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    Couple counting money
    Getty Images
    By Natasha Burton

    For most of us, early retirement means moving to Boca Raton at 60 instead of 65 -- and that's only if you've been diligent about growing your nest egg.

    But there are people out there who are determined to retire decades before that, and who will do whatever it takes to quit their day jobs before the gray hairs set in.

    How, you ask?

    By pinching as many pennies as possible now so they can live the good life later.

    Curious to see just what it takes to reach such a lofty goal, we asked three couples to share the seriously frugal moves they're making to get to retirement -- fast.

    For some, the end game is traveling the world on their extreme retirement savings. For others, it's leaving the rat race with the help of passive income.

    Whatever their definition of success, the one thing they have in common is a willingness to give up some creature comforts in the here and now in order to retire on their own terms.

    'We Want to Retire by 40'

    Who: Gretchen Lindow, 24, Pinterest marketing consultant and blogger, and Matt Lindow, 25, National Guardsman and heavy equipment operator, St. Louis.

    Our Early Retirement 'Aha!' Moment: "It wasn't until I found out I was pregnant with our daughter in 2013 that I realized just how terribly we were managing our finances. We barely had enough money for our bills -- much less a baby.

    So I started binge-reading personal finance blogs and decided that, if we were going to work so hard when we were young, it should be for a big goal -- like retiring by 40!

    I started Retiredby40Blog as a way to keep myself accountable with my finances.

    Our Frugal Moves: Aside from doing a lot of discount shopping, there are other creative ways we've discovered to help cut our expenses.

    For one, I never pay for oil changes. In fact, I get paid to get them because I'm enrolled in a secret shopper program!

    We also have a super-cheap cellphone plan ($23 a month can't be beat!) because we use a company that lets you make calls over Wi-Fi and cellular service. I estimate this saves us more than $2,000 a year.

    "Our expenses were $4,500 each month before we set our early retirement goal. But by living frugally, we've cut that amount to $2,700."

    I don't do a whole lot of DIY, but there are a few things I make on my own to save money -- like laundry detergent. That saves us more than $100 a year, although I do spend $8 on scent crystals because Matt likes his clothes to 'smell clean.'

    We also decided early on to limit the number of toys we buy for our daughter. It helps save money, and teaches her minimalism. We want her to value experiences and relationships, rather than things, so we leave only three toys out at a time. She's actually happier with fewer toys -- she plays longer and uses her imagination more!

    The Impact on Our Nest Egg: Our expenses were $4,500 each month before we set our early retirement goal. But by living frugally, we've cut that amount to $2,700 -- and any leftover money goes toward paying down debt and retirement savings.

    Our nest egg is about $125,000, but over the next year or so, we expect to pay off a big chunk of some student and auto loans -- which means our savings will skyrocket to between $2,000 and $3,000 per month.

    And we won't need millions to retire.

    Frugality gives us a better perspective on life. It may seem like a big sacrifice on a day-to-day basis, but we're much happier -- and healthier -- when we're not stressing over money."

    'We Want to Retire in Our 30s and Live Off Rental Income'

    Who: John and Melissa Steele, both 26, real estate sales associates, San Diego

    Our Early Retirement 'Aha!' Moment: "The lightbulb moment for Melissa and me came when we were both working at a large bank in Buffalo, New York, right after college.

    Many of our co-workers were older and had been working there for many years. Seeing how unhappy they were made us realize we didn't want to be 55 and stuck in a job we hated just because we were close to retirement.

    We realized it was important to take control of our lives now -- and that included working for ourselves. So two and a half years ago, we moved to San Diego and started our own real estate company, Steele San Diego Homes.

    Our goal is to be financially free enough to explore other interests and travel the world -- hopefully by our 30s. So it's retirement in the sense that we're free of the rat race and able to live off passive income from real estate investments.

    Our Frugal Moves: We have no debt, and share the one car we own. Our largest monthly expense is food at around $2,000. Melissa has some health issues, so we buy healthier food that costs substantially more.

    But, as a result, we cook and prepare almost every meal ourselves, and rarely eat out. I bring lunch to work every day. And neither one of us drinks coffee or has any other daily spending habits.
    "We do a lot of selling on Craigslist and eBay to make back some money. Anything we no longer use, we put up for sale. And I do mean anything."

    A lot of how we save is by ensuring we're getting the best value for our dollar. We canceled cable three years ago, opting for Netflix. When choosing an apartment, we factored in amenities like a parking spot, commuting costs and a gym -- ultimately choosing the place that would save us the most in cost of living over time.

    And when Melissa wanted to buy a Vitamix, she spent six months debating whether the purchase would be worth it. Now it's an appliance she uses almost every day.

    We also do a lot of selling on Craigslist and eBay to make back some money. Anything we no longer use, we put up for sale. And I do mean anything.

    When we moved to San Diego, we sold everything: our house, our car, even our sheets. The only thing we threw away was a broom! And we do a purge of our apartment every few months, when Melissa sells or donates anything we no longer need.

    The Impact on Our Nest Egg: Our two biggest expenditures are groceries and rent, which run about $3,500 a month. Our cost of living was much cheaper in Buffalo, but even so, we've managed to keep our monthly spending the same -- between $4,000 and $5,000 per month total -- by remaining frugal.

    We just paid for our wedding out of pocket, so right now we have only about $20,000 in regular savings and another $10,000 each in our old 401(k)s. But since we're relying on rental income to get us to retirement, we're most focused on our net worth, which is currently over $350,000.

    That includes rental properties we own in Tennessee, through which we earn more than $1,200 a month without doing a thing. Because we live frugally, we don't touch that rental income -- funneling it back into paying down the mortgages quicker."

    'We Wanted to Retire and Travel the World in Our 30s -- and Did It!'

    Who: Jeremy Jacobson, 40, and Winnie Tseng, 36, retired, formerly of Seattle

    Our Early Retirement 'Aha!' Moment: "In 2002, I took my first real vacation, to the Philippines. After three weeks of scuba diving and eating great seafood, my goals were completely transformed -- I wanted to do this every day for the rest of my life!

    Over the next few years, I sold my house, car and motorcycle so I could ramp up my savings. A few years later, I met my future wife, Winnie, who is also a great saver and travel lover.

    We moved in together in late 2005, and by keeping our expenses low, we were able to save over 70 percent of our income from my job as an electrical engineer and hers as a project manager.

    Thanks to our thriftiness, we retired three years ago, and now blog about our travels at GoCurryCracker.

    Our Frugal Moves: Most people spend their money on housing, food and transportation, so we knew reductions in these areas would go a long way.

    In Seattle, we chose to rent a small apartment in a very walkable neighborhood, which eliminated the need for a car.

    "By saving so much we watched our portfolio grow to more than $1 million -- enough for us to retire at 38 and 33."

    Winnie is a great cook, so we always ate and entertained at home. If we asked friends, 'Do you want to go out for brunch and spend $50 on eggs, or would you rather come over for a home-cooked meal?' there was really no debate.

    We also saved on food by raising vegetables in a small garden plot, and making our own kimchi, kombucha and bread at home for pennies.

    Most of our clothes were from thrift stores -- before hipsters made it cool -- and Winnie made any jewelry we wore by hand. When I traveled for work, I brought home hotel soap and shampoo, so we almost never had to buy those things. And when we vacationed, we'd use rewards to get free flights and hotel stays.

    We never viewed being frugal as a sacrifice -- but as a way to spend efficiently while building a nest egg. Saving to travel forever, over buying more stuff, was an easy sell.

    The Impact on Our Nest Egg: Before 2002, my expenses were $5,000 a month living on my own. Together, Winnie and I spent less than $2,000 per month during our peak savings years.

    By saving so much, we watched our portfolio grow to more than $1 million -- which we calculated was enough for us to retire at 38 and 33.

    We are currently in Taiwan, where Winnie is originally from. We just had our first baby three months ago. Incidentally, we chose to undergo in vitro fertilization here because the cost would have been five times more in Seattle. Health care abroad is often a fraction of what it is in the U.S.

    When our son is 6 months old, we plan to hit the road again.

    Over the years, we could have bought most of the symbols of success: a big house, a couple of fancy cars, a nice watch. But for what purpose?

    Instead, we travel to beautiful places, rent luxurious housing -- and never have to mow a lawn or get the oil changed. This is the life."


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    Welcome to Mississippi sign at the state border
    By Karla Bowsher

    Mississippi residents are about 15 percent richer than their incomes suggest, at least for the purposes of day-to-day living expenses.

    That's one way to look at a state-by-state analysis released last week by the nonprofit Tax Foundation. The results map out how much $100 buys in each state and the District of Columbia.

    The same goods are often cheaper in some states and more expensive in others. Mississippi is where $100 buys you the most stuff. Washington, D.C., is where $100 gives you the least bang for your buck.

