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    Young male stand-up comedian performing on stage, crowd cheering
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    I don't just write about money matters. I also teach and perform improvisational comedy. It started out as a fun escape, an entertaining way to improve my public speaking skills and keep my mind sharp. It evolved into a passion, and now I'm one of the five owners of Just The Funny, the largest dedicated improv theater in Miami.

    Improv isn't just for folks hoping to get on "Saturday Night Live." I've taught lawyers, college students and even fellow financial writers performance skills that can extend beyond the scenes crafted on the fly based on audience suggestions. Improv comedy has plenty of real-life applications -- and that also includes making smart investors even smarter.

    Let's go over a few of the improv tenets that can also apply to mastering the market.

    1. Yes, and...

    These are the two words that folks typically associate with a two-person improv scene. You don't deny your fellow improviser. Whatever is said on stage is immediately true. If he says that you're an army private in Peru with a case of the munchies, that's who you are. If you kick off a scene by telling your partner to beware of falling rocks and you call her your mother, then you're in an avalanche with your mom.

    The key at that point is to take your scene initiation and build on it. If you're a militant in Peru and you're hungry, you might start looking for a place to eat or start rummaging through your pockets for that protein bar. Ideally, you would also flesh out your partner's character, returning the favor.

    It's easy to see how "Yes, and" can play a part in assessing any investing situation. The market's going to throw some unexpected things at you. A company whose stock you own can lower its financial guidance. Your mutual fund's manager can quit. It's all true; build on it. Do you follow your fund manager to her next post? Do you stick it out because the co-manager's still there? Do you cash out and start your own fund? As long as you don't deny the reality offered, there is no wrong answer. There are no mistakes in improv.

    2. Bring a Brick, Not a Cathedral

    Improvisers will be quick to point out that they don't like to perform with people who hog scenes. You don't want to share the stage with someone who initiates a scene by offering a dozen nuggets of information before you get a say. The two of you are supposed to build the scene together. You bring a brick and together you build the cathedral.

    That's another meaty morsel that can serve you well as an investor. Don't try to go it alone. Don't just rely on your own perspective. Fish out other vantage points, even if they differ from yours. Spend time on online forums. Read what different financial writers have to say about a stock that you own or are considering owning. Respect opposing views, and actively seek them out so you don't fool yourself with confirmation bias. You can't assume that you know everything; you don't. Nobody knows everything.

    3. Stay in the Moment

    Improvisers often remind one another to be present. "Stay in the moment," one might advise before going on stage. Don't think too far ahead in a scene, since nothing is scripted. Don't dwell in the past, because that's been merely the buildup to where a scene is in real time. Let go. React to what's happening in the here and now.

    This also applies to investing. You can't fall in love with a stock based on what it did in the past. Microsoft (MSFT) did some pretty amazing things in taking PCs to the masses, but is Windows as relevant now in an era where the vast majority of smartphones and tablets run Android or iOS? McDonald's (MCD) revolutionized the restaurant industry, but after several quarters of negative comps, it's now more of a laggard than a leader. Always value the current situation more than historical tendencies. Wall Street's short-term memory makes the here and now more critical than anything else.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned, and he naturally also owns a piece of Just The Funny. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Investor compares quotes from newspaper and tablet
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    By Stacy Rapacon

    The kids are all right -- or at least they will be. The oldest of the millennials, loosely defined as those born between 1981 and the turn of the century, are approaching 35. And as the generation matures and enters its prime wealth-building years, reality is setting in about long life expectancies and the solvency of Social Security. According to Bankrate's latest survey of investing professionals, three-quarters of the market gurus polled agree that millennials are ready to take on more risk and invest in stocks in order to afford the things they want, including eventual retirement.

    In fact, TD Ameritrade reports that among its customers, two-thirds of the typical millennial portfolio is already invested in individual stocks. "Young investors are stock pickers," says Nicole Sherrod, managing director of the trader group at TD Ameritrade. "And from what we see of the stocks that they've been investing in en masse, they're doing pretty well."

