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    Savings chips and playing cards
    JupiterimagesThere are a few instances when it's better to not roll over your 401(k) balance.
    By Emily Brandon

    Many people roll their 401(k) balance over to an individual retirement account each time they change jobs. Transferring your 401(k) balance to an IRA is usually a good financial move, especially if the IRA has better investment options and lower fees. Plus, it simplifies your financial life if you have fewer accounts to keep track of, and you might qualify for lower fees if you keep a large balance with a single financial institution. But there are a few specific cases when it's better to leave your retirement savings in a former employer's 401(k) plan.

    You are between ages 55 and 59. There's typically a 10 percent penalty if you withdraw money from a 401(k) or IRA before age 59½. However, if you lose or leave your job at age 55 or later (or age 50 or later for public safety employees), you can take withdrawals from the 401(k) plan associated with the job you most recently left without having to pay the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. If you roll your 401(k) plan balance over to an IRA upon leaving the job, you will have to wait until age 59½ to take penalty-free IRA distributions. "As long as the money stays inside of the company plan, you can have access to it without the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty if you were at least age 55 when you left your job," says Mike Sheehy, a certified financial planner and president of Client First Investment Management in West Bend, Wisconsin. "If you were to roll that over to an IRA, then you are back under the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty."

    You plan to work past age 70½. Annual withdrawals from traditional 401(k)s and IRAs are required after age 70½, and you must pay income tax on each distribution. But if you remain employed after age 70½ and don't own 5 percent or more of the company you work for, you can continue to delay withdrawals from your current 401(k) plan and the resulting income tax bill until you actually retire. "If the money is inside the 401(k) plan, they aren't required to take distributions on that as long as they are still working and not a major shareholder in the company," Sheehy says. However, you will need to take required withdrawals from IRAs and 401(k) plans from previous jobs after age 70½, regardless of your employment status, to avoid a stiff 50 percent tax penalty.

    You have company stock in your 401(k) plan. Company stock gets special tax treatment when it is held in an employer-sponsored 401(k). When company stock is distributed from a 401(k) plan the sale may qualify for the long-term capital gains tax rate, which for many people is lower than their ordinary income tax rate. But if the company stock is transferred to an IRA, the appreciation will be taxed at the often higher ordinary income tax rate when it is withdrawn from the account. "There's a tremendous tax opportunity when you hold company stock in your 401(k)," says Mary Kusske, a certified financial planner and president of Kusske Financial Management in Burnsville, Minnesota. "Instead of the stock coming out as ordinary income, it will be taxed as a capital gain."

    Your 401(k) plan has especially low fees. Many 401(k) plans are plagued by high fees and poor investment choices, and a job change finally allows you to shift your savings into lower cost investments. But some companies carefully select unusually good investment options for their workers and use their bargaining power to negotiate especially low investment fees for participants. If you're in a best in class 401(k) plan, and you've shopped around to see that you can't reduce your investment costs by switching to an IRA, sticking with a former employer's 401(k) plan can help your money to grow faster. Just make sure to keep your contact information up to date, including an email address and phone number not associated with your former job, so you don't lose track of the account. "If the 401(k) has low-cost funds, and maybe the employer is picking up the expenses for administration or a financial adviser, you might want to keep it in the 401(k) because you might have to pay for professional management outside the 401(k)," says JoAnn May, a certified financial planner for Forest Asset Management in Berwyn, Illinois. "If a 401(k) is filled with high-expense mutual funds, that's a reason to get it out."

    You haven't had time to carefully evaluate your options. Changing jobs is a hectic period when you need to create a new routine, and you might not have a lot of extra time to shop for the best IRA and compare the investment options and costs in your old employer's plan to what's available in your new firm's 401(k) plan. But you don't need to move your money immediately upon leaving a job. "There is no reason to make a fast movement," May says. "Leave it there until you figure out what you want to do."

    Emily Brandon is the senior editor for Retirement at U.S. News. You can contact her on Twitter @aiming2retire, circle her on Google Plus or email her at


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    By Paul Michael

    I love Amazon. The prices they charge run from competitive, to "how can they stay in business charging so little!?" And like many of my friends, I now go to before any other site when it comes to buying nearly anything. Having Amazon Prime pays for itself very quickly, with free two-day shipping on thousands of items. And Prime Pantry is also a great option for many items, with just a $5.99 flat delivery fee for boxes weighing up to 45 pounds.

    So, in no particular order, here are 10 items you should always be ordering on Amazon:

    1. Pet Food. Depending on the size and breed of animal you own, buying pet food can be costly, or downright extortionate. If you own a large-breed dog, you're also faced with carrying a huge amount of food from the store every time you need to stock up. Let Amazon take care of that for you. Whether it's dry or canned food, Amazon has thousands of options. Prime shipping covers most of them, the prices are slashed on many items, and you can also choose Subscribe & Save for additional 5 to 10 percent discounts.

    2. Dishwasher Tablets. There are two very important reasons to buy your dishwasher tablets from Amazon -- price and convenience. Running out of those detergent tablets is a real pain and when you go to the grocery store you pay top dollar for them. Amazon has a great range and offers them with either free Prime shipping, Prime Pantry or Subscribe & Save. I get my Finish Powerball dishwasher detergent delivered every 90 days, for just $12.28 a pack and free shipping. That's cheaper than Walmart and it's all done automatically.

    3. Diapers and Wipes. When you're the parent of a child in diapers, you know just how expensive it can be to keep them fresh and clean. Diaper run 30 to 50 cents each and when you figure in the cost of wipes (and how bulky the boxes are), it can make bringing them home a costly hassle. Turn to Amazon.

    You will find great deals on name-brand diapers, especially if you use Amazon Prime or Prime Pantry. And once again, as this is the kind of item you will be using every month, look for Subscribe & Save options for additional discounts and free shipping. You can get an additional 20 percent off for signing up for the Subscribe & Save service. For example, Pampers Cruisers Size 6 Giant Pack runs $41.22 list price. Amazon Prime price drops it to $35.10, and if you use Subscribe & Save it drops further to $28.08. That's over $13 off the original price, with free shipping! And make sure you look into Amazon Mom for your savings.

    4. Coffee Pods. There's no denying that coffee pods, in particular K-Cups, are incredibly popular these days. Almost everyone I know has a machine that takes K-Cups or pods of some kind. However, they can be expensive, especially if you buy them in small batches of 10 to 18 a box. Skip that, and get the bigger boxes from Amazon. With the free shipping options available to you, you can get a much better deal by buying in bulk. And of course, this is another great Subscribe & Save purchase, with further discounts making 80-count boxes come in well under $30.

    5. Toilet Paper. Most of us buy toilet paper in packs of at least 6 to 12. Even then, they take up a lot of room in the grocery cart (and your trunk). Instead, buy more of it less often on Amazon and get it delivered for free. Right now, you can get a pack of 48 double rolls of either Quilted Northern or Angel Soft for under $23 using the Subscribe & Save feature. Figure out how long it will last you and opt for a free delivery interval that will ensure you never run out again.

    6. Cooking Oils. From extra virgin olive, to corn and sunflower oils, we all go through a lot of cooking oil every year. Take advantage of Amazon Prime Pantry and Subscribe & Save deals to drastically cut the costs of your annual cooking oil supplies. I like to get the Zoe brand of extra virgin olive oil; it gets stellar reviews and is just $12 for a 33.8 ounce can. I also order peanut oil through Amazon; it's way cheaper than it is in grocery stores and is excellent for deep frying.

    7. Vitamins. If you use vitamin supplements regularly, Amazon will save you a lot of money. There is a massive variety (over 113,000 items come up on an initial search) and you have Prime, Prime Pantry and Subscribe & Save options available. If you opt for the Prime Pantry, split the small $5.99 shipping fee with a few friends and order all of your vitamins together in bulk. Just make sure you know you can use them before they expire.

    8. Furnace Filters. It's recommended that you replace most furnace filters at least every three months -- but it's also something that is very easy to overlook. Use Amazon to save time and money by getting your furnace filters through a Subscribe & Save order. The range available runs the gamut, from the bargain-basement variety, up to the top-of-the-line filters that stop anything and everything. If you aren't interested in getting a regular delivery, stock up and use Amazon Prime for free delivery and big savings.

    9. Shampoo and Conditioner. As a bald guy, I can't speak for this one personally. But, when I asked my friends and co-workers what they buy regularly on Amazon, shampoo and conditioner came near the top of the list. There are hundreds of different brands available, and you can take advantage of Prime, Prime Pantry and Subscribe & Save options. Expect to save a considerable amount of money over the year, and you'll never run out again. This is also a good option for shower gels, soaps, deodorants, lotions, and other personal hygiene products.

    10. Cat Litter. It's heavy. It's smelly. It's expensive, especially when you consider what it's used for. Amazon is the perfect place to go for your regular supply of cat litter. You can find deals in Subscribe & Save, Prime or Prime Pantry, with some litter coming in at just over $4 for a 20 pound bag! (In that instance, that's around 20 cents a pound, delivered to your doorstep for under $6 shipping.) There really is no better way to get your cat litter.

    What items do you regularly order on Amazon?


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    Black businessman thinking at desk in office
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    By Naomi Mannino

    NEW YORK -- Baby boomers -- those aged 51 to 69 -- believe there are significant threats to their retirement, but less than half (47 percent) of them have a financial retirement plan in place to combat these dangers, according to survey findings released by Natixis Global Asset Management.

    What's more, with the cost of retirement shifting away from the government (Social Security) and employers (pensions), the burden of remaining solvent post-career falls increasingly on the individual American's shoulders in the form saving, investing, selling a home or working longer after retiring. That's why it's more important than ever to create and follow a financial plan, even in the late-stage run-up to retirement.

    Those nearing retirement have the same fears -- that they won't have enough money to last through retirement, according to the Natixis survey. To allay these anxieties, TheStreet spoke with advisers to concoct a strategic retirement game-plan based on some fundamental questions.

    How long will I live?

