROIT -- November used to be a slow month for U.S. car sales. Not anymore.

    Black Friday promotions -- some of which began well before Thanksgiving -- were expected to push last month's sales to near-record levels. Car buying site Edmunds.com predicted sales of new cars and trucks will hit 1.33 million, eclipsing the previous November record set in 2001.

    General Motors (GM) sales rose 1.5 percent over last November, while Toyota (TM) and Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) each saw 3 percent sales gains. Hyundai's sales jumped 12 percent, while Nissan's were up 4 percent. Ford's sales were flat.

    Car sales
    Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
    Honda (HMC) sales fell 5 percent, hurt by lower CR-V sales. But the biggest sales declines were at Volkswagen. VW's U.S. sales plummeted almost 25 percent, hurt by the company's admission that its diesel vehicles cheated on emissions tests.

    November was a notoriously slow sales month until about five years ago, when car dealers joined other retailers in promoting Black Friday, according to Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell. Now, like Amazon (AMZN), Walmart (WMT) and others, dealers started promoting "Black Friday" deals as early as Halloween. Jeep offered zero percent financing for up to 75 months. GM teased savings of up to 20 percent of for its Buick, Chevrolet and GMC brands. Hyundai offered an extra $500 on the Sonata sedan between Nov. 20 and Nov. 30.

    Ford's U.S. sales chief Mark LaNeve said sales got progressively stronger as November progressed, and the last day of the month was one of the best days this year.

    Deals can be dangerous for the auto industry because they cut into profits and lower vehicles' resale value. Incentives have been creeping upward since 2011; in November, they rose an estimated $172 over last year to $3,066 a vehicle, according to the car buying site TrueCar.com (TRUE).

    But Eric Lyman, vice president for industry insights at TrueCar, says the gradual increase isn't a worrisome trend for the industry. For one thing, companies are making more profit per vehicle than they used to because they're selling more SUVs and trucks. The average sale price of a vehicle last month was $32,966, up 1 percent from the previous month.

    Automakers are also trying to capture as many sales as they can in the boom years before sales inevitably slow. Rising interest rates, higher gas prices and other factors are all expected to stall auto sales sometime in the next few years.

    "It's kind of like, make hay while the sun shines," Lyman said.

    And the sun is certainly shining. Last week, sales forecasting firm LMC Automotive said sales are now likely to reach a record 17.5 million in 2015.

    For November, automakers said:
    • GM sales rose 1.5 percent to 229,296. Chevrolet and Cadillac brand sales were up but fell at Buick and GMC. Sales of GM's best-seller, the Silverado pickup, rose 5 percent.
    • Toyota sales rose 3 percent to 189,517. In a sign of the impact of lower gas prices, sales of the RAV4 SUV jumped nearly 30 percent while Prius hybrid sales were down 10 percent.
    • Ford sales were up less than 1 percent to 187,794. A 10-percent increase in F-Series pickup sales couldn't overcome lower sales of key vehicles like the Escape SUV and Fusion sedan.
    • Fiat Chrysler Automobiles sales rose 3 percent to 175,974, powered by a 20-percent increase in Jeep sales. Ram truck sales rose 1 percent. Dodge, Fiat and Chrysler sales all fell.
    • Honda sales fell 5 percent to 115,441. The company was hurt by an 18-percent decline in sales at its Acura luxury brand.
    • Nissan sales rose 4 percent to 107,083. Truck and SUV sales jumped 15 percent, but Leaf electric car sales dropped 60 percent.
    • Hyundai sales rose 12 percent to 60,007. Sales of its newly redesigned Tucson SUV nearly doubled over last November.

     

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    Price-Tracking Tools for Holiday Savings
    This holiday season, many of us will be shopping online to find the best deals on holiday gifts, but online bargains can frequently fluctuate many times over the course of a day. Here are a few tools you can use to prevent you from overpaying.

    First, when it comes to shopping on Amazon, the key to saving is to knowing a product's price history. Sites like CamelCamelCamel show you how the price of the item has gone up or down over time. Simply paste the Amazon URL or product keyword and you'll instantly see how prices have changed. And if you sign up for a free account, you can get alerts about when the perfect time to buy is.

    Next, check out Invisible Hand for deals with some of the biggest web retailers. For deals with over 600 supported stores, simply download the web browser extension and Invisible Hand will discreetly notify you if the product you're shopping for is available for less from another retailer. And, as an added bonus, Invisible hand works with hotels, rental-cars and flights, too.

    Finally, for the browsing extension that can do it all, check out PriceZombie. This tool combines the best of the previously mentioned tools by showing you a product's price history while also telling you where it's being sold for the lowest price. If a price drops on a product you've already purchased, PriceZombie will notify you with enough time to request a refund for the difference.

    There are a lot of great price tracking tools out there -- these are just a few. Give one of them a try this holiday season to save money while you're gifting.

    View Poll

     

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    US-FINANCE-ATT
    Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty ImagesRandall Stephenson, chairman and CEO of AT&T and chairman of the Business Roundtable.
    By Nick Carey

    CHICAGO -- For the third consecutive quarter, U.S. CEOs expressed growing caution about the country's economic prospects in the short term and more said they expected to curtail capital investments over the next six months, according to a survey released Tuesday.

    The Business Roundtable CEO Economic Outlook Index -- a composite of CEO projections for sales, investment and hiring plans over the next six months -- fell 6.6 to 67.5 points in the fourth quarter, its lowest level in three years.

    The long-term average for the index is 80.1 points.

    The proportion of CEOs who said they expected their capital spending to decrease over the next six months rose to 27 percent from 20 percent in the third quarter.

    Sixty percent of CEOs surveyed said they expected sales to increase over the next six months, down from 63 percent during the previous quarter.

    CEOs said that regulation was the top cost pressure facing their business, followed by labor and health care costs.

    Randall Stephenson, chairman of the Business Roundtable and CEO of AT&T (T), said in a statement that if "we really want to see the U.S. economy and hiring really take off, Washington needs to adopt a smarter approach to regulation."

     

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    Volunteers serving healthy hot meal at soup kitchen
    Getty Images
    By Mitch Lipka

    When it comes to giving to charity, women are in the driver's seat.

    A recent survey conducted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC) found that women are more generous than men when it comes to charitable giving, especially with respect to decisions about volunteer activities and smaller financial donations.

    Large financial donations are often made jointly.

    Reuters asked Lorna Sabbia, managing director and head of retirement and personal wealth solutions at Merrill Lynch, for insights into giving and issues surrounding philanthropy among families and women.

    Q: How much are women really driving giving decisions compared with men?

    A: Many men and women are both highly altruistic. However, our research shows that more women than men contribute financially and volunteer their time to causes.

    The difference may be explainable by their motivations. Women are more likely than men to say helping people in need brings them greater happiness than spending money on themselves, and women are more likely to define success by generosity versus wealth.

    Q: How much do issues within a family affect giving, such as children concerned about parents giving away their inheritance?

    A: The best way for children not to feel slighted is by involving them in the giving process. Not only are you making them personally invested, but also teaching them important life lessons about generosity.

    You can involve children and grandchildren in a number of ways, such as a starting a volunteering tradition -- the holidays can be a great time to do so -- providing a "giving allowance" that is donated to a nonprofit of their choice, or asking them what causes they are passionate about and finding a way to incorporate it into the family's philanthropic planning.

    Q: What sorts of causes, or types of causes, do women tend to favor?

    A: We don't see many differences between the type of causes men and women give to, which is not surprising.

