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    The Amazon website promotes their self-proclaimed
    It was Christmas in July for (AMZN) earlier this month. The leading online retailer celebrated Amazon Prime Day, offering deals to website visitors all day long. It was a hit. More items were ordered during the one-day promotion than during last holiday season's potent Black Friday holiday.

    The summer sale drew attention to Prime, Amazon's loyalty shopping club where consumers pay $99 a year for unlimited two-day shipping of goods warehoused at one of its distribution centers. With "tens of millions" of subscribers -- Amazon won't offer a more specific tally than that -- there's a good chance that you or someone you know is a member.

    There's more to Amazon Prime than free shipping, though. Let's take a look into some of the digital perks that members may be missing out on, possibly saving you money on services that you're paying for now.

    There's Always Something on TV

    Prime Instant Video was the original online goodie for Amazon Prime shoppers, giving folks streaming access to what was initially a modest vault of old TV shows and obscure movies. Amazon has made some big investments since the platform's launch in early 2011.

    It has followed niche leader Netflix (NFLX) into original programming with the Emmy-worthy "Transparent" and more recently "Catastrophe." It also offers some pretty compelling content that isn't available on Netflix, including "Downton Abbey" and several older HBO shows. Its catalog will never be as broad as Netflix's, but when you consider that folks are paying nearly as much for a year of Netflix as they are for a year of Prime, it's a pretty sweet benefit to folks who think that Prime is only about speedy order fulfillment.

    Crank Up Some Tunes

    Just as Prime Instant Video can save money for some customers of Netflix, Hulu Plus, and possibly even cable television providers, Prime Music does the same to upend Spotify's and Pandora's (P) models.

    Prime Music offers streaming access to more than a million tracks that can be played on demand (like Spotify), but it also offers personalized stations like Pandora. Yes, Pandora is free, but Amazon's option is ad-free, something that Pandora users would have to pay $4.99 a month to get.

    To be fair, the Prime Music library is a lot smaller than that of the leading music services. It's sorely lacking when it comes to the latest releases. However, with a million songs to choose from, you probably won't have a problem finding something you'll like.

    Read All About It

    Amazon's most successful product has been the Kindle e-reader, and it's fitting, since the Web-based retailer got its start by selling hardcover and paperback books. Selling the industry's top e-reader has naturally made Amazon a thriving e-book distributor.

    Prime users can get in on the fun through the Kindle Owners' Lending Library. Once a month, a Prime member can borrow one of the more than 800,000 e-books that are available under the program. They need to be read on Kindle devices, but it's a fair bet that Amazon Prime shoppers who love to read already own one.

    It's a Pretty Picture

    The most recent addition to the Prime catalog is unlimited online storage of photos. Amazon Cloud Drive offers online storage and automatic photo backup, with photos viewable on the Internet or through a mobile app for smartphones and tablets.

    The benefit doesn't include video clips, since naturally those chunky media files can take up a lot of space. Amazon Prime is generous, but not that generous. However, for those with a growing collection of digital snapshots, it's just the latest neat perk available to the e-tailer's most loyal customers at no additional cost.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Netflix. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Netflix and Pandora Media. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.


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    MasterCard Launches NYC Tech Hub, Showcases Payment Innovations
    Charles Sykes/Invision for MasterCard via AP
    Life without a wallet is starting to be a very real possibility in the U.S., and the ability to make mobile payments on your phone and even smartwatch is a big reason. Apple's (AAPL) introduction of Apple Pay last year added to Google's (GOOG) (GOOGL) Wallet -- which will soon become Android Pay -- and these services may soon replace credit cards as we know them.

    Merchants and credit card processors are rushing to add the products needed for them to accept mobile payments, and the rate of innovation is incredible. Let's look at the benefits and pitfalls of life without a wallet.

    What You Need to Go Mobile

    It's surprisingly easy to start using mobile payments, and many people don't even know that payment options are available on devices they already have. Apple Pay and the upcoming Android Pay will allow you to save credit card information with just a few taps of a button if you have a participating card. Since over 95 percent of the smartphone market runs on either Apple's iOS or Google's Android, it's likely this is an option for you.

    From there, it's a matter of using your smartphone or connected smartwatch to pay at checkout. Tens of thousands of merchants are already accepting such forms of payment.

    Innovation in Mobile Payments

    In the past few months alone we've seen some big advances that allow mobile payments to play a bigger role in our lives. Mobile payments are now accepted at such common locations as McDonalds (MCD), Nike (NKE), Subway and Walgreens (WBA). Retailers adding mobile payments isn't all that much of a technological shift, since many point-of-sale devices take contactless credit cards, but it's the advances outside of retailers that have made going without a wallet truly possible.

    Restaurants and bars have always been a big hurdle for mobile payments because tips were hard to add on a traditional point-of-sale device, and even mobile readers weren't all that mobile themselves. But that's changing. Mobile-payment company Square has made a reader that's mobile and software that allows tips to be added as well; that could push other companies to respond and lead to a flood of mobile payment options for restaurants and bars.

    If more options like this are introduced from companies like PayPal (PYPL) or Intuit (INTU), the mobile payment revolution could flourish. Until it does, going without a wallet is possible sometimes, but other times it can be risky.

    The Downside of Going Mobile

    The most difficult thing about going without a wallet today is that it's not clear which merchants accept mobile forms of payment and which don't. There isn't yet a widespread display that says "We accept Apple Pay and Android Pay" like there is with the Visa (V), Mastercard (MA), Discover (DFS) and American Express (AXP) logos found near the entrance of many merchants. So, until you try to pay with a mobile payment system, it's tough to know whether it will be accepted.

    Consumers going without a wallet also run the risk of their mobile device running out of battery. If your smartphone goes down, you could be sunk. A backup charger may be needed if you choose to go without a wallet full time.

    Wallet-less Life Is Here, but Not Full Time

    I've been living without a wallet occasionally for a few months now, and if I know that where I'm going will accept mobile payments, it's not a problem. But going outside of your normal purchasing patterns brings up the risk of shopping somewhere that isn't mobile-friendly, and that alone is enough reason to bring a wallet.

    In the long term, I think nearly every payment processor will accept mobile options like Apple Pay or Android Pay; it'll just take time. It'll be like the transition from checks to credit cards, but much, much faster. In a year or two, life without a wallet will be a very real possibility. For now, it's a part-time reality that has a very bright future.

    Motley Fool contributor Travis Hoium owns shares of Apple, MasterCard, McDonald's, PayPal Holdings and Visa. The Motley Fool recommends American Express, Apple, Google (A and C shares), Intuit, MasterCard, Nike, PayPal Holdings and Visa. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A and C shares), Intuit, MasterCard, PayPal Holdings and Visa. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.


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    Middle-aged couple unpacking boxes.
    Getty Images
    By Susan Johnston

    It's a common bit of retirement advice: Downsize your housing after the kids leave the nest to cut costs. Interestingly, though, many baby boomers have no intentions of downsizing. Nearly two-thirds of boomers surveyed in 2013 by The Demand Institute -- a nonprofit owned by Nielsen -- plan to "age in place" rather than move, and of those who do plan to move, nearly half said they plan to increase the size of their home or pay more for a comparably sized home.

    Many people assume that downsizing housing saves money. But does it really?

    It can, especially if you're able to cash in on the equity you've built up. But there are a lot of factors that can actually result in higher housing costs once you downsize. "What we always recommend is to consult with a financial planner to see what your monthly expenses are now and what the expenses may be where you're thinking of moving," says Jeff Stone, a seniors real estate specialist in a Port Washington, New York.

    Stone points out that the term downsizing can be, well, a bit of downer. "Rightsizing, to me, is a better word," he says.

    Here's a look at several areas to consider before moving later in life.