    Almost 75 percent of boomer investors who responded to the Natixis survey said the costs of basic needs in old age such as long-term care could endanger their financial well-being. Confronting extended life expectancies is, as a result, of the essence.

    "Longevity is definitely a risk," says Ed Farrington, executive vice president of retirement for Natixis Global Management. "If the average age of retirement is 65 and the likelihood that you will live to age 80 is high, then you will need to support yourself for 15 years on your retirement savings and investments and whatever you might get from Social Security."

    Farrington says that's several years longer than the past generation, and because of that longevity, baby boomers need to seek advice from a financial professional to help stay realistic about your retirement plan based on income streams, savings, tolerance for risk, health and many other personal lifestyle factors which have huge implications in how a person might save, spend and earn.

    "But how long you will live is definitely a wild card between 75 and 95," says Michael Garry, a fee-only certified financial planner and owner of Yardley Wealth Management in Newtown, Pennsylvania. " We use plenty of different calculators to estimate this number but we like to err on the side of expecting a longer life because you don't want to run out of money before you die."

    How much money will I need for medical costs, especially those that might be uninsured, and what about long-term care?

    Medical costs represent a significant financial risk to retirement for 71 percent of boomers investors who responded to the Natixis survey.

    "Healthcare becomes one of the primary things you spend money on after age 70, so you have to be wary of how health care costs will impact your future life," says Farrington. "Right now, you have no clue what that will be, but a financial adviser or certified financial planner who specializes in retirement plans can give you a realistic expectation of basic medical costs not covered by Medicare, extra insurance plans you may need and costs for planning for long-term care that is realistic for you."

    How much will the cost of living rise before I retire and during my retirement?

    Inflation was an aspect that worried half of boomer investors who responded to the Natixis survey.

    "If you don't plan for both inflation and longevity, you could suddenly be living a leaner life you did not expect," says Farrington.

    He explains that the historic 3 or 4 percent inflation turns a dollar into 48 cents after 20 years, so a retiree of that period would have less than half the purchasing power he has today -- all other factors equal. Even with the lower inflation rates seen in recent years, a 62-year-old is still considered a long-term investor and will need to take some risk to outpace inflation and fight that longevity risk.

    "Many folks think that once they turn 65, they need a safer portfolio, but a good mix of stocks is still important," explains Garry. "Even if you are already retired, I still like to see 50 to 60 percent invested stocks or index funds, the other 35 to 45 percent in bond indexes and around 5 percent in cash."

    He adds that if a retiree's income or return streams are not as robust as needed, then the person will need to save more cash while still maintaining a career or delay an exit from the workforce.

    What else can boomers do to boost the income stream?

    Consult a professional and make a financial plan for your retirement. Working with a planner can give you more realistic projections and discuss your personal risk tolerance with you to see where you are comfortable. "Participants in our 401(k) plans survey earlier this year who said they had financial advisers had far better financial behaviors in personal savings and their workplace savings plan," Farrington notes. "They were saving at 9 percent of their income and had both long-term and short term goals."

    Consider alternative investment strategies. Farrington definitely advises considering all alternative investment strategies beyond traditional stocks and bonds such as real estate and commodities. "These other sources of return all act differently and can help you withstand market ups and downs and longevity," he explains.

    Maybe you're not comfortable with traditional investments. Not everybody is. Take Linda & Hector Gutierrez, San Marino, California-based baby boomers who purposely shy away from the stock market in lieu of real estate investing to provide a comfortable income stream now and for their future. "In the beginning, I had a 401(k) because my employer matched contributions, but I never understood the stock market and am afraid to make a mistake," says Linda, who was already a real estate broker, but hadn't yet bought any houses for herself. "Once I met Hector who already had some houses rented, I felt investing in rental properties was the way to solidify our income and my eyes were opened. I like to see my investment, know it's there and collect the money every month." Now the Gutierrezes don't worry about retirement because of the cash flow from all the rental properties they plan to maintain.

    Make better use of traditional asserts. Farrington goes so far as to advise trying to find an actively managed fund that fits your comfort zone. Investment in an index fund is simply replicating the S&P 500 or other index, so he suggests looking for active managers who might outperform the market with the least amount of risk. "But, if the return stream is too volatile it tends to create bad behaviors," says Farrington. "Scared investors don't stay invested and that jeopardizes their long-term goals, so work with a professional adviser who can help you match your risk tolerance and goals."

    It's important for a retiree always to look for a fee-only planner to know the adviser isn't trying to sell the retiree specific investments. With that hurdle cleared, the retiree can look for funds with low expense ratios and those that invest in different asset classes, advises Garry.

    Keep your work income as long as possible. Working is the biggest income stream there is, so the longer a retiree can continue to work, the more he can sock away. Even second careers that generate a profit such as owning a business or becoming self-employed can help keep bolster a retiree's earning after his initial career ends.

    "You will have a return on investment that will be based on how much time you want to keep putting into it," advises Garry.

    Contribute as much as possible to savings plans. If a retiree is still working and participating in a workplace savings plan such as a 401(k), he should definitely increase his savings contributions to 10 percent or more depending on individual needs and the particular plan.

    "I see the people spend a lot on buying a house and on college for their kids but once that's all done you can use that money and time before retirement to really ratchet up savings," explains Garry, who advises that the yearly pre-tax 401(k) contribution limit for 50 and over is $24,000 and the self-employed can save even more can in a SEP plan or an individual 401(K).

    Delay taking Social Security payments. Way too many baby boomers take Social Security and pensions too early at 62 when it is first allowed, says Garry.

    "If you can wait until age 70, you'll receive an 8 percent higher monthly payment amount, but people feel like they are leaving that money on the table by not taking it early which just does not bear out," he explains.

    Stay consistent. "Consistency is key for the best outcome," advises Farrington, "and that confidence to avoid acting emotionally so your portfolio can withstand different market movements comes from having a solid plan."


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    Danny Johnston/AP
    By Ashley Eneriz

    Most major retailers offer a price match guarantee, but as the Star Tribune reports only about 5 percent of shoppers actually take advantage of it.

    Price matching is a smart and easy way to save money on your day-to-day purchases, but if you don't know which stores offer a price match guarantee and what the rules are, you could easily miss out on savings.

    We've rounded up 11 major retailers that offer great price match guarantees, detailing exactly what you need to do to get the lowest price. Here's where you'll find the most savings.

    1. Walmart Price Match. Walmart (WMT) will match the prices on any competitor's ad that features a specific price for a specific item. What's more, it'll match prices that can only be obtained with preferred shopping cards at other stores, and honor competitors' "buy one, get one free" offers (as long as an actual price is listed on the ad).

    For fresh produce and meat price matching, the advertised prices must be in the same unit type (pound for pound, for example). For all other price match items, the products have to be identical in brand name, size, color, quantity, etc.

    Walmart doesn't offer price matches on auctions, closeouts or misprinted ads.

    2. Target Price Match. Target (TGT) will price match almost any item in its store, as long as the lower priced item is identical and customers bring proof of the lower price (and, in the case of retroactive price matching, a receipt). The caveat: Target or a competitor must advertise a cheaper price in the next seven days or in the next week's weekly ad for a price match to be honored, and the item must be in stock at Target at the time of price matching.

    Online price matching only applies to,,, and

    3. Amazon Price Match. Most people use (AMZN) to price match items, but you might have wondered if the online retailer actually honors price matching for its own products, too. Here's the answer: Sometimes. Amazon will match the prices of certain televisions and cellphones at select retailers, but for all other products it doesn't price match.

    To enact Amazon's price match guarantee, you need to find a lower price on a qualifying retailer's website within 14 days of your item shipping. The items must be identical and the cellphones should have the exact same service plan.

    To request your price match, navigate to the Order Summary page in your account, then click
    Order Details and Found a Lower Price? Check on to see which retailers qualify for a price match guarantee.

    4. Staples Price Match. Staples (SPLS) will price match virtually any of its products, as long as the items are identical in size, model number, etc. The office retailer will honor almost all competitors, including online retailers like -- as long as the store sells the products both in-person and online. (Note that Staples doesn't price match marketplace items and third-party sellers.)

    If you make a purchase at Staples and discover a lower in-store or online price within 14 days, the retailer will refund you the difference. Simply visit the customer service desk.

    Here's what Staples doesn't price match: its own or competitors' special events and timed sales, such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals, along with Staples EasyTech services, postage, gift cards, phone cards and apps.

    5. Best Buy Price Match. Best Buy (BBY) will price match all local competitors' prices, as well as these online-only retailers:,,,,, and

    The store will also match its own online prices and refund the difference on past purchases if the price goes down during the return and exchange period. All price matches can be made at the customer service desk.

    Caveat: Only one price match per identical item per customer is allowed. Best Buy won't price match free items, mispriced items, coupon and clearance offers. bundle deals, offers that happen from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, or items that are advertised as limited quantity.

    6. The Home Depot Price Match. The Home Depot (HD) will price match its local retail competition on any item, as long as it's in stock and identical. What's more, the retailer will beat a competitor's price by 10 percent. This guarantee excludes special orders, bid pricing, volume discounts, open-box merchandise, labor and installation, sales tax, rebates, free offers and typos.

    Online purchases aren't subject to the additional 10 percent off, though they will be price matched.

    7. Lowe's Price Match. Lowe's (LOW) will beat its local competitors' prices by 10 percent with a current ad. The retailer will also match a competitor's percent off discount by the item's final net price. Customers can't price match for installation labor, closeout sales, or clearance, discontinued and damaged items, and special orders.

    8. Fry's Electronics Price Match. Fry's Electronics will price match any authorized local or online competitors. If you buy an item at Fry's and then find a lower price elsewhere within 30 days of purchase, the retailer will refund 110 percent of the difference. You just need your original receipt and proof of a lower price. In the case of a number of electronic items, including computers, tablets, MP3 players, cameras and air conditioners, the price match period is just 15 days.