    It isn't about gender - we have found, it's about the individual and their life experiences. For instance, someone whose family member has been affected by cancer might give to cancer research.

    However, we did see generational differences. For a long time religious organizations have been the largest recipient of charitable dollars, but millennials are giving to educational and art/culture causes at higher rates - signally a potential shift in the future.

    Q: At what age do donors tend to become more active and why?

    A: Retirement is the best time in life to give back, according to our recent study.

    Retirement often presents the perfect recipe for giving -- more time, more savings and more skills. As people stop working full-time and "empty nest," they gain unprecedented amounts of free time. Combine that time with a lifetime of experience, skills and talents, retirees present us with the most available and skilled volunteer workforce.

    Retirees also have accumulated more net worth and therefore give the highest average amounts to charities. To be specific, retirees account for 31 percent of the adult U.S. population, but contribute 42 percent of money to charity and 45 percent of total volunteer hours.

    Q: How significant for non-profits is the potential of donors donating their time in addition to their money, or instead of it?

    A: For those without the means to financially give, volunteering can be a great way to experience the benefits of giving back without writing a check. This is particularly true among retirees, who might be on a fixed income, but have free time and a lifetime of skills to offer. Nonprofits that recognize this opportunity and can tailor their programs to involve retiree volunteers will benefit the most.

    (The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

     

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    Manufacturing
    Nam Y. Huh/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. manufacturing contracted in November for the first time in three years as the sector buckled under the weight of a strong dollar and deep spending cuts by energy firms, but robust automobile sales suggested the economy remained on solid ground.

    Other data released Tuesday showed a sturdy increase in construction spending in October, which should help offset the drag from manufacturing on fourth-quarter economic growth. With manufacturing accounting for only 12 percent of the economy, analysts say it is unlikely the persistent weakness will deter the Federal Reserve from raising interest rates this month.

    Manufacturing is being pummeled by the stronger dollar and the weakness of global demand, but the other 88 percent of the economy continues to perform well.

    "Manufacturing is being pummeled by the stronger dollar and the weakness of global demand, but the other 88 percent of the economy continues to perform well. This won't prevent the Fed from raising interest rates at the mid-December meeting," said Steve Murphy, a U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.

    The Institute for Supply Management said its national factory index fell to 48.6 last month, the weakest reading since June 2009 when the recession ended, from 50.1 in October. While a reading below 50 indicates a contraction in manufacturing, the index remains above 43.1, which is associated with a recession.

    Factory activity has also been undercut by business efforts to reduce an excessive inventory build, which is putting pressure on new orders. The ISM said a gauge of new orders tumbled 4 percentage points to 48.9 last month.

    Inventories at manufacturers continued to shrink and their customers reported stocks of unsold goods were too high for a fourth consecutive month.

    Ten out of 18 manufacturing industries, including apparel, machinery, primary metals, electrical equipment, appliances and components and computer and electronic products reported contraction in November. Five industries reported growth.

    Manufacturers cited dollar strength, slower Chinese and European growth and lower oil prices as headwinds. Recent data on business capital spending plans and factory output had offered hope that the worst of the sector's woes were over.

    But with auto sales and construction spending remaining robust early in the fourth quarter, economists still expect U.S. gross domestic product to expand at around a 2 percent annual pace, almost matching the third-quarter pace.

    Though November auto sales dropped to a seasonally adjusted annualized 18.19 million-unit pace from October's brisk 18.24 million rate, according to Autodata Corp., they kept the industry on track for record sales this year.

    Strong Domestic Demand

    "The good news is that the much more important services sector continues to do very well, benefiting from solid domestic demand. In that environment, the Fed will begin to raise interest rates at the upcoming meeting," said Harm Bandholz, chief U.S. economist at UniCredit Research in New York.

    Fed officials meet on Dec. 15-16 and are expected to raise benchmark rates for the first time in nearly a decade.

    Prices for U.S. government debt rose, while the dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. stocks ended higher.

    In a separate report, the Commerce Department said construction spending increased 1.0 percent to a seasonally adjusted $1.11 trillion rate, the highest since December 2007, after rising 0.6 percent in September.

    Construction outlays were up 13 percent compared to October of last year. Spending in October was buoyed by a 0.8 percent rise in private spending, which touched its highest level since January 2008. Outlays on private residential construction hit their highest since December 2007.

    Investment in private non-residential construction projects rose 0.6 percent to a near seven-year high, with spending on manufacturing plants rising a robust 3 percent.

    Public construction outlays jumped 1.4 percent to a five-year high as a surge in federal government spending offset a dip in investment by state and local governments.

    "Despite the free fall in oil patch activity, total construction in the rest of the economy is doing quite well," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks started December stronger Tuesday as health and consumer shares bounced back while auto sales suggested upbeat growth in November.

    The S&P health care index jumped 1.7 percent, while the consumer discretionary index was up 1 percent, both retracing Monday's losses.

    UnitedHealth Group (UNH) shares rose 3.1 percent to $116.26 after its chief executive defended the company's possible withdrawal from the Obamacare health insurance exchanges. Shares of Anthem (ANTM) were up 4.2 percent at $135.82.

    Strong domestic auto sales in November kept the industry on pace for a record year in 2015. Shares of Ford (F) were up 1.6 percent at $14.56, though General Motors (GM) shares were up 0.2 percent at $36.26.

    We get a feeling the consumer is still there though it's not shopping brick-and-mortar as much. Cyber Monday results were certainly more positive than Black Friday results.

    The S&P retail index rose 1 percent. Amazon.com (AMZN) was up 2.1 percent at $679.06.

    "We get a feeling the consumer is still there though it's not shopping brick-and-mortar as much. Cyber Monday results were certainly more positive than Black Friday results. Christmas hasn't been canceled, and that's been reflected in stocks today," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities in New York.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 168.43 points, or 1 percent, to 17,888.35, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 22.22 points, or 1.1 percent, to 2,102.63 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 47.64 points, or 0.9 percent, to 5,156.31.

    Other data showed a sturdy increase in construction spending in October. Offsetting the upbeat economic news, though, was a report showing manufacturing contracted in November for the first time in three years.

    Anticipation

    Investors are watching data closely ahead of next week's Federal Reserve meeting, where the central bank could decide to raise interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade.

    The main economic report this week will be Friday's November employment report, which is expected to show that the economy added 200,000 jobs during the month. Analysts say a strong report virtually guarantees a rate rise this month.

    Investors are also awaiting Thursday's European Central Bank meeting, when the bank is widely expected to ramp up its trillion-euro bond-buying program.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2,183 to 899, for a 2.43-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,629 issues rose and 1,185 fell for a 1.37-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The S&P 500 posted 26 new 52-week highs and five new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 114 new highs and 65 new lows.

    About 6.9 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, slightly above the 6.8 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    -Sinead Carew contributed reporting from New York.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • Automatic Data Processing (ADP) releases the ADP Employment Report at 8:15 a.m. Eastern time. The Labor Department releases revised third-quarter productivity data at 8:30 a.m.
    • The Federal Reserve releases the Beige Book survey of regional economic activity at 2 p.m.
    • American Eagle Outfitter (AEO) releases quarterly financial results after U.S. markets close.

     

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    young couple exchanging christmas gifts (series)
    Getty ImagesSo you bought your father-in-law a tie and found out he hates ties? At least you have a little extra time to take it back.


    You likely already know how to spot a good Black Friday deal (electronics are almost certainly on your list) and how to plan your shopping schedule so you hit all the best sales (cutting short your Thanksgiving dinner is practically a must).

