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    Massive Airbag Recall Prompts Safety Concerns
    Joe Raedle/Getty Images
    You may have heard that a massive series of automotive recalls are underway to replace air bags made by big auto-industry supplier Takata.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation says that the number of cars that need to be recalled has grown to almost 34 million. But the investigation is continuing, and that number could grow further. The recalls have expanded to include cars from nearly all of the major automakers.

    Many owners of affected cars haven't yet received recall notices, because the automakers have been scrambling to identify all of the affected cars and notify owners. But many consumers have already received recall notices, or heard reports about defective "exploding" air bags and wondered how to find out if they're affected.

    How big a deal is this, and what should car owners do?

    Car Owners Need to Take This Seriously

    The short answer is that the risks are statistically quite low -- but they're still serious.

    Air bags are wonderful safety devices that have saved many lives: The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that frontal air bags saved over 25,000 lives between 1987 and 2008, and likely many more since.

    But to do their jobs, air bags need to deploy instantly and explosively in a crash. "Explosively" is accurate: Air bags use a propellant similar to gunpowder to deploy quickly.

    The issue with the defective Takata air bags is that the propellent can deteriorate over time under certain conditions. That has resulted in some cases in which the airbag's metal housing has ruptured. If the housing ruptures in a crash, metal shards can be sprayed throughout the inside of the car.

    For anyone in a car when that happens, that's a potential disaster. Over 100 injuries, including six fatalities, have been linked to the defective Takata air bags.

    That's a tiny percentage of the tens of millions of cars on the roads that have Takata air bags. But the danger is still very real.

    How to Find Out if Your Car Is Affected

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has a new website devoted to updates on auto recalls, including the airbag recalls. You can find it here at NHTSA's Recalls Spotlight website.

    That site includes a tool that allows you to enter your car's Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, and search to see if there are any active safety recalls affecting your car.

    If your car isn't listed, keep checking back. Not all of the affected cars have been added to the database yet, because some of the recall orders are very recent and the automakers are still working to gather the VINs of the affected cars. But all of the automakers are working hard to notify owners and replace the affected air bags.

    The risks appear to be highest in cars that have spent much of their lives in warm, humid areas, according to NHTSA. The automakers are prioritizing repairs for cars in places including Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, South Carolina, the Gulf Coast states and U.S. island territories.

    But it could take a year or more for the automakers to complete the needed repairs -- meaning that some consumers may have to wait months before their defective air bags can be replaced.

    Why You Might Have to Wait a Long Time for Repair

    The problem is a shortage of replacement air bags.

    To be very clear, this isn't the automakers' fault. The blame for the defects falls squarely on Takata, which may have known about -- and concealed -- the defects for years. But the sheer numbers involved have overwhelmed Takata's ability to make replacement air bags.

    Takata has scrambled to boost its production, but even with its expanded output, it can only make about 450,000 units a month, according to an Automotive News report. At that rate, it will take several years to supply enough new air bags to fix all of the affected cars.

    Another giant airbag supplier has stepped up to help. Industry leader Autoliv (ALV) said in January that it has committed to deliver up to 25 million additional airbag inflators to its automaker clients, and that it is expanding its production capacity as quickly as possible in order to meet those commitments. But it will still take months to install new assembly lines, and many of those airbag inflators won't be delivered until 2016.

    That could leave affected consumers hanging for a long time.

    What to Do if You Get a Recall Notice for Your Car

    If you get a safety recall notice (of any kind) for your car, don't throw it away! Follow the instructions to contact a dealer and schedule your repair. (There will be no charge for recall-related repairs.)
    If the dealer says that it's waiting for parts, ask to be put on a waiting list so that the dealer will call you when it receives the replacement airbag parts.

    The risks to any individual driver or passenger are very low. But the consequences of this defect can be serious. Don't hesitate to drive and enjoy your car, but do get this taken care of as soon as possible.

    Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Autoliv. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Senior woman shopping online with credit card, smiling
    Alamy
    By Kristin Colella

    NEW YORK -- Making smart financial decisions is the key to a fantastic retirement, and that includes choosing the right piece of plastic to keep in your wallet. Whether you're looking to rack up rewards on everyday purchases, earn airline miles for travel or pay down debt, there are several credit cards available that are especially beneficial to retirees.

    After consulting with credit experts, we've come up with a list of five of the best credit cards to use during your golden years. Read on to see which is right for you.

    1. AARP Credit Card from Chase

    If you're interested in a great cash-back rewards card without an annual fee, consider the AARP Credit Card from JPMorgan Chase (JPM). The card allows you to earn unlimited cash-back rewards, including 3 percent on restaurant purchases, 3 percent on gas station purchases and 1 percent on all other purchases. Rewards don't expire as long as your account is open. You can redeem rewards as cash, gift cards (from more than 75 major retailers) or travel (including flights, hotels, cruises and car rentals).

    The card also offers a sweet sign-on bonus: you'll get $100 back after you spend $500 on purchases in the first three months of opening the account.

    "You're essentially getting paid to have this card, and your everyday spending can help supplement your income in retirement," says Greg Lull, head of consumer insights at Credit Karma.

    The AARP Credit Card from Chase has a zero percent introductory annual percentage rate for the first 12 months, then a 16.24 percent APR after that. Although the card is a great choice for retired people, you don't actually have to be a member of AARP to apply for the card, Lull says.

    Need more incentive? For every purchase you make at restaurants with your card, 10 cents will be donated to the AARP Foundation in support of Drive to End Hunger, which helps provide food to older Americans in need.

    2. Citi Double Cash Card

    Another great cash-back credit card is the Citigroup (C) Double Cash Card, which allows you to earn cash back twice on every purchase -- 1 percent when you buy, and an additional 1 percent when you pay. Unlike many other cash-back cards, the Citi Double Cash Card has no restrictive categories and doesn't limit the amount of cash back that you can earn.

    The card charges no annual fee and has a zero percent introductory APR for first 15 months on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable APR of 12.99 to 22.99 percent after that.

    3. Venture from Capital One

    If you plan to do a good deal of globetrotting during your retirement, consider signing up for the Venture card from Capital One (COF).

    Venture allows you to earn two miles for every $1 you spend on purchases, and there's no cap on the amount of rewards that you can earn. You'll also get a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles (equal to $400 in travel) if you spend at least $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of signing up. Rewards don't expire unless you close your account, and you can redeem your miles for any flight or hotel stay, as well as car rentals, cruises and more.

    Another plus: there are no foreign transaction fees when making purchases outside of the U.S., so this card is great if you plan to travel internationally.

    While there's no annual fee for the first year, you'll have to pay an annual fee of $59 after that. The card also offers a 12.9 percent, 17.9 percent or 22.9 percent variable APR on purchases and transfers.

    4. Chase Slate

    Retirees who are looking to get out of debt can benefit from Chase Slate, an attractive balance transfer card.

    "The Chase Slate is one of the few cards on the market that doesn't charge a balance transfer fee on transfers made in the first 60 days," says Erin El Issa, credit card analyst at NerdWallet. After the first 60 days, the balance transfer fee is either $5 or 3 percent of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.

    The card charges no annual fee and also offers a zero percent introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first 15 months, then a variable APR of 12.99, 17.99 or 22.99 percent after that.

    "Many 0% [APR] offers are for only 12 months, so the additional three months is nice," says Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com and `. "The bottom line is that this card could easily save a senior hundreds of dollars depending on the amount transferred and the rate of the card you are transferring from. Even if you have a good rate of 10 percent or less, you still could save a lot."

    5. Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express

    Want to get rewarded simply for making everyday purchases? Check out the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express (AXP).

    Blue Cash Preferred offers 6 percent back on groceries (up to $6,000 a year in spending, then 1 percent after that), 3 percent back on gas and select department store shopping and 1 percent back on other purchases. "This allows cardholders to earn big rewards on the spending they're already doing," says El Issa.

    The card's sign-up bonus isn't too shabby, either: you'll get $150 back after you spend $1,000 on purchases with your new card in the first three months. (The reward comes in the form of a statement credit.)

    Blue Cash Preferred has an annual fee of $75. There's an introductory APR of zero percent on purchases and balance transfers for the first 15 months, then a 12.99 percent to 21.99 percent variable APR after that.

     

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    Dr. Creflo A. Dollar at Chicago Book Signing
    Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty ImagesCreflo A. Dollar at a book signing in Chicago in 2008.

    "If I want to believe God for a $65 million plane, you cannot stop me! You cannot stop me from dreaming." -- "Prosperity preacher" Creflo Dollar

    "I ain't never asked you for a dime." -- Same guy

    Recently, the Internet blew up over the campaign of a controversial televangelist of an Atlanta megachurch to get his parishioners to buy him a Gulfstream G650 luxury jet -- list price: $65 million.

    That sounds like a lot, but it might be a bargain. Described by some as "the biggest, fastest and overall best private jet money can buy," it's a very popular plane, with a waiting list of hopeful buyers last estimated at five years long. Of course, this still raises the question: Should parishioners pay up to buy one for their pastor?

    Who Is Creflo Dollar? (And Is That Really His Name?)

    First and foremost, apparently, yes, that is his name: "Creflo A. Dollar Jr." The son of Creflo Augustus Dollar Sr. apparently founded his World Changers Ministries Christian Center in 1986, and has since grown the organization into a series of megachurches boasting 30,000 members spread across five states and the District of Columbia.