    The states where $100 is worth the most are:
    • Mississippi ($115.21)
    • Arkansas ($114.29)
    • South Dakota ($114.16)
    • Alabama ($114.03)
    • West Virginia ($113.12)
    That same $100 is worth the least in:
    • District of Columbia ($84.96)
    • Hawaii ($86.06)
    • New York ($86.73)
    • New Jersey ($87.34)
    • California ($89.05)
    These findings are based on the latest price data (which is for 2013) published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a federal agency that tracks purchasing power.

    The foundation offers a summary of the results:

    Regional price differences are strikingly large; real purchasing power is 36 percent greater in Mississippi than it is in the District of Columbia. In other words: By this measure, if you have $50,000 in after-tax income in Mississippi, you would have to have after-tax earnings of $68,000 in the District of Columbia just to afford the same overall standard of living.

    Income also impacts the results, because states with higher income generally have higher prices, the foundation notes. However, those higher incomes effectively make up for those states' lower purchasing power.

    The Tax Foundation doesn't specify whether state or local sales taxes were taken into consideration in its rankings. (According to the foundation's 2015 data, combined state and average local sales taxes range from a high of 9.45 percent in Tennessee down to zero in about a half-dozen states that don't tax sales.)

    To view the Tax Foundation's map of the real value of $100, click here. To view its map of sales taxes, click here.

    Are you surprised by how your state fared? Share your thoughts 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!

    Dumb, But Common, Money Moves


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    Amazon Prime
    By Elyssa Kirkham (AMZN) is turning 20 years old, and to celebrate the online retailer is offering a huge sale, which it's calling Prime Day. The July 15 sales event will feature giveaways and discounts steep enough to rival those of Black Friday.

    With the right information, shoppers interested in taking advantage of Amazon Prime Day 2015 deals can get their money-saving strategies in place.

    What You Need to Know to Shop Amazon Prime Day 2015 Deals

    Prime Day Deals will start rolling in Wednesday at 12 a.m. Pacific time, and new deals will begin as often as every 10 minutes. The Prime Day deals will include seven "Deals of the Day" as well as thousands of "Lightning Deals," and purchases will come with unlimited free and fast shipping.

    The catch: Shoppers must have an Amazon Prime membership to take advantage of these deals. For $99 a year, Prime members usually get access to unlimited free two-day shipping, as well as access to free movies and TV shows to stream on Prime Instant Video, among other benefits.

    But if you don't have a membership, you can still sign up for a 30-day free trial of the service to buy Prime Day deals.

    Best Prime Day Deals

    Prime Day deals will be offered across different categories, including "electronics, toys, movies, clothing, patio, lawn and garden, sports and outdoor items and more," said Amazon. The company also said shoppers will find deals on items to meet every need, from back-to-school shopping to family road trips. Marking down everyday items makes sense, as this is the category of items Prime members shop for the most.

    But Prime Day will also offer opportunities to make bigger one-time purchases. If it's going to live up to the promise of comparing the event to Black Friday, then Amazon will probably provide discounts that will mimic the savings offered on the day after Thanksgiving. Big-ticket electronics like TVs, laptops, tablets, Apple-brand items and video game consoles are some of the items marked down the most on Black Friday. Shoppers should watch out for similar deals on these types of electronics on Prime Day.

    GOBankingRates confirmed these Prime Day deals to watch for:

    Prime Day Giveaways

    Amazon is also offering a few giveaways on Prime Day to entice members to try out different features, primarily its Prime Photo and Prime Music services.

    The #PrimeLiving Photo Contest invites members to share a photo showing "how Prime helps enable some of their happy moments" through July 15. A winner in each Prime-eligible country -- U.S., U.K., Spain, Japan, Italy, Germany, France, Canada and Austria -- will be selected to receive $10,000 in Amazon gift cards and have the option to set the winning photo as a screen saver on Amazon Fire TVs.

    Amazon's other giveaway is being offered through Prime Music. Subscribers can play any song, playlist, album or station on July 15 to enter to win up to $25,000 in Amazon gift cards.

    Amazon Aims to Broaden Customer Base With Prime Day

    Of course, Amazon's Prime Day fits nicely into its revenue plans. Offering a mega-sale will entice new and casual customers to try Amazon Prime, even if it's just as a trial to access Prime Day deals. If a small portion of those trial members convert to paying Amazon Prime customers, this will be a win for Amazon -- and not just because of the $99-a-year revenue.

    In addition to the annual cost, Prime customers are central to Amazon's business. They shop far more often on the site and spend more than other customers. On average, Prime members spend about $1,500 a year while non-members spend about $625, according to a survey from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

    And if Amazon can grow its Prime membership it can get ahead of up-and-coming competitors. Online auction site eBay (EBAY) is also testing an all-you-can-ship option, and Walmart (WMT) announced in June it was offering a $50-a-year free shipping program called Shipping Pass to rival Prime. (On Monday, Walmart lowered its free-shipping threshold to $35 and plans to offer thousands of its own discounts on Wednesday.)

    There's also a soon-to-be-launched service called that functions as an online shopping club. It charges a flat $50-a-year fee for access to discounted prices, which The Motley Fool reports are 5 to 6 percent lower than anywhere online.

    By getting shoppers to commit to Prime, Amazon will ensure that it continues to be the go-to online retailer for shoppers' everyday needs.

    This story originally appeared on


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    Retail Sales
    Danny Johnston/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. retail sales unexpectedly fell in June as households cut back on purchases of automobiles and a range of other goods, which could raise concerns the economy was slowing again.

    Tuesday's weak retail sales report, together with signs of some softening of the labor market, could dampen expectations for an interest rate hike from the Federal Reserve this year, which most economists expect could come in September.

    The underlying tone of this report suggests that the recovery is beginning to show some signs of strain.

    "The underlying tone of this report suggests that the recovery is beginning to show some signs of strain. If anything it will temper, at the margin, any consideration for a September rate hike," said Millan Mulraine, deputy chief economist at TD Securities in New York.

    The Commerce Department said retail sales slipped 0.3 percent, the weakest reading since February, after May's downwardly revised 1 percent increase.

    Retail sales excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services slipped 0.1 percent following a 0.7 percent gain in May. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

    Economists had forecast retail sales rising 0.2 percent last month after a previously reported 1.2 percent jump in May. Core retail sales had been expected to increase 0.4 percent.

    The dollar fell against the yen and the euro after the data, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt rose. U.S. stocks were trading slightly higher on better earnings from JPMorgan Chase (JPM).

    Coming on the heels of June's disappointing employment report and sharp drop in small business confidence, the weak retail sales data suggests the economy might have lost some momentum at the end of the second quarter, having struggled at the start of the year.

    The economy contracted at a 0.2 percent annual rate in the first quarter and the drop in core retail sales could see economists trim their GDP growth estimates for the April-June quarter. The second-quarter growth outlook was also dimmed by another report from the Commerce Department showing retail inventories excluding automobiles rose only 0.1 percent in May.

    This component, which goes into the calculation of GDP, increased 0.5 percent in April.

    "Consumers are struggling this year, probably because income has been affected by weakness in the oil industry. The odds of tightening in September just diminished a bit," said Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York.

    Looming Rate Hike

    Fed Chair Janet Yellen said last Friday she expected the U.S. central bank to tighten monetary policy "at some point later this year." Yellen could offer more clues on the timing of the first interest rate increase since 2006 when she testifies before lawmakers Wednesday and Thursday.

    Retail sales last month were broadly weak, with receipts at auto dealerships falling 1.1 percent after rising 1.8 percent in May. Clothing stores sales dropped 1.5 percent, the largest decline since September 2014.

    Receipts at building material and garden equipment stores fell 1.3 percent and sales at furniture stores declined 1.6 percent, the biggest drop since January last year.

    There were also declines in sales at online stores and at restaurants and bars. Rising gasoline prices supported sales at service stations, where receipts rose 0.8 percent.

    Sales at electronics and appliance stores rose 1 percent, the biggest rise since September.

    A separate report from the Labor Department showed the lingering effects of a strong dollar continuing to suppress imported inflation pressures. Import prices fell 0.1 percent in June after increasing 1.2 percent in May.

    Import prices have now declined in 11 of the last 12 months.


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    Airbag sign on the steering wheel of the vehicle, close-up

    DETROIT -- The problem of exploding air bags could be widening beyond Japanese manufacturer Takata Corp.

    U.S. safety regulators are investigating inflators made by ARC Automotive that went into about 420,000 older Chrysler Town & Country minivans and another 70,000 Kia Optima midsize sedans.

    The probe, revealed in documents posted Tuesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, comes just weeks after Takata agreed to recall 33.8 million inflators in the U.S. in the largest automotive recall in American history. At least eight people have been killed worldwide by flying shrapnel from Takata inflators, and more than 100 injured.

    At the present time it is unknown if there is a common root cause in these incidents.

    The safety agency said it received a complaint in December about a 2009 incident in a 2002 Chrysler minivan but determined it was an isolated case involving an ARC driver's side inflator. Then in June, Kia told the agency about a lawsuit involving a 2004 Optima with an ARC driver's side inflator, so the agency decided to open an investigation. Both cases are the only known incidents involving ARC inflators in vehicles made by either automaker.