    Which stocks do they like? It turns out that, despite reports of their many differences, millennials and baby boomers have similar investing tastes. According to Openfolio, a social media network where investors can share and compare their portfolios, six of the top 10 stocks held by people ages 25 to 34 are also favorites of folks 50 to 64: Apple, Facebook, Walt Disney, General Electric, Microsoft (MSFT) and Google (GOOG).

    Popular Stocks Among Millennials

    Apple (symbol AAPL, $115.15) is the top holding across all generations, according to both Openfolio and TD Ameritrade. Millennials seem particularly enamored. Apple is often the first stock trade for investors of this generation, says Sherrod. Its popularity should be no surprise to anyone who has noticed that the stock has more than tripled in value over the past five years. Less expected: It remains relatively affordable. The stock sells at 12 times estimated year-ahead earnings. That's cheaper than the 17 forward price-earnings ratio of Standard & Poor's 500 stock index (^GSPC).

    Apple promises to continue its rise as the company consistently churns out upgrades, as well as new products. Anthony David, a Washington, D.C.-based financial adviser with Morgan Stanley, points to high demand for both the iPhone and new Apple Watch to support Morgan Stanley's 12- to 18-month price target of $155, an aggressive one-third above the stock's mid August price of $115. In the quarter that ended in June, the company sold more than 47 million iPhones, now in its 10th iteration. That's 35 percent more than during the same period in 2014. Those sales totaled $31.4 billion, 59 percent more than the product earned the year before. The Apple Watch is off to a good start. After being introduced in the U.S. in April, it sold 20 percent more pieces than first-generation iPhones did in its first six weeks.

    Facebook (FB, $93.43) is the second-most popular stock among millennials, according to TD Ameritrade. (According to Openfolio, it's second among 25- to 34-year-olds and third among investors under the age of 25.) Like Apple, its popularity is evident in the skyrocketing price. Since its initial public offering at $38 in May 2012, Facebook's stock sank to a low of $18 that September but has since soared to near $100. And it still might have room to run. The site may be relatively old in the social media world, but "it is still early days in the company's effort to grow as an industry-leading global advertising business," says David.

    The social network does hold the attention of a growing number of users. In the second quarter of 2015, the site reported 968 million people actively using it on a daily basis, up 17 percent from the year before. The number of daily visitors using a mobile device has grown at an even faster pace, 29 percent to 844 million. All those eyeballs mean big money for the company. Advertising revenue totaled more than $3.8 billion in the second quarter of the year, up 43 percent from the same period of 2014. Mobile ads count for 76 percent of those dollars; in 2014, it was 62 percent. Analysts expect sales to increase 38 percent this year and another 35 percent in 2016. Morgan Stanley raised Facebook's 12- to 18-month price target to $110 from $94.

    Old Favorite

    A surprisingly popular stock among millennials is General Electric (GE, $25.79). Founded in 1892, it may not be the sexy company you'd think would attract young investors. It's more like the stable suitor their parents might keep mentioning at family dinners. According to TD Ameritrade, it's the third-most popular stock among millennials and second-most popular with boomers. "I think probably it's a brand that their parents have recommended to them, a company that their parents have been invested in for a really long time," says Sherrod. (Openfolio ranks GE sixth in popularity among investors under 35.)

    It just goes to show that sometimes your parents really do know what's best for you. With the ongoing sale of its financial-services unit, GE Capital, the company is returning to its industrial roots and raising cash in the process. The company has reached agreements to sell about $78 billion worth of its financial-services assets so far in 2015, putting it on track to hit $100 billion in asset sales by the end of the year. GE's core industrial operations demonstrated year-over-year improvement during the second quarter. Analysts expect earnings will increase by about 19 percent in 2016. The stock sells at 18 times estimated year-ahead earnings, versus a P/E of 17 for the S&P 500. Plus, even if young investors aren't all that interested in income at the moment, GE's current yield is 3.5 percent.

    Our younger investors tend to look for companies that are a little bit more socially responsible.