    The mothership is the $18 million, 8,500-seat "World Dome" church located just outside Atlanta, which espouses the religion of "prosperity theology," wherein it is believed that God wants all Christians to be rich and rewards those who tithe more money with more personal riches here on Earth.

    "Easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle ..."

    Whatever you think of the theology, it's certainly working for Mr. Dollar, who, according to CNN, possesses a fleet of Bentley and Rolls-Royce luxury cars, lives in a $2.3 million mansion with a "$23,000 marble commode," and recently pocketed $3.75 million from the sale of a Manhattan condo.

    And yet, CNN admits that no one's quite certain just how rich Dollar is, because donations to the church are tax-exempt and, according to The New York Times, Dollar refuses to reveal his salary. Meanwhile, CNN reports that Dollar's Atlanta church alone received $69 million in 2006 (Dollar operates 11 other "satellite" churches).

    So no wonder Dollar felt compelled to ask for a special contribution! That single G650 luxury jet is going to cost him almost a full year's worth of tithes and offerings.

    In a Perfect World ...

    The Wall Watchers church financial monitoring organization gives World Changers an "F" grade for financial transparency. But inquiring minds still want to know: Just how common is it for churches to splurge their entire offering plate on private jets for televangelists?

    As it turns out ... it's not common at all. Heading over to the Church Law & Tax page at Christianity Today, you can find a detailed listing of how churches in America spend their money on average.

    CLT breaks down church spending into 14 categories. "Private jets" is not one of them, but "travel" is -- and it consumes just 1 percent of an average church's tithes and offerings. That's on par with spending on servicing church debts, and spending on "etc."

    The single biggest expense (47 percent of spending) of most churches in America is on salaries and benefits for church staff. Next comes spending on "ministries and support" -- 9 percent -- followed by a further 9 percent spent on international and domestic "mission support."

    Mortgages and utilities, the inevitable cost of owning any house (even a house of God), consume 7 percent apiece. And because cleanliness is next to godliness, maintenance and cleaning services cost 5 percent of most church budgets.

    Administrative expenses -- office supplies, insurance premiums, and fees paid to a denomination's home office -- when combined, add up to a further 10 percent. And a final 2 percent is saved for a rainy day (or 40), constituting "cash reserves." (On average, such reserves are enough to keep a church afloat for less than two months).

    'You can't stop me from dreaming ...'

    One final stat, and then we'll say our prayers and put this topic to bed for the day. According to Mr. Dollar, you "cannot stop [him] from dreaming" of owning a $65 million private jet. But for most pastors in U.S. churches today, all they can do is dream. Earning average annual salaries of $88,059 in 2013, the average male senior pastor of a U.S. church will be able to buy just one G650 luxury jet ... every 738 years.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith can't help but noticing that Creflo Dollar had to ask for $65 million to buy himself a luxury jet -- but Elijah got a fiery horse-drawn chariot and he didn't even have to ask. How cool is that? Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond -- no donations required.

     

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    Young couple  taking selfies in their new home
    Getty Images
    By Karla Bowsher

    The gap between wages and rents continues to grow in America, making it difficult for low-income workers to afford a modest apartment, according to the latest annual "Out of Reach" report.

    The 2015 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which promotes affordable housing, shows that renters need to earn anywhere from $12.95 an hour to $31.51 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, depending on the state in which they live.

    In 13 states and the District of Columbia, workers need to earn more than $20 an hour to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

    The federal minimum wage, by comparison, has remained at $7.25 an hour since July 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

    Several California cities have adopted higher minimum wages in recent years, with the latest, Los Angeles, raising it to $15 an hour by 2020.

    Other places that have adopted higher minimum wage levels include Seattle, Chicago and a couple of cities in New Mexico. (See "The 'New Norm'? Los Angeles Ups Minimum Wage to $15" to learn more.)

    According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition's study, which has been conducted since 1989, California and Washington are among the 10 most expensive states in which to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Illinois is No. 17 and New Mexico is No. 32. Here are the states where affording a two-bedroom apartment currently requires the highest wages, along with the wages earned by the average renter in those states:
    1. Hawaii: $31.61 an hour (average renter earns $14.49 an hour)
    2. Washington, D.C.: $28.04 (average renter earns $26.08)
    3. California: $26.65 (average renter earns $18.96)
    4. New York: $25.67 (average renter earns $22.21)
    5. New Jersey: $25.17 (average renter earns $16.92)
    6. Massachusetts: $24.64 (average renter earns $18.20)
    7. Maryland: $24.64 (average renter earns $15.71)
    8. Connecticut: $24.29 (average renter earns $16.16)
    9. Alaska: $22.55 (average renter earns $17.47)
    10. Washington: $21.69 (average renter earns $16.30)
    Here are the states where a two-bedroom apartment requires the lowest income, along with the average renter's wages:
    1. Iowa: $13.46 an hour (average renter earns $10.98 an hour)
    2. South Dakota: $13.41 (average renter earns $10.67)
    3. West Virginia: $13.21 (average renter earns $10.46)
    4. Kentucky: $13.14 (average renter earns $11.38)
    5. Arkansas: $12.95 (average renter earns $11.68)
    The National Low Income Housing Coalition's findings are similar to those of Forbes' 2015 rental rankings, which show that the most expensive cities for renters are:
    1. San Francisco
    2. Oakland, California
    3. San Jose, California
    4. Manhattan
    5. Los Angeles
    Check out "Where Being a Renter Really, Really Stinks" to learn more about Forbes' rankings.

    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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    T Mobile shop sign England Uk
    David Bagnall/Alamy
    Dish Network and T-Mobile are discussing a deal to combine the second-largest satellite TV operator in the United States with the fourth-largest wireless carrier, a person familiar with the matter said Thursday.

    Dish (DISH) and T-Mobile US (TMUS) shares were up 5.6 percent and 4.8 percent respectively in morning trading, while those of T-Mobile's majority owner Deutsche Telekom were up 2.9 percent.

    A deal, which has been mooted in the past with senior executives from both companies having entertained it in public comments, would fit with Deutsche Telekom's stated interest in partnerships to strengthen its U.S. business after failing to sell it last year. It would also join a wave of tie-ups in the telecoms and TV industries as companies look to add services for customers.

    The talks between the two companies are at an early stage and important aspects of the deal such as a price and structure have yet to be determined, the source said, asking not to be identified because the negotiations are confidential.

    Representatives at Dish and T-Mobile didn't immediately respond to emails seeking comment. A spokesman for Deutsche Telekom, which owns about 66 percent of T-Mobile, declined to comment.

    The two sides have agreed T-Mobile Chief Executive Officer John Legere would serve as the CEO and Dish CEO Charlie Ergen would become the combined company's chairman, the Wall Street Journal, which first reported on the news, cited people familiar with the matter as saying.

    T-Mobile has a market capitalization of about $31 billion, while Dish's is around $33 billion.

    "It is clear that Deutsche Telekom is looking for future prospects in the United States," a source close to Deutsche Telekom's management board told Reuters, adding it had no knowledge of talks between T-Mobile and Dish.

    Dish and T-Mobile have previously floated the possibility of a deal. Ergen said earlier this year he was "impressed" by T-Mobile, while Legere said it made sense for T-Mobile to team up with Dish.

    Dish, a surprise winner in the record-setting U.S. sale of airwaves for mobile data in January, has amassed wireless spectrum and recently went into streaming TV to offset the loss of pay-TV subscribers. However, what Dish plans to do with the newly-acquired spectrum remains unclear.

    T-Mobile has been looking to buy spectrum from smaller rivals, according to media reports.

    The company has turned around years of subscriber losses with cut-price deals, marketing and wireless plans in recent quarters. While these initiatives have led to customer gains, they have pressured T-Mobile's margins.

    Last year, Deutsche Telekom tried to sell T-Mobile to Sprint (S) but the No. 3 U.S. carrier dropped its bid after regulatory resistance. French operator Iliad also abandoned its attempt to buy T-Mobile last October.

    T-Mobile's rival AT&T (T) is close to wrapping up its $49 billion deal for Dish competitor DirecTV (DTV), while Charter Communications (CHTR) is seeking to remake the U.S. cable television industry by acquiring larger rival Time Warner Cable (TWC) for $56 billion.

    -With reporting by Greg Roumeliotis in New York, Supriya Kurane in Bangalore and Peter Maushagen and Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt.

     

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    In this April 2, 2015, photo, a crowd gathers for a huge 15-county job fair at The Colonnade in Ringgold, Ga. The Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims on Thursday, June 4, 2015. (Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP) THE DAILY CITIZEN OUT; NOOGA.COM OUT; CLEVELAND DAILY BANNER OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT
    Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. nonfarm productivity fell more sharply than initially thought in the first quarter, leading to a jump in labor-related production costs, a trend that could ignite inflation if sustained.

    Other data Thursday showed the labor market tightening, with first-time applications for unemployment aid falling slightly more than expected last week and the number of people on benefit rolls hitting the lowest level since 2000.

    The data likely keep the Federal Reserve on track to raise interest rates later this year.

    Productivity fell at a 3.1 percent annual rate instead of the previously reported 1.9 percent pace, the Labor Department said. That was the first back-to-back fall in productivity since 2006.

    U.S. stock index futures and the dollar trimmed losses after the data. Prices for U.S. Treasuries were slightly higher.

    The productivity decline mirrors the economy's dismal performance in the first quarter, when output contracted at a 0.7 percent rate.

    Given that temporary factors contributed to the decline in output, the drop in productivity could be overstated and a rebound is likely in the second half of the year.