    Note that when price matching online competitors, Fry's will include the cost of shipping. The policy doesn't include rebates, one-of-a-kind items, educational discounts, coupons and promo codes.

    9. Bed Bath & Beyond Price Match. Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) will honor price matches with any direct competitor, even, as long as the items are the same manufacturer and model number.

    Bonus: Bed Bath & Beyond will also let you use manufacturer's coupons on top of the price match -- though not if it's a brand that also has retail stores (and could therefore be considered a competitor).

    Bed Bath & Beyond won't price match membership stores, such as Costco (COST), third-party sellers or websites for stores it doesn't consider direct competitors. For in-store price matching, just ask a sales associate. You can also request a price match for a purchase on by calling 800-462-3966 or by emailing

    10. Sears Price Match. Sears (SHLD) will price match identical items at local competitors if you bring the original advertisement to a sales associate at the time of your purchase. The retailer will also match online pricing if you bring the order page in -- though keep in mind that the costs should include shipping and handling.

    Sears won't price match Internet-only retailers (no Amazon) or marketplace and third-party sellers on competitors' websites. The store also won't honor retroactive price matches (so you'll need to do your research before you buy).

    11. Toys R Us Price Match. The Toys R Us price match guarantee is only available for in-store purchases. The store will match prices at local competitors and online retailers, including,,,,,,,,,, and

    Toys R Us will also match prices on and (except for online-only prices). The store won't honor competitors' "buy one, get one" deals, doorbusters, category or storewide discounts, percentage-off discounts, or deals from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday.

    This story originally appeared on


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    Worried couple paying bills online.
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    By Karla Bowsher

    Switching banks is easier than we think, according to a recent survey.

    Conducted by Harris Poll for BancVue, the study of more than 1,000 U.S. adults found that 61 percent of those who have never switched banks believe that switching would be at least somewhat difficult. That figure goes as high as 69 percent for millennials, the generation defined as people ages 18 to 34.

    But 81 percent of people who have switched banks say it wasn't difficult at all. BancVue is a Texas-based financial services company whose products include Kasasa, a national brand of free checking accounts offered at nearly 300 community banks.

    BankVue Chief Executive Officer Gabe Krajicek says in the release:

    "There's no reason for Americans to stick with a bank that isn't serving their needs. ... And the long-term benefits of finding the right institution far outweigh the short-term hassles of moving."

    Americans seem to be enticed by higher interest rates and better banking products, according to the survey.

    Forty-five percent of people would switch banks for a higher interest rate, and 25 percent of people who have switched banks did so because they were dissatisfied with the products their prior bank offered.

    For a step-by-step guide to finding a new bank or credit union, check out "Loathe It? Leave It! 5 Simple Steps for Switching Banks."

    Have you ever switched banks? If so, share your experience with us in a comment below or on our Facebook page.

    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!

    Credit Unions Vs Banks: Which Is Better?


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    By Jeff Somogyi

    Just a reminder: June 18 is National Splurge Day.

    Oh, you've never heard of it? Maybe that's because it was invented from whole-cloth in 1994 by Adrienne Sioux Koopersmith, a lady who describes herself as "America's premier eventologist." Though there are no Hallmark cards for it, there's nothing stopping us from treating this like it's a real thing, so we will!

    As a deal site, we'll admit that the idea of wanton spending sends a shiver down our frugal, money-saving spines. But maybe, just maybe, we can spin this faux-liday into something that fits both the urge to splurge and the cravings for savings. Therefore, here's a list of items that you can feel OK spending more money on, because they're worth it! (Of course, you should still be looking for a deal on these higher-quality options; this is DealNews, after all!)

    Now as that guy from that canceled sitcom about parks and recreations would say, "treat yo' self!" (And while you're at it, check out our list of the most outrageous splurges we've ever listed, too.)

    The Aeron Chair by Herman Miller

    Aeron chairs have won endless praise for their design and ergonomics, but praise never comes cheap. Starting at $679, these seats are way more expensive than the ones you'll find at Office Depot or Staples. However, since you're probably sitting in it for at least 40 hours a week, shouldn't you get something that's designed to pamper your butt? Ok, bad choice of imagery, but you get what we're saying, right? Included in the premium price is also a full 12-year warranty, so you won't have to spend money on a new chair again anytime soon -- unlike the cash you'd likely dole out to replace a bargain bin chair every couple of years, when it breaks.

    Bed Linens

    In 2013, the average American spent roughly 8.7 hours a day sleeping, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So, if you're buying scratchy, stiff sheets, your skin is touching them for roughly 3,176 hours every year. When it comes to bedding, treat yourself like a king (or twin, or queen, or California king) because there's a noticeable difference between budget, 200-thread-count sheets and luxury, Egyptian Cotton sheets. Ever wonder why a hotel bed feels so much more comfortable than yours does? Good bedding!


    The point of makeup is to enhance a person's beauty in an inconspicuous way. Cheaper cosmetics are less likely to look natural and will probably cake up later in the day and become a conspicuous way of de-hancing your beauty. Better quality cosmetics are far more likely to work with the conditions of your skin and make you look good, but they'll cost a bit more. (Note: We're not sure the same rules apply to clown makeup, as we didn't want to get close enough to one to ask.)

    Toilet Paper

    We'd assume that the last place anyone would want to rub scratchy paper would be their, er, fundament, yet so many people continue to buy the cheap stuff, just to save some dollar bills. (We don't mean to implying there are people use dollar bills to ... wait, you know what, we'll stop talking about this.) Anyway. Yes, it may last a little longer per roll, but why not treat your delicate parts a little more delicately? Honestly, it's hard to even call this one a "splurge", since it's so easy to save money on the "good stuff."

    Razors and Razor Blades

    When scraping a sharpened piece of metal across your skin, shouldn't you want the best piece of sharpened metal you can get, instead of something made by a company that spent the least on its manufacture? Personally, we've never gotten anything better than a shredded back face when using a disposable blade. Unless you're doing some "Game of Thrones" dark magic and need to constantly spill blood, we'd say that it's worth your comfort to spend a bit more for a quality razor or shaver to get a better shave. Now, we're not advocating for any specific brand, so buy whatever you can find a deal on. Just stop buying the blades that are sold by bulk in a bag.


    When you realize how expensive a tattoo can be, you might be tempted to look for the cheapest artist you can find. But nothing says "regret" like blurry, poorly done permanent skin art. Splurge a little and you can mitigate the chances of getting a tattoo that will look terrible. A good artist means your memorial tat will actually look like your newborn baby girl and less like Winston Churchill.

    Major Home Improvement

    "Pfft! How hard could it be to build a deck?" Answer: Very. DIY is great, but sometimes it pays to pay a professional to get it done faster and better than you ever could. Sure, you might save some money, but do you have the time, skill, and patience to get it done right? Something that might take you a month of Sundays to build might take a professional just a single afternoon. So unless DIY is "your thing," avoid catastrophe and hire a pro instead.

    Clothing and Shoes

    Nine times out of 10, clothing is more expensive because more care and better quality materials were used in making it. We're not saying you should always buy super-high-end, one-of-a-kind designer items, but you can often benefit from a better fit and longer life if you're willing to pay more. This is a handy rule of thumb for all apparel, including shoes. How many times have you bought a cheap shirt from Old Navy, just to have it fall apart within the year, when a similar shirt from J.Crew could have held together longer? Too many. Stop doing that! (After you invest in better pieces, make sure to read up on how to make clothing last longer.)

    New Multiplayer Video Games

    We've often said that you can get deep discounts on video games if you simply wait a couple months to buy a game, rather than buying it on release day. However, we will amend our advice for one reason: Multiplayer. If you like playing in giant frag-fests online, then you'll want to jump on a game as soon as they're released, as the online multiplayer community is a constantly-shifting entity, usually centered around only the latest titles. If you wait a couple months to get a deal on a game, you could find yourself being the only Spartan on the map, stealing a flag from yourself, because everyone else has moved on to the next game. Thankfully, many game preorders see discounts or include other perks (exclusive downloadable content or gift cards), so it's not exactly like you're paying retail, anyway.

    Camping Tents

    In another example of price reflecting a product's quality, the extra cost usually means that the maker of a good-quality tent invested not only in better materials, but in a better design as well. You'll appreciate this extra design savvy when you're not struggling to set it up, or when you remain dry, warm and bug-free during rainy, windy or humid nights. (Though, if you want to keep that stuff out, how much of an "outdoorsman" are you, really?) Learn more about the features to shop for with our tent buying guide.

    Movies at the Theater

    Whether it's a huge action movie or a comedy, there's something to be said for paying the extra money to go see a screening of a new-release film. If it's an action flick, the big, big, big screen really showcases the explosions (as well as Charlize Theron's bad-ass-ery); if it's a comedy, then a room full of chuckling strangers might get you laughing at jokes that just don't seem as funny when you're watching alone. You're paying a premium to have an experience, and that's always worth a bit more money. Of course, that "experience" you pay for could turn out to be a kid talking on his phone and kicking your chair throughout the entire film. Either way, we'll allow you to watch documentaries and those arty films with subtitles at home.

    As you can see, most of the items on which you should splurge are amenities that make your life better in some way, offering added comfort that's worth a bit more. You might also have noticed that conspicuously missing from the list are any technology items! That's because most tech is so disposable these days, and even if you splurge for a high-end model that performs extremely well, you're very likely going to want to replace it in a year or two anyway when new models come out. So why over-pay?

    What about you, readers? What items do you routinely pay more for, even though budget options exist? Tell us all about your splurge-worthy items in the comments section below!


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    Consumer Prices
    J Pat Carter/APA shopper tries on earrings at a market in downtown Miami.
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. consumer prices in May recorded their largest increase in more than two years as gasoline prices surged, suggesting an energy-driven disinflationary trend had probably run its course.

    The Labor Department said Thursday its Consumer Price Index rose 0.4 percent last month after gaining 0.1 percent in April. That was the largest increase since February 2013, and left the CPI unchanged in the 12 months through May after a 0.2 percent yearly decline in April.

    Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI rising 0.5 percent from April and unchanged from a year ago. While energy prices are stabilizing, a strong dollar is curbing underlying inflation pressures.

    The so-called core CPI, which strips out food and energy costs, increased 0.1 percent, the smallest rise since December, after advancing 0.3 percent in April. In the 12 months through May, the core CPI rose 1.7 percent after a yearly increase of 1.8 percent in April.

    Given a tightening labor market, which is expected to spur stronger wage growth, the retreat in underlying inflation pressures likely doesn't change views that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rate later this year.

    The U.S. central bank Wednesday noted the stabilization in energy prices and expressed confidence that inflation will gradually move toward its 2 percent target. The Fed has kept its short-term lending rate near zero since December 2008.

    Last month, gasoline prices jumped 10.4 percent, the biggest increase since June 2009, accounting for most of the increase in the CPI. That followed a 1.7 percent decline in April.

    Food prices were unchanged for a second straight month. An outbreak of bird flu in some parts of the country led to a shortage of eggs that could push up food prices in the months ahead.

    Elsewhere, the index for rent increased 0.3 percent. With the residential vacancy rate near a 22-year low as a firming labor market boosts household formation, shelter costs are likely to continue rising.

    The medical care index increased 0.2 percent after rising 0.7 percent in the prior month. There were also increases in the prices of new motor vehicles, tobacco and alcoholic beverages.

    But prices for apparel, used cars and trucks, and household furnishings fell.


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    McDonalds Shrinking
    Mike Groll/AP

    NEW YORK -- The burger chain that put "supersize" into the American vernacular is slimming down: For the first time in more than 40 years, and perhaps ever, McDonald's says the number of U.S. restaurants it has is shrinking.

    McDonald's (MCD) plans to close more restaurants in the U.S. than it opens this year, according to the world's biggest hamburger chain. That hasn't happened since at least 1970, according to an Associated Press review of McDonald's regulatory filings.

    Becca Hary, a McDonald's spokeswoman, declined to provide a specific figure but said the reduction would be "minimal" compared with its total of about 14,300 U.S. locations.

    Still, the contraction is symbolic of troubles under the Golden Arches and how it's trying to regroup.

    The company enjoyed rapid expansion for much of its history by offering consistent food at affordable prices. It even thrived during the recession, when its Dollar Menu drew in people trying to save money and new products like McCafe coffee drove up sales.

    But since then, chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) that market themselves as serving better food and ingredients have chipped away at McDonald's dominance. A new breed of "better burger" chains such as Five Guys Burgers and Fries is taking away customers, too.

    McDonald's past success led to "a natural overconfidence," said John Gordon, a restaurant industry analyst with Pacific Management Consulting Group.

    "McDonald's is such an internally focused organization, it's a situation where you don't have a fresh perspective coming in," Gordon said.

    McDonald's executives have also conceded that an overly complicated menu led to inaccurate orders and longer wait times, and that they failed to keep pace with changing tastes.

    Cutting the Fat

    In April, McDonald's said it would close about 700 underperforming locations around the world this year, including in the U.S. CEO Steve Easterbrook, who stepped into the role on March 1, also later laid out plans to restructure the company to remove layers of bureaucracy and move more nimbly.

    In any given year, some underperforming McDonald's restaurants will close. But previously, the number of closings has been outweighed by new restaurants that open.

    The U.S. store closings will be a mix of franchised and company-owned locations, Hary said. She noted that the closings are part of a strategic review intended to set the stage for the future growth. The company did not provide a list of locations expected to close.

    McDonald's Corp. hasn't reported an annual reduction in U.S. locations since at least 1970, according to archived filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. For 1969, McDonald's didn't include a U.S. store count in its annual report.

    The company declined to comment on the last time it reduced its U.S. store base. But given the rapid expansion that characterized its early years, it's likely McDonald's hadn't pulled back since Ray Kroc founded the company in 1955.

    Saturation Point or Room to Run?

    Closing weak stores isn't unusual for companies trying to turn around their fortunes. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz shuttered hundreds of U.S. cafes after returning to head the company in 2008. Since then, the coffee chain has enjoyed healthy sales growth and expanded its footprint.

    Mike Donahue, who served as McDonald's chief communications officer before leaving in 2006, said McDonald's hasn't necessarily reached its limit in the U.S.

    "The only thing that stops growth is relevancy to the customer," said Donahue, who has since co-founded Lyfe Kitchen, a chain that positions itself as serving more wholesome food.

    Even though it's closing locations, McDonald's easily remains the country's biggest hamburger chain. It still has more than twice as many restaurants as No. 2 Burger King (QSR), according to the industry tracker Technomic.

    Among all fast-food chains, Subway has the most locations in the country with about 27,000 stores, though they do far less business than the typical McDonald's.

    And McDonald's is still growing globally. It plans to add about 300 restaurants to its worldwide total of more than 36,000.

    Donahue said that people were saying decades ago that McDonald's had reached its saturation point in the U.S. But within the company, he said there was always confidence that there was room to expand.

    Even when McDonald's closed underperforming stores in the past, he said it would open new restaurants in better locations. The closings this year appear to be a way to strengthen its base of stores, he said.

    "What they're doing is pruning the tree," he said.


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    Iran Nuclear Talks Sancations Tangle
    J. Scott Applewhite/APTreasury Secretary Jacob Lew

    WASHINGTON -- Harriet Tubman? Eleanor Roosevelt? Rosa Parks?

    Speculation is rising over which American woman will be chosen to grace the $10 bill, which has featured Alexander Hamilton since 1929. The answer will come sometime after summer, after Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew considers suggestions from anyone who wants to offer one -- through town hall meetings or online.

    Whoever is chosen by Lew will be the first woman to appear on U.S. paper currency in more than a century.

    The bill's actual design won't be unveiled until 2020, the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.

    Treasury has created a website -- -- for Americans to submit suggestions. The public can propose both which woman should be chosen and which symbols of democracy should be included in the redesigned bill. Comments can also be submitted on Twitter using the hashtag #TheNew10.

    "We are asking the American people to tell us what democracy means to them," Lew told reporters. "Their feedback will shape what the new bill will look like."

    The first information sessions will be in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 24 and Washington on July 15 at the two printing facilities that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing uses to produce the nation's paper money.

    The effort to put a woman on the currency began as a grassroots effort with a group known as Women on 20s launching a petition campaign to urge President Barack Obama to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with a woman.

    Last summer, Obama expressed support for the effort. He said he had received a letter from a young girl suggesting such a change.

    Poll Results

    Lew offered no hints of whom he might choose, saying he first wanted to hear the views of the public. But the Women on 20s group conducted an Internet poll in which more than 600,000 votes were cast. Harriet Tubman, the African-American abolitionist, emerged as the winner.

    In that poll, which asked people to first pick three finalists from among 15 women, Eleanor Roosevelt came in second, followed by Rosa Parks, the civil rights heroine, and Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation.

    By law, only the portrait of a deceased person can appear on the nation's banknotes.

    Treasury officials said that Hamilton, the nation's first Treasury secretary, won't disappear from the redesigned $10 bill. They said they expect his image to be retained in some way on the redesigned bill.

    "There are many options for continuing to honor Hamilton," the Treasury said in a fact sheet. "While one option is producing two bills, we are exploring a variety of possibilities."

    The redesign of the $10 bill is the first since 2006, when new security features were added. A change in portraits on the bills is rare. The last such changes occurred between 1914 and 1928.

    The paper currency has been an all-male domain for more than a century. The last woman featured on U.S. paper money was Martha Washington, who appeared on a dollar silver certificate from 1891 to 1896. The only other woman featured on U.S. paper money was Pocahontas, from 1865 to 1869. Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea are on dollar coins.

    Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, who is sponsoring legislation to put a woman on the $20 bill, praised Lew for his decision to put a woman on the $10.

    "While it may not be the $20 bill, make no mistake," Shaheen said. "This is a historic announcement."


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    Summer of Shedders
    Robert F. Bukaty/AP

    PORTLAND, Maine -- American lobster prices are swelling as the summer fishing season gets off to a slow start in New England.

    The summer staple is selling in the $6 or $8 a pound range to consumers, an average increase of about $1 to $2 from last year, Maine lobstermen and dealers said. Prices are high because supply is low -- the season picks up after the bulk of lobsters shed shells and reach legal harvesting size, and lobstermen said that hasn't happened yet.

    This year's summer lobster fishing season appears likely to feature a mid-July shed followed by a boom in catch, said Tim Harkins, president of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association.

    The 2012 and 2013 summers featured early sheds, which resulted in huge catches that flooded the market and depressed prices. State biologists said last year that the cold winter and spring may have held back lobster molting in 2014. That appears to have happened again.

    Harkins described those early sheds as "an anomaly," and said prices will likely come down later this summer.

    "Everyone I've spoken to expects to see new shell lobsters after [July] Fourth," he said.

    Maine is by far the biggest lobster fishing state in the country -- federal data show that more than 85 percent of America's 2013 lobster catch was from Maine. The state is also in the midst of a multiyear boom in lobster catch, with lobstermen bringing in more than 100 million pounds of lobster every year since 2010.

    Lobster value at the dock nosed up last year, with fishermen getting $3.69 a pound after getting less than $3 a pound the previous two years. State regulators said the return to a mid-summer shed made the lobsters more valuable for dealers, processors and restaurants.

    This year, lobstermen are getting as much as $6 a pound at the dock because of the low supply, said Sheila Dassatt, executive director of the Downeast Lobstermen's Association. Lobstermen are getting an average of 50 or 75 cents more a pound at the dock than they were a year ago, she said. However, a lot of inshore lobstermen haven't even started fishing yet, Dassatt said.

    "A lot of people will call us from out of state and say they want to have a lobster feed," she said. "We're saying, you don't want to do that right now with these prices."