    One company that younger and older investors don't quite agree on is Tesla (TSLA, $242.51). According to Openfolio, it ranks second in popularity among investors under 25 and third for investors ages 25 to 34. Yet, it's just 24th for 50-to-64-year-olds, and it doesn't even appear in the 25 top stocks for investors over age 65. "Our younger investors tend to look for companies that are a little bit more socially responsible," says TD Ameritrade's Sherrod. "Tesla is doing a lot in the green space with electric cars."

    Given each generation's investing time horizon, Tesla's popularity, or lack thereof, makes sense. In the short term, Tesla expects losses as it invests in developing new technology and ramping up production. And the stock is very pricey at 181 times year-ahead earnings. But, says David, analyzing the stock based just on near-term expectations won't work.

    In the long run, the company is poised to transform the energy and auto industries and to boost sales exponentially. Morgan Stanley expects Tesla could multiply its revenues by 18 times by 2029. The company expects its Gigafactory outside Reno, Nevada, to be fully operational by 2020. At that time, the facility, where Tesla is set to make its lithium-ion battery packs, will boost production to 500,000 vehicles a year. In 2015, it expects to deliver 55,000 vehicles. Tesla's base Model S sedan starts at $75,000, though options can easily push the price tag into six figures.

    A Word of Warning

    While the stock market is the place to build wealth over very long periods of time, buying individual stocks comes with risks. "I wouldn't recommend young people touch individual stocks," says David. "They usually won't have sufficient funds to diversify properly." Indeed, you'd need nearly $500 in order to buy just a single share of each of the four companies listed above.

    And you would be nowhere near a well-diversified portfolio. After all, a large position in any single company allows it to have a great impact on your wealth. If that company tanks for any reason, so do you. For a proper mix, you should limit your stake in any one company to between 2 and 5 percent of your portfolio, meaning you'd need to invest in at least 20 holdings. John Sweeney, executive vice president of retirement and investing strategies at Fidelity, recommends a minimum of about 40 stocks to build a well-diversified portfolio.

    A high concentration in a single sector can also be a concern. Millennial investors have nearly one-third of their portfolios in technology companies, according to TD Ameritrade. Baby boomers and seniors have just 26.9 and 19.2 percent of their investments, respectively, in tech. By comparison, 19.8 percent of the S&P 500 is composed of tech companies. "I think that's a function of the brands that they're really familiar with do tend to be tech brands," says Sherrod.

    Investing in mutual funds is a simpler way to reap the benefits of the stock market. With a single purchase, you can invest in hundreds of stocks and dampen the risk. Plus, you can still buy a stake in a company you like. "When I have someone really interested in investing in, say, Apple, I let them know there are a whole host of low-cost mutual funds and ETFs that hold a piece of Apple along with a lot of other companies," says Karen Carr, a financial planner with the Society of Grownups, based in Brookline, Massachusetts. "So you're getting the best of both worlds there."

    Take a look at the Kip 25 to see our favorite low-cost, no-load funds. No matter what your age, it's a great place to start.

     

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    How Much House Can You Afford?

    By Stacy Johnson

    If you're thinking now's the time to pull the trigger on a home purchase, you'll be jumping in at a time when housing prices are rising, and in some markets, you may find yourself competing with other buyers for a property you want. All the more reason to think carefully about how much house you can afford.

    Consider this recent email:

    Dear Stacy,

    Like most Americans, my dream was to own a house. My goal was to do it before 30. Well, I turned 30 this January and still have not gotten my first house. After reading your book "Life Or Debt 2010," I have slowly climbed out of deep student debt -- I had over $15,000 on just one loan.

    My question is: Do you think a house that's $110,000 with yearly taxes in the $4,200 range is too much for a person making $34,000 a year? I currently have $10,000 saved for closing costs and hopefully some down payment. The VA loans don't require a down payment, but I never want to be in debt again!

    My parents told me that's a normal tax range here in Buffalo, New York. I am going back to school towards a degree in accounting, so I'll hopefully make more after school is over. (I'm going back to school free on GI Bill.)