    Still, weak productivity suggests that the economy's potential growth could be lower than the 1.5 percent to 2 percent pace economists currently estimate.

    Economists also say muted productivity growth, if sustained, raises the risk of a faster pick-up in inflation that would require more aggressive interest rate increases than the Federal Reserve and financial markets currently anticipate.

    Productivity rose only 0.3 percent from a year ago. Workers put in slightly fewer hours in the first quarter than previously estimated. Hours increased at a 1.6 percent rate instead of the previously reported 1.7 percent pace.

    With output declining at a 1.6 percent pace, unit labor costs increased at an upwardly revised 6.7 percent rate in the first quarter, the fastest pace since the first quarter of 2014.

    Benign Inflation

    Unit labor costs, the price of labor for each single unit of output, were previously reported to have increased at a 5 percent rate. Unit labor costs rose at a 1.8 percent pace compared to the first quarter of 2014, a sign that wage inflation is benign for now.

    Compensation an hour increased at a 3.3 percent rate in the first quarter of 2015, instead of the previously reported 3.1 percent pace. Wage growth looks set to pick up as the labor market tightens.

    In another report, the Labor Department said Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 8,000 to a seasonally adjusted 276,000 for the week ended May 30. It was the 13th straight week that claims held below the 300,000 threshold, which is usually associated with a strengthening labor market.

    Economists had forecast claims falling last week to 279,000.

    The tightening jobs market underscores the economy's solid fundamentals even though growth is struggling to regain steam after output contracted in the first quarter.

    The economy got off to slow start in the second quarter in part because a strong dollar and spending cuts in the energy sector constrained manufacturing activity.

    There are, however, signs of some pick-up, with data this week showing a surge in automobile sales in May and gains in factory activity last month for the first time since November. In addition, the trade deficit narrowed sharply in April and construction spending hit its highest level since November 2008.

    Last week's claims report has no bearing on May's employment report, which is due for release on Friday, as it falls outside the survey period.

    Still, the claims data suggest another month of solid job growth. According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased 225,000 last month after rising 223,000 in April.

    Thursday's claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid fell to its lowest level since November 2000.

     

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    Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Orlando Florida FL
    Alamy
    The country's priciest theme park may be about to get even more expensive. Disney (DIS) sent out a survey to recent resort guests late last month, asking them how they would feel about a tiered pricing strategy.

    Guests presently pay $105 for a one-day ticket to visit its most popular park, Magic Kingdom. The survey tried to gauge guests' reaction to Disney charging $115 on some of the seasonally busier days and as much as $125 during the peak tourist periods in July and the winter holiday.

    To be fair, the survey also posed lowering prices for some of the family entertainment giant's less popular parks during the off-season. However, once you introduce the potential of $125 for a day at the park, you know you're going to hear it.

    There's Nothing Goofy About It

    Disney's Magic Kingdom became the first theme park to bump its single-day admissions into the triple digits earlier this year, boosting its rate to $105 in late February from $99. That turned heads, but it also still turned turnstiles.

    Disney reported record results at its Florida theme parks in its latest quarter, and it also came through with strong growth last year despite another big ticket increase. Disney itself doesn't publish individual attendance metrics, but industry watcher Themed Entertainment Association just put out its tallies for the leading amusement and theme park operators in 2014, and it was another big year for Mickey Mouse.

    Themed Entertainment Association pegs the Magic Kingdom's attendance at a record 19.3 million, 4 percent ahead of the prior year. Disney World's three other Florida parks drew smaller audiences, and only climbed at a mere 2-percent clip.

    The attendance gap between the Magic Kingdom and the rest of its sister parks continues to widen, and that's despite Disney moving to park-specific pricing in 2013. Each of Florida's four Disney parks used to charge the same one-day ticket prices until then, and making the Magic Kingdom more expensive than its other parks hasn't stopped guests from choosing it on arrival.

    Let's Go Fly a Hike

    Surveying resort guests about tiered pricing on single-day admissions may not be the ideal sample of respondents. Most of them either have annual passes or are buying Magic Your Way passes that cover all of the parks for a set number of days. In short, these aren't the people buying one-day tickets.

    However, it's clear that there's pricing flexibility at the Magic Kingdom. It's also clear that the world's largest theme park operator is falling behind in updating its lesser parks to keep pace. Instead of charging even more for the Magic Kingdom, the real push at Disney should be sprucing up its other parks to make them as valuable in the eyes of savvy travelers.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. He's also spending the summer in Celebration, Florida, covering the industry at mouse level. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Chinese businessman working at desk at night
    Getty Images
    By Shana Lebowitz

    It's widely known that professionals in fields like finance and consulting regularly log more than 60 hours a week. Even when they aren't at the office, employees are expected to be on call, answering client messages and phone calls as they arise.

    But much of the time people spend working isn't very productive, said Robin Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School.

    In this culture of "overwork," it isn't always necessary to pull an all-nighter or to leave a family event early to return a client phone call. But doing so can make you seem impressive -- especially to your colleagues, according to Ely.

    She co-authored a study of a global consulting firm that wanted to understand how its company culture might be limiting women's success.

    The work-family narrative actually diverts attention away from the broader problem: long hours and a culture of overwork.

    The researchers found that, while most employees believed the issue was women's competing allegiances to work and family, the underlying problem was the long hours that everyone was expected to work. In fact, both men and women felt that work demands were placing a strain on their families.

    "The work-family narrative actually diverts attention away from the broader problem: long hours and a culture of overwork," Ely told Business Insider.

    At many consulting firms (not just the one she studied), Ely said, "the belief is that clients need to have consultants available 24/7."

    But how much is an email response sent at 1 a.m. really benefiting the client -- and how much is it boosting the consultant's self-esteem?

    "There is something almost appealing to being available 24/7," Ely said. "Being in demand is a symbol of status. It suggests you're important and influential."

    Ely gave the example of consultants who spend the entire weekend preparing for a client presentation on Monday. Typically, she said, they put together far more information than the client can absorb. "The clients don't really look at [the slides]," Ely said. The consultants' goal is really "to prove to other people in the firm how smart you are."

    One of Ely's co-authors, Erin Reid, an assistant professor of organization at Boston University's Questrom School of Business, found in another study of the same firm that many men simply pretend to log 80-hour workweeks. That way, they can impress their superiors with their dedication to the company while still spending time with their families.

    Ely suggested that firms should start finding other ways to spotlight high performers besides simply the number of hours people work (or purport to work) and make sure employees are using their time wisely. In her interviews, she heard from people who were highly frustrated with inefficiencies in their work processes.

    Ely acknowledged that these would be hard changes to make. For years, employees at financial firms have achieved success largely by working around-the-clock. In fact, when the researchers told the company they were investigating that the firm leaders would need to rethink their work practices beyond simply offering more work-family accommodations, the firm discontinued the study.

    Ely argued that making these adjustments could benefit firms in the long run. It would save them money, she said, because fewer employees would leave after a few years when they could no longer tolerate the culture of overwork.

    "If a few brave firms stepped out there and changed their work cultures," Ely said, "they would attract and retain more employees."

     

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    The Truth About Off-Price Retailers
    Have you ever been to off-price retailers, like T.J. Maxx or Marshalls, and wondered why you're getting such a good deal on brand name clothes and other items? Here's an inside look at how off-price stores cut down their prices without compromising quality.

    Let's start with clothes. A lot of people think the great deals you see are because the outfits are defective or irregular, but that's a myth. While regular department stores can return the clothes they don't sell to the manufacturer, off-price retailers don't have that luxury. They ultimately have to unload their inventory, which gives them more incentive to lower their prices. That means more savings for you in the end.

    As for food products, one major misconception is that they're old and past their due date. That's not true, either. It's actually illegal to sell expired food, so what you see on their shelves is safe to eat. When you see a deal, take advantage of it.

    However, when it comes to beauty products, it's a little harder to tell what you're getting for your money. Since these items are pretty popular, be sure to check the box for wear and tear. This could mean that what's inside is damaged, or has already been opened up and used.

    Also, some types of beauty products aren't required to have an expiration date stamped on them. Search CheckCosmetic.net to see if it's safe to buy. Just check the batch number, which is usually on the bottom of the container, and this site will tell you if that marked-down lipstick or eye shadow is past its prime.

    The next time you're at an off-price retailer, keep these tips in mind to help you get a good deal. You'll see that you don't have to shop at high-end stores to get high-quality merchandise.

    View Poll

     

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    IMF US Economy
    Jacquelyn Martin/APInternational Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde speaking Thursday on the U.S. economy at IMF headquarters in Washington.
    By PAUL WISEMAN

    WASHINGTON -- What's the hurry?

    The International Monetary Fund on Thursday urged the Federal Reserve to put off raising short-term interest rates until next year because the U.S. economy still needs help.

    In its yearly check-up of the United States, the IMF predicted the American economy would grow just 2.5 percent this year, down from its April forecast of 3.1 percent. The downgrade reflects the economy's stumbling start to the year: Gross domestic product fell the first three months of 2015, tripped up by harsh winter weather and the export-killing strength of the dollar.

    The IMF has no direct influence over U.S. economic policy. But the global lending agency is widely respected for its technical expertise on economics and finance.

    Since December 2008, the Fed has kept the short-term interest rate it controls near zero. Fed Chair Janet Yellen last month said she expects to begin raising rates this year. Many economists expect a rate hike at the Fed's September meeting.

    A rate increase probably won't have a big or immediate impact on most consumer loan rates.