    "At the present time it is unknown if there is a common root cause in these incidents," NHTSA investigators wrote in the documents. "[The agency] is opening this investigation in order to collect all known facts from the involved suppliers and vehicle manufacturers."

    The agency said two people were hurt in the incidents but no one was killed.

    Knoxville, Tennessee-based ARC said in a statement that it is cooperating in the probe and pointed to a 60-year record of "serving our customers with products that meet the most stringent global safety standards."

    Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) said it no longer uses the inflators that are being investigated. Both it and Kia said they are cooperating.

    NHTSA said in documents that ARC makes inflators that are used by other companies in their air bag systems. The inflators use an inert gas to fill the air bag which is supplemented by an ammonium nitrate-based propellant. A preliminary analysis of the Chrysler minivan system showed that the path for the inflator gas to exit the inflator may have been blocked by an unknown object, the document said.

    In the Takata cases, ammonium nitrate is the main propellant, and it can become unstable over time when exposed to high humidity and temperatures. The chemical can burn too fast and blow apart a metal inflator canister. Automakers, NHTSA and Takata are trying to find exactly what causes the malfunctions.

    Documents show that the Chrysler minivan incident happened on Jan. 29, 2009, in Ohio. A man complained to NHTSA that his wife was injured by flying shrapnel when the minivan collided with a snowmobile while she was turning into their driveway and the air bag deployed. "Most of the shrapnel went into her chest, with the air bag plate breaking apart, striking her in the chin, breaking her jaw in three places," wrote the man, who was not identified. "If it hadn't been for a great ambulance crew, she would have bled to death."

    According to NHTSA, ARC made inflators for Delphi Corp. air bags that were sold to Kia and used in Optimas, and it made inflators for Key Safety Systems air bags sold to Chrysler and used in minivans.

    Delphi said in a statement that it will respond to any NHTSA inquiries. ARC inflators were used in some of its air bag assemblies before the company sold its air bag business in 2010, the statement said. Key said it would support the investigation.


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    Save Money on Your Summer Camping Trip
    Camping is a great way to take a summer vacation without spending a ton of money, and if you plan your trip carefully, you can stretch your dollar even further. Here are a few simple ways to save on your summer camping trip.

    First, before you go out and buy new gear, take a look around your house. You'll find that you already have a bunch of items that are perfect for camping. For instance, the yoga mat that's rolled up in your garage will work perfectly as a sleeping pad, and rather than spending up to $200 on a new sleeping bag, grab some old comforters from your closet. Also, you likely have older pots and pans lying around the house. Instead of shelling out for a brand new set of camping cookware, put them to use.

    Next, while you're packing up the cooler, always use block ice instead of buying bags of ice cubes.
    Just fill up some plastic jugs with water, freeze them, and you'll be good to go. Not only will they last much longer than a bag of ice, but when they thaw, you'll have cool drinking water.

    Another great way to save on your camping trip is by using solar lanterns. Charge them in the sun during the day so they'll run all night. You can pick one up for around $30, and you won't have to buy a box of batteries just to keep the lights on.

    Finally, always bring a small tarp to protect your woodpile from a surprise rain shower. All it takes is a passing storm to ruin your entire wood supply, forcing you to run out and buy more. Keep it covered to save yourself money, time and a lot of frustration.

    If you're going camping this summer, remember these tips to get the most out of your trip. You'll see that by using a few small strategies, you'll stretch your camping budget in a big way.

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    By Collin Binkley

    BOSTON -- A Massachusetts woman filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday accusing Walmart of wrongly denying employee benefits for same-sex spouses.

    Jacqueline Cote says Walmart repeatedly denied medical insurance for her wife before 2014, when the retail giant started offering benefits for same-sex spouses.

    After Cote's wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, the couple incurred $150,000 in medical costs.

    The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston seeks damages for the couple and any other Walmart employees who weren't offered insurance for their same-sex spouses. A federal commission concluded that Walmart's denial amounted to discrimination and said in May that Cote could sue.

    Walmart didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

    Walmart (WMT), based in Bentonville, Arkansas, agreed in 2014 to start offering medical insurance for same-sex spouses. But the lawsuit brought by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs claims that hundreds or thousands of the company's employees had already been wrongly denied benefits for their same-sex spouses.

    No other employees are named in the suit, but it seeks damage for those who come forward. It also seeks damages for Cote and her wife, Diana Smithson, and it asks Walmart to acknowledge a legal responsibility to continue offering benefits for same-sex spouses.

    Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a nonprofit group that helped file the lawsuit, said Cote's case is the first class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of gay workers since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in June.

    Cote, of New Bedford, previously took her case to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which decided in January that Walmart's denial amounted to discrimination and gave her the go-ahead in May to bring the lawsuit.

    Cote and Smithson met while working at a Walmart store in Augusta, Maine, in 1992. They moved to Massachusetts, where they continued to work for Walmart and where they married in May 2004, just days after the state legalized same-sex marriage.

    Smithson quit in 2007 to take care of Cote's elderly mother. That prompted Cote to try to add Smithson to her health plan the following year.

    Cote said she tried to enroll online, but the system wouldn't let her proceed when she indicated her spouse was a woman. When she sought an official explanation, she was told that same-sex spouses were not covered.

    Each year thereafter, she tried and failed to enroll Smithson -- including in 2012, when Smithson got her cancer diagnosis.


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    Greece Bailout
    APOne of the stars of a European Union flag is seen in front of the ancient Parthenon temple at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
    By Lou Carlozo

    If the Greek government were a football team, then it just threw a Hail Mary pass to pull out a squeaker, reaching a third bailout deal with eurozone leaders to rescue the country from an all-out economic disaster. But as they say on the gridiron, time out -- as in big time out. If Greece and the European economy at large face uncertainty as they move forward, the last-minute deal poses an equally large quandary for investors, who have little if any precedent for interpreting a situation this dire.

    Nor is the deal set in stone, at least yet. The Greek government now must convince lawmakers in Athens to approve tax increases and other unpopular measures by Wednesday or the deal could fall apart.

    By no means are the problems in Europe over, so investors have to be very cautious in how they invest.

    "By no means are the problems in Europe over, so investors have to be very cautious in how they invest," says Jeffrey Sica, president, CEO and chief investment officer of Circle Squared Alternative Investments in Morristown, New Jersey. "They shouldn't have an overwhelming amount of confidence just because there seems to be a solution to the Greek crisis -- in reality, there is no quick fix."

    That said, savvy investors might find opportunities even as they avoid some offerings, and consider trimming shares in others. Which ways should you go? As the precarious situation calms down, at least for now, experts offer six investor tips:

    Exercise caution with European stocks and exchange-traded funds. By saving Greece, Europe connects its fate to a nation on rickety legs, even as the eurozone tries to climb out of its own deep recession. "Even multinationals that do business in Europe are going to be vulnerable," Sica says. And despite European stocks gaining more than 4 percent in 2014, "they are very vulnerable because the economic fundamentals for recovery have not materialized."

    World bond and U.S. equity funds are safe. World bond funds invest 40 percent or more of their assets in foreign bonds. "But the exposure to Greece is 0.3 percent, which is next to nothing," says Ned Gandevani, a faculty member and program director at the New England College of Business in Boston. "And with U.S. equity funds, we're talking about maybe a 2 percent stake. When you look at it from this perspective, the default has close to zero effect on U.S. investors."

    Look to U.S. stocks and bonds. Investors across the world -- especially in the eurozone -- will see safety in American markets. "In the trading world, we used to call moves like this a 'flight to quality' as investors spooked by conditions in more exotic markets returned to the good ol' U.S.A. to ride out potential squalls," says Michael Driscoll, visiting professor and senior executive-in-residence at Adelphi University's Robert B. Willumstad School of Business in Garden City, New York. Thus Greece's deep problems "may ultimately be seen as net positives for the more mundane U.S. stock and bond markets."

    Expect a stronger U.S. dollar. Gandevani notes that the psychological and political impact of the Greece bailout could see investors flocking to the dollar. "As the pressure is mounting on Greece to give up their sovereignty to eurozone leaders, they have to put aside $50 billion worth of assets just in case there is catastrophe beyond government reach -- and the dollar gets stronger as a safe haven currency."

    Watch out for Greece redux. Greece isn't the only European nation in serious trouble in terms of debt as a percentage of GDP. While it's at 160 percent, Italy is not far behind at 141 percent, according to the National Debt Clock. "In terms of the future, this may lean heavily toward Italy taking the same kind of route," Gandevani says.

    Absolutely stay away from Greek stocks. The conventional wisdom to buy low and find bargains simply doesn't apply here, so forget it. "I can't see anyone going in there until the smoke clears," Sica says. "Greece will be a bargain again when they get this worked out for the long haul, but the EU is looking to extract as much revenue out of Greece as they can get, and how can they grow under that scenario?"

    But just in case you're looking for slick Greek stocks at a premium, the parting shot might as well be this: If you see prices plummet, stock up on Greek olive oil.