    Moving costs. When you move for a job, you might get a relocation package from your employer or load the moving truck with help from a couple of able-bodied friends. But when you move during retirement, you bare those costs, which can be considerable if you're moving a long distance and need to hire professional movers. "Sometimes with the cost of moving furniture, especially if you're going a longer distance, it can be more feasible to buy new furniture," says Mario Minotti, a partner at Minotti Group Wealth Advisors in Chicago. (Minotti's clients are mainly retirees and pre-retirees, so he's talked through the pros and cons of downsizing with several of them.)

    Beyond the cost of physically transporting your belongings, you'll also pay transaction costs on selling an existing home and buying a new one. " If [a home is] listed with a broker, you pay their commission and will also be paying your attorney fees, closing costs and so forth," Stone says. Many boomers also choose to rent, which comes with a different set of costs.

    Storage costs. Many boomers have amassed -- and grown attached to -- large collections of antiques and other mementos over the course of their lives. "There's china sets, a lot of antiques and family things that they want to preserve," Minotti says. "A lot of male clients have accumulated a couple of cars, and they're excited that they're going to be able to enjoy them [in retirement], but parking spots can be expensive." Or, in some cases, "their kids had a bunch of their childhood stuff that they want to preserve for their grandkids," he adds.

    One option, if you don't have space for these items, is renting a storage unit. But it doesn't come cheap, especially if you want secure, climate-controlled storage for antiques. The average asking rent for a 10 by 10-foot climate-controlled storage unit in the U.S. was $151 a month during the fourth quarter last year, according to the Self Storage Association.

    Another option is to sell, donate or give to relatives. Unless you have items that are in demand, don't count on making big bucks or getting younger relatives excited about decades-old furniture (a notable exception being college-bound or recently graduated grandchildren furnishing a place on a budget). An item may provide "a memory but doesn't provide value to someone else," says Chris Abts, president and founder of Cornerstone Retirement Group in Reno, Nevada. "We find many times those just don't have much in the way of value." Many boomers also lack the energy or discipline for a serious declutter, which has spawned an entire of industry of senior move managers and organizers for hire. "The key would be to downsize the things you've accumulated while you have energy, while you're healthy," Abts says.

    New furniture. If you're moving across the country, you might choose to buy new furniture rather than pay to move existing furniture. Or you might realize the sectional from your super-sized living room now takes up too much space, especially if you need to maneuver a walker or wheelchair around it in the future. "[My clients] find that a lot of their furniture doesn't even fit," Abts says, "and [they have to buy] a smaller kitchen table."

    Property taxes. Even if you've built up enough equity to buy a new place with cash, you'll still have to pay property taxes, which could be higher in your new location, even for less space. "You're probably moving from an old home to some newer community," Abts says. "Usually your taxes are going to be higher." Fortunately, some areas offer property tax relief to seniors who qualify, so this is an area to investigate.

    Condo fees. If you're moving from a free-standing home to a condo, don't forget to factor in condo or association dues. Many senior communities have higher monthly dues or fees to reflect the amenities they offer such as a clubhouse, golf course and pool. "They're striving for [things to be] convenient, but with that convenience usually adds condo association fees," Minotti says. However, it still might make financial sense if you plan to use these amenities, and it means you can cut back on other entertainment costs such as a separate golf or pool membership.

    Travel costs. If you're moving away from family, consider what this means for your travel budget. "Is everyone going to come down and visit?" Abts asks. "Do I need to budget for coming back to visit the grandchildren?" And if the kids and grandkids do visit, will you have a guest bedroom where they can stay? Or will they need to stay in a hotel? Minotti says this came up with a client recently who promised to pay hotel expenses for the grandkids and kids, so they could visit.

    Money is, of course, a concern as people age, but health and safety are also important considerations. Donna Quinn, who works with Stone as a seniors real estate specialist in a Nassau County, New York, points out that some boomers choose to move into a community they feel is more social and supportive as they age. "A safer environment where there's people around," she says, can outweigh any additional financial costs.

    Often, downsizing is prompted by a life event such as an injury or the loss of a spouse that requires a fast, usually stressful transition. To avoid this, Abts encourages people to consider their options well in advance. "Do your research before that life event happens," he says. "Go find those places and determine is that where you really want to go. Most people think they're going to spend less, but most people find that they spend the same or actually more than they had anticipated."


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    Bismarck, North Dakota
    Bill on Capitol Hill/Flickr
    If you're looking to improve the health of your finances, try moving to North Dakota. Or at least avoid Georgia.

    Three North Dakota cities made it into the top five slots in NerdWallet's rankings of cities based on the financial health of residents, which was released today.

    By contrast, three Georgia cities were ranked in the bottom five out of 265 cities analyzed.

    Based on data from credit bureau Experian and the U.S. Census Bureau, NerdWallet's rankings reflect residents':
    • Debt (as measured by average consumer debt as a percentage of per capita income; average credit card debt; and percentage of homes with a second mortgage, home equity loan or both) -- 50 percent of the score
    • Financial management (average number of credit cards; average credit score) -- 30 percent
    • Spending (percentage of household income spent on housing and related costs by homeowners) -- 20 percent
    Midwestern cities in general fared well, "likely due to strong economies paired with lower costs of living," NerdWallet reports.

    The relatively low rankings of Southern cities -- they comprise a large percentage of the bottom 20 -- is perhaps less easily explained. Rod Griffin, Experian's director of public education, tells NerdWallet:

    "Unfortunately Southern cities tend to have lower [credit] scores than Northern cities, particularly the Midwest."

    The 10 cities whose residents' finances are in the best shape are:
    • Dickinson, North Dakota
    • Bismarck, North Dakota
    • Sioux City, Iowa
    • Minot, North Dakota
    • Moline, Illinois
    • Helena, Montana
    • Appleton, Wisconsin
    • Bloomington, Illinois
    • Rochester, Minnesota
    • Richland, Washington
    Residents' finances are in the worst shape in:
    • Columbia, South Carolina
    • Fresno, California
    • Greenville, North Carolina
    • Tallahassee, Florida
    • Norfolk, Virginia
    • Macon, Georgia
    • Savannah, Georgia
    • San Bernardino, California
    • Albany, Georgia
    • Riverside, California
    The average American carries more than $26,000 in nonmortgage debt, including about $3,800 in credit card debt, according to Experian.

    If you are struggling with debt, including credit card debt, or need help with a mortgage, be sure to visit the Money Talks News Solutions Center.

    Are you surprised by these findings? Let us know what you think below or on Facebook.


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    Personal 401K Plan Statement
    Getty Images
    By Tom Anderson

    Americans are saving more, just not in their employer-sponsored retirement plans, according to a new analysis by retirement market researcher Hearts & Wallets.

    Average annual household savings increased almost a full percentage point to 5.5 percent last year, up from 4.6 percent in 2013, based on Hearts & Wallets' annual survey of 5,500 U.S. households. (The personal savings rate this May was 5.1 percent, according to the latest release from the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis.) But the percentage of household savings that went into employer-sponsored retirements plans like 401(k)s fell 7 percentage points to 22 percent in 2014, and households participating in employer-sponsored plans declined to 56 percent last year from 60 percent in 2013.

    Our research shows that the average saver was more focused on building an emergency fund than saving for retirement last year.

    "Our research shows that the average saver was more focused on building an emergency fund than saving for retirement last year," said Laura Varas, co-founder of Hearts & Wallets. The percentage of households that said they set aside money to deal with unexpected expenses grew from 37 percent in 2013 to 45 percent in 2014.

    Adopting automatic enrollment, as many companies have, can increase employee participation. But employers can also help improve participation and contribution levels in retirement plans by offering matching contributions, Varas said.

    The analysis, based on 2014 data and released Tuesday, found that an employer match can double the annual retirement plan contribution among workers who said that getting the employer match was very important to them. In that group, the power of the employer match was strongest among savers earning $48,000 to $95,999: they increased their average retirement plan contribution by 2.5 times because of an employer match, according to Hearts & Wallets.