    For one thing, the Fed is expected to ratchet up rates only gradually. For another, rates don't move in lockstep. Mortgage rates, for instance, are tethered to long-term rates such as the yield on the 10-year Treasury note. Those rates can move up or down based on things, such as foreigners' hankering for the safety of U.S. Treasurys, that have little to do with the Fed.

    Still, the Fed's easy money policies have powered the American stock market to record levels, and investors hang onto Yellen's every utterance.

    Here's a look at the competing cases for the Fed's next move.

    Don't Be Hasty

    IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said the risks of raising rates too soon -- and wounding the economy before it's reached full strength -- outweigh the risks of waiting a bit too long and allowing inflation to creep up.

    "The economy would be better off with a rate hike in early 2016," Lagarde said at a press conference.

    The Commerce Department reported last week that the U.S. economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.7 percent from January through March. A widening trade deficit was largely to blame, reducing growth by 1.9 percentage points. The stronger dollar makes U.S. exports more expensive overseas and foreign imports cheaper in America.

    Inflation still is well short of the Fed's 2 percent target. The IMF doesn't see it hitting that level until mid-2017. The inflation threat looks distant now: Consumer prices were lower in April than they'd been a year earlier, largely because of tumbling oil prices.

    The IMF calls for the Fed to hold off on a rate increase until "there are greater signs of wage or price inflation than are currently evident."

    Do It, Already

    Despite the nasty first quarter, "we're seeing more signs that the economy is gathering momentum and that a rate increase in September looks more appropriate," said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group.

    The job market certainly looks healthy. Employers are adding jobs -- nearly 3 million over the past year -- at a rate not seen since the boom years of 1998 to 2000. Unemployment fell in April to a seven-year low 5.4 percent.

    If the Fed waits too long, it could lose its grip on inflation -- and its inflation-fighting credibility with financial markets.

    "If there's a belief that the Federal Reserve is behind the curve in controlling inflation, more investors would lose confidence," Baumohl said, arguing that inflation lags other signs of economic strength.

    Another worry: Super-low interest rates encourage investors to seek higher returns in riskier investments. That can drive up the prices of stocks, long-term bonds and other investments to dangerous levels.

    "The longer the Fed waits, the higher the price they are going to pay in terms of the market volatility that could occur including the potential of a crash in the stock market and the bond market," said David Jones, an economist who has written several books on the Fed.

    -AP economics writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.

     

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    Subway Ingredients
    Ted S. Warren/AP
    By CANDICE CHOI

    NEW YORK -- Subway wants to give new meaning to its "eat fresh" slogan by joining the list of food companies to say it's dropping artificial ingredients.

    The sandwich chain known for its marketing itself as a healthier alternative to hamburger chains told The Associated Press it will remove artificial flavors, colors and preservatives from its menu in North America by 2017. Whether that can help Subway keep up with changing attitudes about what qualifies as healthy remains to be seen.

    Change has come so fast and rapidly, consumers are just expecting more and more.

    Elizabeth Stewart, Subway's director of corporate social responsibility, said in an interview that ingredient improvement has been an ongoing process over the years. More recently, she said the chain has been working on removing caramel color from cold cuts like roast beef and ham. For its turkey, Subway says it plans to replace a preservative called proprionic acid with vinegar by the end of this year.

    Among its toppings, Stewart said Subway is switching to banana peppers colored with turmeric instead of the artificial dye Yellow No. 5. Without providing details, she said the chain is also working on its sauces and cookies.

    The purging of artificial ingredients is quickly becoming the norm among major food companies, which are facing pressure from smaller players that tout their offerings as more wholesome. That has prompted so-called "Big Food" makers including Taco Bell (YUM), McDonald's (MCD), Kraft (KRFT) and Nestle to announce in recent months they're expelling artificial ingredients from one or more products.

    Subway's announcement comes at a challenging time for the chain, which grew to be the world's largest restaurant brand by number of locations with the help of weight loss pitchman Jared Fogle.

    The company is privately held and doesn't disclose sales figures. But last year, sales for Subway stores in the U.S. averaged $475,000 each, a 3 percent decline from the previous year, according to industry tracker Technomic.

    Subway is facing evolving definitions for what qualifies as healthy, said Darren Tristano, an analyst for Technomic. While older generations looked at nutritional stats like fat and calories, he said younger generations are more concerned about qualities like "local," ''organic" and "natural."

    "Change has come so fast and rapidly, consumers are just expecting more and more," Tristano said.

    And although Subway markets itself as a fresher option, he noted that people don't necessarily see it as the healthiest or best product around.

    Last year, Subway's image took a hit when food activist Vani Hari, known as the Food Babe, launched a petition calling on it to remove azodicarbonamide from its bread, noting the ingredient was used in yoga mats. Subway has said that it was in the process of removing the ingredient, which is widely used as a dough condition and whitening agent, before the issue became a controversy.

    Tony Pace, Subway's chief marketing officer, noted the chain is already seen as a place for low-fat options, but that it needs to keep up with changing customer attitudes.

    "As their expectations go up, we have to meet those expectations," he said.

    Pace said the use of simple ingredients is becoming a "necessary condition" to satisfy customers, but that it won't be enough on its own to drive up sales.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks fell Thursday, hit by nervousness ahead of Friday's employment report and lingering uncertainty over a Greece aid deal with creditors.

    Declining oil and gold prices also weighed on energy and materials shares, which led declines in the benchmark S&P 500.

    Data showed the labor market tightening, with first-time applications for unemployment aid down last week and the number of people on benefit rolls hitting the lowest level since 2000, suggesting the Federal Reserve will remain on track to raise interest rates later this year.

    The concern is tomorrow and the jobs number, that is where all the focus is.

    The data came ahead of Friday's key U.S. jobs report, expected to show a 225,000 gain in non-farm payrolls, according to a Reuters estimate.

    "The concern is tomorrow and the jobs number, that is where all the focus is," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Group in Bedford Hills, New York. "Probably the concern [is] that it is going to be a good number."

    Some investors think stronger jobs numbers could increase chances the Federal Reserve could raise rates sooner rather than later.

    Adding to investor concerns, Greece delayed a debt payment to the International Monetary Fund due Friday and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said talks on a cash-for-reforms deal were still far from an agreement.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 170.69 points, or 0.9 percent, to 17,905.58, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 18.23 points, or 0.9 percent, to 2,095.84 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 40.11 points, or 0.8 percent, to 5,059.13.

    To Hike or Not to Hike

    Investors also digested the International Monetary Fund's comment urging the Federal Reserve not to raise rates until there are clear signs of a pickup in wages and inflation.

    In a bearish sign, the S&P 500 closed below its 50-day moving average, a key technical indicator.

    The S&P materials index fell 1.3 percent, while the energy index declined 1.2 percent. Oil prices fell for a second day ahead of an OPEC decision which could keep the market oversupplied.

    Shares of chemical-maker LyondellBasell Industries (LYB) shares lost 3.2 percent at $99.48, leading declines in the materials sector.

    Delta Air Lines (DAL) fell 0.7 percent to $42.92 after it said its operating profit margin this quarter could be lower than it expected, with airlines hit by weaker U.S. demand. Shares of American Airlines (AAL) dropped 2.2 percent to $42.17.

    On the plus side, Five Below (FIVE) shares jumped 7.6 percent to $37.77 after the teen merchandise retailer increased its full-year forecast.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,374 to 677, for a 3.51-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,994 issues fell and 769 advanced for a 2.59-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted four new 52-week highs and six new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 83 new highs and 32 new lows.

    About 6.2 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, matching the average for the last five sessions, according to BATS Global Markets.

    -With additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak.

    What to watch Friday:
    • The Labor Department releases employment data for May at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Federal Reserve releases consumer credit data for April at 3 p.m.

     

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    US Capitol Building, Washington DC, USA
    Alamy
    By KEN DILANIAN and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR

    WASHINGTON -- China-based hackers are suspected of breaking into the computer networks of the U.S. government personnel office and stealing identifying information of at least 4 million federal workers, American officials said Thursday.

    The Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that data from the Office of Personnel Management and the Interior Department had been compromised.

    "The FBI is conducting an investigation to identify how and why this occurred," the statement said.

    The hackers were believed to be based in China, said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.

    Collins, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said the breach was "yet another indication of a foreign power probing successfully and focusing on what appears to be data that would identify people with security clearances."

    A U.S. official who declined to be identified said the data breach could potentially affect every federal agency. One key question is whether intelligence agency employee information was stolen.

    "This is an attack against the nation," said Ken Ammon, chief strategy officer of Xceedium, who said the attack fit the pattern of those carried out by nation states for the purpose of espionage.

    The information stolen could be used to impersonate or blackmail federal employees with access to sensitive information, he said.

    The Office of Personnel Management is the human resources department for the federal government, and it conducts background checks for security clearances. The OPM conducts more than 90 percent of federal background investigations, according to its website.

    In November, a former DHS contractor disclosed another cyberbreach that compromised the private files of more than 25,000 DHS workers and thousands of other federal employees.

    DHS said its intrusion detection system, known as EINSTEIN, which screens federal Internet traffic to identify potential cyber threats, identified the hack of OPM's systems and the Interior Department's data center, which is shared by other federal agencies.

    It was unclear why the EINSTEIN system didn't detect the breach until after so many records had been copied and removed.

    "DHS is continuing to monitor federal networks for any suspicious activity and is working aggressively with the affected agencies to conduct investigative analysis to assess the extent of this alleged intrusion," the statement said.

    Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, called the hack "shocking, because Americans may expect that federal computer networks are maintained with state of the art defenses."

    Ammon said federal agencies are rushing to install two-factor authentication with smart cards, a system designed to make it harder for intruders to access networks. But implementing that technology takes time.

    -Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Alicia A. Caldwell and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.

     

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    How to Make Things Last Longer

    By Donna Freedman

    Baking soda's most recognizable form is in a little orange box. This unimposing product is present even in households where no one ever cooks - frequently stored in the back of the fridge to ward off nasty smells. But its uses are seemingly never-ending, and some are much more remarkable.

    An Internet user named Justine swears baking soda can save your life in the backcountry if you bring it instead of toothpaste. Because baking soda has no odor of its own, she wrote in the comments section of The Old Farmer's Almanac, "it does not attract bears." By contrast, the ingredients that make our toothpaste minty-fresh also smell delicious to Ursus americanus. Clean your chompers with sodium bicarbonate while you're out in the wild, and bears will be less likely to track you down.

    Baking soda will do a lot of other things, too. First, here's a baking soda cheat sheet:
    • For pastes, stir together three parts soda to one part water.
    • For solutions, stir four tablespoons of soda into one quart of water until dissolved.
    • For sprinkling, store in a jar or bottle with a shaker-type cap. I've seen these in thrift shops and dollar stores.
    Cleaning Stuff

    1. Backpack hack.
    Mix a little baking soda in water to wash dishes while camping. Justine swears by it.
    2. Shine the stainless. Use a damp sponge and soda to clean stainless steel appliances.
    3. Water stains on wood. Somebody forget to use a coaster? Gently rub a baking soda paste on the surface, then wipe off.
    4. Banish tarnish. Use a soft cloth or clean sponge to rub paste onto tarnished silver. Rinse well, then dry with a dish towel.
    5. Brighten brass. Sprinkle baking soda onto a lemon wedge to clean and shine brass objects.
    6. Soften stickers. A baking soda paste will take care of gummy residue left by adhesive labels or stickers.
    7. Help for the toaster oven. Bread crumbs that drop to the bottom of this appliance burn and smell bad; drippings from broiling or cooking make the odor worse. Pop open the bottom and scrub it with baking soda.
    8. Laundry day, part one. Justine says "just a little water and baking soda in a plastic bag" is a simple way to wash your duds when you're out in the wild.
    9. Laundry day, part two. Your clothes will be cleaner and brighter if you add a cup of bicarbonate to the liquid detergent you use.
    10. Laundry day, part three. Babies are always doing something damp and disgusting. If you're using a gentle laundry soap, add half cup of soda to the soap.
    11. Laundry day, part four. Remove perspiration stains with a soda pretreatment: Rub a paste into the stains, wait one hour and wash with the rest of the laundry.
    12. Laundry day, part five. Over time, a clothes hamper can absorb the odors of what's thrown into it. Sprinkle bicarb on the bottom, and maybe on the sniffiest of the clothes and linens, to keep smells at bay until washday.
    13. Sanitary playtime. Clean and deodorize baby toys in a baking soda solution. Note: This also works for dog toys that are sticky with slobber and lint.

    Removing Stains

    14. Clean that cookware.
    Stains inside your enamel pans? Apply a soda paste and leave on for an hour. Next, fill the pan with water, use a wooden spoon to stir the soda loose and boil the mixture for 20 minutes. Rinse and then wash with dish liquid.
    15. Revive your Tupperware. Are your plastic dishes stained from storing minestrone or reheating spaghetti at work? Rub off the red with baking-soda paste.
    16. Roasting pan save. Sprinkle a lot of baking soda onto crusted-over or burned baking dishes. Add hot water to 2 inches deep and leave it there for two hours. Alternate method: Boil a couple of inches of water in the burned pan, remove from heat, add half a cup of baking soda and leave it overnight. The next morning you should be able to wash it clean.
    17. An ugly mug? Use a wet cloth on the inside of stained coffee mugs, then dip the cloth into bicarb and scrub off the stains. If that doesn't work, fill with a baking soda solution and let sit overnight.
    18. Gray gone. Got plates with grayish markings from your knives and forks? Gently rub with baking soda, and they will likely disappear.

    Deodorizing Stuff

    19. Rehab a pet bed.
    Over time Fluffy's or Fido's bed cushion will get a little sniffy. Use soda to absorb smell, then vacuum.
    20. Or rehab the pet. Soak a bandana in a baking soda solution and allow to dry. Tie it around your pooch's neck. It's a doggy deodorant!
    21. Or dry-bathe the dog. Mary Hunt of Everyday Cheapskate suggests a periodic baking soda spritz for dogs. But not with water: Just sprinkle on the soda, rub it into the fur, and brush or comb it back out. Note: This also works on human hair, if you're too rushed to shampoo or you just want to remove excess oil.
    22. That old-paper smell. If a book starts smelling musty, sprinkle soda on the pages and let them air. According to Tipnut.com, you can treat mildewed pages by rubbing soda on the spots and putting them out in the sun's bleaching rays.
    23. That new-baby smell. Fill a small spray bottle with baking soda solution. The Coupon Sherpa blog says it will neutralize the impact of that ubiquitous spit-up odor. Spray and then blot dry.
    24. Wash your hands. Cleaning fish or chopping onions? Take the smell off your fingers by washing them with baking soda and water.
    25. Freshen the dishes. Get those same smells off your utensils and plates by mixing a teaspoon of soda into the dishwater.
    26. Freshen the dishwasher. You can do this in a couple of ways. First try putting a layer of soda on the bottom of the appliance overnight. The next morning, use a damp sponge to scrub the dry powder into the inside walls and door; wipe off most of it, and then run the dishwasher on empty (and without detergent) to remove the rest. Alternate tactic: Run a rinse cycle in an empty dishwasher with a cup of baking soda.
    27. Freshen your water bottle. Plastic H2O container smelling a bit stale? Soak it in a baking-soda solution, then rinse well.
    28. Freshen the baby bottle. You know, the mostly empty one that got left in the car overnight. Eeewww.
    29. Freshen your lunchbox. If your lunch bag or box smells like the Ghost of Mealtimes Past, add a heavy layer of soda and allow to stand overnight. Wash in hot water with plenty of dish soap.
    30. Freshen what's underfoot. If the wall-to-wall carpeting smells bad, sprinkle it with baking soda, wait 15 minutes and then vacuum up the powder. The smell will come with it.
    31. Freshen your feet. Sprinkle a little baking powder into smelly shoes. Hey, if it'll freshen your fridge, it'll also do wonders for your footwear.
    32. Freshen your sports gear. Smelly equipment can get a new lease on life with a baking soda solution. While you're at it, sprinkle some dry soda into your gym or hockey bag.
    33. Freshen the sponges. Kitchen or cleaning sponges tend to develop a stale or mildew smell over time. Soak them in a baking soda solution.
    34. Freshen the mattress. Every so often apply a thin layer of baking soda atop the mattress. In a few hours, vacuum it up.
    35. Freshen the luggage. Got an old trunk or suitcase that smells suspicious? Bid bon voyage to bad smells by sprinkling in some soda, closing up the luggage, letting it sit for a couple of days and then vacuuming.
    36. Freshen the trash can. Put a layer of baking soda in the bottom of the receptacle. Note: This is especially useful for the trash can you use for dirty disposable diapers.
    37. Freshen the litter-box. OK, nothing will really freshen a kitty toilet. But you can reduce its impact by covering the bottom of the box with soda before adding the litter. After scooping, sprinkle more soda on top of the remaining litter.
    38. Gas problem. Got a mechanic in the family? According to The Old Farmer's Almanac, you should seal gasoline- or oil-fouled clothes in a trash bag with baking soda for a few days. After that, wash as usual.

    Cleaning the House

    39. Shine surfaces.
    A little baking soda on a damp sponge lets you clean any stainless kitchen surfaces without damaging them.
    40. A box isn't enough. Sure, you keep an open box of soda in the fridge. But every so often, wash the inside of the appliance with a baking soda solution.
    41. Sluice the drain. When you change out the box from the fridge, pour it down the sink and flush with very hot water to discourage anything unpleasant that was growing there.
    42. Drain the drain. Every so often my partner pours some baking soda down the sink and chases it with vinegar. After a while he'll pour very hot water -- maybe even a kettle full of boiling water - to finish the job. It's more eco-friendly than a harsh drain opener but does a good job of keeping the lines running.
    43. De-grease the hood. Use soda to scrub greasy buildup from your range hood with a hot, soapy cloth. Keep washing and rinsing, washing and rinsing, until you've removed as much as possible. Finish with more hot, soapy water. If you can still see grease, go ahead and use a commercial degreaser - hey, you tried your best to be green.
    44. Clean the oven. If it's only slightly dirty, scrub with baking soda and a damp sponge. For nastier ovens, apply a baking soda paste and leave it on for a few hours.
    45. Un-mar your walls. Crayon marks or scuffs? Use a soda paste to remove them.
    46. Deodorize the freezer. Once you've washed it with soapy water, wipe with a soda solution.
    47. Clean, don't scratch. Use bicarb as a nonabrasive cleanser on fiberglass tubs, ceramic cooktops and any other item that calls for commercial products like Soft Scrub.
    48. Defeat soap scum. Baking soda paste is a good cleaner for bathroom tiles and the shower curtain.
    49. De-grime grout. Scrub tile grout with a baking soda paste. Leave it on for a few minutes, then rinse well.
    50. Un-crust the microwave. Stir a few teaspoons of soda into a bowl of water and heat it in the microwave for a few minutes (as many as five, if it's a really dirty unit). Afterward let the steam work its magic for a few more minutes before opening the door. A soapy sponge should be enough to remove the baked-on food. Cover items before you cook/heat them, and you won't have to deal with splatters.
    51. Sweeten the microwave. Be proactive: Keep a very small dish of baking soda inside it to absorb odors before they have a chance to settle in. Take it out when you use the appliance and put it right back in afterward.