    But do you know how to return a deal that turns out to be less than what you expected?
    Here are some Black Friday return policy dates and details you should know before bargain hunting at some of the biggest stores.

    Best Buy

    Before you scoop up discounted video games or reduced-price cellphones, know your return options. At Best Buy (BBY), purchases made between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 have an extended return period that lasts through Jan. 15. Some things are excluded from this extension, including cellphones and devices with a carrier contract, as well as AppleCare and Geek Squad Protection plans returned without a product.

    Additionally, some products are final sale, which means they're nonreturnable. These include digital content, prepaid cards and opened consumable items including batteries, ink and 3-D printer filament, among others. Check the specifics for an item before you buy.

    Best Buy purchases can be returned in-store (regardless of whether you purchased them online or in-store). Just remember to bring along your receipt, the credit card you used or your photo ID. Returns can also be made my mail, but you'll have to pay for postage.

    Target

    At Target (TGT), most unopened items in new condition can be returned within 90 days for a refund or exchange. Exceptions include open music; movies; video games; and software, which can't be returned, but can be exchanged in-store for an identical title on the same or a different platform.
    Electronics and entertainment items have a 30-day return period. But the return period for electronics and entertainment products purchased between Nov. 1 and Dec. 25 won't start until Dec. 26.

    Amazon

    Typically Amazon (and most sellers on Amazon) allows customers to return items within 30 days of receipt of shipment. But that period has been lengthened just for the holidays. Purchases shipped by Amazon.com (AMZN) between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 can be returned all the way through Jan. 31 for a full refund.

    But there are a few things for shoppers to keep in mind: Marketplace sellers are subject to this same holiday window as Amazon unless otherwise noted. View a seller's specific return policy to see if the dates differ or not.

    Amazon also has specific return guidelines depending on the type of purchase you make and which product category it falls in. Fine art purchases with a value of $75 or more, for instance, must be returned with trackable shipping. Gift cards can't be returned, except as required by law. Groceries and wine can't be returned to Amazon, but may be refunded. Consult the website's full return policy before buying.

    Staples

    Staples (SPLS) customers can return their purchases for any reason, and the return policy period for electronics has been extended.

    Electronic and furniture items can usually only be returned within 14 days, but for purchases made between Nov. 22 and Dec. 24, that period lasts until Jan. 16 (or as regular policy allows, whichever is later).

    There are exceptions, though. Gift cards and phone cards are neither returnable nor refundable. Opened software packages can only be exchanged for the exact same title. Downloadable software can't be returned or exchanged.

    Sears

    Select items purchased at Sears (SHLD) between Nov. 8 and Dec. 24 will carry extended return periods. Under this special holiday offering, products that would normally have a 30-day return period can instead be returned all the way through Jan. 24.

    But shoppers should be cognizant of what they choose as a gift this year, as not everything you buy on Black Friday will fall under this extended window. For instance, Christmas items like trees and decorations can't be returned after Dec. 25. And certain other products (including vacuum cleaners and major home appliances) as well as purchases that typically carry a return period of less than 30 days won't be covered by the extended seasonal policy.

    Read Between the Lines

    Black Friday shopping is all fun and deals until you get stuck with a gift you don't want. Check out the full return policies of the stores above or any other store you plan on shopping at this season. Most policies are clearly articulated on the "return" page of a retailer's website.

    Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, which saves consumers cash and compares everything from shopping deals to credit cards.

     

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    businessman hold a blackboard...
    Shutterstock
    By Cameron Huddleston

    When it comes to personal finance advice, there's no shortage of it. In fact, you could spend countless hours reading the tips and strategies of experts to learn how to better manage your money. It can be overwhelming. So, wouldn't it be nice if you could simply get the best advice from the best experts?

    GOBankingRates asked some of the most well-known personal finance experts and entrepreneurs to share their top money tip for 2016 as part of our annual "Best Money Expert" competition in collaboration with Ally Bank. Here are the top tips these 12 finance experts offered to help you take control of your finances next year.

    1. Be proactive with your money. As a best-selling author and host of his own popular radio show -- with more than 8 million listeners -- Dave Ramsey is one of the most well-known names in personal finance. His get-out-of-debt message has helped many eliminate debt and achieve financial success.

    For 2016, Ramsey said you should "tell your money what to do instead of wondering where it went. People know what they need to do with their money, but they just don't do it. Be proactive with your money -- do a budget, get rid of debt and save."

    2. Find a job you're satisfied with. Clark Howard, host of the nationally syndicated radio show "The Clark Howard Show" and author of 10 books, has been helping people save more and spend less for decades. To get ahead in 2016, Howard suggested making sure you're happy with your current job.

    "My No. 1 tip for Americans as we approach 2016 is if you are in a job you aren't completely satisfied with, shop the market," said Howard. "If your employer is being cheap about giving raises, there are tons of companies out there that are offering great opportunities right now -- so shop yourself in the market, and find a better job that's better for you and your family."

    3. Make saving for retirement a priority. Nationally syndicated personal finance columnist Liz Weston said that people need to make saving for retirement a priority in 2016. "It's going to come sooner and cost more than you think," said Weston, who is the author of numerous books and has won several awards for her writing.

    "The good news: The younger you start, the better shot you'll have at financial independence," she said. "Even if you got a late start, though, every dollar you save will help your future self have a better life."

    4. Create an ideal investment portfolio. Tony Robbins is known for his ability to distill practical and digestible lessons from complex financial concepts. The author, adviser and successful businessman said that investors need to adhere to four core principles as they head into 2016. These core principles include not losing money, finding investments with asymmetric risk and reward, creating a tax-efficient portfolio and diversifying your assets.

    "Ultimately, you want to make sure that your portfolio aligns with these Core Four principles so that you're protected no matter what," said Robbins.

    5. Always make a plan. Chris Hogan has made it his mission to help people successfully manage their finances in their personal lives and businesses. The former national champion and all-American football player now helps people plan for the future. He said the best thing you can do for your finances in 2016 is create a plan.

    "Think about what your financial goals are and create a plan to reach those goals," Hogan said. "The necessity of a plan sounds simple, but it is the one thing that many people overlook when it comes to their money. And a dream without a plan is simply a wish."

    6. Ask for better rates. Nicole Lapin claims to be the "only finance expert you don't need a dictionary to understand." So her best money tip for 2016 is simple: Learn to negotiate. "I'm a big advocate of negotiating," said Lapin, author of "Rich Bitch." "All it takes is a little guts."

    Lapin said you should always ask for a better rate on everything from your phone or cable plan to medical bills. "You have nothing to lose but a little time. The worst thing they can say is no. And they usually won't," she said. "So before the New Year is underway, call all of your providers and ask for a better rate. It's the best way to start a financially fabulous New Year."

    7. Get financially educated. Robert Kiyosaki is known for his unconventional perspectives on money that he advocated in his "No. 1 personal finance book of all time," "Rich Dad Poor Dad." So this personal finance expert who likes to challenge the status quo advised you take responsibility to get ahead next year.

    "Don't wait for the government, a financial adviser or your boss to take care of you," Kiyosaki said. "You must take control of your finances. You must get financially educated. Take responsibility for your life and your future -- don't give that right away."

    8. Create the lifestyle you want. The winner of GOBankingRates' 2014 "Best Personal Finance Expert" competition, Josh Felber has made it his mission to help people make more money and enjoy a lifestyle of their own design. To that end, he has two money tips for 2016.