    Only 10 percent of the people surveyed were eligible for a retirement plan that offered a matching employer contribution of more than 6 percent of an employee's salary, a third said their employer match was 4 to 6 percent, roughly another third said their match was 3 percent, and 24 percent said their employer offered no match.

    The size of your matching contribution often depends on the size of your employer.

    The average retirement plan match is 6 percent of an employee's salary among large employers, said Alison Borland, senior vice president of retirement strategy and solutions at benefits consulting firm Aon Hewitt.

    "The popularity of the employer match is growing among large companies," she said. "They are more concerned about whether their employees have enough in retirement savings. Employers are more likely to increase the employer match than other benefits."

    Even if the employer match is increasing, workers are still leaving money on the table. Financial Engines, an investment advisory firm, estimates that about a quarter of retirement plan participants are missing out on receiving the full company match. That translates into average loss of $1,336 a person each year or an estimated $24 billion of missed retirement savings in total.

    However, the number of people contributing to their retirement plans to earn at least the match is gradually rising. Nearly three-quarters of plan participants in 2014 were saving at a level that will allow them to receive the full benefit of the employer match, according to Aon Hewitt. That was 1 percentage point higher than in 2013. And among people who are currently saving below the employer match, nearly 30 percent are enrolled in an automatic escalation program that will gradually increase their savings rates to qualify for the full employer contribution.

    The employer match isn't the only way to increase the use of retirement plans. Automatically enrolling workers in these plans can also boost participation. The share of employers with more than 80 percent participation rates in defined contribution plans increased from 50 percent in 2010 to 64 percent in 2014 as the share of companies offering automatic enrollment rose from 57 percent to 68 percent, according to study by Tower Watson.

    "Automatic features of retirement plans are very sticky," Borland said. "They are the best way to change plan participant behavior."


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    Dentist and Patient customer satisfaction
    By Beth Pinsker

    NEW YORK -- Danielle Faust, 33, is six weeks into wearing braces to fix her crooked teeth and is pretty happy about the process, but not the price. While the $5,000 for Invisalign clear aligners in South Florida where she is a freelance writer is $1,000 less than a friend is paying in New York, she is kicking herself because she missed out on a Groupon that would have saved her even more.

    Parents often blanch at the price tag of braces for their children but count it as a known cost of raising offspring. When it comes to their own teeth, however, adults are a lot more cautious about the money involved. Using braces to fix dental problems such as crooked teeth or bite problems can cost between $3,000 and $7,000, depending on the treatment options and where you live.

    The number of American adults over 18 sporting some form of a "brace face" is roughly 1.2 million, or 20 percent of the 5.9 million patients orthodontia patients nationwide, according to the American Association of Orthodontists. That is up from 875,000 adult patients in 1989.

    "Adults are very careful. They are making the investment, and they want to make sure they are getting their money's worth," says Dr. Morris Poole, president of the AAO and a practicing orthodontist in Logan, Utah.

    Shop Around

    Most orthodontists charge a flat fee based on the duration and complexity of the case. Retainers and some follow-up care are usually included, says Poole.

    As costs vary greatly, it pays to shop around. "Most will do a no-charge consultation," says Dr. David Bonebreak, who participates in two orthodontic practices near Howard County, Maryland. If you like an expensive doctor more than others with cheaper plans, he suggests asking for price matching.

    Katrina Morrison, a 38-year-old mom of three from Atlanta who works as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines, went to three different orthodontists for consultations and ended up going with the mid-priced one.

    The more expensive option required a massive down payment of $1,000. The cheaper option was a discount chain that charged $99 a month, but did not offer a dedicated doctor with each visit.

    "I really wanted that personalized service," Morrison says.

    Ask For Discounts

    One way that Morrison saved money was by working all the breaks -- the most significant being a family discount since she used the same orthodontist as her children. She also was able to pay upfront some of the $4,500 total cost and work out a payment plan over 20 months for the rest.

    Insurance Varies

    Morrison's dental insurance covered 50 percent of her costs, but Faust's insurance would not cover any of her Invisalign because it was considered cosmetic. If she had gone for traditional braces, it would have covered $2,000, but that would have been a lifetime benefit. Slightly less than half of the patients Poole sees have any sort of dental coverage at all, he says.

    Rachel Teodoro, a 36-year-old mom and blogger from Seattle, Washington, was able to get some discounts by paying the $6,500 charge upfront and in cash, which she was able to do because her family had socked away money in their Health Savings Account.

    "It makes sense to fund it, because it's not taxed -- and it's a smart financial move," Teodoro says.

    Wear Your Retainer

    The biggest cost-saver for braces: Wear your retainer. The best way to avoid future costs is to stick with the maintenance program.

    "I would never let my teeth go again," Morrison says. She just got her braces off in early July and is now facing a long run of wearing top and bottom retainers -- replacements cost $250 a pop. "I'm always on the go, I've told myself I've got to hold onto these things," she says


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    FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 8, 2015, file photo, a
    Wilfredo Lee/AP

    WASHINGTON -- The number of signed contracts to buy homes fell in June, as limited supplies of homes on the market are holding back possible sales growth.

    The National Association of Realtors said Wednesday that its seasonally adjusted pending home sales index declined 1.8 percent to 110.3 last month. Still, strong demand from would-be buyers has pushed the index up 8.2 percent during the past 12 months.

    "We could see a bit of a slowing in the recent upward trend in existing home sales in the coming months," said Derek Lindsey, an analyst at the bank BNP Paribas.

    Solid hiring and relatively low mortgage rates have fueled the previous five months of gains in the pending sales index. But buying options are increasingly limited because the market contains just five months' supply of homes, compared to the historical average of six months in a healthier market.

    Pending sales are a barometer of future purchases. A lag of a month or two usually exists between a contract and a completed sale.

    The decline indicates that sales may soon be peaking after steady growth for much of the year.

    Completed sales of existing homes climbed 3.2 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.49 million, the highest rate since February 2007, the Realtors said last week. These sales have climbed 9.6 percent over the past 12 months, although the number of existing homes available to buy have edged up a slim 0.4 percent.

    The result of strong demand and limited supplies are price increases that can eventually hurt affordability and cause would-be buyers to pull back from the market.

    The median home price has risen 6.5 percent over the past year to $236,400, the highest level -- unadjusted for inflation -- ever reported by the Realtors.

    Much of that demand has stemmed from an accelerated pace of hiring that dates back to early 2014. Employers added 3.1 million jobs last year and are on pace to add 2.5 million jobs this year. Those new jobs have filled the economy with new paychecks that stirred more interest in home-buying.

    Low but rising mortgage rates also increased buyer demand.

    The average 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 4.04 percent last week, according to mortgage firm Freddie Mac. The rate remains roughly two percentage points below the historical average, but it also represents a sharp increase from the 52-week low of 3.59 percent.


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    Personality Test
    By Jacquelyn Smith

    As it turns out, your personality affects more than just how you interact with your colleagues and boss at work. It also has a lot to do with why you fancy some jobs over others, how much you make, whether you're satisfied at work, and how likely you are to lead a team.

    That's why understanding your personality type could be a key factor in finding which career path best suits you.

    Truity Psychometrics, a provider of online personality and career assessments, and the developer of the TypeFinder personality type assessment, recently studied almost 26,000 people and put together an infographic that details average pay, job satisfaction, and other notable facts for each of the 16 personality types.

    Check out the full infographic below to learn everything you need to know about your personality type:


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    Federal Reserve
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
    By Howard Schneider and Michael Flaherty

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. economy and job market continue to strengthen, the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday, leaving the door open for a possible interest rate hike when central bank policymakers next meet in September.

    Following a two-day policy meeting, Fed officials said they felt the economy had overcome a first-quarter slowdown and was "expanding moderately" despite a downturn in the energy sector and headwinds from overseas.

    The central bank nodded in particular to "solid job gains" in recent months.