    Food-Related Uses

    52. Bigger breakfast.
    According to All You magazine, omelets are fluffier when you add one-half teaspoon of baking soda for every three eggs you crack.
    53. Clear, sweet brew. Also from All You comes this tip: A pinch of baking soda per gallon of freshly brewed iced tea will remove any bitterness and keep the mixture from clouding up.
    54. The original Beano. Parboiling dried beans? Add one-half teaspoon soda per two cups of soaked beans, and you'll have fewer intestinal woes.
    55. Green up the greens. When washing spinach or other greens, add a sprinkle of bicarb to the final rinse water. They'll hold their green color better during cooking, according to Tipnut.
    56. Prevent curdling. If you're making scalloped potatoes or cream of tomato soup, the milk sometimes curdles and looks less appetizing. Add one-fourth teaspoon of baking soda for each pint of milk for scalloped dishes and one-eighth teaspoon per cup of soup. Do this before adding the milk.
    57. Fruit fixer. Stewing rhubarb? Add one-eighth teaspoon of soda per two cups of chopped rhubarb. Tipnut says this lets you reduce the sugar by one-third.

    Other Home Uses

    58. Sweeten the vacuum.
    Turn a mix of bicarb and dried herbs into vacuum bag sachets, wrapped in cheesecloth or sections of old pantyhose. Add the sachets to your vacuum cleaner bag, and the machine will release a pleasant fragrance as you work. This article on Tipnut offers instructions.
    59. A hands-on use. Use rubber gloves for cleaning? Sprinkle a little soda inside, both to dry them and to keep stale odors from developing.
    60. Clear the air. Create your own air freshener with baking soda, water and lemon juice. The folks at Tipnut will show you how. Or mix baking soda and dried flower buds or herbs and leave bowls of it here and there in your home.
    61. Fight fire. When I was a little kid, my dad told me to throw baking soda on a fire in a frying pan or on a stovetop. It works -- I learned from experience. This is only if the fire is relatively small. Otherwise you should dial 911 and head out of the house.
    62. Fight ice. Baking soda on slippery steps or icy walkways gives traction but is kinder to surfaces than commercial deicer.
    63. Kill bugs dead. When I lived in Philadelphia, I greatly reduced the roach population in my apartment by leaving a few dishes of baking soda and sugar here and there; the sugar attracted them and the bicarb killed them. The Old Farmer's Almanac suggests using soda as a barrier under sink-pipe openings and along basement windows to deter silverfish, roaches and carpenter ants.

    Health and First Aid

    64. Stop the pain.
    A baking soda paste helps soothe the discomfort of bee or wasp stings.
    65. Canker sores. Tipnut suggests dabbing bicarb (dry or in paste form) onto the sores, or rinsing your mouth with a soda solution.
    66. A cooling solution. Add bicarb to the bath if you or someone you love is dealing with sunburn, poison ivy, a lot of mosquito bites or diaper rash. Moisturize afterward, since soda is drying.
    67. Kill your sweet tooth. The Old Farmer's Almanac suggests this remedy for a sweets craving: Mix a teaspoon of baking soda in a glass of warm water and rinse your mouth.
    68. Oral cleaner. Gargle or rinse with a teaspoon of soda mixed with half a glass of water.
    69. Oral appliance cleaner. Dentures, retainers and mouthpieces can be soaked in a baking soda solution.
    70. Wash your food. Want to remove pesticides and/or wax from store produce? Put a couple of tablespoons of baking soda into a large bowl of cool water, then soak and gently scrub your fruits and veggies. Rinse and then store as usual.
    71. Relieve indigestion. A little soda water has long been a traditional treatment for heartburn, sour stomach or acid indigestion. According to the Mayo Clinic, it may interact with certain medications and might not be indicated if other health issues (e.g., high blood pressure or kidney disease) are present. Talk to your health care provider about whether soda water is a good idea.

    Beauty and the Bicarb

    72. Cleaner curls, part one.
    Over time, your curling iron will pick up a coating of hair products and oil. Scrub it with baking soda paste.
    73. Cleaner curls, part two. Soak brushes and combs in a baking soda solution to remove residues. Rinse afterward. You can also soak your toothbrush this way.
    74. Brighten your look. Add a pinch of baking soda to your regular facial cleanser for the exfoliating effect.
    75. Make a mask. If an exfoliant isn't enough for you, maybe a facial mask would do the job. Recipes abound online that call for baking soda plus additives like lemon juice or honey.
    76. Elbow grease. Make a paste of bicarb and lemon juice and rub gently onto dry elbows. After 15 minutes, rinse well and moisturize.
    77. Deodorant, part one. Some people say that baking soda and cornstarch make a fine and all-natural product. Mother Nature Network suggests a one-to-six ratio. Apply with a powder puff.
    78. Deodorant, part two. Prefer a thicker product? Mother Nature Network to the rescue again with a simple recipe of baking soda, cornstarch or arrowroot powder and coconut oil.

    Miscellaneous Uses

    79. Sweeter seats.
    Putting away your patio furniture for the year? Sprinkle baking soda under the chair cushions.
    80. Remove the melt. Ever set the bread bag too close to the toaster? Here's a fix from the Lifehackery blog. Turn the appliance back on until the hardened plastic softens. Unplug the toaster and carefully rub the spot with a baking soda paste.
    81. Wash your car. Reader's Digest offers a recipe for a homemade cleaning solution base -- and one of its three ingredients is baking soda.
    82. Weeds begone! Sprinkle bicarb into cracks on walkways and/or driveway to discourage windblown seeds from taking hold.
    83. Scrub the shield. After a long drive through bug country your windshield can get pretty spattered. Tipnut suggests washing the glass with a paste of baking soda and dish soap. Rinse very well.
    84. Clean the battery. Corrosion can affect the performance and shorten the life expectancy of your car's battery. Autos.com offers step-by-step instructions for fixing this. You don't need to buy a special cleaning solution at the auto parts store.
    85. Science project. Homeschooling your kids, or just want a fun project? Build a vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano. The gas created is harmless but can produce an explosive effect in an enclosed container. The Arm & Hammer website pleads with consumers not to do this, saying that it "creates a potentially unsafe condition that could result in injury." Recipes for "bottle bombs" and "soda bombs" abound online, as do YouTube videos. While it does look like fun, I'm with A&H: Don't try this at home.

    Can you add to this list of uses for baking soda? Share it with us in comments below or on our Facebook page. Or just share this amazing article on your social network. Admit it -- baking soda is awesome! 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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    Credit Cathy CurtisLinda and Mark Majors
    Meet Mark and Linda Majors, a San Francisco Bay Area couple planning to stop working in the next five years. Despite not having employer-backed pensions or huge retirement savings, their goal is to retire and live a life of adventure filled with traveling through different countries, kayaking and scuba diving. While this is a dream many of us share, the couple are taking steps to make it a reality. I recently spent some time with Mark, 57, and Linda, 50, to understand their retirement goals and how they are working to achieve them.

    Both of them have worked as independent contractors for nonprofit social welfare organizations over the past 15 years, so they have been responsible for their own retirement savings. They have both contributed to regular brokerage accounts, solo 401(k) and IRA accounts at differing rates over the past 30 years. Occasionally, Mark feels frustrated when he thinks of the colleagues he worked with at Union Oil in the '80s, knowing that their corporate careers have secured most of them a pension of thousands of dollars a month. "Then I wonder: Would I want to give up what I've experienced over the past 20 years for that?" he says. "No, I wouldn't."

    Linda adds, "I don't think we'd trade our jobs for that at all. We feel like we've helped make the world a better place."

    The couple first started talking about retirement plans and crunching numbers two years ago: "We felt like in spite of what we tried to do, we hadn't done a proper job of saving," says Mark. They had been informed that their investments should generate 75 to 80 percent of their current income each month in retirement.

    "That's true if you stay where you are," Mark says, "because lots of things you spend money on now don't go away if you stay put. But we believe that if we can find a way to patch together the assets we have now, the assets we can liquidate, and the eventual Social Security we will collect, we hope we can be fine in another country. It doesn't look that hard on paper."

    Living on $3,000 to $5,000 a month

    The couple did their homework, reading books and taking part in conference calls for retirees interested in living overseas. After much research, they concluded that their ideal adventurous lifestyle would cost $3,000 to $5,000 a month, including health insurance. "Between the Affordable Care Act and everything else in the U.S., what it costs to have health insurance here is out of control until you're on Medicare," says Mark.

    Their main reason for exploring other countries is simply that the cost of living is lower. "This country is huge," Mark says of the States. "There are plenty of interesting things to do here, so many climates, geographies, dialects and local food. The problem is staying here and exploring is crazy expensive."

    Another big reason for retiring abroad is love for learning new cultures. Mark points out that it would solve the problem many retirees face: having nothing to do and becoming bored. "If you don't know how to order food in the restaurant, or buy the stuff at the market," he muses, "all those things are challenges, but we'll embrace them because it will make life interesting."