    "To create real wealth, you must quit spending your future wealth on goods and services that you want today, but deprive you of wealth long term," said Felber, who was featured in Steve Forbes' "SuccessOnomics."

    His second tip is that "2016 is the year to break free from mediocrity and society's norms. Now is time to quit your 9-to-5 job and become an entrepreneur. Start becoming the true you and creating the lifestyle you are destined for."

    9. Think about how to bring in more money. Kyle Taylor helps the 5 million readers of his blog, ThePennyHoarder.com, put more money into their pockets. Although he's a pro at cutting costs, his No. 1 money tip for 2016 is centered on earning more rather than saving more.

    "From 'skip the lattes' to 'cut the cord,' there's plenty of great advice on how to save money," Taylor said. "But I believe there's something missing from most of the discussion: You should spend just as much time thinking about how to bring in extra money as you do thinking of ways to save what you already have. There are only so many things you can cut from your budget."

    10. Automate your savings. Jeanette Pavini has had a long career as an author, investigative reporter and spokesperson with a mission to save people money. In her role as spokesperson for Coupons.com, she has shared her money-saving expertise on hundreds of national and local television programs and publications. So, it's no surprise that her top money tip for 2016 is about saving.

    "Automate your savings out of every paycheck, rather than putting lump sums in when you get around to it," Pavini said. "You want your money to earn as soon as you earn it. If you already have automatic savings, up it by 1 percent. It's small enough you won't notice, but big enough to make a difference."

    11. Wealth includes more than money. Tim Ferriss is many things: angel investor, public speaker and author of several books -- including the bestseller "The 4-Hour Workweek." His business podcast, "The Tim Ferriss Show," is routinely ranked as a top podcast on iTunes and offers listeners advice on how to improve their lives.

    For 2016, Ferriss offered this money mantra: "The lifestyle value of each dollar you have is determined by your control of two other currencies: time and mobility."

    12. Never lose money. Warren Buffett is one of the richest men in the world. He is also a successful and brilliant investor.

    Perhaps this mantra of his explains, in part, how he came to be one of the most successful investors of our time: "Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1."

    Whose personal finance advice do you think is the best? Vote for your favorite expert in the GOBankingRates' "Best Money Expert" competition.

    This story, 12 Influential Experts Give Their Top Money Tips for 2016, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Force Friday: May The Force Be With Shopping District In Seoul
    Chung Sung-Jun/Getty ImagesThe Star Wars credit card offers a meet-and-greet with Darth Vader as one of its perks.


    As fans all over the world eagerly await the December release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," we are continuously reminded that the global Star Wars phenomenon isn't just about movies.

    Sure, it all starts with the movies, which have earned billions of dollars at the box office. However, it extends far beyond the movie theater. There are novels, comic books, video games, lunchboxes, clothing of all shapes and sizes, breakfast cereals, action figures, bobbleheads and even a Darth Vader refrigerator -- all of which you can buy with a Star Wars Visa credit card. But is this card something that Star Wars fans should add to their collection or something they should avoid like a confrontation with Darth Vader? Let's break it down ...

    The card is part of Chase's Disney Visa card program and is available in three different Star Wars-themed designs: one featuring Darth Vader, another with Yoda and another with R2-D2 and C-3PO. It also comes with rewards aimed toward fans of the films, including:
    • 10 percent off purchases $50 or more when you use the card at the Disney Store or DisneyStore.com. (Reminder: In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm, the company that created the Star Wars franchise under founder George Lucas.)
    • 10 percent off select Star Wars merchandise purchases $50 or more at select locations at Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California.
    • An "Imperial Meet 'N' Greet" at Disneyland or Disney World with Darth Vader himself. (Just make sure you don't make him mad while you're there.)
    Some details with the card vary based on which version you get. You can get the Star Wars designs on either the Disney Rewards Visa card or the Disney Premier Visa card. Some of the differences between the two include:
    • The premier card comes with a $100 statement credit after you spend $500 in the first three months. The rewards card offers a $50 statement after your first purchase.
    • The premier card has a $49 annual fee, while the rewards card has no fee.
    The APR -- 15.99 percent -- is the same on both versions of the card, as is the introductory offer of zero percent interest on purchases for six months.

    But is it worth applying for?

    The Verdict

    No credit card is a great fit for everyone. It's all about finding a card that matches your lifestyle, and the Star Wars card is no different.

    If you're a huge Star Wars fan, and you've got a trip to Disney World or Disneyland in your immediate future, the card might work for you. It'd be fun to have the Dark Lord of the Sith on your card. The APR is reasonable. The discounts can help you save when you're buying your new Kylo Ren lightsaber or your Lego Millennium Falcon. Plus, an Imperial Meet 'N' Greet sounds like good geeky fun. However, I would suggest getting the rewards card rather than the premier card. Even though the sign-up bonus is bigger with the premier card, the $49 annual fee makes that bonus a little less powerful.

    For everyone else, I'd say you'd be better off shopping around. Today's credit card marketplace is so crazy competitive that -- if you have good credit -- you should be able to find cards that can give you more bang for your buck. Here are some that I'd recommend:
    • Discover it: Discover will double all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year. That means if you've earned $200, they'll double it to $400. They also offer 5 percent cash back on purchases in rotating categories (including Amazon.com through the end of the year) and 1 percent cash back on everything else. Unlike the Star Wars card, there's no annual fee. In addition, there are no late fees for your first late payment, and they promise that paying late won't raise your APR. Other perks of the card include free monthly FICO scores and zero percent APR on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months. The card's standard APR is 10.99 to 22.99, depending on your credit score.
    • Chase Freedom: From the same bank that brought you the Star Wars card comes this cash back card. It offers a $150 bonus after you spend $500 in purchases in the first three months and doesn't come with an annual fee. As with the Discover it card, you earn 5 percent cash back on purchases in rotating categories (including Amazon.com through the end of the year) and 1 percent cash back on everything else. Plus, you pay zero percent interest on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months. Once that introductory period is over, APRs range from 13.99 to 22.99, depending on creditworthiness.
    • Citi Double Cash: This card gives you 1 percent cash back when you buy and 1 percent cash back when you pay -- meaning you're basically getting 2 percent cash back on every purchase. That's one of the higher rates on the market and can help compensate for the fact that there's no sign-up bonus with the card. However, there's also no annual fee, no categories to opt-in for and no caps. Its APR range (12.99 to 22.99) is comparable to the Chase Freedom card, and its 15-month zero percent offer is identical to that card.
    In short, there are better options out there than the Star Wars Visa card. Even though the card isn't exactly from the Dark Side, you'd still be better off shopping around.

    Matt Schulz is the senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com, a site dedicated to helping people make smart decisions about obtaining and using credit. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewschulz.

     

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    2015 Los Angeles Times
    Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty ImagesA Black Friday shopper in Costa Mesa, Calif.


    December is a month when most people can't avoid shopping. You may have skipped Black Friday, but the holiday season is a different beast altogether, with gifts from loved ones, friends and people you barely know coming at you from all angles.

    Maintain lots of holiday cheer by shopping wisely with our December buying guide. We've pored over the extensive DealNews archives from years past to guide you in your quest for the most savvy purchases in December.

    And while you're at it, consider subscribing to the DealNews Select Newsletter to get a daily recap of all our deals. You can also download the DealNews app for mobile savings.

    Shop for Toys During the Mid-Month Sweet Spot

    Black Friday and Cyber Monday were extremely good for toy deals this year, but the sales won't end there. We typically see a high number of toy sales during the middle two weeks of December. Moreover, the ratio of deals that feature Editors' Choice prices increases significantly during this time as well. The first week of December last year featured 27 percent Editors' Choice deals, while the following week had 42 percent.