    "On balance, a range of labor market indicators suggest that underutilization of labor resources has diminished since early this year," the Fed said in a policy statement that kept rates unchanged.

    That language marks an upgrade in its view of labor conditions since its June meeting, when it said labor slack had "diminished somewhat."
    The statement may strengthen expectations of a rate hike at the Fed's September meeting. The central bank has kept rates at a near-zero level since December 2008 as part of its effort to spur the recovery from the 2007-2009 financial crisis.

    Treasury yields fell with the 10-year slipping to 2.28 percent from 2.29 percent. After a modest run higher following the statement, the S&P 500 was slightly below where it was before the release, up about 0.4 percent on the day.

    However, the Fed didn't give a clear signal on its rate plan. Instead, it said it wanted to see "some further improvement in the labor market," and gain more confidence that low inflation will rise to its 2 percent medium-term target.

    The policy statement also retained language saying that risks are "nearly balanced," suggesting the Fed is still more concerned about a new economic downturn rather than of rapidly rising inflation.

    Central bank officials and market analysts have been waiting to see if weak growth in the first part of the year signaled the beginning of the end of an economic expansion, or merely a pause.

    The verdict now seems firm.

    Enough improvements have been made in the labor market that the Fed only needs a little more confirming evidence to say it is time.

    "The Fed is taking baby steps towards a rate hike. Enough improvements have been made in the labor market that the Fed only needs a little more confirming evidence to say it is time," said Brian Jacobsen, Chief Portfolio Strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management.

    Most economists forecast that U.S. economic growth will pick up after a lackluster first half and that the Fed will begin its monetary tightening in September, according to a Reuters poll published last week.

    And Wall Street's top banks still target September as the most likely time for the Fed to begin its monetary tightening, according to another Reuters poll published earlier this month.

    Though inflation remains weak, the statement portrayed an economy that continues to tighten, with a 5.3 percent unemployment rate and steady job creation.

    With no meeting scheduled in August, the Fed will have two months of data to analyze before deciding whether to hike rates for the first time since 2006.

    There were no dissents.


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    Cheap Places to Travel This Summer
    If you haven't booked a summer trip yet, you can still go somewhere fun for cheap. Here's how.

    Thanks to sites like Airbnb, you can rent a studio apartment in Brooklyn for around $80 a night, or find a cozy place on the Upper East Side for as little as $125 a night.

    But if you're in the mood for sun and surf, then check out Big Sur, which is located on California's beautiful Pacific coastline. Some campsites in Big Sur charge as little as $25 a night. That means you can wake up to an amazing view for next to nothing.

    So, if you still haven't booked a trip this summer, don't worry. You can still find a great deal from the Big Apple...all the way to Big Sur.

    View Poll


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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Noel Randewich

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks finished stronger Wednesday after the Federal Reserve said the economy and job market continued to strengthen and left its key interest rate unchanged.

    The central bank's comments on the economy and inflation after its two-day pow-wow appeared to do little to drastically change wide expectations that the first rate hike will come in September or possibly December.

    The statement tried to just give an update on the state of the economy, which is showing some modest improvement.

    No move on rates was expected this week. U.S. interest rates have remained near zero for almost a decade and the Fed has said it will raise rates once it sees a sustained recovery in the economy.

    "The statement tried to just give an update on the state of the economy, which is showing some modest improvement," said Guy Haselmann, head of U.S. interest rate strategy at Scotiabank in New York. "They were trying not to create extra volatility in a market already on edge."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 0.7 percent to end at 17,751.39. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 0.7 percent to 2,108.57 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 0.4 percent to finish at 5,111.73.

    All 10 major S&P sectors were higher with the energy index's 1.3 percent rise leading the way.

    The S&P 500 has bounced about 2 percent higher in the past two days following a deeper near-3 percent drop over the preceding week that had been caused in part by a rout in China's stock markets.

    With second-quarter earnings season more than halfway done, analysts now expect overall earnings of S&P 500 companies to edge up 0.8 percent and revenue to decline 3.9 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.

    While earnings are expected to increase this quarter, valuations remain a concern. The S&P 500 is trading near 16.9 times forward 12-month earnings, above the 10-year median of 14.7 times, according to StarMine data.

    Stocks in the News

    After the bell, Facebook (FB) and Whole Foods Market (WFM) dropped 4 percent and 11 percent, respectively, following quarterly reports that left investors wanting more.

    During the session, Twitter (TWTR) shares fell 14.5 percent to a year-low of $31.24 after the microblogging company said its number of monthly average users rose at the slowest pace since it went public in 2013.

    General Dynamics (GD) rose 3.9 percent after its earnings. It sparked a sector-wide rally across major aerospace stocks including Northrop Grumman (NOC), Spirit Aerosystems (SPR), Lockheed Martin (LMT) and TransDigm Group (TDG).

    Cytec Industries (CYT) soared 27.1 percent after Belgian chemical group Solvay agreed to buy the company for $5.5 billion.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2.69 to 1. On the Nasdaq, the ratio was 1.28 to 1. The S&P was chalked up 26 new 52-week highs and 1 low; the Nasdaq posted 43 new highs and 62 lows. Some 7.2 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the daily average of 6.7 billion so far this month, according to BATS Global Markets.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Commerce Department releases second-quarter gross domestic product, and the Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims.
    • Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Amgen (AMGN)
    • Anheuser-Busch Inbev (BUD)
    • Astrazeneca (AZN)
    • Automatic Data Processing (ADP)
    • Bunge (BG)
    • Cigna (CI)
    • Colgate-Palmolive (CL)
    • ConocoPhillips (COP)
    • Deutsche Bank (DB)
    • Diageo (DEO)
    • Electronic Arts (EA)
    • Expedia (EXPE)
    • Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU)
    • Hanesbrands (HBI)
    • Invesco (IVZ)
    • LinkedIn (LNKD)
    • Marathon Petroleum (MPC)
    • Mondelez International (MDLZ)
    • Nokia (NOK)
    • Procter & Gamble (PG)
    • Royal Dutch Shell (RDS-A)
    • Sanofi (SNY)
    • Sony (SNE)
    • Stanley Black & Decker (SWK)
    • Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (HOT)
    • T-Mobile US (TMUS)
    • Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (TEVA)
    • Time Warner Cable (TWC)
    • Valero Energy (VLO)
    • Western Union (WU)
    • Xcel Energy (XEL)


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    CN78NG Couple working out finances  couple; computer; laptop; finances; man; woman; 2; two; finance; money; bank; business; woma
    By Valerie Young

    NEW YORK -- Tired of getting hit over the head with costly credit card fees?

    You may find it tough to avoid them altogether -- a recent survey of 100 cards by found only one with no fees at all and two cards with a dozen (literally) -- but it's still possible to cut your costs significantly.

    "You can avoid most of these fees by taking two steps," said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at "Shopping around when you're first getting the card and setting up auto-payments once you get the card."

    Schulz said that it's important to look at the terms and conditions before applying for a card. Afterward, setting up "auto-pay" will help you to avoid one of the most-common fees: a late charge, he added. Other frequent charges include annual fees, balance transfer fees, foreign transaction fees and cash advance fees.

    In the survey, 99 percent of the the cards charged late fees and 81 percent had returned payment fees, typically $35.

    Still, credit-card users are better off in many ways than a decade ago. With the implementation of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009, also called the CARD Act, late fees were capped at $27 for the first late payment and $38 thereafter.

    "The CARD Act really just slashed a lot of the fees," said Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for "They made it much more consumer friendly."

    Twenty-six percent of cards in the survey had an annual fee ranging from $25 to $195, while nearly 80 percent charged balance transfer fees that were typically 3 percent of the transfer amount. Foreign transaction fees were found on 77 percent of the cards, usually charging 3 percent of each transaction in U.S. dollars, according to the survey.

    Finally, 98 percent of cards surveyed charged cash-advance fees, ranging from $10 to as much as 5 percent of the advance amount.