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    social security card and money...
    Social Security faces some serious financial challenges and even as solutions have been hard to come by, the day of reckoning for the Social Security program gets closer every year. In order to gauge the current health of Social Security, the trustees of the program's Trust Fund are required by law to issue an annual report on its financial status. For the seventh year in a row, however, the report is late, and there's no way to tell when the 2015 Social Security Trustees Report might get released. The question many people have is whether you should worry about your Social Security benefits in light of the delay. Although there's no reason to panic, let's look more closely at this key report and its chronic tardiness.

    Just How Late Is the Report?

    The law that set up the Social Security Trust Fund establishes an April 1 due date for each year's report on the health of the program. The report must include information on what happened to the Trust Fund over the course of the last year, as well as make projections on the operation and status of the Trust Fund in the coming five-year period.

    The Social Security trustees have a terrible track record over the past decade in getting the report out in timely fashion. Until 2005, the report typically was available in late March, getting in just under the wire. But in 2006, the report was a month late, and 2007's report came in a few weeks after the deadline as well.

    Since then, the Social Security trustees have been much more egregious in the delay between the April 1 requirement and when they actually got around to getting the report in. Last year's report was dated July 28, nearly two months later than the 2013 report had been with its May 31 date. That continued a trend toward later reports, with the 2012 report having made it to the Ways and Means Committee on April 25, while the 2011 report was dated May 13.

    Even last year's report wasn't the latest ever. Five years ago, the Social Security Trustees Report for 2010 wasn't made available until August 9.

    There's No Reason for Concern

    It's reasonable to assume that when a report is late, it might be because there's bad news coming. Yet regardless of when this year's version of the Social Security Trustees Report ends up coming out, past experience shows no connection between how late the report is and how good or bad its contents are for the health of the Social Security program. In the year when the report was released the latest, the Social Security Trustees made no change to their assessment of when the Trust Fund would run out of money. By contrast, reports made closer to the deadline since then have pulled in the estimated date of Trust Fund exhaustion, with last year's report suggesting that 2033 will be the year that funds run out.

    Indeed, the economic conditions over the past year suggest that there's little reason to expect major changes to the projections in this year's Trustees Report. Interest rates have stayed in a fairly close range, providing low returns for the Treasury bonds held in the Trust Fund. An increase in job creation might have boosted the total taxable wage base for Social Security payroll taxes, raising income for the program to some extent. Yet while those natural fluctuations can play a role in year-to-year operations, they rarely have a huge impact on projections stretching out for decades into the future.

    The Key Social Security Move to Watch For

    There's one key element of Social Security that lawmakers will have to address soon. Although the main fund for retirement benefits will last another couple of decades or so, the smaller source of funding for disability benefits was projected last year to run out of money in 2016. A simple way of fixing that problem is essentially to take money from the retirement side of the Trust Fund and divert it to cover disability benefits, but some lawmakers have resisted that quick fix in favor of more comprehensive reform.

    Meanwhile, debate over how to change Social Security to address its future challenges continues. Some point to the need to rein in spending on the program, while others believe the program should expand by raising Social Security taxes on high-income earners.

    A quick resolution to Social Security's difficulties isn't likely. Yet just like delays in the Social Security Trustees Report do nothing to stop the steady erosion of Social Security's finances, inaction from lawmakers won't keep the Trust Funds from running out of money -- with potentially catastrophic impacts for retirees in the not-so-distant future.

    Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger hopes Social Security will be there when it's time for him to collect, but he's not holding his breath. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger or on Google Plus. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.


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    Financial Markets Wall Street Fitbit IPO
    Richard Drew/APFitBit and New York Stock Exchange officials celebrate FitBit's IPO at the beginning of trading Thursday.
    By Rodrigo Campos

    NEW YORK -- The Nasdaq composite erased its last standing milestone from the dot-com era Thursday, as it set a record intraday high, with stocks on Wall Street in rally mode boosted by strong economic data.

    A report in German newspaper Die Zeit about possible concessions made to Greece by its international creditors, which briefly extended the market's rally, was later denied by EU diplomats.

    The Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) hit a high of 5,143.32, topping the previous 5,132.52 record which stood since March 10, 2000. It also set a record closing high, as did the Russell 2000 (^RUT), while the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) closed within 0.5 percent of its record.

    Economic growth is beginning to make itself more evident.

    U.S. consumer prices last month posted their largest increase in more than two years, jobless claims applications fell last week to a near 15-year low and factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region accelerated to a six-month high in June.

    "Economic growth is beginning to make itself more evident," said John Manley, chief equity strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management in New York.

    Manley said the perceived dovishness of the Federal Reserve's statement and estimates after its meeting Wednesday continued to support equities.

    "The Fed is going to be very slow to raise interest rates," he said.

    Markets have closely watched for signals from the U.S. central bank as it prepares to raise rates for the first time in almost a decade.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 180.10 points, or 1 percent, to 18,115.84, the S&P 500 gained 20.80 points, or 1 percent, to 2,121.24 and the Nasdaq composite added 68.07 points, or 1.3 percent, to 5,132.95.

    Eurozone leaders will hold an emergency summit Monday to try to avert a Greek default, after bank withdrawals accelerated and government revenue slumped as Athens and its international creditors remained deadlocked over a debt deal.

    The ECB told a meeting of eurozone finance ministers it wasn't sure if Greek banks would be able to open Monday, said officials with knowledge of the talks.

    The Greek situation is an emotional one for investors and it is hard to know how exactly markets will react, said Wells Fargo's Manley.

    "In 2010 [a Greek default] would have been a real problem. I don't see a lot of ramifications among financial institutions if it happened now, and if there were, the ECB and IMF will know how to deal with it," he said.

    All the 10 major S&P 500 sectors were higher with the health index leading with a 1.5 percent rise.

    Fitbit (FIT) shares ran up as much as 59.5 percent to $31.90 in their market debut before closing at $29.68, 48.4 percent above the $20 IPO pricing.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2,062 to 1,015, for a 2.03-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,949 issues rose and 833 fell for a 2.34-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The benchmark S&P 500 index posted 41 new 52-week highs and 2 new lows; the Nasdaq composite set 161 new highs and 30 new lows.

    About 6.2 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 5.96 billion daily average so far this month, according to BATS Global Markets data.

    What to watch Friday:
    • CarMax (KMX) reports quarterly financial results before U.S. stock markets open.
    • The Labor Department releases state employment data for May at 10 a.m.


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    Father and daughter playfully hug and kiss
    Getty ImagesYour dad deserves a nice gift and your wallet wants you to make it affordable.
    By Lori McDaniel

    June's a busy month -- it brings the last day of school, official beginning of summer and Father's Day. But while you're busy trying to beat the heat (or keeping your children entertained), don't forget to find dad something special for his holiday. Fortunately, the following stores are running sales that are sure to help you get more bang for your buck, as well as a gift suited for every dad on your list.


    This online retailer has something for just about every father. It also has that mythical thing called good customer service (I would know, since they recently helped me fix an order I messed up). If you want to get dad something special, Overstock's Father's Day sale section, which has a wide assortment of products up to 50 percent off, is a good place to start. I especially recommend you check out the selection of gifts under $50.

    Sports Authority

    If your dad is the sort who believes idle time is wasted time, then consider Sports Authority's Father's Day Sale. My dad happens to be a golf nut, so I'm pretty excited about the $20 off $100 on select golf equipment, as well as free shipping when the order is at least $49. There's also deep savings on bikes, sports apparel, heart rate monitors, fitness equipment, knives and more.


    For the DIY Dad, it's hard to go wrong shopping Sears' Father's Day Deals. Deals include up to 50 percent off tools, as much as 20 percent off power lawn and garden equipment and 25 percent off certain grills. Look online for coupons to maximize your savings and even score free shipping. Just try not to ask him to start checking things off of your fix-up list -- at least not until his weekend is over.


    Ties may be passe, but that doesn't mean you can't buy dad something to kick his style up a notch for Father's Day. Macy's has a large selection of apparel, watches, shoes and even cologne for the dad with the discerning eye. It also is offering free shipping when you spend at least $99. If you're worried about getting your gift in time for Father's Day, Macy's guarantees it will be there on time if you place your order by June 16. And with prices slashed 40 percent or more, now's the time to buy the top brands normally out of budget's reach.


    With gear for fishing, camping, hunting and more, Cabela's is a smart choice for the outdoorsman. Save up to 50 percent and look for items that ship for free. In addition to all the outdoors stuff, Cabela's now also sells drones and accessories. Just be warned -- if dad pays the store a visit, he may not emerge for a good while.

    Best Buy

    The gadget junkie will appreciate something from Best Buy. It sells smartwatches, drones, smartpens, Bluetooth-enabled devices and even a pop-up hot dog toaster (yes, really). Whatever it may be, Best Buy not only has a great sale, it also has a price-match guarantee in case you see a lower price elsewhere later.

    J.C. Penney

    If punctuality is important, then dad will probably appreciate a good watch. J.C. Penney has a solid selection of watches from top brands including Citizen, Casio and Seiko for 20 percent off. It also has smartwatches and activity trackers. Is it really possible for dad to have too many watches?

    Of course, there's always a way to squeeze more savings out of even the best sale. The easiest and most obvious way is to use coupons; some stores won't let you use a coupon on top of sale prices, but it never hurts to check. And if they won't let you use a coupon on the product itself, you may be able to add a free shipping coupon to save a bit more. If you can't find a free shipping coupon code, look up the store's policies to see if it offers free ship-to-store.

    Another way to find extra savings is to look into your rewards or cardholder perks. Oftentimes companies offer loyal customers deeper sale discounts or early access to sales. A little research can yield big savings.

    Lori McDaniel is the senior content manager at She's a wife and mother of two who can't seem to shake her taste for the finer things in life, which means she always is on the hunt for a great deal.


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    interior view of a messy refrigerator ice box
    By Karla Bowsher

    How you arrange your refrigerator can affect how food tastes and how long it keeps.

    So investing a little time into organizing the fridge can spare you from losing money to prematurely spoiled food -- and extra trips to the grocery store.