    For the first few years of retirement, this couple who loves to hike is planning to keep moving from country to country. Their shortlist of retirement destinations includes Mexico and Panama, but there are many more countries in Europe and Southeast Asia under consideration. The generous couple's criteria for evaluating destinations not only include the local infrastructure and healthcare, but also the opportunities for giving back. As Mark explains, "You can volunteer here or you can volunteer somewhere else, and maybe it's more important somewhere else than it is here."

    Does That Go To Panama? If Not, We're Not Buying It

    Such a large change of lifestyle requires that Mark and Linda begin making many adjustments now, including downsizing. "We set a goal that volumetrically two wine boxes of stuff would leave the house at least every week," says Mark. Besides donating items they won't need to the less fortunate, Marks admits, "I've been working eBay for two or three years just trying to make things go away!"

    "We'll have a big suitcase, a small suitcase, and a backpack. That's it," says Linda, "We're only buying stuff that we think we are going to need in that lifestyle."

    Adds Mark, "Our watchword is, 'Does that go to Panama?' If not, we're not buying it." In order to reach the lump sum they need to achieve their retirement goals, Mark and Linda are liquidating their assets, including selling their second house and eventually their own home. High property taxes make California a tough choice for retirees. They estimate their property taxes at $7,000 to $8,000 a year.

    Tips for others dreaming of living abroad:

    1. Be Sure That It Is What You Really Want

    "Know thyself," are Linda's first words of advice. "Many of these countries that we're talking about, where the cost of living is lower, they are not America. The resources are different, the climate is different, the language and the people are different. Are you ready for that?"

    Vacationing has also become a research experience for the couple. "Usually we would go diving somewhere, go have beers, eat at a restaurant, drink more beers, and have a good time. Who wouldn't like that? But usually you're only there for a week or two, so you don't get bored with it," says Mark. "We've tried to analyze locations since starting the search for where we might live. We take say a Monday morning at 11 o'clock and imagine we're at this destination, but we're not on vacation. Does it suck or is it okay? We've got both eyes open to the vacation effect."

    2. Make Sure Your Partner Is on the Same Page

    "We have to agree, otherwise it's not going to work," says Linda, "It's actually a leading cause of divorce in couples who move to other countries -- because one person is good at Spanish and the other person isn't, or they have different ideas about what it's supposed to look like."

    "If something is really not working for one of the people, the other person in the couple has to say, presumably, 'It's more important that I maintain my relationship than pursue this,'" Mark adds, "You've got to make a choice."

    That would certainly not be an easy choice to make, so be sure to discuss your retirement dreams with your partner sooner rather than later. The couple hopes that their family and friends will visit them no matter where they retire.

    I look forward to a postcard from Mark and Linda to learn where they wind up and see how retirement turns out for them.

    The Majors are among many retirees and semi-retirees whose journey to financial freedom is featured in the free eBook, "The Definitive Guide to Becoming the Retiree Next Door," published by MoneyTips.com. While most Americans worry that they won't have enough money to retire, this group of successful retirees shows that many fulfilling paths are possible despite the challenges.

     

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    senior man being puzzled with...
    ShutterstockA well-crafted budget can help you reach your financial goals and fund your retirement activities.
    By Kelly Campbell

    Americans are notoriously poor savers. According to a 2014 Bankrate survey of about 1,000 U.S. adults, 60 percent of Americans could not afford to pay for most unexpected expenses. If you're in retirement or close to retirement, this could be a big problem. But there is a way boomers can be better prepared: become better at budgeting.

    A budget brings your expenses in line with your income. It helps you control your financial future and fund your retirement activities. Fortunately, there are many budgeting tips and tricks to make it easier. For example, in your monthly bank statement, you can see how much came into your account and how much went out. (Hopefully, more came in than went out.) Many of your credit card statements can categorize expenses, so you can easily see what you are spending and where your money is going. You can also sign up for services like Mint.com, which can help you track your financial life online.

    Knowing what you spend is important. We've developed a process for our clients called the 24-month checkbook drill. With this exercise, we have our clients look at the last two years of checking statements. From that review, they can determine the average amount of money they are spending each month. Knowing this figure can really help you plan for your retirement.

    But with all of these tools, few people ever plan their monthly expenses. Many people likely take a guess and are off by thousands of dollars. Making matters worse, people tend to think they will spend less in retirement, when they will probably spend the same amount or even more. If you're a boomer nearing or in retirement, here are five reasons you should be budgeting.

    You can determine how much you are spending. Without a budget, how would you know if you are spending too much or living beyond your means? You can't control taxes, inflation or the market. The only thing you can control is your spending. There are lots of things people do not include in their budget, either because they are seasonal or one-off expenses. For example, most people don't budget for gifts. But if they did, they might rethink how much they are spending on that category. With respect to retirement planning, you need to know what is going out the door each year.

    You can set aside money to keep and money to give away. While you want to take care of your family, friends and charities, you also need to make sure you have enough money to do the things you want and need to do. People often try to take care of everyone else, but they forget to take care of themselves first. If you have a budget, you will know exactly what you need to live on, and you will know what you can safely afford to give away.

    You can create a beneficial habit. Budgeting is a lifestyle. Once you develop these skills, it is easier to budget without even thinking about it. It's important to have discipline and control, and that discipline is strengthened with repetition. The more you do it, the better you will get at doing it. However, the most difficult part is starting. But rest assured, the longer you do it, the easier it will be for you. It's also beneficial is to start a budget alongside a friend. That way, you can help each other and have an accountability partner.

    You can manage ever-increasing expenses. In retirement, things keep getting more and more expensive. Some of the items you buy each day will cost more based on the regular inflation rate. But other things, like health care, long-term care and major household repairs can increase at significantly more than 2 to 3 percent a year. Planning and saving are the best ways to prepare for these expenses.

    You can save more for unexpected or discretionary expenses. Rainy days, emergencies and vacations are all parts of everyday life. By setting a budget, you can always add a new item to save for. For example, some people start a holiday gift fund in the summer that allows them to put away a small amount each month to pay for the gifts they will buy later. It also keeps them from having to buy those gifts on credit. Or what if you want to take the whole family to Disney? That will not be an inexpensive vacation, so you may need to save well in advance. Putting it in your budget will help it become a reality.

    Kelly Campbell, certified financial planner and accredited investment fiduciary, is the founder of Campbell Wealth Management and a registered investment adviser in Alexandria, Virginia. Campbell is also the author of "Fire Your Broker," a controversial look at the broker industry written as an empathetic response to the trials and tribulations that many investors have faced as the stock market cratered and their advisers abandoned their responsibilities to help them weather the storm.

     

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    By Brian O'Connell

    NEW YORK -- You can save up to 41 percent in home insurance premiums if you raise your policy's deductible -- but there is risk.

    Insurers will charge you less in premiums if you hike your deductible, although the amount you save depends on what state you live in, and often works in their favor by putting more financial burden on the homeowner in the case of such problems as fire or flood.

    For example, if a small fire causes $4,500 in damage to your home and your policy has a $5,000 deductible, you're on the hook for the entire cost of repairs.

    Since savings vary so much from state to state, consumers need to consider the bottom line before increasing deductibles.

    "Since savings vary so much from state to state, consumers need to consider the bottom line before increasing deductibles," says Laura Adams, senior analyst at InsuranceQuotes.com. "While switching from a $500 deductible to a $5,000 deductible sounds appealing because it lowers home insurance premiums by an average of 28 percent, it could be a risky move for consumers who don't maintain that much in savings."

    Of course, homeowners can raise their deductibles less. Boosting a policy's deductible to $2,000 from $500 saves a homeowner 16 percent, on average, according to InsuranceQuotes.com.

    Some states are more generous on their homeowner insurance rates than others. North Carolina for example, allows homeowners to save 41 percent on their policies by raising out-of-pocket deductibles. Rhode Island (26 percent) and Florida (23 percent) residents can also save big.

    On the other end of the spectrum on saving with deductibles are such states as Hawaii (at 4 percent savings) and Texas (6 percent).

    Insurance industry experts say the decision is really based on how you view homeowner's insurance.

    "If your deductible doesn't hurt, it's not high enough," says Kevin Foley, an insurance broker at PFT&K Insurance Brokers in Milltown, New Jersey. "Why so high? Because insurance is for disasters -- things that make you drop to your knees and thank God you have insurance. It's not for maintenance."

    Consequently, you shouldn't use your insurance unless you absolutely have to, Foley adds. "Having a low deductible lures you into wanting to use the insurance when you have minor problems," he says. "What's $250, if the insurance pays the other $1,750?"

    "The problem with that is most insurance companies allow you two strikes in three years and then they cancel you," Foley explains. "Replacement insurance is unbelievably expensive, and you're stuck with it for three years before anyone will talk to you. Plus, you can't hide from your losses, because they all share information."

    Some homeowners agree that raising insurance deductibles was good for them.

    "We significantly increased our home deductible and saved 32 percent on our homeowner's and our auto insurance," says Mark Zoril, founder of PlanVision, a Plymouth, Minnesota-based financial services firm.

    Zoril's process was straightforward. "I reached out to six different firms and could have reached out to many more -- Farmers, American Family, Liberty Mutual, Travelers and AAA ... I imaged copies of all of our policies with Allstate and sent them to each office. I told them to just match the coverage and provide a quote.'