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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Mark Lennihan/AP
    By Chuck Mikolajczak

    NEW YORK -- Wall Street gained for a fourth straight session Tuesday, its longest winning streak since January, buoyed by the energy sector as oil prices rebounded from early declines.

    Oil prices were initially lower on concerns a deal between Iran and six global powers would result in more supply, but turned higher after it became apparent sanctions on Tehran's crude exports would not be removed immediately.

    The big news is clearly in the oil markets and the fact there was an agreement reached.

    "The big news is clearly in the oil markets and the fact there was an agreement reached," said David Lefkowitz, senior equity strategist at UBS Wealth Management Americas in New York.

    "There is still, frankly, a lot of uncertainty about exactly what it will do in terms of oil supply."

    The S&P energy sector advanced 0.8 percent, led by a 0.8 percent gain in Exxon Mobil (XOM) to $83.11. Brent settled up 1.1 percent to $58.51 and U.S. crude settled up 84 cents to $53.04 a barrel.

    Gains were broad, with nine of the 10 major S&P 500 sectors ending higher, led by a 1 percent gain in the health care index. The Nasdaq biotech index jumped more than 2 percent to hit a record high for the second time in three weeks.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 75.9 points, or 0.4 percent, to 18,053.58, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 9.35 points, or 0.4 percent, to 2,108.95 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 33.38 points, or 0.7 percent, to 5,104.89.

    Earnings Season

    Investors have shifted focus to corporate profits as the pace of quarterly results begins to pick up speed, diverting attention from the debt crisis in Greece and the massive sell-off in Chinese stocks.

    U.S. companies are expected to report their worst sales decline in nearly six years when they post second-quarter results, while earnings are expected to have fallen 2.8 percent, according to Thomson Reuters estimates.

    JPMorgan and Wells Fargo helped lift financials by 0.4 percent after posting quarterly results. JPMorgan (JPM) rose 1.4 percent to $69.04 and Wells Fargo (WFC) climbed 0.9 percent to $57.25.

    Twitter (TWTR) jumped as much as 8.5 percent after a false report, attributed to Bloomberg, that the social media company received an offer to be acquired for $31 billion. Bloomberg and Twitter said the report was fake and the stock ended the session up 0.9 percent at $36.72.

    Micron Technology (MU) jumped as much as 12.7 percent to $19.84 and was the biggest gainer on the S&P 500. China's state-backed Tsinghua Unigroup is preparing a $23 billion bid for the U.S. memory chipmaker, Reuters reported, in what would be the biggest Chinese takeover of a U.S. company.

    NYSE advancing issues outnumbered declining ones 1,934 to 1,089; on the Nasdaq, 1,769 issues rose and 1,032 fell.

    The S&P 500 posted 44 new 52-week highs and 2 new lows while the Nasdaq recorded 137 new highs and 34 new lows.

    Volume was light, with about 5.5 billion shares traded on U.S. exchanges, well below the 6.8 billion average so far this month, according to data from BATS Global Markets.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Labor Department releases the Producer Price Index for June, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York releases its survey of manufacturing conditions in New York state.
    • The Federal Reserve reports industrial production for June at 9:15 a.m., and releases its survey of regional economic conditions at 2 p.m.
    Earnings Calendar
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly finical results:
    • Bank of America (BAC)
    • BlackRock (BK)
    • Delta Air Lines (DAL)
    • Intel (INTC)
    • Netflix (NFLX)
    • PNC Financial Services Group (PNC)
    • U.S. Bancorp (USB)


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    Mature couple with young financial consultant - they are planning their retirement
    By Jason Notte

    NEW YORK -- Good luck to your loved ones when you die, because you're going about your estate planning all wrong.

    According to a recent study from the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, an estimated $59 trillion will be transferred from 93.6 million American estates between 2007 and 2061. However, there is far less clarity about where those assets are going since those currently holding them can't be bothered to update their estate planning documents or inform potential beneficiaries about their plans.

    Little more than half (56 percent) of American parents have a will or living trust document, according to a survey of adult children. Nearly one-third of parents (27 percent) don't have estate documents in place and 16 percent of adult children are unsure if their parents do. Of those that do have a will, only 40 percent have updated it in the last five years. Almost a quarter of adult children don't know if their parents' will has ever been updated.

    Wills and estate documents can be a touchy subject, but they are necessary conversations to have.

    Even when parents do have estate documents in place, adult children are mostly uninformed about where the documents can be found and what is written in them. Over half (52 percent) of adult children don't know where their parents store their estate documents, while 58 percent percent don't know the contents of the documents.

    "Wills and estate documents can be a touchy subject, but they are necessary conversations to have," said Andy Cohen, CEO of "Too often the surviving family members are left not knowing where to find the documents, or worse, have to go through a lengthy and expensive legal process because no documents were ever created."

    Even when a will or a trust is in place, it isn't a given that the assets in it will be distributed smoothly. Attorneys and financial advisers say that wills and trusts are legal minefields that can keep families in courtrooms and at each other's throats for years if they aren't administered properly. We spoke to a team of financial and legal experts about estate planning and discovered that the following five estate planning mistakes are among the most common. If you want to maintain your legacy, but don't want to implode your family in the process, avoid these grave errors:

    1. Not accounting for sibling rivalry. According to Nicholas Wooldridge, a Las Vegas attorney, nine out of ten times, the people fighting over the estate end up in worse financial shape, because they've given their attorneys a chunk of their inheritance. If the deceased's children didn't get along while their parent was alive, there is no reason to believe that parent's death will help patch things up.

    "When a parent dies, lingering tension between the kids can rise to the surface," Wooldridge says. "As a result, the estate's settlement becomes a battleground for settling old scores."

    Mela Garber, principal at Anchin, Block & Anchin and head of the firm's trust and estates services group, notes that she's seen numerous examples of sibling beneficiaries taking each other to court when the will or trust distribution is unequal, usually because one of the children was closer to the deceased parent than the other.

    "After the parent dies, I see litigation between the siblings saying one pressured the parents to give them more money," Garber says. "Kids equate money with love, and when the asset distribution is unequal, they feel less loved. That hurts, and that can trigger litigation."

    The easiest way to remedy that situation is to discuss estate plans with your children before you die, but that isn't always desired. Garber notes that most of her clients, out of practicality, avoid that conversation and say, "I'll be gone, it's not my problem." However even a little explanation goes a long way.

    "The ideal situation would be if the creator of the document, whether it be a trust or a will, could have a conversations with the family members to explain what their wishes an desires are," says Tom Six, a wealth management strategist for RBC Wealth Management. "Sometimes, it makes sense to have distributions among the beneficiaries that are equal, and other times, you want to have the ability to give more to one beneficiary than another if one has financial resources."

    But not every situation is so ideal. In cases where the family dynamic is too dysfunctional to accommodate a family meeting, Garber suggests a letter from the parent explaining any imbalance in distributions. She also recommends creating a list of personal items and indicating specifically who will get jewelry, art or anything else of even sentimental value. If that doesn't work, a will or trust should have contingencies for selling those items and dividing the profits or -- in a plan Garber has implemented before, holding an auction between the competing parties in which the winner gets the item and the loser gets the money bid. However, that somewhat undermines the integrity of the estate plan.

    "I tend not to favor situations where, when parties disagree, there's an auction or assets are divided by a certain percentage," Six says. "I think it's the right of the person who created this legacy to dispose of it the way he or she pleases, and family dynamics shouldn't affect that."

    2. Unexpected surprises. "One of the big issues I've seen and that is subject to litigation is the way that the estate tax apportionment is either written in the will or omitted," Garber says. "The will would say, for example, 'I give my house to my daughter, I give this brokerage asset to this person,' and the estate taxes on these items are paid out of revenue. I've seen [situations] where the revenues, the leftovers in the estate, are not enough to cover the estate taxes on the items distributed."

    This is typically an issue for high-income families, but it's a problem that can also crop up if the deceased owned property whose value has increased significantly during his lifespan (such as a brownstone in a suddenly popular neighborhood or farmland in a fast-growing county). If unresolved, the estate may be forced to sell bequeathed assets to cover estate tax. It also doesn't help is the deceased leaves a large gift to someone before he or she dies and either doesn't pay the gift tax or lets it eat away at his lifetime gift allowance.

    "From personal experience, I've seen a person who was not a spouse receive a gift from the decedent -- it was his girlfriend," Garber says. "Of course, the spouse did not know about it, the girlfriend received the gift and the estate ended up paying gift taxes on that gift, so the wife ended up paying the tax on the gift the girlfriend received."

    That's unpleasant, but life is filled with those kind of unpleasantries. It's one thing to find out the deceased has someone on the side, it's quite another to discover that he's had an entire family with that person.

    "If somebody has kids, the family doesn't know about out of wedlock, I would highly recommend that provisions be made in the will for that child," Garber says. "It is very hard emotionally to find out that there is another child in the family and, financially, some wills may not name a child but the child has rights and may sue the estate. If possible, clean it up, and address it before the will is done."