    Other less common fees, according to
    • Account re-opening fees
    • Overdraft protection fees
    • Statement hard-copy fees
    • Pay-by-phone fees
    • Replacement card fees
    • Expedited card-shipping fees
    • Stop-payment fees.
    The most obvious way to limit fees, of course, is maintaining a good credit score, since lenders tend to offer the best deals to the customers most likely to pay back what they borrow. That said, here are the three cards that placed at the top and the bottom of the survey:

    No Fee

    The PenFed Promise Visa Card, which has no fees, is issued by the Alexandria, Virginia-based PenFed Credit Union. (The name is a reference to the Pentagon, not the state of Pennsylvania.) Established in 1935 as the War Department Credit Union, the institution has more than 1.3 million members in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., and military bases in Guam, Puerto Rico and Okinawa, according to its website.

    Sherry recommends credit unions because they often offer better deals for their members.

    "It's a great card," said Sherry. "Almost anyone can join some kind of credit union, somewhere, and they should look into their credit union card."

    First Premier Bank Credit Card and First Premier Bank Secured MasterCard, issued by Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based Premier Bankcard, topped the list with 12 fees. One fee noted by is a $25 charge when customers qualify and receive increased credit limits.

    First Premiere is a subprime lender, which caters to people with a poor track record on bill payments. Its "primary purpose is to provide individuals with damaged credit histories an avenue to obtain credit through the use of a credit card," according to the company's website.

    "We actually advocate for secured credit cards as a way to build credit," said Consumer-Action's Sherry. "As you build credit and show that you are responsible for using a credit card and paying it back, then you can go out and get an unsecured card."

    You can see the full list of the credit cards with the least and most fees at


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    The Groupon website
    Richard Levine/Alamy
    You may fancy yourself a deal seeker. You spot bargains. You clip coupons. You find ways to do things and get things for less money. Well done, but have you thought about cashing in on the savings trend by buying into the publicly traded companies that make it all possible?

    There are plenty of stocks out there making money as a result of people just like you. Let's check out the deal mavens and gig-economy pioneers that are putting more money in your pocket. If you invest just right, it could translate into even more money in your pocket.

    Broadcasting the Bargains

    There are plenty of companies that have business models based entirely around saving you money. RetailMeNot (SALE) is a coupon aggregator, offering up crowd-sourced coupon codes that it shares with its growing community. (COUP) specializes in digital printable coupons that visitors can use at stores.

    Diving into deeper markdowns, Groupon (GRPN) leads the way among group-buying sites. It teams up with merchants, restaurateurs, and service providers to sell prepaid vouchers. It's a win-win-win scenario. Businesses hungry for new customers don't mind taking pennies on the dollar for the introduction, hoping to woo repeat customers. Customers relish the markdowns, of course. Groupon cashes in as the middleman, walking away with roughly half of the value of the voucher.

    Another company that bases its entire model on publishing deals is Travelzoo (TZOO), offering weekly emails full of sponsored getaway bargains. Travelzoo's growth has been slowing lately, but it still services an impressive membership base of 24.8 million people in North America and Europe.

    Gambling on the Gig Economy

    We're at the dawn of what many are calling the gig economy, where asset sharing is opening up opportunities for car owners to make a little money on the side by delivering food and merchandise orders, or even delivering people through peer-to-peer cab services.

    In short, you don't need a car to get around. You don't need a second home to have a vacation property. You don't need a yacht or a private jet to go sailing or flying on your own.

    Uber and Lyft, the two biggies of the driving services, aren't publicly traded. Big tech companies are investing in this space, but the payoff may not be there right away. If we shift to vacation homes, Airbnb also isn't public, but HomeAway (AWAY) -- the company behind VRBO and its namesake site -- is there to give vacation-home owners the online platform to rent out their properties when they're not using them.

    So, yes, saving money has never been easier. The same can be said of investing in the companies profiting from the trends that are making it easier to spend less on things and experiences that people want.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends HomeAway and RetailMeNot. The Motley Fool owns shares of RetailMeNot. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.


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    Close up on hands raised throwing and catching money in the air
    AlamyRetirement is decades away for even the oldest millennials, but there are some very real problems ahead if they don't take action soon.
    By Greg Ostrowski

    It's no secret that millennials have had a tough time getting started with careers, families and saving for retirement.

    Everything from the Great Recession, to the rising cost of higher education, to the increasing scarcity of better-paying jobs has taken its toll on people born in the last two decades of the 20th century.

    And while retirement may be three to four decades away for even the oldest of this bunch, there are some very real problems that they will face if they don't take action soon. Let's look at three:

    1. Long-term impact of student loan debt. Getting into the college of their choice and earning a degree is just the first step for many. In 2015, the average college graduate walked off the stage not only with a diploma in hand, but with about $35,000 in loans they'll need to repay, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. What this does is hamstring them with not being able to save as early or as much for retirement. With that, they won't benefit from one of the greatest advantages they have: time. By starting later, they lose the benefit of compounding interest, and no investor wants that.

    2. Low wages. Workers entering the labor force are experiencing not only lower wages due to stagnation, which has been reported by various institutions such as the Pew Research Center, but they also can expect to see low wages throughout the first decade or more of their careers.

    3. Poor benefits. Benefit packages aren't what they once were, and that could be a contributing factor to the projected retirement age for millennials. Some have hypothesized that they will continue working into their early to mid-70s, which is up from a current average retirement age of 62. Baby boomers and Generation X had the benefit of pensions, and at this point very few companies are offering them unless you work for the government (and who knows, those may even be in jeopardy in the next few decades). And while no one can be 100 percent sure what to expect from Social Security, it might be a good idea to not expect to have these payments be the sole source of your income.

    While it may seem pretty bleak on the surface, there are actions that can be taken to combat these problems in order to keep an enjoyable retirement a reality. Here are three:

    1. Save earlier. This may seem like a solution that is extremely challenging (or even impossible) given student loan responsibilities. But even putting away just $20 to $50 a month in your early 20s can grow over time. This gives you the ability to take advantage of our friend, compounding interest, and get into the habit of saving on a regular basis. If you wait until your late 30s when your loans are paid off and you feel you can save more monthly, you may be surprised at how much more you'll need to put away in order to catch up. For example, starting at 20 and saving $50 a month at 6 percent interest will yield about $135,000 by the time you reach 65. If you waited until you're 40 to try to reach that $135,000 mark, you'd need to save almost $200 a month at the same interest rate. (Another way to look at it is an outlay of $27,000 in principle with the $50 plan earlier versus $60,000 if you went the $200 route later.)

    2. Adjust living standards. This is one that folks don't like to hear. "Retirement is 40 years away, why can't I take a trip to Rome and Barcelona now?" It's true that your full-time working days may be ahead of you for a while. But just because that's the case doesn't mean you need to spend like you'll be making money forever. By looking realistically at income and expenses, and what savings goals you have, you'll be in better shape down the road to have money set aside for these types of trips.

    3. Continue to work longer. I'm not advocating continuing to put in 80-hour weeks when you'd rather be playing with your grandkids. But this generation, more than any in history, will be able to take advantage well into their golden years of how the economy is changing. Our economy used to be based off factory work and most employees needing to be physically fit. But once you reached a certain age, (for most in their 50s) you were no longer fit for that type of work and retired shortly after. Our current economy has shifted to a knowledge-based or connection-based economy, and we are seeing people now work well into their 70s, 80s and beyond. By keeping your mind sharp you're going to be in a better position to continue to earn as long as you'd like. For example, if your line of work is in management, coming on as a part-time consultant with a local firm can help offset some unexpected costs, or even allow you to take those trips you thought were once out of reach.

    Greg Ostrowski is a blogger for The Smarter Investor. Greg is a certified financial planner and managing partner of Scarborough Capital Management, offering low-cost, flat-fee 401(k) management and wealth management to individuals across America -- from millennials to retirees. You can follow him on Twitter at @gostro01 or connect on LinkedIn.