    For 2015, we recommend shopping Dec. 7 through Dec. 20. Whatever you do though, don't wait until the week of Christmas. The number of discounts drops off significantly and many of the offers are of lesser quality.

    Keep an Eye Out for Gift Card Freebies

    A popular promotion throughout the month of December -- especially amongst restaurants -- is to offer a free gift card to shoppers who purchase one as a gift. For example, last year California Pizza Kitchen offered a $20 gift card to anyone who purchased $100 or more in gift cards. Retailers, on the other hand, are more likely to offer a gift card with purchases that reach a certain order threshold, such as L.L.Bean, which currently offers a free $10 gift card to any customer that spends $50 or more.

    Or Shop for Cheaper iTunes Gift Cards

    December is by far the best month to find discounts on iTunes gift cards, averaging about three deals per week. You're most likely to score a $50 card for $40 or other increments at 20 percent off. Buy some as easy gifts for the holidays, or stock up for yourself and effectively save 20 percent on everything you download in the coming year. To see all our tips on how you can save money on these cards, read our guide.

    Tools and Hardware Deals for Dad

    Does Dad want a new drill for Christmas this year? Perfect! December is an excellent time for tool and hardware deals. Typically the number of sales on tools is about a third higher than average and the total Editors' Choice-caliber promos will double. Look for significant discounts on drills, wrenches, general tool sets and more.

    It's a Jolly Time to Buy Christmas Decorations ... After Christmas

    At this point, it's common knowledge that holiday decorations see their greatest discounts after the holiday in question has passed and this is no different for Christmas. If you wait until Dec. 26, you'll see discounts of 40 to 75 percent off seasonal goods. However, if you absolutely must buy a fake Christmas tree before the 25th, look to Target, Sears and Home Depot for inexpensive options. Also, keep in mind that any seller with fresh-cut trees is likely going to start discounting them around Dec. 20.

    Stock Up on Kitchen Items for More Holiday Cooking

    Although November saw a great number of excellent cookware and kitchen deals, our data shows that they should continue into December. About one in four kitchen deals in December will be of Editors' Choice caliber, including cutlery sets, cookware and bakeware, small appliances and more. Amazon will lead the charge with these deals, offering about a third of the total sales for the month.

    For Some Electronics, Wait Until 2016 Models Debut

    At this point, if you're interested in tech that typically gets updated around the time of the Consumer Electronics Show -- high-end laptops and fancy TVs, for example, tend to get unveiled at the show -- then you might be better served waiting until the 2016 models are announced. This way, 2015 models will start to hit record low prices. (Of course, not everything follows this cycle; smartphones tend to be announced in late spring, while Apple products keep their own individual annual schedule.)

    There Will Be Fewer Sales on Eggs

    While it's true that egg prices have dropped slightly in recent weeks, they hit a record high in September due to an outbreak of avian flu over the summer. According to Bloomberg Business, the epidemic wiped out 32 million egg-laying chickens. While prices are rebounding incrementally, analysts believe there will be fewer supermarket promotions on eggs this month than there were this time last year. That means shoppers will be stuck paying full-price more often than not. Read about other foods that might experience fluctuating prices.

    Snag a Car Deal on New Year's Eve

    The end of the calendar year is generally a good time period to buy a car, as dealerships are eager to clear out old inventory. But TrueCar.com found that Dec. 31 specifically tends to see the strongest average discounts of the year. In 2013, New Year's Eve saw an average discount of 8.8 percent off. There are other ways to maximize your savings too, including tips for effective negotiation.

    Ready to put this information to use? Sign up for the DealNews Select Newsletter or download the DealNews app in order to keep abreast of any and all of these best buys in December.

     

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    How to Fight High Medical Bills

    By Stacy Johnson

    This week's question is from a reader who's ticked off at a doctor. Literally.

    On April 29, I went to a walk-in clinic to have a tick removed from my head (I could not remove it because I could not see it) and on Friday, May 31, I received a bill for $750 to be paid by May 28. Is this normal, and is there anyone who can help me? Am I to blame for not asking the cost of this before they helped me? I am in my 60s, and this has been so stressful. -Sara

    If this story had been about any business other than health care, I would have thought this reader was pulling my leg, because the price is so out of line with the service received. But because it concerns medical costs, I find it not only believable, but likely.

    Exactly What Are These Services Worth?

    A couple of years ago I had a high fever and couldn't immediately get in to see my doctor. I was in such misery, I drove myself to a nearby hospital emergency room. After a few hours, a few tests and a shot of antibiotics, I was on my way.

    Several days later I got the bill: $2,400.

    My first call was to the hospital, and my first question was if they'd sent their bill through my health insurance company. They said no, their records reflected I was uninsured. I explained that I was insured and provided my health insurance information.

    Distressed Senior Woman with Bills
    Getty Images
    A few weeks later, I got a new bill: $600.

    Despite having insurance, I had to pay the $600, because my deductible was $6,000. But where else in America does a vendor charge one customer $600 and another $2,400 for the exact same service? Imagine how you'd feel if you paid $50,000 for a new car, then found out I'd bought the same car from the same dealer on the same day for $12,500.

    The services the hospital supplied were presumably profitable at $600; otherwise they wouldn't have agreed to that rate with my insurance company. Yet they had no problem charging an uninsured person 300 percent more. And if that person was unwilling or unable to pay this inflated bill? The account would go to collections, the collection agency would sue and get a judgment and that person's credit would be ruined.

    Time magazine reporter Steven Brill made the talk show circuit in 2013 after writing a comprehensive story about this exact issue: hyper-inflated medical bills ostensibly created out of thin air and in no way related to the cost of the services provided. While Brill did a great job on his story, the subject is nothing new. We covered it in 2009: See Killer Hospital Bills.

    Sara asks, "Am I to blame for not asking the cost of this before they helped me?" Answer: We should all ask the price of anything before agreeing to it.

    When it comes to health care, however, that's often easier said than done. Sure, Sara could have asked the cost for tick removal and, after being beaten up this way, it's likely she'll do so in the future. But how could I get an advance quote on fixing my fever when the services needed to be performed before the cause was known? Even if I hadn't been practically delirious, there was no way for me to comparison shop.

    What Should Sara Do?

    The first thing Sara should do is what every consumer should do when confronted with any bill that feels unfair. Contact the person responsible, calmly explain the situation and, in the friendliest possible way, ask to have the bill reduced. Whether it's a plumber, a restaurant or a doctor, you have every right to question a bill and ask for an adjustment if the cost is unreasonable in relation to the services provided.

    When Sara calls and asks for a break, she'll probably get results. In a story called Confessions of a Serial Haggler, I quoted a Consumer Reports survey revealing how often people were successful when attempting to negotiate various expenses. The results:
    • Furniture: 94 percent of those who asked got a better deal at least once.
    • Medical bills: 93 percent of people who tried negotiating a lower bill were successful at least once.
    • Home electronics: 92 percent were successful at least once.
    • Appliances: 92 percent were successful at least once.
    • Floor models/demos: 91 percent were successful at least once.
    • Credit card/bank fees: 87 percent were successful at least once.
    • Jewelry: 86 percent were successful at least once.
    • Cellphone plans: 80 percent were successful at least once.
    • Collectibles: 78 percent were successful at least once.
    So Sara's odds are good, and that's something I can verify through my own experience. I've personally asked for, and received, discounts from doctors.