    The answer here is to cut off surprises immediately. Ideally, you'd have a discussion with family members before you die, but realistically this is something you'd likely have to spell out specifically in a letter and certainly in the will or trust. Oh, and make sure your adviser, attorney or trustee has knowledge of it.

    "List everyone who is part of your family, list your friends so there is no gray area as to what your intent is so there's a clear understanding of why and non-family member is getting this expression of your appreciation," Six says. "If the family dynamic is such that it is not conducive to a discussion ahead of time, then it is dependent upon the client and advisers to make sure the document delineates as much as possible why assets are distributed as they are."

    3. Letting your plan lapse. Are you forgetting certain details, like that divorce and remarriage or that son you disinherited? They seem hard to miss, but they're easy to overlook when you don't update your will for half decades at a time.

    When those big changes in family life occur, not accounting for them in your estate planning leaves your legacy up for grabs. If you thought a divorce, a remarriage or blending of families was tough during life, the scrum that can follow after your death if you don't address your specific wishes can be infinitely worse. You're going to want to shift everything into a trust in this situation just to shield everyone from potential legal repercussions and to make sure your assets go where you want them to.

    "Children, or other successors, left outside the wall of inheritance don't have anything to lose by challenging their exclusion," Wooldridge says. "The situation just gets worse in blended families."

    4. Co-trustees. Please don't do this. Maybe you want your spouse or child to be part of the process. However, if they don't have the time, patience and acumen to handle the responsibility and liability that come with trusteeship, there's no need to name co-trustees and add further stress to an already trying time in people's lives.

    The two-headed approach may work in some situations, but there's a reason why most teams only have one head coach or manager. These folks are employed to make swift and decisive decisions. It's tough for a trustee to do so when he is squabbling with a counterpart.

    "Even if two people get along on 99.9 percent of matters, that one-tenth of 1 percent will lead to a problem," Wooldridge says.

    5. Undue influence. Yes, a personal caregiver can look out for your loved one in their waning days and take some of the responsibility off the family, but some caregivers can also work their way into estate plans though less-than-honest means.

    The end of a person's life is an incredibly fragile time for everyone involved, but Wooldridge notes that shifting end-of-life care to one person opens the door to elder abuse for personal gain. The solution to this problem, in Wooldridge's view, is simple: If you care about your parents' assets, care about your parent.

    "Undue influence is usually a by-product of apathetic children," Wooldridge says. "Children with good parental relationships seldom fall into this trap."

    This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.


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    Getty ImagesTo make your 401(k) work for you, study up on rules regarding rollovers, withdrawals and Roth options.
    By Dana Anspach

    Do you have a 401(k) plan? If so, read on. Here are seven things I wish people knew about their 401(k) plans:

    1. You can roll it over when you leave. When you leave your employer, you can transfer your 401(k) plan to an individual retirement account, and it is not a taxable event. This type of transfer is called a rollover. Many 401(k) participants think any type of distribution from their 401(k) plan is taxable and subject to penalties. That isn't true.

    All plans allow rollovers to an established IRA account. Usually, the check is made payable to the new financial institution as the custodian, with an "for benefit of," or FBO, to you. If you have a few 401(k) plans from former employers, I advise consolidating them into one IRA account. That will make it far easier to handle address and beneficiary changes, manage investments and track distributions once you are retired.

    2. Automated portfolios work. Most 401(k) plans today offer either a fund choice or an online interactive tool that will make the investment decisions for you. These types of automated portfolios are great choices. If it is a single fund, it may have a retirement year in the name of the fund, such as "Target Date 2030." In that case, pick the fund that corresponds with the approximate year you think you may retire. A single fund like this is a complete diversified investment that automatically allocates your money across many asset classes.

    If it is an online tool, take the time to walk through the steps, and it should pick the portfolio for you. This type of system often results in something like "conservative," "moderate" or "moderately aggressive" as a result. Using such a tool delivers a complete, professionally designed portfolio.

    These automated portfolios make far better choices than the random way many participants pick investments, which often seems more akin to "eeny meeny miny moe."

    3. Stable value funds are a good choice. As you get closer to retirement, you'll want some of your retirement money in a safe investment option. Stable value funds, which are offered within many 401(k) plans, are a good choice. Today they are paying higher interest rates than bank savings. They won't fluctuate like stock funds, and unlike bond funds, they shouldn't go down in value if interest rates rise.

    How much should you keep in such a safe choice? It depends on how close you are to retirement and how much you'll need to withdraw. For example, if you are retiring in two years and know you'll need to withdraw $20,000 a year once retired, consider moving at least your first two to three years of future withdrawals into a safe investment option. In this example, that would be $40,000 to $60,000.

    4. Age 55 is special. Most people think that if they take a withdrawal from a 401(k) plan before age 59½, a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty tax will apply. This isn't always true for 401(k) plans. There is a special provision in 401(k) plans for people who leave their employer after they reach age 55 but before they reach age 59½. This rule allows you to take withdrawals that are exempt from the penalty tax without having to use the substantially equal payment provision.

    Beware of someone who suggests you roll funds from a 401(k) to an IRA without first explaining the age 55 provision to you. Once you move funds from your 401(k) to your IRA, the age 55 penalty-free withdrawal provision no longer applies, and you'll have to wait until age 59½.

    5. You have creditor protection. Your 401(k) plans are creditor-protected by law. This is why it can be foolish to use 401(k) money to avoid foreclosure, pay off debt or start a business. In the case of future bankruptcy, your 401(k) money is a protected asset. Don't touch your 401(k) money except for retirement.

    6. Designated Roth accounts are great. More and more 401(k) plans are offering the ability to make Roth contributions. In a 401(k) plan, this is called a designated Roth account. Such contributions, unlike regular 401(k) contributions, are not tax-deductible, but they grow tax-free, and in retirement, your withdrawals will be tax-free.

    There are many people who would be better off making Roth contributions, but they don't consider it because they assume they are better off getting a deduction today. This is not always true. Check to see if your plan offers a Roth option, and if so, talk to your certified public accountant, tax preparer or other financial adviser to see which choice they think would be best for you.

    7. Company stock may have special tax treatment. If your 401(k) plan has an employee stock ownership plan within it, and you own a lot of company stock, a special tax rule may apply to you. This tax rule is referred to as net unrealized appreciation. At retirement, it enables you to distribute company stock and only pay ordinary income tax on the cost basis of the stock. Then, as you sell the stock off, you can typically pay tax on the gain at the capital gains tax rate, which is lower than the ordinary income tax rate.

    If this tax rule applies to you, that doesn't automatically mean it will be to your benefit. But you should at least run an analysis to see if it would save you money. I've seen cases where using the net unrealized appreciation tax rules saved tens of thousands of dollars, and other cases where it offered no meaningful benefit. You won't know unless you look.

    Updated on July 9, 2015: This article was originally published May 19, 2014. It has been updated.


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    Tax forms, mobile phone and pen
    Getty ImagesYou'll be thanking yourself when tax time rolls around if you use these handy apps throughout the year.
    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    Each spring, the Internet fills with information about how to organize your records and get ready for tax time. However, if you're reading that advice only a month or two before the filing deadline, some of it may be too little too late. Instead of waiting until next spring to get organized, start now. Taxes may be the last thing you want to think about on a sunny summer day, but the current crop of mobile apps make it quick and easy to set up automated systems to capture the information you'll need next year.

    "The mobility that an application provides is invaluable in today's world," says Kyle Willis, vice president of Swipefin, an app that helps track business and personal expenses for tax prep. He adds that receipts can be lost and notepads forgotten, but apps make it easy to instantly record data and keep it handy.

    If you're ready to make next tax season the easiest one ever, here are 10 apps that can help you out.


    Willis' app fancies itself as the "Tinder for tax prep." Swipefin has the ability to pull data from more than 29,000 financial institutions. Users can scroll through their transactions and swipe right to identify business expenses or left for personal ones.

    "The entire purpose is to save independent contractors time and stress and money," Willis says.

    The app has a partnership with Intuit, TurboTax's parent company. At the end of the year, data can be directly uploaded to TurboTax or sent to the user's personal tax preparer.
    • Platform: Apple
    • Cost: Free


    Brian Berson, CEO and co-founder of FileThis, says his app acts as an electronic filing cabinet. It allows users to store and categorize documents of all kinds and makes it easy to find necessary paperwork at tax time.

    "FileThis has the ability to pull in a lot of documents automatically when they become available," he says. That could mean no effort on your part to gather items such as credit card, bank and investment statements.

    While FileThis offers users cloud storage, it can also send items to other systems such as Dropbox, Google Drive or Evernote.
    • Platform: Apple and Android
    • Cost: Free for basic account, $2 to $5 a month for upgraded accounts


    If Swipefin is the Tinder of finance apps, MileIQ is the Fitbit, automatically recording and storing data all day long.

    Once people download the app, all they need to do is carry their device with them to use it. When the app senses it's traveling in a vehicle, it comes out of sleep mode to track the route, start and stop times and other data required by the IRS for a business mileage deduction.

    "The IRS requirements are relatively stringent on what you need to record," explains Chuck Dietrich, CEO and co-founder of MileIQ.