    Fortunately, implementing the following tips will cost you only a few minutes.

    1. Keep things at eye level. The average American spends $522 a year on food that goes to waste, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Check out "13 Simple Ways to Stop Wasting Food -- and Money" for more.)

    "Out of sight, out of mind" can be costly when it comes to the refrigerator. So, store produce near eye level if you're prone to forgetting what's in the crisper drawers until it's already spoiled.

    It also helps to store healthier foods at eye level if you're on a diet or have a habit of reaching for the least healthy option when searching for a snack.

    2. Don't store perishable foods in doors. The doors are the warmest part of the fridge, according to the Ohio State University Extension. So store items like condiments and juice there and keep foods like eggs and meats inside the fridge.

    3. Avoid cross-contamination. Poor fridge organization risks the spread of infection-causing bacteria from one food to another.

    The Kitchn blog reports that professional kitchens and restaurants store foods based on how much cooking they require to be eaten safely. Foods that require cooking at the highest temperatures are stored in the lowest parts of the fridge.

    So raw eggs or raw chicken, for example, should be stored on shelves that are lower than shelves where leftovers and ready-to-eat snacks are kept.

    4. Keep fish in the back. This is the coldest part of the fridge, according to the Ohio State University Extension, and fish stored at 2 degrees Fahrenheit will keep for twice as long as fish stored at 41 degrees. The extension recommends storing fish in zipper-lock bags on ice in the back of the fridge.

    5. Avoid overcrowding the fridge. Foods can't chill properly without cold air circulating around them, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If you can't create enough room in a jam-packed fridge, the freezer can store foods like breads and many fruits and vegetables.

    6. Get creative with unusual tools. Don't be afraid to think outside the box when organizing your refrigerator. For example, a shower organizer can help you keep things where they need to be. Smaller caddies designed to be stuck to shower walls can also be stuck to fridge walls to add vertical storage or to corral small items.

    A lazy Susan is especially helpful on shelves that have a low clearance, making it harder to reach items in the back.

    You can also corral items into plastic bins. This makes it easier to access foods in the back, especially if you use deep storage containers that can easily be pulled out. Use bins made of dishwasher-safe plastic so you can easily clean them.

    7. Know what not to refrigerate. Bananas, lemons, limes, melons, potatoes and tomatoes are among the foods that should be kept out of the fridge, according to the Food Network. Their taste and texture undergo "strange changes" when they're stored at too cold of a temperature.

    8. Beware of ethylene

    Some types of produce emit this odorless and invisible naturally occurring gas as they ripen, according to Washington State University's Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center. Ethylene can also cause other produce to ripen, so keep ethylene-producing foods away from ethylene-sensitive foods to avoid premature spoiling.

    Real Simple magazine and The Kitchn report that ethylene producers include:
    • Apricots
    • Avocados
    • Bananas
    • Cantaloupes
    • Honeydew melon
    • Kiwi
    • Mangoes
    • Nectarines
    • Papayas
    • Peaches
    • Pears
    • Plums
    • Tomatoes
    Ethylene-sensitive foods include:
    • Asparagus
    • Broccoli
    • Carrots
    • Cucumbers
    • Eggplants
    • Green beans
    • Lettuce and other leafy greens
    • Potatoes
    • Squash
    • Watermelon
    Do you have any neat refrigerator storage tips? Let us know below or on Facebook.

    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!

    Best Tips: Saving on Food


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    Little boy putting coins in piggybank with his father
    Getty Images
    By Brian O'Connell

    NEW YORK -- More than three-quarters of Americans (76 percent) plan to celebrate Father's Day this year, with family members, friends and others spending a total $12.7 billion on the holiday, or about $116 a person on swag for dad on his big day.

    Not that dad would approve of all that spending on him this year, or any year.

    Americans -- finance professionals, regular folks and business owners -- say the best advice they ever got from their fathers about money leaned toward the conservative side.

    "My dad worked for corporate America when I was a child," says Don DiCostanzo, chief executive of Pedego Electric Bikes in Irvine, California. "He saw that I demonstrated sales skills early on and he encouraged my entrepreneurial aspirations. From the time I was about 10 years old, my dad helped me find things to sell door to door."

    The first items were garden and flower seeds, but not everyone had a garden, DiCostanzo says. He decided light bulbs were a better offering, since everyone needed them. "My dad advanced me the 50 cents a pack and I would pay him back after I sold them at $1 a pack. My dad's advice about borrowing, margins and sales helped me set a foundation for future success. Most importantly, he showed me early on what it felt to experience success."

    For Scott Smith, chief executive of, the takeaway from his lessons from his dad focused -- not surprisingly -- on building and maintaining a budget. "My dad emphasized the importance of living within your means," Smith says. "Immediate gratification felt from an exciting new purchase may feel good in the moment, but it isn't worth going into debt. If you have to incur debt to pay for something, don't do it. Instead, save up money over time and pay cash for things. He'd say, 'Always buy a used car when possible. As soon as you buy a new car and drive it off the dealership lot, the value decreases.' It was always good advice."

    Saving for tough times is another popular maxim from American dads. "Advice that has been carried down from generations in my family -- last passed down to me from my father -- is 'Don't just save for a rainy day, save for a hurricane,' " says Mindy S. Hirt, a wealth adviser at Argent Trust in Nashville, Tennessee. "It wasn't until I started working with him and could see it applied in some many different situations that I really came to appreciate his wisdom."

    "When my sister, an elementary school teacher, first contributed the maximum to her retirement account in her first job, the HR department contacted her to make sure she did not make a mistake. There was no mistake -- she was just heeding the 'saving for a hurricane' advice," Hirt says.

    Hayley Foster, owner of, a women's business advisory firm in Port Washington, New York, says her dad always had her back. "He was a serial entrepreneur, and having a daughter gave him the chance to share his corporate wisdom and lead me in the direction of someday being a corporate executive or an entrepreneur just like him -- and I wound up doing both," she says. "He always told me 'Put as much money into your 401(k) as your company will allow. It might seem like a lot out of your paycheck each month, but it's tax-free dollars that will grow quickly and give you a cushion later in life.' When I got divorced a few years ago, having that account with a nice chunk of money in it was a huge relief."

    For Shaun Eli Breidbart, a comedian and executive director of the Ivy League of Comedy in Scarsdale, New York, the mantra was be realistic and live your financial life accordingly. "For investing, my dad, who was successful as a small investor, once told me: 'You're never going to buy at the bottom, you're never going to sell at the top. Get over it. Just be happy if you're doing a good job.' "


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    Couple paying bills in living room
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    By Paul Sisolak

    Budgeting sometimes gets a negative reputation as a practice reserved for people who can't manage their money when, in fact, not having a budget is likely to jeopardize your finances -- and worse, your credit score -- regardless of how good you think you are at managing your accounts. Few Americans, it seems, are good at keeping a budget in place, perhaps because they're under the illusion that frequently checking their bank accounts online is good enough. A whopping 68 percent of respondents in a 2013 Gallup Poll revealed that they don't put a budget together to track their income and expenditures, and only 30 percent said they have a long-term financial plan to lay out their savings and investment goals.

    These are obviously not numbers to be proud of, but it's never late to raise those percentages. If there's one aspect of handling your personal finances that should take priority above everything else, it's knowing how to set up a budget. The practice affects many facets of your financial well-being, including your credit, which is why GOBankingRates is including budgeting in its Credit Score Challenge.

    Having No Budget Can Hurt Your Credit

    A budget is the best way to track your income and your expenses so you can balance your spending and saving in the best ways possible. Budgets are like road maps: They are financial tools that help people set goals for the present, see what's ahead for the future, and avoid financial pitfalls and potholes along the way. Without a budget, it's hard to maintain awareness of where your money is going -- and without a plan in place, you might be harming your credit without knowing it.

    Common mistakes the budget-less consumer is prone to making include:
    • Relying too much on credit. It's a common scenario: Every monthly bill and daily expense gets charged to your credit card. Congratulations for paying off your balance in full, on time, each statement period, but you're still hurting your credit because the credit bureaus that track your behavior will see that your credit utilization ratio -- how much credit you use in relation to your credit limit -- is too high. Proper budgeting can ensure more balanced use of your credit cards and avoid damaging your FICO score.
    • Forgetting those due dates. A proper budget outlines the exact dates your auto loan, mortgage or rent, credit card, utilities, cable, and other bills are due. Estimating those due dates and paying your creditors late is bad for your credit history. Missing them altogether is worse and completely avoidable with an itemized calendar of dates in your budget plan.
    • Repeating mistakes -- and paying a lot for them. If poor budgeting has led you to make the above mistakes, it can damage your credit score for years to come. Missed mortgage payments can lead to foreclosures or liens, and ignored auto loan payments can lead to repossessions. Unpaid credit cards can result in high-interest debt that can spiral out of control. "Existing credit doesn't just cover accounts that are open now; it also includes past credit as far back as seven years," according to "Public record shows bankruptcies within the past 10 years, judgments and liens."
    How to Build the Perfect Budget

    Your budget reflects your circumstances, priorities and goals. "Don't tell me what you value," Vice President Joe Biden has said. "Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value." There's great value in a personalized budget, and it can be modified or changed at any time to reflect how you want to modify your spending. Here are important steps in creating your budget to gain control over your finances and improve your credit score:

    1. Establish important goals. Start your budget by making a list of the financial goals you'd like to accomplish. It could be saving for a house, college tuition or retirement (long-term goals), or setting a deadline to save for a vacation or pay down some debt (short-term goals). Cutting away at debt can make a positive difference on your credit score, with some financial diligence and time. According to Bank of America, short-term financial goals should take a year or less to achieve, while long-term goals might take years.

    2. Itemize your expenses. Jot down every single expenditure you had last month and their amounts. recommends starting with bills: First, list expenses that remain fixed each month, such as rent; those that vary month to month, such as utilities; and those that are paid annually or semi-annually, such as car insurance. Then, write down smaller or revolving expenses, like gas, groceries, entertainment and dining, and medical co-pays. Save as many receipts as you can to keep track of the correct dollar figures.