    What Sara Shouldn't Do

    What many people do when confronted with bills they can't pay or find unreasonable is decide they're unfair, then do nothing. Result? The provider of the service rightfully decides the customer is a deadbeat and should be treated like one. So they send the bill to collections, ruin the customer's credit, and do everything within their power to coerce payment.

    Doing nothing is unfair to the service provider. They deserve to know the reason they're not getting paid. More important, unless you're indigent, doing nothing won't work anyway.

    If you don't like the bill, don't ignore it, contest it. If after stating your case you're still not happy, take it up a notch. For example, Sara could talk to a medical billing advocate -- a professional representing consumers with health care bills. She can find one by visiting Medical Billing Advocates of America. She could also talk to a consumer attorney.

    But I'd be willing to bet that a simple phone call is going to leave Sara feeling a lot less bugged.

    Got a question you'd like answered?

    A great way to get answers to just about any money-related question is to head to our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth and, most important, post questions and get answers. It's also where I often look for questions to answer in this weekly column. You can also ask questions by replying to our daily emails. If you're not getting them, fix that right now by subscribing.

    About me

    I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I've earned a CPA (currently inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.

    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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    Unemployment Benefits
    Lynne Sladky/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani and Dan Burns

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. private employers boosted hiring in November and wage growth appeared to pick up in the third quarter, signs of labor market strength that could support the first Federal Reserve interest rate increase in nearly a decade later this month.

    The reports released Wednesday overshadowed data on slumping manufacturing activity and underscored the economy's solid fundamentals.

    The data indicate a steady improvement in the labor market that should support the Fed's confidence that now is the right time to hike rates.

    "The data indicate a steady improvement in the labor market that should support the Fed's confidence that now is the right time to hike rates," said Thomas Costerg, senior U.S. economist at Standard Chartered Bank in New York.

    Private payrolls increased 217,000 last month on top of the 196,000 jobs added in October, the ADP National Employment Report showed. Employment gains were fairly healthy across the board, with manufacturing rebounding from two straight months of shedding jobs. The sector added 6,000 positions in November.

    The ADP report, jointly developed with Moody's Analytics, was released ahead of Friday's Labor Department's more comprehensive employment report.

    Though the ADP report isn't considered a reliable predictor of nonfarm payrolls, economists said it was broadly in line with their expectations for solid job gains in November. According to a Reuters survey, nonfarm payrolls increased 200,000 in November after surging 271,000 in October. Job growth is more than enough to keep up with population growth.

    The Federal Reserve has signaled its intention to lift its benchmark overnight interest rate from near zero at its Dec. 15-16 meeting. Fed Chair Janet Yellen told the Economic Club of Washington that she was "looking forward" to a rate hike as that would be seen as "a testament ... to how far our economy has come."

    The Fed last raised rates in June 2006. Market-based measures of Fed policy expectations assign a probability of 75 percent to the central bank's raising interest rates this month, according to the CME Group's FedWatch site.

    The dollar rose against a basket of currencies, while U.S. stocks and government bond prices fell.

    Labor strength, corroborated by a separate report from the Fed, should help ease concerns about the economy after a report on Tuesday showed manufacturing contracted in November for the first time in three years.

    The Fed's Beige Book of anecdotal information on business activity collected from contacts nationwide showed the labor market continued to tighten modestly between early-October and mid-November. It said several districts reported difficulty finding skilled craftsmen and general laborers in the construction industry.

    Wages Accelerating

    A separate report from the Labor Department suggested wage growth, which has been frustratingly slow even as labor market conditions tighten, could be finally accelerating.

    Compensation per hour in the third quarter rose at a 4 percent annual rate, and not the 3 percent pace the department had reported last month. Compensation was up a solid 3.6 percent from the third quarter of 2014.

    Unit labor costs, the price of labor per single unit of output, were also revised higher to show them increasing at a 1.8 percent rate in the third quarter, instead of the previously reported 1.4 percent pace.

    "The figures in today's report support the idea that wage inflation has picked up lately," said Daniel Silver, an economist at J.P. Morgan in New York.

    While productivity growth, which measures hourly output per worker, was revised up to a 2.2 percent rate in the third quarter, the trend remained weak. Productivity was previously reported to have expanded at a 1.6 percent pace.

    It increased only 0.6 percent from the third quarter of 2014, the smallest in nearly a year.

    Economists blame softer productivity on lack of investment, which they say has led to an unprecedented decline in capital intensity.

     

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    Cheap Money Driving Auto Sales?

    By Phil LeBeau

    Auto loans stretching six or seven years are often criticized as a poor choice because they leave borrowers underwater for years before they finally get to a point where the vehicle is no longer in negative equity.

    Still, the latest snapshot of America's booming auto market shows these longer auto loans are quickly becoming a popular choice for car and truck buyers.

    Experian, which tracks America's auto finance market, says loans with terms of six to seven years are showing the fastest growth.

    In the third quarter of this year, the proportion of auto loans of 73 to 82 months jumped 17.1 percent compared with the same period a year ago, with more than a quarter of all auto loans now stretching out more than six years.

    "[Those] loans are becoming more popular because so many consumers are now looking to keep their monthly payment under $500," said Melinda Zabritski, Experian's senior director of automotive finance. Zabritski says the average monthly payment last quarter was $482.While more buyers are paying for their new vehicle over 6½ or seven years, the most popular term length for auto loans remains 61 to 72 months. In the third quarter, more than 40 percent of new vehicle loans had terms of 5½ to six years, according to Experian. The average length of an auto loan is currently 67 months.

    The appeal of longer loans is obvious, but veterans of the auto industry say it's become a bad habit for lenders and consumers.

    "Eighty-month paper to me is a dangerous thing because the customer spends a lot of their time being in negative equity." said Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors.

    Six- and seven-year auto loans are becoming the primary length for financing new vehicle purchases partially because automakers and dealers are increasingly advertising their latest promotions with 72-month loans. In some ways, those ads have conditioned consumers to believe that it's OK to stretch monthly auto payments over longer terms.

    In many dealerships, it's all about keeping a monthly payment under $500.

     

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    Chatter Swirls Around Yahoo

    By Anya George Tharakan and Liana B. Baker

    Plans by Yahoo's board to consider selling its struggling Internet business sent the company's shares up more than 5 percent Wednesday, as investors cheered a potential new way to separate Yahoo's traditional services from its valuable investment in Chinese Web merchant Alibaba.

    Yahoo's board will weigh a sale of the Internet business at a three-day board meeting starting on Wednesday, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Tuesday.

    Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer's attempts to revive the traditional business have born little fruit, and almost all of Yahoo's market capitalization of about $34 billion is ascribed to its stakes in Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Holding Group (BABA) and Yahoo Japan Corp.

    A separate Alibaba stake would be expected to be more highly valued by the market, but investors want to avoid a massive tax bill in the process. Selling the traditional business is seen as one way possibly to achieve that.

    The big question is whether anyone would actually show up with a meaningful bid.

    Broken out as a separate company, Yahoo's email, Yahoo and Tumblr web sites and mobile services could fetch between $2 billion and $8 billion, analysts and bankers said, many seeing $4 billion as the likely price.

    If Yahoo sells off its traditional web business all that would be left, essentially, is the Alibaba and Yahoo Japan stakes.

    "Realizing value is far from assured, however," Pivotal analyst Brian Wieser wrote in a note. "The big question is whether anyone would actually show up with a meaningful bid."

    Interested bidders could range from private equity companies aiming to refocus Yahoo to technology companies eager for Yahoo's mobile and Web content, following the model of Verizon Communications (VZ) buying AOL.