    Dietrich says he regularly hears from people who say they had no idea they drove so many reimbursable or deductible miles before using the app. In some cases, new users were finding they had more than $500 in tax deductible miles a month.
    • Platform: Apple and Android
    • Cost: Free for up to 40 drives a month, $5.99 a month for unlimited drives


    When asked what other apps could be helpful at tax time, Dietrich suggests TripIt as a good complement to MileIQ. "It's a great way to record all your travel in real time," he says.

    The app can be used to track overall travel expenses to keep an accurate record of everything from hotel stays to airfare purchases.
    • Platform: Apple and Android
    • Cost: Free or $49.99 a year for upgraded version TripIt Pro


    Although it's a competitor to Swipefin, Willis says if he had to recommend another app for tax prep, it would be QuickBooks​.

    "There's a reason they're so successful," Willis says. "Tax prep is not easy. They've built a product that's genuinely helpful."

    QuickBooks offers accounting software at a variety of price points. The least expensive plan is geared toward the self-employed and allows them to track expenses and mileage as well as download bank data and calculate quarterly tax payments. The Plus plan, which QuickBooks advertises as its most popular option, lets small businesses create estimates and invoices, manage and pay bills, and track inventory, among other advanced functions.

    At all plan levels, the mobile app can be used with an online QuickBooks account.
    • Platform: Apple and Android
    • Cost: Free 30-day trial, then $9.99 to $39.95 a month


    Like QuickBooks, Expensify​ is geared toward self-employed or small business users, although it could be useful to anyone who wants to easily track expenses and mileage in the same place.

    "Expensify is a great app for tracking every receipt that may be tax deductible," Berson says.

    The mobile app uses a GPS to track mileage, and it can help manage other travel as well. Data entered through the app may also be accessed through an online Expensify account.
    • Platform: Apple, Android, Windows and BlackBerry
    • Cost: $5 a month for a team account or $9 a month for a corporate account (price per person)


    OneReceipt​ is one of several apps that allow users to scan receipts, categorize them and store in the cloud for easy access. It can automatically pull online receipts, or you can take photos of paper ones to add to your account.

    The app then indexes all spending to simplify the process of finding potentially tax-deductible expenses. For those who don't have an iPhone, users can set up a OneReceipt account and email photos of their receipts to the service.
    • Platform: Apple
    • Cost: Free


    If you already use Evernote, the service's Scannable​ app might be a logical choice for you to scan and organize your receipts. You can tag tax-related items to find them easily in April.

    Up to 60 MB of storage is provided free to basic users. Those looking for more storage or features can upgrade to a plus or premium account for an annual fee.
    • Platform: Apple
    • Cost: Free for basic account, $24.99 to $49.99 a year for upgraded accounts


    While OneReceipt and Scannable only operate on Apple iOS systems, Scanbot​ is available for Android devices as well. Scans taken by the app can be sent to cloud storage systems such as Evernote, Google Drive, Dropbox or OneDrive.

    Use it to scan and upload charitable donation receipts, medical bills and work-related invoices. Pay for the pro edition to get features such as text recognition, smart file naming and document editing.
    • Platform: Apple and Android
    • Cost: Free or $4.99 for upgraded version Scanbot Pro


    You don't have to be self-employed or a small business owner to benefit from ItsDeductible​. Offered by TurboTax, the app lets users track donations year-round and calculates a value for donated items that can be used for itemized tax deductions.

    "It's a simple app to record charitable deductions," Dietrich says.

    When tax time rolls around, there's no more guessing exactly what you took to the local thrift store in the August and how much it was worth.
    • Platform: Apple
    • Cost: Free


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    International finance
    Getty Images
    By Jennifer Liu

    With Americans still feeling the effects of economic instability (hello, rising debt, cost of living and stagnant wages!), it's no question that there's room for improvement for sunnier financial prospects.

    But compared with the rest of the world, we're still doing pretty well.

    According to new analysis from the Pew Research Center, the U.S. is one of just 10 countries where more than half of the population -- that's 56 percent of Americans, to be exact -- are considered to be in the highest tier on a global income scale with $50 or more a day to live on.

    The other countries are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway. Altogether, just 7 percent of the global population falls into this range.

    The study, which includes 111 countries totaling 88 percent of the global population, divides income level into five groups:
    • Poor, or those living on $2 or less a day
    • Low income, from $2.01 to $10
    • Middle income, from $10.01 to $20
    • Upper-middle income, from $20.01 to $50
    • High income, more than $50 a day
    These dollar figures were calculated based on purchasing power parity dollars, or the exchange rates adjusted for differences in the prices of goods and services across countries

    Although the U.S. official poverty line threshold translates to living on $15.77 or less a day, that's still a fair amount higher than the $10 a day middle-income global baseline. In the U.S., almost 9 in 10 Americans fall above this worldwide middle ground -- a quality shared with many other European and North American residents, who together account for 87 percent of the global high-income population.

    Interested in how your money life compares to your other U.S. neighbors? Check out these personal stories of how other families across the country make their budgets work.


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    Walmart Announces New Sale to Rival Amazon Prime Day

    By Ari Cetron

    The world's largest brick-and-mortar retailer has plans to crash Amazon's party, and that could mean significant savings for shoppers., which started as an online bookstore and has morphed into a massive online retailer and major player in cloud computing, celebrates its 20th anniversary Wednesday.

    And to celebrate, it's having a huge sale Wednesday that includes tons of items. The lower prices will only be available for Amazon Prime members -- people who pay a $99 annual fee to access a variety of features, such as faster shipping and video and music streaming.

    Now Walmart has kicked off its own online sale this week. Wrote CEO Fernando Madeira on the company's blog:

    "We're kicking off some awesome deals this week that will be available for everybody with no hidden costs or admission fees, and they won't be available for just one day. Our customers will see thousands of great deals on Rollback beginning this week along with some special atomic deals (more on that in the days to come)."

    With an extra dig at Amazon, Madeira wrote:

    "We've heard some retailers are charging $100 to get access to a sale. But the idea of asking customers to pay extra in order to save money just doesn't add up for us," he wrote.

    The combination of the two sales could add up to serious savings for consumers looking to make a purchase, as the competition drives both sites to offer a steady stream of deals over the course of the day.

    Are you planning to check out deals from the battling retailers? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.


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    Producer Prices
    Rogelio V. Solis/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. producer prices rose more than expected in June as the cost of gasoline and a range of other goods rose, indicating the recent oil-driven downward spiral in prices was abating.

    Other data Wednesday showed a rebound in factory activity in New York state this month. The signs of stabilizing manufacturing and firming inflation came as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said the U.S. central bank remained on track to raise interest rates this year.

    The Labor Department said its producer price index for final demand increased 0.4 percent last month after increasing 0.5 percent in May. It was the second straight month of increase in producer prices.

    A 0.7 percent increase in goods prices accounted for nearly two-thirds of the increase in the PPI last month. In the 12 months through June, the PPI fell 0.7 percent after declining 1.1 percent in May. It was the fifth straight 12-month decrease in the index.

    If the economy evolves as we expect, economic conditions likely would make it appropriate at some point this year to raise the federal funds rate.

    Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the PPI rising 0.2 percent last month and falling 0.9 percent from a year ago.

    In testimony prepared for the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, Yellen affirmed the view of a central bank prepared to gradually raise rates after more than six years at a near-zero level.

    "If the economy evolves as we expect, economic conditions likely would make it appropriate at some point this year to raise the federal funds rate," Yellen said.

    The dollar rose against the euro, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt fell.

    A plunge in crude oil prices and a resurgent dollar have subdued producer inflation and dampened overall domestic price pressures. Inflation is stabilizing as oil prices steadily rise, but a strong dollar suggests any increase will be gradual.

    A report Tuesday showed broad weakness in import prices in June, underscoring the impact of the dollar's 11.6 percent appreciation against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners since June 2014.

    In a separate report, the New York Fed said its Empire State general business conditions index rose to 3.86 in July from -1.98 in June, which was its lowest level since January 2013.

    A reading above zero indicates expansion. Manufacturing has been hammered by the strong dollar and investment spending cuts in the energy sector in response to the tumble in oil prices. There are signs, however, that the spending cuts in the energy sector are diminishing as oil prices rise.

    The New York Fed survey's index on future business conditions climbed to 27.04 from June's 25.84, which was the weakest since February. A measure of new orders, however, contracted for a second month.

    Last month, gasoline prices increased 4.3 percent after surging 17 percent in May. Food prices rose 0.6 percent in June following a 0.8 percent increase the prior month.

    A shortage of eggs after an outbreak of bird flu, which led to the culling of millions of chickens, continues to pressure food prices. Wholesale egg prices soared a record 84.5 percent last month after surging 56.4 percent in May.

    Higher gasoline and food prices are likely to filter through to the June consumer price index. June consumer price data will be published Friday.

    The volatile trade services component, which mostly reflects profit margins at retailers and wholesalers, rose 0.2 percent in June after increasing 0.6 percent in the prior month.