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    Excited Female Shoppers With Sale Bags In Mall
    AlamyA mix of in-store and online shopping habits helps you find the best deals.
    By Kendal Perez

    With retail headlines touting the power of mobile shopping and offering ways to compete with online retailers, you might think in-store shopping is on the decline. However, a recent study of over 1,000 consumers from TimeTrade, a customer engagement consulting firm, found that many shoppers across generations still prefer the in-store experience to other options. In fact, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed prefer to shop in store when a desired product is available both online and in the store.

    A larger 2014 study of more than 2,500 consumers conducted for A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm, found a whopping 90 percent of retail sales still happen in stores. Since the practice of shopping at physical retail locations is alive and kicking, here are some unique ways you can save more during your next trip.

    Send texts for savings. Your smartphone is a great money-saving tool for in-store shopping, with apps that help you compare prices, redeem coupons and receive cash back for select purchases and activities. Additionally, stores are increasingly offering "text for deals" promotions where you receive a discount in exchange for your phone number. Samuella Becker, founder of TigressPR, is a fan of this strategy and recently received a text message from her neighborhood grocery store offering $15 off her next $100 purchase. Sign up for Bloomingdale's text messages and emails, Becker suggests, and you'll receive a promo code for 10 percent off your next purchase.

    Other stores that offer text-for-deal promotions include Lane Bryant ($10 off $10 or more), buybuyBaby (20 percent off) and Payless Shoes (20 percent off). Standard text messaging charges apply, so keep this in mind as you opt in to these offers.

    Shop with discount gift cards. The secondary gift card market represents a unique way to save money on both gifts and personal purchases, especially when coupled with coupons and store sales. Websites like and have thousands of gift cards for sale, or you can use Gift Card Granny to compare prices from multiple gift card resellers. Savings vary by merchant and card inventory, but current estimates show up to 11 percent off gift cards to Walgreens, up to 19 percent off Dick's Sporting Goods gift cards and up to 20 percent off gift cards to JCPenney. When purchasing these cards, make sure to read the reviews and the fine print regarding price guarantees and return policies.

    Get friendly with the sales associates. When you shop frequently at the same store, it's inevitable that you'll get to know the salespeople and sales managers. These relationships can lead to savings. For example, store associates can add you to a pre-sale notification list, which gives you early access to store sales. "These events are advertised quietly," explains David Zyla, Emmy award-winning stylist and author of "How to Win at Shopping." "You make your selections and a salesperson will hold them, along with your credit card information. Once the sale officially begins, you card is charged and you can then pick up your purchases," he says.

    Even if you're not a regular, simply asking for a discount can get you one. Teri Gault, CEO of, says she usually gets 10 to 20 percent off by using this approach "almost everywhere, from department stores to airport shops to big discount stores."

    Take advantage of price-matching policies. With competition heating up between online retailers and brick-and-mortar stores, many big companies including Walmart, Target, Staples, BestBuy and Toys 'R Us are price-matching Amazon (and each other) on identical items. Taking advantage of these policies means you save more without having to place a separate order or drive to a different store to get the best price.

    "My secret price-matching weapon is the Amazon Mobile app," says Joanie Demer, co-founder of Demer used the app during a recent trip to Target for her daughter's sixth birthday and says she typically finds Amazon prices to be 10 to 20 percent less than Target on select items. "All I have to do is check out at guest services and request they price-match Amazon. The cashier will look up the price on the store's tablet and I won't pay a penny more than the online price." During this particular trip, Demer saved over $25 on a total of 13 items.

    Make multiple channels work for you. Deanne Goodman, savvy shopper and VP for Kombucha on Tap, suggests this savings hack: Buy products online using, a cash-back website, and schedule an in-store pickup to retrieve your items. "This works at PetSmart, Target, Staples and many other places," Goodman says. "I get cash back from the online order, apply any promo codes I can find online, and then go to the store where my purchase is waiting for me."

    Create your own rules. Impulse shopping is the bane of budgets everywhere, whether it's at the grocery store checkout or while waiting in a cleverly-designed queue laden with coffee mugs and scented candles. Despite your best efforts, items that don't make it to your shopping list somehow make their way into your shopping cart. Cherie Lowe, blogger at and author of "Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After," created "The 3-5 Rule" to avoid this: "Immediately before you check out, scan your cart and put back three to five items," she advises. "More than likely, you've picked up something you either don't need this week, or at all, and this quick practice will save $5 to $10 every time you shop."

    Though shopping online is convenient, it's tough to beat the experience of browsing the wares of your favorite store and bringing home your top picks, especially with so many ways to get a good discount.

    Kendal Perez is a spokeswoman for, a popular source for online, in-store and mobile coupons. She also blogs at Hassle-Free Savings and enjoys yoga, decluttering, craft brew and obsessing over her dogs.


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    Buffett Lunch
    Nati Harnik/AP
    By Kathy Kristof

    Picking stocks, always a tricky prospect, has gotten a lot tougher lately. A prolonged bull market has brought U.S. stocks near record highs, stretching price-earnings ratios and depressing dividend yields, which makes it harder to find a bargain. At the same time, economic uncertainties abound, with overseas markets in turmoil, the Federal Reserve waffling on the direction of U.S. interest rates, low oil prices hobbling the energy industry and the strong dollar wreaking havoc with earnings at big multinational concerns.

    Yet whenever investors are feeling particularly perplexed, they have a simple option. They can ask: What would Warren do? Thanks to the regularity of quarterly Securities and Exchange Commission filings, anyone with Internet access and enough curiosity to dig through mandatory 13F forms, which provide details about the holdings of institutional investment managers such as Buffett, can see what the world's most renowned investor owns. And by tracking back through older filings, it's possible to figure out what Buffett has been buying and selling in his $132 billion stock portfolio at Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B), the company he heads.

    Of course, you shouldn't imagine that you'll make a fast buck emulating Buffett, says David Kass, a professor of finance at the University of Maryland's business school, who studies Buffett and is a Berkshire shareholder. Buffett is usually looking for out-of-favor companies that are selling at a discount to their intrinsic value. He expects those bets to pay off in a matter of years-sometimes decades.

    Still, if you're willing to get rich slowly, there's no better mentor than Buffett. Standard & Poor's 500-stock index has returned a respectable 9.9 percent annualized since 1965, when Buffet took control of a textile manufacturer called Berkshire Hathaway. But Berkshire's book value (assets minus liabilities), Buffett's preferred measure of his company's performance, has climbed an annualized 19.4 percent. And Berkshire's A shares (BRK-A), which go back to 1965, have done even better, soaring from roughly $15 to an astonishing $215,421, for a gain of 21.6 percent annualized. "Investors with patience could do very well following his lead," says Kass.

    If you want to emulate Buffett, you have two reasonable ways to go. You can invest in Berkshire Hathaway, which gives you a piece of every stock in Buffett's portfolio as well as the company's vast conglomeration of subsidiaries, ranging from See's Candies to insurer Geico. The other option is to buy the stocks that Buffett buys and to sell them when he's getting out. So, for those taking that approach, what has Buffett been buying?

    One stock to consider is Wells Fargo (WFC, $57.95). With $1.7 trillion in assets, Wells is the nation's fourth-largest banking company. Buffett has owned the stock for decades and consistently adds to his position. In the first quarter of 2015, Buffett hiked his Wells Fargo stake by 6.8 million shares, giving Berkshire a total of 470.3 million shares, which are worth $27.3 billion at today's share price. That makes Wells Fargo Berkshire's biggest holding. (Share prices and related data are as of July 21.)