    The Wall Street Journal said potential bidders could include Verizon and IAC/InterActiveCorp. A source familiar with Verizon's thinking said currently there were no talks between the companies. IAC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

    The Journal, which first reported that Yahoo might sell its Internet business, also reported Tuesday that the board meeting would discuss how to proceed with the spinoff of the company's 15 percent stake in Alibaba, worth more than $30 billion if held separately.

    Yahoo's Internet business has been struggling to boost revenue from ad sales in the face of stiff competition from Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL) Google and Facebook (FB).

    According to a person familiar with the matter, activist investor Starboard Value is also disappointed in Yahoo's performance under Mayer and has lost confidence in the CEO. Starboard attributes the relatively low price of the Internet business to poor management of the division by Mayer and the Yahoo management team.

    The company's emerging businesses, which Mayer calls Mavens -- mobile, video, native and social advertising -- have been the bright spot for the company.

    "To me that would be most valuable to sell," said Ivan Feinseth, an analyst at Tigress Financial Partners.

    "I think private equity would be interested in the Mavens businesses," he said.

    Starboard asked Yahoo in November to drop plans to spin off its stake in Alibaba due to the tax concerns, and urged the company to sell its core search and display advertising businesses instead.

    Yahoo (YHOO) shares were up 5.8 percent at $35.66 in afternoon trading on Nasdaq.

    -Supantha Mukherjee contributed reporting.

     

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    Federal Reserve Yellen
    Richard Drew/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's speech Wednesday to the Economic Club of Washington appears on a television screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
    By Jason Lange and Howard Schneider

    WASHINGTON -- Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said Wednesday she was "looking forward" to a U.S. interest rate rise that will be seen as a testament to the economy's recovery from recession.

    Fed policymakers are widely seen raising interest rates for the first time in almost a decade at their next meeting on Dec. 15-16, but they continue to parse data and trends carefully given the uneven nature of the U.S. recovery.

    In her remarks to the Economic Club of Washington, Yellen expressed confidence in the U.S. economy, saying job growth through October suggested the labor market was healing even if not yet at full strength.

    Yellen also reaffirmed her view that the drag on U.S. economic growth and inflation from weakness in the global economy and falling commodity prices would moderate next year. U.S. consumer spending was "particularly solid," she noted.

    "When the Committee begins to normalize the stance of policy, doing so will be a testament ... to how far our economy has come," she said, referring to the Fed's policy-setting committee. "In that sense, it is a day that I expect we all are looking forward to."

    Investors are already betting the Fed will lift its benchmark federal funds rate this month from the zero to 0.25 percent range where it has been held since 2008. Economists also see a strong chance of a December rate rise.

    The U.S. dollar strengthened Wednesday and stocks fell on Wall Street, after Yellen's comments.

    "I was a little surprised she sounded as hawkish as she did given we're two days away from the non-farm payrolls report and a couple of weeks away from the Fed FOMC meeting," said Michael O'Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading in Greenwich, Connecticut.

    Yellen also is due to testify on the economic outlook before a joint Congressional committee on Thursday.

    "Yellen gave a fairly positive assessment of the economy that would be consistent with the Fed raising rates at their December meeting," said Vassili Serebriakov, currency strategist at BNP Paribas in New York.

    As in previous speeches and public appearances, Yellen said the timing of the first U.S. rate increase in nearly a decade was not as important as the path of subsequent rises which policymakers expect will be gradual. Waiting too long to raise rates could deal an accidental blow to the economy, she warned.

    "An abrupt tightening would risk disrupting financial markets and perhaps even inadvertently push the economy into recession," she said.

    Responding to a question after her speech, she said the Fed would weigh incoming data to set the pace of hikes and that policymakers do not expect a mechanical path of rate moves. The Fed schedules policy reviews eight times a year and in the past it has often raised rates at successive meetings.

    "This may turn out to be a very different cycle than past cycles," she said.

    Beige Book Sees Ongoing Expansion

    In its Beige Book report of anecdotal information on business activity collected from contacts nationwide, published on Wednesday, the Fed said U.S. economic activity continued to expand at a modest pace in most regions from early-October through mid-November.

    The Fed said consumer spending increased in nearly all districts. Manufacturing activity remained mixed, the Fed added, with exports continuing to fall as a result of the strong U.S. dollar, low commodity prices and weak global demand.

    Lockhart and Williams Agree

    Earlier Wednesday, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said U.S. economic data would have to "drastically" alter the nation's outlook over the next two weeks to change the "compelling" case for an initial hike in interest rates when the Federal Reserve next meets on Dec. 15-16.

    The Labor Department's monthly jobs report Friday will be a key data point, with economists expecting that as many as 200,000 additional jobs were created in November.

    In a speech Wednesday in California, San Francisco Fed President John Williams agreed that the Federal Reserve should leave near-zero interest rates behind "sooner than later."

    A Reuters poll of over 80 economists taken after the October jobs data were published found a median 70 percent probability the Fed will raise rates on Dec 16. That is up from 55 percent in a poll taken the month before, although Reuters polls have been consistently predicting a December rate rise since the Fed took a pass in September

    -Ann Saphir in San Francisco and Samuel Forgione in New York contributed reporting.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- Stocks closed sharply lower Wednesday after hawkish comments from Janet Yellen boosted expectations of an interest rate hike, and oil fell below $40 a barrel.

    Investors also attributed late-day selling to news coverage of a shooting in southern California.

    The S&P 500 energy index fell 3.1 percent, leading declines in the S&P 500 as U.S. crude oil futures finished the session down 4.6 percent at $39.94. The utility index, which tends to underperform in a higher-rate environment, dropped 2.2 percent. It was the day's second-worst performing sector, although all 10 S&P sectors ended lower.

    This last down leg is related to the fact that every TV station in America is showing people getting carted off on stretchers, and no one knows why.

    Record intraday highs in Alphabet, Amazon and Netflix failed to keep the Nasdaq in positive territory.

    The Fed chair said she was "looking forward" to a rate hike that will be seen as a testament to the economy's recovery from recession. The Fed's next policy meeting is Dec 15-16.

    Yellen also expressed confidence in the U.S. economy. Earlier in the day, data showed U.S. private employers boosted hiring in November. The U.S. government monthly jobs report is due Friday.

    "I was a little surprised she sounded as hawkish as she did given we're two days away from the non-farm payrolls report and a couple of weeks away from the Fed FOMC meeting," said Michael O'Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading in Greenwich, Connecticut.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI)​ fell 158.67 points, or 0.9 percent, to 17,729.68, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC)​ lost 23.12 points, or 1.1 percent, to 2,079.51 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 33.08 points, or 0.6 percent, to 5,123.22.

    Losses accelerated late in the session as news of a shooting in California emerged. Police searched for up to three suspects in the shooting of as many as 20 people, some of them fatally, at a social services agency in San Bernardino.

    "This last down leg is related to the fact that every TV station in America is showing people getting carted off on stretchers, and no one knows why," said Eric Kuby, chief investment officer of North Star Investment Management in Chicago.

    Movers and Shakers

    Yahoo (YHOO) jumped 5.8 percent to $35.65 after reports the company could sell its core Internet business.

    Shares of Amazon.com (AMZN) touched a record high of $684.82 before ending down 0.4 percent at $676.01. Netflix (NFLX) rose to a high of $131.35 and ended at $128.93, up 2.8 percent. Alphabet (GOOGL) rose to $793.04, but ended down 0.8 percent at $777.85.