    A key measure of underlying producer price pressures that excludes food, energy and trade services increased 0.3 percent last month after slipping 0.1 percent in May. The so-called core PPI was up 0.7 percent in the 12 months through June.

    -Richard Leong contributed reporting from New York.


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    Federal Reserve Yellen
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen testifies Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee hearing on monetary policy and the state of the economy.
    By Howard Schneider and Michael Flaherty

    WASHINGTON -- Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen resisted calls Wednesday for more congressional oversight, as members of a House of Representatives panel criticized the central bank's policies and pressed it to be more accountable.

    In her semiannual testimony to Congress, Yellen repeated her view that the Fed will likely hike interest rates later this year if the U.S. economy expands as expected, and cited improvement in the labor market.

    Her remarks largely tracked the Fed's policy statement last month.

    But in the hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, monetary policy took a backseat to central bank transparency. While some lawmakers aggressively questioned Yellen, it was a gentler session than the grilling she received before the same panel in February.

    The most heated exchange occurred when Representative Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, lambasted the Fed and Yellen for what he described as a failure to properly respond to the 2012 leak of sensitive information to a private financial newsletter.

    Duffy pressed Yellen to explain why the Fed has failed to meet the House panel's demands to release documents related to the case.

    "We've said that we plan to give [the documents] to you as soon as we're able to do so and not compromise an open criminal investigation," Yellen responded. "We want to see this investigation succeed."

    Yellen added that the Fed has a clear set of rules to follow in the event of an alleged leak, but Duffy shot back that the central bank has failed to follow those rules.

    "If anyone is trying to sweep this under the rug, it's the Fed," Duffy said, demonstrating the frustration that Republican and some Democratic lawmakers have felt over the case.

    U.S. Treasury yields and the dollar rose on Yellen's rate comments, while U.S. stocks held steady.

    'Not Above the Law'

    Republican lawmakers in particular have sought to rein in the central bank's authority, disturbed by the quadrupling of its balance sheet, its wide impact on the economy and the broad regulation powers it has accumulated since the 2008 financial crisis.

    Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, the committee's chairman, demanded the central bank be more predictable and implored it to cooperate with the leak investigation. "The Fed is not above the law," Hensarling said during his opening remarks.

    Hensarling noted that the Senate Banking Committee had passed a bill in May requiring the Fed chief to go before Congress in a separate hearing in place of the vice chair of regulation if that latter position remained unfilled.

    Hensarling then asked for a "yes" or "no" answer, and as Yellen indicated her willingness to do so, he cut her off and said he would take that as a "yes."

    Hensarling and Yellen then sparred over whether banks continued to be too-big-to-fail.

    Representative Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican, told Yellen the Fed should follow a predictable monetary policy rule rather than exercise wide discretion.

    "I think we need a systematic policy," Yellen responded. "But I would strongly resist agreeing to follow any rule where the stance of monetary policy depends on only the current readings of two economic variables, which is what your reference rule relies on."


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    Earns JPMorgan Chase
    Mark Lennihan/AP
    JPMorgan Chase (JPM) is the largest issuer of credit cards in the country, and its quarterly results can reveal a lot about the health and mindset of the American consumer.

    Two metrics from JPMorgan's most recent report, released Tuesday, tell us a lot. Total spending on credit cards is up 7 percent compared to last year. And the percentage of people paying on time continues to increase. Only 1.3 percent of borrowers are 30 days or more delinquent. That means we are spending more, and we continue to make our payments on time.

    We Still Like To Spend

    Consumption is the motor of the American economy. And the fuel for American consumption is the credit card. Despite talk of becoming increasingly rational after the 2008 financial crisis, Americans are once again swiping their credit cards. Last year, Chase cardholders spent $118 billion on their credit cards. This year, they spent $126 billion. Spending continues to increase, as consumers feel more confident.

    The Chase data reinforces data released earlier in the year by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which showed credit card balances growing again. Total credit card balances increased by $20 billion, the fastest rate of growth since the crisis.

    We Are Paying on Time, and More Than the Minimum Due

    Unemployment continues to decrease, and consumers are making payments on time. After the financial crisis, credit card defaults soared. However, in the current environment, people are able to make at least their minimum payment on time. Credit cards typically have very low minimum payments. You can usually pay only 1 to 2 percent of the credit card balance and remain current. After the financial crisis, even that payment became too much for many American families. But today, American consumers look financially healthier and are able to pay.

    Even better, the data at Chase seems to indicate that people are able to pay far more than the minimum due. Although total spend increased by $7.7 billion, the total balances only increased by $800 million. We need to watch this indicator closely. When more of the spend is added to the balance, that means more people aren't able to pay their statement balance in full.

    Early Warning Signs

    An increase in spending, particularly now that people are fully employed, may not be a bad sign. Because companies like Chase create credit card products with robust rewards, a lot of good spending can happen on a credit card. Good spending means that the statement balance is paid in full at the end of the month, and people use the credit card to earn rewards and benefit from fraud protection.

    However, bad spending can also happen on a credit card. If you are unable to pay your balance in full, you will end up paying high interest bills. Funding living expenses with debt can be a warning sign that a debt bubble is building.

    Data from the last three months doesn't show a debt bubble. But it does show that we are spending again. The next 12 months will be important. If spending growth outpaces wage growth, we will inevitably start eating into our savings or start borrowing on credit cards. And 7 percent spending growth can't continue forever without wage growth, which has been absent from the economy.

    Long Term Threat To Credit Cards

    During this credit cycle, we may need to look at other products to determine whether or not a credit bubble is inflating. Younger Americans have fewer credit cards. And Silicon Valley is funding companies that are making it incredibly cheap to borrow. Companies like SoFi offer personal loans with variable rates as low as 4.04 percent. As JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon warned, "Silicon Valley is coming."

    Although Chase's lending business was able to generate a 23 percent return on equity, that could come under increased threat from marketplace lenders like SoFi. If consumers continue to use their credit cards for rewards, but shift their borrowing to marketplace lending, returns would reduce dramatically. Interest revenue accounts for more than 50 percent of credit card earnings. And most of the interchange income is used to fund rich rewards. Credit cards are profitable because people borrow. As marketplace lenders continue to attack the lending market, the most profitable part of the credit card business comes under attack. At the moment, that attack is barely noticeable in the incredible profitability at Chase. But all of that could change quickly.

    Nick Clements is the co-founder of, a price comparison business that helps people find the cheapest loans and the best savings accounts.


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    Worried Senior Woman Sitting On Sofa Looking At Bills
    Fees. Not only can they be unpleasant, sometimes they're sneaky. The financial industry is awash with fees that come in all shapes and sizes.

    Many of them are well-known while a few are so covert that consumers get caught off guard when they realize they've been paying thousands of dollars in fees without knowing it. Not all fees are bad, however. After all, financial professionals have to make a living.

    But that doesn't mean they have a right to keep you blissfully unaware of what you're paying for the services they're providing. Before you hire a financial adviser, it's a good idea to learn how they get paid. Ask them directly how they make their dough. If they dance around the question, take your business elsewhere.

    There are a few financial fees you should never pay. Many times, these are the sneaky ones that pop up when you least expect them. Avoid these, and you'll be well on your way to brighter financial future.

    1. Mutual Fund Loads. Some mutual funds have loads. For example, class A shares are types of mutual funds that charge an upfront commission. You might pay, say, 3.75 percent of your investment money up front to buy the fund. This is all fine and dandy until you realize that many of these mutual funds also charge an ongoing management fee (called an expense ratio). Add these fees together, and you're paying quite a hefty amount of money to own some mutual funds.

    Miranda Marquit, writing for, explains:
    Sometimes, when you buy or sell a mutual fund, you pay a load fee. This can be a real drag on your returns. Paying load fees doesn't make much sense, either, since you can find plenty of funds and brokers that don't charge these fees.
    Load mutual funds aren't necessarily a horrible option, but there are certainly better options out there. Ask several financial advisers what they would recommend and compare the differences.

    2. 12b-1 Fees. A 12b-1 fee is a marketing or distribution fee that is applied every year. This fee is considered an operational expense, so it is included in the fund's expense ratio. Take a look at your mutual fund statements and see if you're being charged 12b-1 fees.

    don't know about you, but I would never want to pay marketing fees. If a mutual fund has to be marketed, it may testify to the possibility that it's not a good fund in the first place -- otherwise the mutual fund would sell itself.

    3. Variable Annuity Fees. One day a prospective client walked into my office and told me she had been working with a big brokerage firm that she felt wasn't being completely honest with her. The adviser had sold her a variable annuity and some mutual funds. She wasn't really concerned about the mutual funds, but she let me know she wasn't exactly sure how the variable annuity worked.

    Never, never buy a financial product without understanding how it works! Back to the story ...

    I asked her how much she was paying for her variable annuity and she thought she saw a fee for around $50. That's not bad, right? Well, later we learned that she paid over $3,500 in variable annuity fees and didn't even know it. Your jaw should drop right about now. I'm not a fan of variable annuities. The fees are just too high -- and many times sneaky, too.