    Although the past few years have presented a challenging environment for banks, Wells has managed to eke out steadily rising profits despite slipping revenue over the past two years. Now, with the economy gaining steam, the prospects for all banks appear to be improving. That's mainly because banks earn the bulk of their money on the spread between the cost of deposits and the amount they can charge for loans. When interest rates start rising, banks can immediately charge more for loans, but the interest they pay on deposits rises slowly because customers typically are not quick to pull their savings or switch checking accounts for a slightly richer rate elsewhere.

    Wells Fargo is particularly well-positioned for a rising-rate environment, says RBC Capital analyst Joe Morford. The company has a steady deposit base and plenty of cash to lend, and it has seen strong demand for commercial loans. Additionally, it is expanding its profitable credit card and investment management businesses.

    The Kraft Heinz Co. (KHC, $80.22) was formed by the recent merger of Kraft Foods and H. J. Heinz Holdings, creating the fifth-largest food dynasty in the world. Berkshire now owns one-fourth of the company. Buffett is watching closely over that $25 billion investment by serving on the board, as are two other top Berkshire executives. Three other positions on the board are held by top-level executives at 3G Capital, a valued partner in several Buffett ventures. That gives Buffett and friends a slight majority of the board.

    With brands ranging from Planter's and Oscar Meyer to Maxwell House, the new company's focus over the next several months will be on integrating operations. Stifel Research analyst Christopher Growe says the merger will save the combined company at least $1.5 billion in annual operating costs and give Kraft Heinz the ability to make more acquisitions in the future. It is also likely to make Kraft Heinz one of the most profitable food companies in the world.

    Pundits aren't sure what to make of Buffett's rapidly growing position in International Business Machines (IBM, $163.07), which on July 20 reported its 13th consecutive quarter of declining revenues. Buffett first invested in the venerable computer, software and technology-consulting company in 2011, picking up 63.9 million shares for $10.9 billion, which works out to about $170 a share.

    The stock, which plunged nearly 6 percent on the day after release of second-quarter results, now trades for barely more than 10 times estimated 2015 earnings, far less than the overall market's price-earnings ratio of 18.

    Even so, IBM is no bargain, says Ivan Feinseth, an analyst with Tigress Financial Partners, a New York City investment banking concern. "It's cheap, but there's a reason for that," he says. "If you are not moving ahead in technology, you are falling behind. And IBM has missed out on a lot of the key trends that happened in tech."

    But Buffett just keeps buying and says he's not fazed by the stagnating share price. That's because when the stock languishes, IBM buys back its own shares cheaply. Last year, Berkshire picked up another 11.2 million IBM shares, raising his stake to 79.6 million shares, worth about $13 billion. When asked about IBM at Berkshire's annual meeting this year, vice-chairman, Charlie Munger, said that the company is extremely adaptable and that both he and Buffett are optimistic about its prospects. As for Wall Street's skepticism, "if people weren't so often wrong, we wouldn't be rich," he said.

    Buffett is also a longtime owner of American Express (AXP, $78.95). Berkshire's stake in Amex is worth nearly $12 billion but Buffett hasn't been a recent buyer. Berkshire has been picking up shares in competitors Visa (V, $72.02) and MasterCard (MA, $96.71). Over the past year, Berkshire's stake in MasterCard grew by 1.2 million shares, to 5.2 million shares, which are worth a bit more than $500 million. Berkshire also raised its stake in Visa, to 9.9 million shares, which are valued at $713 million today.

    However, Kass says these purchases were likely not orchestrated by Buffett. Instead, he attributes them to Todd Anthony Combs, a 44-year-old former hedge fund manager who is investing a piece of Berkshire's portfolio. Combs owned MasterCard in Castle Point Capital, a hedge fund that he ran, says Kass. Combs was likely looking for opportunities to get back into credit-card stocks when he started managing money for Buffett in 2010. Should the wisdom of these investments be discounted because they weren't made by Buffett? Not at all, says Kass. "The market may give them less weight, but I don't," he says.

    Combs and Ted Weschler, another former hedge fund manager who is now part of Berkshire's investment team, outperformed Buffett in both 2012 and 2013, according to Berkshire company statements. Berkshire didn't reveal the relative performance of its investment managers in 2014, but Kass is convinced the newer team members are doing well. "Buffett has been an exemplary investor for 30 years, but Weschler and Combs are exceptional investors, too."

    Weschler was probably responsible for Berkshire buying into Charter Communications (CHTR, $185.27), and both he and Combs claim credit for Berkshire's stake in DirecTV (DTV, $92.54). Both companies are now involved in separate mergers that have helped propel their stock prices over the past two years. Shares in DirecTV, which is being acquired by AT&T (T, $34.57), are close to the buyout price and, thus, have little appeal. But Charter, which is in the process of buying Time Warner Cable (TWC, $188.53) and the majority of privately held Bright House Networks, are worth snapping up, says Canaccord Genuity analyst Gregory Miller.

    The two acquisitions give momentum to Charter's plan to transform itself from a rural cable provider to a nationwide force in video and broadband services. Miller is convinced that the company will win the requisite regulatory approvals. Charter has been on a roll since hiring CEO Thomas Rutledge away from Cablevision Systems in 2011, Miller says, adding that he's confident that this management team is capable of delivering "meaningful additional value" to shareholders.


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    General Motors Texas Expansion
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. economic growth accelerated in the second quarter as solid consumer spending offset the drag from weak business spending on equipment, suggesting a steady momentum that could bring the Federal Reserve closer to hiking interest rates this year.

    Gross domestic product expanded at a 2.3 percent annual rate, the Commerce Department said Thursday. First-quarter GDP, previously reported to have shrunk at a 0.2 percent pace, was revised up to show it rising at a 0.6 percent rate.

    The revision to first-quarter growth reflected steps taken by the government to refine the seasonal adjustment for some components of GDP, which economists said left residual seasonality in the data, as well as new source data.

    The Fed on Wednesday described the economy as expanding "moderately" while upgrading its view of the labor market and saying housing had shown "additional" improvement. The Fed's assessment left the door open for a possible hike in interest rates in September, which would be the first rise since 2006.

    A separate report showed first-time applications for state unemployment benefits increased 12,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 267,000. However, claims remained not too far from their cycle lows.

    The dollar extended gains against a basket of currencies, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt fell slightly.

    Though second-quarter GDP growth was a bit below economists' expectations for a 2.6 percent rate, the growth composition pointed to firming domestic fundamentals.

    A measure of private domestic demand, which excludes trade, inventories and government expenditures, increased at a 2.5 percent rate after rising at a 2 percent pace at the start of the year.

    Growth in the second quarter was boosted by consumer spending as households used some of the windfall from cheaper gasoline in late 2014 and early this year to go shopping. The strengthening labor market also encouraged consumers to loosen their purse strings.

    Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, grew at a 2.9 percent rate from a downwardly revised 1.8 percent pace in the first quarter. Consumer spending was previously reported to have increased at a 2.1 percent rate at the start of the year.

    The saving rate fell to 4.8 percent from 5.2 percent.

    Energy Drag Persists

    Housing also supported the economy in the second quarter, as did exports, and state and local government spending.

    However, the energy sector continued to weigh on growth as it struggles with the lingering effects of deep spending cuts by oil-field companies like Schlumberger and Halliburton in the aftermath of a more than 60 percent plunge in crude oil prices last year.

    Business spending on structures fell at a 1.6 percent rate after stumbling 7.4 percent at the start of the year. Investment on equipment fell at a 4.1 percent rate.

    Spending on mining exploration, wells and shafts plunged at a 68.2 percent rate, the largest decline since the second quarter of 1986. This category dropped at a 44.5 percent pace in the first quarter.

    But there are signs that the energy spending rout might be nearing an end. Data last Friday showed U.S. energy firms added 21 oil rigs last week, marking the third increase over the past 33 weeks.

    Schlumberger said last week it believed the North American rig count may be bottoming and that a slow rise in both land drilling and completion activity could occur in the second half of the year.