    Organizing your bills in this way can help you determine where to start saving money. You can put the money you save toward paying off debt balances that impact your credit.

    3. Determine all your income sources. Your income isn't only your take-home pay. In his Guide to Budgeting, Dave Ramsey suggests compiling every source of possible income, such as your paycheck, freelance or part-time work, child support or other residual pay.

    Exclude nothing from this list because it plays a part in your budget -- and your credit. "The overarching rule is this: If you receive money during the month, write it in your income category," writes Ramsey. "There's really no such thing as 'found money.' If you take it in, you should write it down."

    Once you have a good understanding of your income sources, check your debt-to-income ratio. Monitoring this ratio can help you adjust your budget and pay down debt so that you can improve your credit score.

    4. Subtract expenses from earnings. The ideal amount you calculate when you subtract expenses from earnings should be a positive value. If the number is less than zero, according to, you're spending more money than you make. The same goes for being aware of what you're putting on your credit cards and keeping track of your ongoing balances. Ignore these factors, and your FICO score may take a serious hit down the line.

    5. Redesign your spending plan. Allocate portions of your income each month to different expenses, and set spending limits so you don't go over budget on some and under budget on others. Suggestions vary; some experts recommend allocating 35 percent of your budget for housing, 15 percent each for transportation and debt, and 10 percent for savings.

    You might benefit from experimenting with the 50-30-20 approach:
    • 50 percent on fixed-expense needs like monthly bills -- including debt-related items such as credit cards and other loans
    • 30 percent toward wants, such as gifts, entertainment and clothing
    • 20 percent exclusively for savings and investments
    6. Find ways to reduce your spending. Ramsey calls habitual spending on luxuries that can eat up your budget "money gotchas." "If you are spending more than you make each month, you have to start cutting stuff," he writes. "Use coupons, sell items that you don't need or have payments on, and stop going out to eat." Other frugal alternatives include buying generic products instead of name brands or cooking at home.

    You don't need to eliminate every single luxury purchase from your budget. When you spend in moderation, living within your means becomes easier. Try cutting back on your credit card use and limit it to smaller purchases, which can help keep your debt low, your credit revolving, and for those with rewards cards, help earn points.

    7. Take advantage of budgeting tools. Prepare a spreadsheet to make budgeting and tracking your credit card use easier. You might prefer a paper budget worksheet or using a spreadsheet program such as Excel to outline your weekly and monthly budgeting plan. You also can try online and mobile budget-building tools available from or to ensure there are no errors in your calculations. Many apps and budget programs are free to download.

    8. Stick with it. There's no way to prove your new budget's impact on your credit score if you don't stick to your budget consistently. Use your budget every month, track what you spend weekly and always monitor your credit usage.

    To optimize your budget, you should spend an hour with it each week, according to MoneyCrashers. In time, you'll be less reliant on credit, more timely with bill payments and more in control of your spending -- enough so that you'll have improved your financial discipline and your credit score.

    This article originally appeared on


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    Woman in kitchen with laptop using cellular phone smiling
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    By Meghan Rabbitt

    When you're making all (or most) of the "right" money moves -- like building a nest egg, and not racking up a ton of debt -- it can be easy to ignore your net worth, assuming it will grow as long as you're being financially responsible.

    But it's important to keep regular tabs on your net worth -- and actively try to increase it, says Cheryl Sherrard, a certified financial planner and director of financial planning for Clearview Wealth Management in Charlotte, North Carolina.

    Your net worth -- the difference between your assets and your debts -- provides a good bird's-eye view of your finances. So the greater your net worth, the more likely you'll be able to weather a rough patch, like losing a job or dealing with a sudden medical emergency.

    Boosting your net worth also gives you more financial security, allowing for some risks -- like finding a new job or buying a house that looks like a great investment, Sherrard adds.

    Kathy Gibson*, 36, from Denver, is one of those people who's doing everything right on paper. The health care research program director makes a six-figure income, saves regularly for retirement and emergencies, has a decent home down payment fund and has no debt, having paid off her student loans two years ago.

    But in order to move on to the next phase of her life with financial confidence, Kathy believes there's more she could be doing to increase her net worth.

    "I often wonder if I'll have enough money when I retire, and I don't want to fall into the trap of assuming that I'll eventually be married and have two retirement incomes to fall back on," she says.

    What's more, Kathy's career involves moving from one project to another, with contracts that tend to last two to four years -- so there's always the possibility she'll have to dip into her savings when she's between projects.

    We asked Kathy to share the details of her budget, savings and investments, so that Sherrard can help her find ways to boost her net worth by at least $40,000 over the next few years -- because there's always room for improvement when it comes to growing your wealth.

    What Kathy Says About Her Net Worth ...

    "After I graduated from college in 2001, I got a job at a science lab that made me realize health care research was my passion -- and that I'd need to get my master's degree in public health to continue climbing the ranks.

    "Fortunately, I didn't have any debt from my undergrad years -- my parents were awesome and covered tuition for me -- but I did have to take out about $45,000 in student loans for my graduate program. That put my net worth in the red, but I anticipated my future career would pay me well enough to be able to chip away at it relatively quickly.

    "Right out of grad school, I got a job working on hospital research databases, and I continued to get promotions for the next five years. As my pay grew, I put more toward my student loan, taking care of the bulk of that debt during this time -- and also started socking away money into a 401(k) and a home down payment fund.

    "Then I got my current job, which bumped my income up further -- but the trade-off was job stability. The projects I work on are steady for a few years, but there's always a chance that the groups we contract with won't renew. As such, I've tried to beef up my emergency savings, but I suspect the [financial planner] will tell me I should be saving more.

    "Overall, I feel like I'm doing pretty well. I put about 4 percent of my salary into my 401(k), which my company matches. I also have about $66,000 from my old 401(k) rolled over into an IRA, and I've saved up enough for a down payment on a home.

    "My fixed expenses are relatively low compared to my $4,800 per month take-home pay because I've paid my student loans and car off -- plus, it's a hybrid, which means low fuel costs. I'm also good about paying off my credit cards every month.

    "I do anticipate that my $850 monthly rent will become something like a $1,200 per month mortgage if I end up buying a house, so I want to make sure I'm doing everything I can to cover all my financial bases."

    "I'd suggest Kathy consider contributing to a Roth IRA. Over the next five years, that would add almost $27,500 to her retirement savings."

    What the Financial Planner Says About Kathy's Net Worth ...

    Cheryl Sherrard: "She's doing a great job planning for her future. She also deserves kudos for not depending on marriage for financial stability. She's taking charge of her own financial success, which is a great attitude to have.

    "Because Kathy has no debt, her net worth is the total of her savings, a little more than $150,000. To beef it up further, I think Kathy's first net-worth-boosting goal should be to increase her emergency savings because her income isn't completely stable, and she doesn't have another person's income to rely on as a backup.

    "My recommendation would be to have somewhere between six and 12 months of pay saved, which is anywhere between $28,800 and $57,600. Even doubling her current emergency fund to get closer to the $30,000 mark would be great.

    "To build up to that over the next four years, Kathy will need to sock away a little more than $300 each month, which she could do by re-evaluating her discretionary spending.

    "For example, could she spend $100 on an espresso machine rather than drop $4 to $5 on lattes every day? I'd also challenge Kathy to set aside a certain amount each month for eating out -- maybe half of what she spends now -- because it's easy to get into the habit of ordering takeout or going to restaurants without realizing how much you're spending.

    "In fact, considering that what she spends on entertainment, food and drinks takes up more than a quarter of her take-home pay, I think Kathy can look for further cuts in these categories in order to boost her nest egg.

    "As for her retirement savings, it's great that she's taking advantage of her employer 401(k) match, but it'd be better if she could find a bit more than 4 percent to invest. I'd even go a step further and suggest Kathy consider contributing to a Roth IRA, since her income still qualifies her for one.

    "Currently, the maximum contribution is $5,500 a year, which breaks down to about $458 a month. She's debt-free, doesn't have a lot of other expenses, and lives within her means, so I think that's a reasonable goal. Over the next five years, that would add about $27,500 to her retirement savings.

    "If Kathy built up a $64,000 down payment in order to put down 20 percent, that means she's thinking of buying a $300,000 home. I would just caution her not to buy more house than she needs.

    "If she uses all of that savings, it won't leave her much wiggle room if she has to, say, fix a broken water heater. I also wonder if she has seriously considered all of the extra expenses that she'll incur as a homeowner.

    "Not only will her mortgage be more than her rent, but she'll also have to think about taxes, insurance -- and a utility bill that could be 10 to 15 times more than the $20 she's paying right now.

    "I'd suggest that Kathy pretend she's already purchased this new house and stash the extra expenses in a separate 'house emergency' fund. This way, she's crystal clear on how much she'll really pay to own a home -- and it can help her see where she may need to make adjustments to her flex spending in order to cover those new costs.

    "My guess is that in 'practicing' being a homeowner she'd be putting $600 to $800 a month into her house emergency fund, which could be as much as another $9,600 in savings a year.

    "Finally, if Kathy wants to make even faster gains on her net worth, she might consider freelancing on the side, if that's feasible given her work commitments. Some of her skills might translate into a part-time gig that could help her save even more aggressively."

    "I'm close to putting an offer in on a house, and I was considering funneling any down payment money I don't use into my IRA, but I may put that into a house emergency savings account."

    What Kathy Says About Her Planner's Advice ...

    "I think these are all things I can start implementing immediately. I know that beefing up my emergency savings is really important, so that's something I'll make a priority.

    "I also like the idea of stashing away a bit more money toward retirement via a Roth IRA -- it'll be nice to add a cushion to my retirement money.

    "I'm close to putting an offer in on a house, so I definitely need to start calculating my increased expenses -- and socking away that extra $600 to $800 a month Cheryl suggested. I was considering funneling any down payment money I don't use into my IRA, but I may put that into a house emergency savings account instead.