    Airline shares rose after Delta Air Lines (DAL) said it earned more per mile in November than a year ago. Delta was up 1.4 percent at $48.33, while an index of airlines was up 1.1 percent.

    Yellen is due to testify Thursday on the economic outlook before a joint congressional committee.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,434 to 649, while on the Nasdaq, 1,884 issues fell and 936 advanced. The S&P 500 posted 21 new 52-week highs and 13 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 88 new highs and 65 new lows.

    About 7.4 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 6.8 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • The Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • At 10 a.m., the Institute for Supply Management releases its service sector index for November; the Commerce Department releases factory orders; and Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates.

     

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    2015 Los Angeles Times
    Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
    By Brian O'Connell

    For Andrew Bernstein, holiday gift returns are a pain in the neck -- unless you're dealing with a company that goes the extra mile for customers looking for a return.

    "I had an issue once with a Motorola Moto 360," says Bernstein. "It was around three or four months after buying it at Best Buy. The screen stopped working, and it wouldn't power on. I called Motorola to process a return, and they refused."

    Motorola told Bernstein if he didn't have the serial number (he threw away the box the device came in), the company wouldn't honor his request for a return. "After hearing that, I went to Best Buy with the printed out receipt and they processed a replacement," he said. "I have had amazing experiences with Best Buy, and Amazon has been good about returns, too."

    Bernstein's return saga should resonate with shoppers this holiday season.

    According to GOBankingRates.com, 69 percent of Americans say they returned at least some of their holiday gifts last year.

    Retailers that do a good job of expediting gift and product returns include Nordstrom (JWN), L.L. Bean, Costco (COST) and Bed Bath & Beyond (BBY), GOBankingRates says in a survey. "Each offers much more flexible return policies that other stores," the company states.

    For consumers, finding a store or retail outlet with a flexible purchase return policy is the Holy Grail of post-holiday shopping. "Return policies should be a big consideration for holiday shoppers -- two-thirds of people return at least one holiday gift," says Elyssa Kirkham, lead reporter on the GOBankingRates study. "Shopping at stores that are return-friendly can make life a lot easier if you have to make adjustments to your shopping list later on. It'll also allow you to give guilt-free knowing your recipient won't face a lot of hassle if they decide to return it."

    In addition to the perennial return favorites listed above, J.C. Penney (JCP), Staples (SPLS), Zappos, REI, Macy's (M) and Kohl's (KSS) all made GOBankingRate's "Top 10" list for good product return experiences. On the down side, Forever 21, Kmart, Barnes & Noble (BKS), GameStop (GME) and Sears (SHLD) made its "worst" return policies list.

    What makes a good and flexible purchase return policy? The study says "generous return windows" count highly among retail analysts. 80 percent of the best return policies place no time limits on returns, and the other 20 percent give customers a generous 365 days to make returns, the survey notes.

    Accepting returns without receipts is also huge. 90 percent of stores surveyed will do so, but many only offer store credit in return.

    Retailers fall off the beam in other purchase return areas, too. That's especially so in not fully explaining their return policies and in not making it easy and clear for customers to locate return lines in stores, according to a separate study on the topic by StellaService, a New York City-based customer service performance analytical firm.

    The trick for holiday shoppers is to take some pre-return steps to ensure a good experience. For instance, apply for the store's credit card program where you buy your gifts. That way they will have records of what you bought if you don't have a receipt, says Howard Schaffer, vice president of merchandising for Offers.com.

    "Also, take pictures of your receipts and when possible have the store email the receipt to you so you also can find it on your phone when you go to return the items," Schaffer advises. "And, when returning items online it's important to be aware of the store's guarantee. Oftentimes online items can only be returned up to 30-days from the purchase date."

    Schaffer also advises shopping at stores like Kohl's, that will take back any product, at any time, for any reason. "Do keep in mind that without a receipt you may receive a lower refund than what you paid due to fluctuation in product pricing," he says. Above all, stay calm, Schaffer emphasizes. "We understand that returning a product can be stressful but often times it is just as stressful for the sales associate trying to assist you," he notes. "A stressed associate is more likely to help a calm and considerate customer than a rude one."

    On that note, here's hoping for any happy returns for you this holiday season -- just try to remember that receipt.

     

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    Happy couple smiling on beach
    Getty ImagesRetirement travel requires a bigger nest egg than staying home.
    By Tom Sightings

    Only 1 in 3 Americans in their 50s has ever tried to plan for retirement, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study. And a third of those who try to plan admit that they either gave up or failed miserably. The result: Barely 20 percent of pre-retirees have a useful plan for retirement.

    But making a plan isn't all that difficult. Remember, it's not written in stone, so you don't need to get bogged down in details, and you don't have to worry about getting everything right. It's like making an outline for an essay. The outline gives you a rough idea of where you're going. But you don't actually write the essay until you start living your way through retirement. Here are five items to include in your retirement outline.

    1. Manage your expectations. One rule of thumb says you'll need 70 percent of your pre-retirement income to live comfortably in retirement. But that's just a general rule. If you want to travel, join a golf club or help send your grandchildren to college, you might need more. But many people live on less, especially if they move to a less expensive area of the country and follow a simpler lifestyle.

    2. Account for your changing expenses. Housing expenses tend to go down as we age, as our mortgage gets paid off and maybe we downsize to a less expensive home. Most other expenses also decrease, including costs for food, clothes, recreation and insurance. But medical care is one expense that goes up. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, a retired married couple spends up to $260,000 over their lifetimes for out-of-pocket health expenses, including long-term care. And don't forget to factor in inflation, which has recently been running near zero, but will more likely average 3 to 4 percent over the course of your retirement.

    3. Don't shortchange your life expectancy. Surveys show that over half of pre-retirees underestimate how long they're going to live. Women underestimate more than men. According to the Social Security Administration, the average 65-year-old male can expect to live to age 84, and the average female will make it to 87. But you really need to plan for more than that. One out of five 65-year-old males and one out of three females will live to age 90. Your savings may run out, but Social Security won't. That's one reason to delay taking benefits as long as you can, up to age 70, so they accumulate for a larger payout later in life. But it's not just the money. You may have more time than you think. So sitting around and relaxing may not be all you want to do in retirement. You likely have time to start a business, travel the world, develop a new skill and find a new hobby.

    4. Be ready for a reality readjustment. You may have a plan, but sometimes things don't work out the way you expect. For example, there is a considerable gap between when people think they're going to retire, and when they actually retire. The median expected retirement age is 65, according to a Gallup poll. But the actual retirement age is 61, because layoffs and health issues cut many careers short. The Gallup poll also found that 70 percent of American workers think they will continue to work in some capacity after they retire, but it turns out that many people can't find a suitable job. Only about 25 percent of retirees work in retirement. So whether your plans involve working or something else, do a little advance homework to see if your retirement dreams match up with reality.

    5. Don't be too proud to get help. First of all, you should find a lawyer to draft your will as well as any health directives you may need. Then, whatever your ideas about retirement, start discussing them with your spouse or significant other. You might want to buy a boat and sail around the world, while your partner may want to settle down and babysit grandchildren. A plan is just a pipe dream until you start talking and heading in the same direction. Talk over your plans with your children and friends so they know what you're thinking. They may have some ideas or advice for you. And finally, if the world of finance seems too complicated, don't hesitate to consult an accountant or financial adviser to help turn your retirement dreams into retirement reality.

    Tom Sightings is the author of "You Only Retire Once" and blogs at Sightings at 60.

     

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