    Exports rebounded in the second quarter, despite a strong dollar, while imports rose moderately. That left a smaller trade deficit that added 0.13 percentage point to GDP growth.

    Inventory investment slowed after the first quarter's brisk pace. Businesses accumulated $110 billion worth of merchandise, down from $112.8 billion in the first quarter, good news for the remainder of the year.

    With oil prices rising during the second quarter and consumer spending picking up, inflation accelerated sharply.

    The personal consumption expenditures price index rebounded at a 2.2 percent rate, the fastest since the first quarter of 2012, after falling at a 1.9 percent rate at the start of the year. Excluding food and energy, prices increased at a 1.8 percent pace.


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    Economy Jobs
    Alan Diaz/APDonald Rubio, right, talks about job opportunities to Cascade Neighbors at a job fair in Miami Lakes, Fla.
    By Lucia Mutikani

    The number of Americans filing new applications for unemployment benefits increased last week, but remained near cycle lows in a sign that the jobs market was gaining steam.

    Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 267,000 for the week ended July 25, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Claims for the prior week were unrevised at 255,000, which was the lowest level since November 1973.

    A Labor Department analyst said there were no special factors influencing the data and that only claims for Puerto Rico had been estimated.

    The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 3,750 to 274,750 last week.

    Thursday's claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid rose 46,000 to 2.26 million in the week ended July 18. The so-called continuing claims covered the week during which the government surveyed households for July's unemployment rate.A Labor Department analyst said there were no special factors influencing the data and that only claims for Puerto Rico had been estimated.

    The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 3,750 to 274,750 last week.

    Thursday's claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid rose 46,000 to 2.26 million in the week ended July 18. The so-called continuing claims covered the week during which the government surveyed households for July's unemployment rate.

    (Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)


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    Flight Plan Packed Planes
    Erik S. Lesser/AP
    By Mitch Lipka

    Earning and using airline miles used to be simple. Fly 25,000 miles and earn a free flight. It is not so simple anymore.

    The process of redeeming miles is changing in a way that makes it more difficult for all but elite flyers to earn rewards.

    One key change: Delta Air Lines' announcement in mid-July that its SkyMiles rewards will be based on what you spend, rather than on the distance you travel, and the cost will be based on demand rather than a fixed amount.

    Experts like Brian Kelly, known as The Points Guy, expect more major airlines to follow suit.

    To help sort out the changes to the miles game, Reuters asked Kelly for his advice for travelers to best take advantage of widely varying airline loyalty programs.

    Q: Are airlines suddenly being less loyal to their loyal customers?

    A: The real answer is that loyalty is being redefined.

    In the past it used to be that whoever flew the most was the most loyal, but airlines are now saying it's whoever spends the most.

    Basically, the wealth gap is increasing between economy and first class, which I guess makes senses as the industry keeps changing.

    Q: It seems like all the airlines are treating miles like currency, and devaluing them.

    A: Pretty much. Every month there are billions of points and miles pumped into the system. But there are just not that many flights, or hotels for that matter, so they are looking for ways to have you redeem more miles and points for less value, and I don't see that changing.

    Q: Which airlines are the most generous to their frequent flyers right now?

    A: It really depends on where you live and how much you fly, but I still think American Airlines has the best top-tier elite status. American is also the most generous, in my opinion, with international upgrades giving eight system-wide upgrades, versus six on United.

    Q: What should travelers look for when they are deciding which airline loyalty program to focus on?

    A: Travelers should not have blind loyalty. The biggest thing is don't put all your miles in one basket. You should get a credit card that allows you to transfer to multiple programs.

    You can be loyal to one airline, but don't over-expose yourself because that program will probably change or that airline won't fly where you want, so it's good to have points in all different programs just like your stock portfolio.

    Q: Is it even worth it to try to accumulate points with credit cards?

    A: Always do the math. If you're not getting at least 1-2 cents per mile in value you should really just think about getting a cash-back card. The Citi Double Cash and Fidelity Amex both give about 2 percent back. Why earn one airline mile that's worth one cent when you could get 2 cents back in cash, which you could use toward anything?

    Also, don't always think that airline mileage cards -- especially ones where you're only earning one mile per dollar spent -- are the best value. Sometimes cash is king and the ability to use that cash to purchase whatever you want is a great option.

    Q: What strategy should consumers employ for travel this summer or fall?

    A: I would recommend that people redeem miles in the near term, don't hang on long-term in the next several years because these programs are evolving and they are evolving quickly.

    If you are spending a lot of money on short flights you should take a look at Delta and United and the programs that reward based on money.

    If you're an economy traveler, especially international, you're going to lose big time, so do the math and choose a program that rewards you the most.

    And, frankly, don't be loyal to an airline if they're not loyal to you. If you're earning less miles and paying more and not getting the perks, it's time to rethink your strategy.


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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Noel Randewich

    NEW YORK -- Wall Street ended flat Thursday as investors digested ho-hum corporate earnings and new data showed that the economy grew more quickly in the second quarter.

    Procter & Gamble, Facebook and Whole Foods Market all fell after quarterly reports that left investors wanting more.

    U.S. economic growth accelerated in the June quarter as solid consumer spending offset a drag from weak business spending on equipment, suggesting steady momentum that could bring the Federal Reserve closer to hiking interest rates this year.

    With a mixed bag of corporate earnings over halfway through second-quarter reporting season and a sharp focus on when the Federal Reserve will begin raising interest rates from near zero, investors on Thursday saw few reasons to pay more for shares.

    "We've been stuck in a 3-percent band since almost the beginning of the year," said Warren West, principal at Greentree Brokerage Services in Philadelphia. "There's nothing motivating investors to push it outside of that in either direction."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) ended 0.03 percent weaker at 17,745.98, while the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) was unchanged at 2,108.63. The Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 0.3 percent to 5,128.79.

    Six of the 10 major S&P sectors were higher, with the utilities index leading gainers, up 0.72 percent, and the energy index the biggest decliner, down 0.7 percent.

    Thursday's GDP report lifted the dollar as some investors bet on a September, rather than December, rate hike. The dollar index rose 0.6 percent to 97.545 after touching its highest in a week.

    With 64 percent of S&P 500 companies having reported second-quarter results, analysts expect overall earnings to edge up 1 percent and revenue to decline 3.6 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.

    Valuations remain a concern. The S&P 500 is trading near 16.8 times forward 12-month earnings, above the 10-year median of 14.7 times, according to StarMine data.

    "Earnings haven't been great," said John Canally, investment strategist at LPL Financial. "We are in a slow-growth environment and anything that knocks that down further is not a plus for the market."

    Earnings News

    After the bell, LinkedIn (LNKD) surged 8 percent while Expedia (EXPE) jumped 6 percent, both posting quarterly reports that pleased investors.

    During Thursday's session, Skechers USA (SKX) jumped 16 percent as the sports shoe maker and retailer reported a better-than-expected rise in quarterly revenue.

    Procter & Gamble (PG) fell 4.0 percent, Facebook (FB) dropped 1.8 percent and Whole Foods Market (WFM) slumped 11.6 percent.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1.04 to 1. On the Nasdaq, that ratio was 1.10 to 1, favoring advancers. The S&P 500 saw 35 new 52-week highs and 7 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 70 new highs and 79 new lows. Some 6.4 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the daily average of 6.7 billion this month, according to BATS Global Markets.

    What to watch Friday:
    • The Labor Department releases the second-quarter employment cost index at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Institute For Supply Management-Chicago releases the Chicago purchasing managers index for July at 9:45 a.m.
    • The University of Michigan releases its final survey of consumer sentiment for July at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Calendar
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Aon (AON)
    • Chevron (CVX)
    • Exxon Mobil (XOM)
    • Honda Motor Co. (HMC)
    • ITT (ITT)
    • Phillips 66 (PSX)
    • Newell Rubbermaid (NWL)
    • Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL)
    • Tyco International (TYC)
    • Weyerhaeuser Co. (WY)


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