    "Regarding my 'fun' expenses, I had a feeling Cheryl was going to call me out on those. I love going to concerts, and since I live alone, I go out a lot to meet my friends for meals or drinks. It's no fun cooking for myself!

    "But there are definitely ways I can still socialize without having to spend as much -- and I'll try to make that happen over the next few months so I can start to build better spending habits.

    "It's encouraging to know that I'm making a lot of good financial planning moves, but it's even nicer knowing what I could be doing better. I don't want to get lulled into thinking that I'm doing fine when there are ways that I could be saving more and building my net worth."

    *Name has been changed.


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    Toshifumi Kitamura, AFP/Getty ImagesToyota president Akio Toyoda speaks at a press conference Friday following the arrest of the company's managing officer, Julie Hamp, at the automaker's headquarters in Tokyo.

    TOKYO -- Toyota Motor (TM) President Akio Toyoda said Friday he believes an American executive arrested on suspicion of importing a controlled drug into Japan had no intention of breaking the law.

    Julie Hamp, Toyota's head of public relations and its first senior woman executive, was arrested Thursday on suspicion of importing the painkiller oxycodone. She was the first foreign Toyota executive to be fully stationed in Japan, and was in the process of moving her belongings from California.

    At a hastily called news conference Friday, Toyoda bowed briefly and apologized for the troubles set off by the arrest of Hamp, who was tapped as Toyota's chief communications officer in April.

    He said the company should have done more to help with Hamp's relocation. He declined to go into details of the police allegations, only repeating several times that the company was cooperating fully with the investigation.

    The drug was found by customs officials in a package Hamp sent to herself by air mail from the United States, according to police. Japanese media reports said the drugs were hidden in various parts of a jewelry box.

    The high-profile stumble of a media-savvy executive, so early in the game, is an embarrassment for the world's top-selling automaker. Toyota had highlighted Hamp's appointment with much fanfare as a sign that it was promoting diversity.

    Toyoda said he had picked Hamp, 55, because of "her character." She was an excellent leader, communicating well with Japanese employees, he said.

    I believe that we will learn that she had no intent to violate the law.

    "For me and for Toyota, she is an indispensable and precious teammate," he told reporters. "I believe that we will learn that she had no intent to violate the law."

    He acknowledged that her appointment had been a "big step" in a globalizing Toyota. Although Japanese Toyota officials had gone abroad to live, she was the first foreign Toyota executive to be fully stationed in Japan.

    It was unclear when she might be released. Japanese authorities can detain suspects without charge for up to 23 days.

    Japan has strict controls over drugs. Possession of marijuana, for instance, is a serious crime. Foreigners being detained for mailing or bringing in medicines they used at home is not unheard of. Such drugs may be banned in Japan or require special approval.

    The U.S. Embassy in Japan warns on its Internet site that Americans can be detained for bringing in prescription drugs that may perfectly legal in the U.S.

    Earlier this year, Oregon woman Carrie Russell, 26, was detained for 18 days in Japan over a shipment of prescription Adderall for attention-deficit disorder. The drug is commonly prescribed in the U.S. but contains amphetamines, which are outlawed in Japan.

    She had come to Japan to teach English and shipped in the unopened package of pills that her mother had sent from the U.S. to South Korea. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy worked for Russell's release.

    Beefed Up Crackdown

    Japan's government has been beefing up its crackdown on drug abuse this year.

    About 250 cases of drug smuggling are recorded a year, according to recent government data, with about half of cases involving foreigners including Americans. It is unclear which ones were over prescription drugs.

    Public relations experts say Hamp may have to resign because, even if it turns out to be an honest mistake, it's still a mistake and one that reflects lack of awareness about a country she would be expected to have some familiarity with.

    Before joining Toyota in 2012, Hamp worked for PepsiCo (PEP) and General Motors (GM). She oversaw marketing and communications for the Toyota, Lexus and Scion brands in the U.S. before her latest promotion.

    Toyota employees are held to a high ethical standard, and run-ins with the law, even minor misdemeanors, are rare and seen as a disgrace.

    Toyoda, who faced criticism for being slow in reacting to the Toyota's recall crisis of several years ago, emphasized he was responding quickly to the Hamp news.

    "We still don't have all facts, and what I can say is limited. But I felt it's critical to tell you my thoughts in my own words," said Toyoda.


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    Cable and Satellite TV Hookups
    Jeff Roberson/AP
    The Comcast-Time Warner merger is dead! Long live the Charter Communications-Time Warner merger!

    Ever since Comcast announced plans to purchase Time Warner last February, consumers had protested that this deal wasn't going to be good news for consumers. After all, according to a 2014 Customer Satisfaction Report by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, Time Warner and Comcast were the two worst-rated cable TV companies in the industry that year (and the year before it as well). Merging these two "wrongs" wouldn't likely make a right -- only a bigger wrong.

    And so, great was the rejoicing in April, when Comcast announced that it was, in fact, not going through with the merger. Objections from the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission had apparently scotched the deal. But no sooner had that news broken than another announcement came out:

    Comcast (CMCSA) may not be buying Time Warner (TWC), but Charter Communications (CHTR) is.

    Six on the One Hand, Half a Dozen on the Other

    So is this good news? Well, it is at least better news. By ACSI's estimation, a merger between Time Warner and Charter will combine the worst cable company in America with the third-worst. That's at least a bit better than putting the two absolute worst companies in the same cable box.

    And maybe, just maybe, an association with Charter will rub off on Time Warner and make the latter's customer service somewhat less horrible.

    But the big question isn't what happens when bad cable provider Charter buys even worse cable provider Time Warner. It's what happens when the good folks at Bright House Networks get shoved into bed with both these giants.

    Guilt by Association

    You see, in addition to spending $78.7 billion to acquire Time Warner, Charter has also announced plans to buy Bright House for about $10.4 billion. Although unrated by ACSI, Bright House scores strongly among consumers polled by Consumer Reports, which rates Bright House seventh out of 24 rated "TV services" providers in its latest survey of the industry. With a score of 67 on a scale of 100, Bright House outperforms rivals Charter (59), Comcast (57) and Time Warner (54) as well.

    In fact, Consumer Reports rates Bright House above even AT&T (T) U-Verse (66) in customer satisfaction -- and ACSI's survey had AT&T U-Verse rated the second-most-popular cable TV provider in the industry!

    Two Wrongs Plus One Right Equals ... What?

    And so the question facing consumers becomes: Will Charter's move to buy Bright House improve customer service at both Charter and Time Warner? Or will it be Bright House -- once subsumed within two other businesses that, combined, serve eight times as many customers as Bright House -- that gets worse instead? Is this three-way merged business going to sink to the lowest common denominator?

    Whatever happens with regard to the quality of service, one thing seems certain: A merged Charter/Time Warner/Bright House is going to cost you more money next year than this. According to Consumer Reports, the price of cable has grown at twice the cost of inflation over the past two decades, and the price hikes show no signs of abating.

    So in the best-case scenario, you can probably expect to be paying more money for slightly better service after this merger goes through. More likely, though, you'll be paying more money for... more of the same.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith doesn't own shares of any of the stocks mentioned above. (Nor does The Motley Fool.)

    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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    Financial Markets Wall Street Fitbit IPO
    Richard Drew/APFitbit CEO James Park shows off one of his devices Thursday outside the New York Stock Exchange, before his company's IPO.
    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with a popular pizza chain introducing a new pie that raises the bar on outrageous and a once-popular mall chain deciding to close down stores and shave its HQ payroll.

    Fitbit (FIT) -- Winner

    It was a healthy debut for fitness tracker Fitbit. The pioneer of fitness trackers priced at the high end of its expected range, hitting the market on Thursday at $20. It was originally expecting to price its offering as low as $14 a share. It wasn't enough: The stock opened at $30.40. That uphill climb will give your Fitbit bracelet quite the workout!

    Fitbit's rolling these days. It's profitable, and revenue last year nearly tripled to $754.4 million. There are plenty of tech giants eyeing the wearable tech space, but Fitbit's positioned well as a pioneer in a market that's been very receptive to strong consumer brands.

    Starbucks (SBUX) -- Loser

    The baron of baristas announced this week that it would be shutting down all 23 locations of the La Boulange pastry shop that it acquired just three years ago.

    Buying a business to shut it down is common in the tech world. They call it "acqui-hire" when a company is hired for its key executives or technology. In this particular case, Starbucks may have gotten what it wanted out of La Boulange. It's been able to upgrade the food offerings at its namesake coffee shops. However, by shutting down the nearly two dozen stores that bear the La Boulange name, it's also shutting down the brand's tradition.

    Pizza Hut -- Winner

    Yes, the very notion of a "hot dog pizza" with a crust of pigs in a blanket is a ludicrous notion. Yum Brands' (YUM) Pizza Hut introduced the new frank-fortified pie on Thursday at an introductory price of just $11.99.

    The pizza may seem outrageous, but it has generated plenty of free publicity for Pizza Hut at a time when rival chains are also trying to stand out.

    Gap (GPS) -- Loser

    The once-thriving apparel retailer that fitted folks with denim and khaki a generation ago is struggling to regain its relevance, so Gap is retreating. The mall icon announced that it would close 175 stores. It will also be trimming its payroll at headquarters by 250 employees.

    It's true that Gap will be able to shave its overhead, and closing underperforming stores isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, any retreat is going to be a morale buster at a company that has seen its namesake concept struggle while its sister concept Old Navy holds up well with cost-conscious shoppers.

    Microsoft (MSFT) -- Winner

    The world's largest software company wowed attendees at the annual E3 powwow for video game enthusiasts. The star of the conference by some accounts was the demo of HoloLens, the Microsoft headset that offers augmented reality, blending goggle-projected images with physical objects in the real-world environment.

    A high point at E3 was a HoloLens demo of "Minecraft," the popular community game that Microsoft acquired last year. There were some glitches, but Microsoft appears to be leading the charge for the next generation of gaming.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Starbucks. 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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