    Zoril ended up choosing Liberty Mutual and raising his homeowner's policy deductible to $10,000. "We decided to treat our home insurance as coverage for a catastrophic event," he explains. "This reduced our premium a lot. [But] our risk is that our house or roof will suffer severe damage in a storm or weather event."

    -Written by Brian O'Connell for MainStreet.com.

     

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    Reasons You'll Retire Poor

    By Karla Bowsher

    The economy has been slow to recover from the recession that technically ended in 2009. Wages have remained stagnant as housing costs have risen and interest rates for savings accounts have fallen.

    But we can't put all the blame for our bleak financial situations on the economy, new studies indicate -- we, too, are at fault.

    Twenty percent of Americans spend beyond their means, according to the "Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2014," which the Federal Reserve released this month. The report is based on the Fed's second annual "Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking," which was conducted in October.

    A SunTrust Banks (STI) study suggests that one factor -- excessive lifestyle spending -- is primarily responsible for our inability to get ahead financially.

    Even among households that earn at least $75,000 a year, the study found, nearly one-third were living paycheck to paycheck at least sometimes, and 44 percent (rising to 71 percent among millennials with the same household income) cited lifestyle spending as the reason they saved less money than they should.

    Eating out, for example, was the No. 1 type of lifestyle spending cited by respondents.

    One-third of people polled by SunTrust said their lack of financial discipline has held them back from achieving their goals.

    Good and Bad News

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Fed's report reflects as much bad news as good news about how the economy and our own spending habits have impacted our financial well-being over the past 18 months.

    The Fed's survey questions are designed to gauge individuals' financial well-being and monitor their recovery from the recession. Topic areas include housing, retirement planning, access to credit and more.

    Key findings include the following:

    Economic fragility: The good news is that less than one-quarter of respondents said they or a relative they live with had experienced a financial hardship in the prior year. However, the bad news is that 47 percent said they couldn't cover a $400 emergency expense without selling something or borrowing money.

    Savings and spending: 63 percent of respondents said they saved some money the prior year, but 20 percent said their spending exceeded their income.

    Banking and credit: 56 percent of respondents with at least one credit card said they always paid the bill in full the prior year. About one-third of respondents who had applied for credit in the prior year said they were turned down or given less credit than they requested.

    Retirement: This is pretty much all bad news. Among people who had yet to retire:
    • 31 percent had no retirement savings or pension.
    • 39 percent had given little to no thought to financial retirement planning.
    • 45 percent of those who planned to retire expected to continue working in some capacity during retirement.
    • More than 50 percent of those with self-directed retirement accounts were "not confident" or "slightly confident" in how they invested the money in those accounts.
    If you're among the Americans overspending on your wants and under-investing in your retirement, try "Fun for Less: 19 Ways to Save on Entertainment" and "A Simple Way to Invest Your Retirement Savings."

    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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  • 06/04/15--22:00: 7 Best Things to Buy in June
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    Daughter feeding her dad a bite of food
    Getty Images
    Welcome to grilling and swimming season, shoppers. June 21 marks the first day of summer, which also happens to be Father's Day this year. This month you'll find deals centered around both Father's Day and summer, as well as wedding season, graduation season and more.

    Power Tools

    Just in time for Father's Day comes savings on power tools both online and in stores. Keep an eye out for fliers advertising limited-time store specials, as well as markdowns on websites such as Amazon. These deals will occur leading up to Father's Day as retailers try to win your dollar.

    Gym Memberships and Fitness Apparel

    "Summer is not the best time for gym membership simply because more people would rather be outdoors," explains Natasha M. Campbell, founder and CEO of Lifestyle Success Unlimited, a financial education company. "Apparel, accessories, and shoes for outdoor exercise is typically offered at a discount, discounts can range from 50 percent or more."

    Dishes and Silverware

    It's wedding and graduation season. As a result, retailers leverage all those newlyweds and fresh grads making homes for themselves via enticing promotions. "I've found that you can usually save around 25 percent off regular price on dishes," notes David Bakke of Money Crashers. Watch for email advertisements, newspaper fliers and social media announcements for markdowns.

    Strategic Travel

    It's no secret that summer is one of the most popular times to travel, but that doesn't mean there aren't deals to be had. You just have to be strategic about your destination. For example, Bakke says, "A vacation to Florida will usually be cheaper in June. It's hotter, but you will save on lodging, airfare, and some entertainment activities." If you have a specific destination online, sign up for price alerts that notify you of dropped airfare. Finally, Campbell notes that cruises and vacation packages are offered at huge discounts this month, as June is considered the beginning of hurricane season.

    Dairy

    Did you know that June is National Dairy Month? Yup. To celebrate, dairy manufacturers are pushing their goods big time. This month you'll notice an uptick in sales and coupons on yogurt, cheeses, ice cream and more, says Teri Gault, CEO of The Grocery Game. We suggest stacking your coupons with in-store specials, which means you'll get a discount on already discounted goods. Now may be the time to stock up on dairy items that freeze well.

    Restaurants

    We all know that Mother's Day is one of the busiest days of the year for restaurants. In an attempt to get families in their doors for Father's Day, many restaurants will offer enticing specials on June 21. For example, look for free entrees or dessert specials and prix fixe menus that give you more bang for your buck. Restaurants that cater more to "dad crowds," such as steak houses, are a great place to start.

    Lingerie

    For some reason, major lingerie retailers host some of their biggest sales during the month of June. For example, the famous Victoria's Secret Semi Annual sale takes place this month, and Frederick's of Hollywood and Maidenform also have lingerie promotions. "Check out other retailers such as Target, which offered [buy one get one] deals last year on bras," adds Campbell.

     

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    Food Speedy Spirits
    Tony Dejak/APTom Lix, founder and chairman of Cleveland Whiskey Co.
    By MICHELLE LOCKE

    Everyone knows the secret to great whiskey is long, slow aging in oak barrels tucked away in cellars and warehouses for a decades-long nap.

    Or is it?

    Recently, some distillers have been taking shortcuts, using technology to mimic the effects of long aging -- and prompting spirited debate over the merits of the resulting liquors.

    All of the marketing has been around how it takes time and how you have to have patience. I just say age is really irrelevant.

    "The traditionalists hate us," says Tom Lix, founder and chairman of Cleveland Whiskey Co. "They're all very interested in what's being done, but of course it runs very contrary to not only generations of how it's been processed, but generations of how it's been talked about. All of the marketing has been around how it takes time and how you have to have patience. I just say age is really irrelevant."

    It doesn't take rocket science to figure out why new distillers want to speed up their spirits. Starting a new distillery takes a capital investment of tens of thousands of dollars and no banker wants to hear it's going to be years before you start seeing any revenue.

    Those who don't want to wait use interventions that speed up the way the whiskey interacts with the oak, a relationship that defines that flavor of whiskey. Some distilleries intensify the wood influence by using smaller barrels or by adding wood chips or staves of oak to the barrels. Both methods increase the surface area of the wood in the oak-to-whiskey ratio.

    Others go high-tech, changing the pressure and temperatures in barrels and tanks, and even using sound waves to get the liquor vibrating within them.

    There even are at-home options for rapid aging. The Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia, which takes a number of steps to speed aging, including adding toasted apple wood and oak chips to barrels, sells a home kit of a 2-liter charred American white oak barrel along with two 750-milliliter bottles of cask strength spirit and detailed instructions. Another consumer option is www.oakbottle.com, a 750-milliliter oak vessel that resembles a large wine bottle. You fill the vessel with your own wine or spirit to intensify flavors, and the effect can be dramatic.

    'Very American'

    Using technology to get faster results is "very American," observes Clay Risen, author of "American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye."

    Some distillers are better at the new approach than others, and Risen says he generally finds the smaller barrel approach to be better than the more tech-y versions. But even just using smaller barrels can be risky. It's "like driving a really fast car. You're talking about very rapid aging. A lot of times what you end up with is a whiskey that tastes woody but also very vegetal. You get a lot of unfinished, unprocessed grain notes."

    Risen says he has yet to see "anybody who can convincingly and transparently present a technology that works. It simply is a matter of brute biology and organic chemistry that dictates how whiskey goes from being an unaged distillate to an aged whiskey."

    Austin Hope, a California winemaker who recently started making Highspire, a whiskey produced in Kentucky from 100 percent rye, sees things differently. He ages his whiskey in just 130 days, putting the distillate into charred used wine barrels from his Austin Hope Winery Estate and adding toasted staves to punch up the wood influence.

    'Right Balance'

    "Purists and authorities alike think I'm off my rocker for making whiskey this way, but I've never been big on following the rules. Better grain means there is a quicker path to great flavor," says Hope, who uses an heirloom rye varietal grown exclusively for Highspire. "Rapid aging isn't about cutting corners in my book. When you're dealing with heirloom rye, it's about determining just the right balance of flavor between the grain and the wood."

    At Cleveland Whiskey, Lix ages his whiskey using a process he calls pressure aging.

    Federal regulations require that bourbon be aged in new charred oak barrels, but don't say for how long unless you want to put an age statement on the label. So, Lix puts his raw distillate in the barrels, then promptly pumps it back out and into pressure-capable stainless steel tanks.

    The barrels are chopped up, not randomly but with attention paid to weight and moisture content, as well as the shape and the surface area, and measured amounts of the oak then are added to the tank. Large swings in pressure are created that squeeze the wood, forcing the spirit in and out of the pores like squeezing a wet sponge and putting it back in water.

    Lix says it takes about 24 hours to produce a bourbon he says has done well in blind tastings against established brands and now is being sold in 12 states.

     

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