    4. Late Fees. Late fees are another type of fee you should never pay. These fees may occur when you're late paying your bills. The formula you can use to pay your bills on time is pretty straightforward. First, you must have enough cash to pay. It's a good idea to save up extra cash in your checking account to ensure you have enough for all bills -- including the unexpected ones.

    Second, you're going to need to process your mailbox, email, and other inboxes where you receive bills on a regular basis. Keep track of your automated bills and payment methods. Make sure to have a good system in place for remembering to pay your bills on time!

    5. Overdraft Fees. Nobody should ever have to pay overdraft fees. The only time you're going to overdraft on your checking account is if you intentionally do so (don't do that) or if you aren't keeping track of your transactions. This is yet another reason to keep a buffer of cash in your checking account.

    If you forget about a transaction it will be pulled from your buffer of cash instead of putting your account into the negative which may result in an overdraft fee. If you to spend that extra buffer, then work with your bank or get an online checking account that will automatically draft from a savings account. This way you keep the money out of your regular checking but still have that buffer to cover any mistakes.

    6. Foreign Transaction Fees. Credit card companies (and even banks) sometimes charge their customers fees when they use their cards overseas. These foreign transaction fees can be easily avoided by signing up for a card without foreign transaction fees or by using an alternative payment method such as cash.

    These foreign transaction fees can be easily avoided by signing up for a credit card without foreign transaction fees or by using an alternative payment method such as cash.

    "Would you rather spend an extra 2 to 4 percent of your purchases on credit card fees, or on a nice meal at your destination?" asks Gerri Detweiler, director of credit education at

    7. Low Balance Fees. Some banks, credit unions, and wealth management firms charge a fee when balances on certain types of accounts fall under various thresholds. Many times, financial institutions will reward customers in the form of a higher interest rate or other perks for participating in these types of accounts. Brian O'Connell, writing for, explains the joy of avoiding these types of fees:
    Saving a few bucks on bank fees is a cathartic experience -- it's a rare chance to pull one over on your bank instead of vice-versa.
    You should never pay a low balance fee. If you can't keep enough money in an account to meet the minimum balance requirement, skip the perked account and opt for a simpler, boring, and fee-less account.

    8. ATM Fees. ATM fees are brutal. Many times, customers will use an ATM to get a small amount of cash out of their bank accounts and be charged an exorbitant percentage of the funds they withdrew for the pleasure. For example, say you take out $20. You're charged a $1.50 fee. That's effectively a 7.5 percent charge. Forget about it!

    Instead, make sure to ask your bank or credit union which ATMs in your area are "surcharge-free" and within their ATM network. Nowadays, you're sure to find several surcharge-free ATMs where you need them most.

    9. Payment Fees. This is perhaps one of the most annoying fees I've ever encountered. Imagine being charged a fee for making a payment. Um, no thank you. Some merchants have been known to charge these "convenience" -- what I call "payment" -- fees when you make a payment over the phone or through a store representative instead of through their automated systems such as store kiosks. Avoid paying to make payments. It just doesn't make sense.

    10. Inactivity Fees. If you don't need or use an account, why have it? Some banks and credit unions (especially online banks) charge inactivity fees when the account sits idle. These fees can usually be avoided by any kind of account activity like making a purchase or initiating a transfer.

    Brokerage firms are starting to do this, too. I've noticed this with new clients bringing in their statements and finding "inactivity fees" or "small account" fees on accounts that don't generate any fees or commissions over a period of time (usually one year).

    The Bottom Line

    You can avoid these fees (and others) by doing a little homework before you sign up for a product or service. Read the fine print. Ask financial advisers about their fees. Talk with your bank's or credit union's branch manager to uncover every fee they might charge. Say goodbye to these nasty fees and hello to better financial accounts!


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    Amazon Prime Membership
    Paul Sakuma/APShopping on Amazon's Prime Day could end up costing you.
    By Kimberly Palmer

    For one-day only -- Wednesday -- Amazon is hosting Amazon Prime Day, which it says will feature more deals than Black Friday. Many of the best deals were kept under wraps until the last minute, adding to the buzz and inspiring other stores, including Walmart, to offer competing sales of their own.

    If you're wondering whether to take advantage of all the deals and make some purchases Wednesday, here are some tips to keep in mind:

    1. Focus on the big-ticket items. As with Black Friday, consumers have the chance to save the most on big-ticket items that are marked down by a significant percentage. Some of the biggest deals on Amazon that have been revealed so far feature electronics, including cameras, e-readers and stereo systems. Most of the deals come with limited time windows to make purchases as well as limited quantities, which brings us to our next tip.

    2. Avoid shopping when you feel rushed. Just as with one-day sales that center around holidays, this one-day sale can lead to shoppers feeling rushed and pressured, which can cause bad buying decisions. As consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow told U.S. News during the last holiday season, shoppers should try to avoid buying anything when they feel competitive pressure, because it often leads to overshopping. Instead, she suggests pausing before hitting the buy button, and spending some time away from your screen.

    3. Stick to your list. Buying items that catch your eye on Prime Day might mean spending money on products that you really don't need and end up sitting unused in a storage closet. Trae Bodge, senior lifestyle editor for and U.S. News contributor to the Frugal Shopper blog, encourages shoppers to consult their shopping lists of items they know they need, so they can avoid making unnecessary purchases.

    4. Remember that time is money. As with Cyber Monday after Thanksgiving, Amazon Prime Day presents a potential distraction to our work day: It falls on a Wednesday when many Americans are supposed to be working. If you're at work, spending time scrolling through coupons might end up costing you in terms of your lost output.

    5. Weigh the benefits of Amazon Prime membership. The cost of membership is $99 a year. If you aren't already a member, then you'll want to consider whether than investment makes sense for you and your budget. Benefits include free two-day shipping, access to free movies and music streaming, and free books through the Kindle Lending Library.

    Lisa Koivu, U.S. News contributor to the Frugal Shopper blog and founder of, urges consumers to think about their shopping habits before signing up: Are you likely to borrow free Kindle books or watch shows through Amazon Instant Video? Do you like to order household items through the mail? If so, your budget could benefit from a Prime membership.

    6. Look beyond Amazon. If you're browsing the Amazon Prime Day sales, then don't forget to hop over to other sites, like, to check out all the copycat sales going on Wednesday. Walmart has announced that it is discounting over 2,000 items online Wednesday across many departments, including electronics and household items. Shoppers don't need to buy a membership first in order to take advantage of those discounts, and free shipping starts at orders of $35.

    7. If you make a purchase, prevent the snowball effect. Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business have identified something called "shopping momentum," which means one purchase can lead to more purchases. In other words, shoppers have a hard time stopping once they start buying. So if you are tempted into "clicking" your way to a purchase Wednesday, consider stepping away from your computer or smartphone to take a breather and break that cycle of spending.

    8. Keep your biggest goals in mind. It's easy to get distracted by the shiny, new items flashing on your screen, but your biggest goals might have nothing to do with a new DVD or headphones. You might be aiming to pay off debt, save money for a much-needed vacation or fund your emergency savings account. Despite all the distraction of Wednesday's sales, it can make more sense for your wallet to step back and focus on those bigger goals instead -- so you're living by your own agenda, and not Amazon's.

    Kimberly Palmer is a senior editor for U.S. News Money. She is the author of the new book, "The Economy of You." You can follow her on Twitter @alphaconsumer, circle her on Google Plus or email her at


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    Toys R Us FAO Schwartz
    Bebeto Matthews/APshoppers stand outside of FAO Schwarz in New York in November 2011.
    NEW YORK -- Tom Hanks danced on a large floor piano there in the movie "Big." Multitudes of children wandered through the aisles, wide-eyed with delight at the giant stuffed animals and other toys. And a fair number of parents winced at some of the price tags.

    FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue, probably the best-known toy store in the world, is closing Wednesday night.

    Owner Toys R Us announced the decision in May, citing the high and rising costs of running the 45,000-square-foot retail space on pricey Fifth Avenue. Though the flagship store is closing its doors for good, it may reopen elsewhere in midtown Manhattan.

    FAO Schwarz says it is the oldest toy store in the U.S., with a New York City location since 1870. Reported celeb sightings -- Kim Kardashian and Kanye West before they were parents! Moms Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears and Victoria Beckham! -- have helped fuel the fantasy since the flagship store opened in 1986.

    The Fifth Avenue fixture included a candy store, personal shoppers and three levels of specialty toy departments.

    "The baby department at FAO Schwarz is the ultimate destination when luxury shopping for little ones," the store's online fact sheet advised.

    When those babies reached 'tweenhood, they'd need specialty skin care products: "It's never too early to start protecting one's natural beauty!"

    The store was featured in several movies, including "Big," where Tom Hanks danced on its floor piano (signage called it The Big Piano.)

    Nick Jonas stopped by and hopped around the piano in December while singing "Jealous."

    Toys R Us of Wayne, New Jersey, has been privately held since 2005. It bought the FAO Schwarz brand in 2009.


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