    Also, with the VA loan there is no PMI. Should I keep saving until I have a more sizable down payment? Or buy the amazingly priced 1,900-square-foot home or one of the others like it in my area?

    -- Chris

    Now let's add more detail on Chris' situation, as well as my advice.

    How to Figure Out How Much House You Can Afford

    No matter how good the deal or strong the desire, buying anything you can't afford is traveling down the road to ruin.

    Let's start with one of a plethora of online calculators available to answer this question. I used this one from Bankrate, but there's also one at Zillow and many other sites.

    Here are the questions it asked, along with the answers I provided for Chris:
    • Income and expenses: Annual Income: $34,000; monthly child support: $0; monthly car loan: $0; monthly credit card payments: $0; monthly association fees: $0; other monthly obligations: $0.
    • Mortgage assumptions: Annual interest rate: 4 percent; mortgage term: 30 years; down payment: $5,000 (I assumed he'd use half his available savings for the down payment, half for closing costs); annual property taxes: $4,200; annual insurance: $500 (I pulled this number out of the air).
    • Result: The maximum house Chris can afford is $89,134. As you can see, the $110,000 house Chris has his eye on is a bit out of reach. And that's in the best-case scenario, since I assumed he has no other debts or monthly obligations.
    This occurred because most lenders cap the maximum you spend on a mortgage payment (including taxes and insurance) at 28 percent of your gross monthly income. Chris' income is about $2,800 monthly, and 28 percent of that is about $790, which would allow Chris to support a mortgage of around $84,000. Add his $5,000 down payment, and you end up with $89,000.

    What should Chris do?

    Here are several options Chris could consider:

    Get a Partner

    I bought my first house in 1978 at the age of 22. It was a four-bedroom, two-bath home with a pool. The cost was $85,500 and my income was -- believe it or not -- $12,000 a year. How did I do it? I went in on the house with a friend. Together, we were able to come up with the down payment, and because the seller owned it free and clear, they carried back the mortgage so we didn't have to qualify for a loan. After we moved in, we rented the remaining bedrooms to other friends to make ends meet.

    I'm still using a version of that technique today. In 2012, I bought a house with a friend. This one was more expensive, neither of us will live in it, and we paid cash. But the principle is the same: Bringing in a partner requires half the money and results in half the risk.

    The potential nightmare of choosing the wrong person for any financial partnership should be obvious and therefore approached with extreme caution. (My rule of thumb: Never partner with anyone with less money than you.) But at least it's something to consider.

    Buy a Cheaper House

    If Chris can buy a 1,900-square-foot house for $110,000, he can surely find something livable for less. He doesn't say whether he needs that much space -- we don't know if he has a family, for example -- but that's a lot of house for one person.

    One of the dumbest things Americans do is buy the biggest, fanciest things they can possibly afford. And nowhere is this mistake more evident than in home shopping. When you work with a real estate agent, the first thing many do is what I did with Chris above: use a formula to determine the most expensive house possible. They then proceed to show you houses at that upper limit and often above it. Result? You let vanity replace common sense, buy more house than you need, leave no margin for error, and end up furnishing, heating, cooling, maintaining and paying taxes on rooms you don't use. Dumb.

    Granted, because of the leverage offered by real estate, there's an argument to be made for buying as much property as you can, especially if your goal is to maximize returns. But if you're buying simply because you want your piece of the American dream, determine what you need (as opposed to want) and spend as little as possible to get it. There's no reason to create unnecessary risk by over-leveraging.

    Wait

    Housing prices are going up, and going up more quickly than others in some places, but sometimes it's better to wait. It gives you time to save more for a larger down payment, and maybe get a promotion at work that comes with a bigger paycheck. Something to think about, especially considering houses require time, and he'll soon be working and going to school.

    Bottom line? My advice to Chris is to either somehow share the cost, set his sights a bit lower price-wise, or wait until he has more money and more time.

    Ari Cetron contributed to this report.

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

     

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    vet administering an injection to a young dog
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    By Jennifer Magid

    There's nothing you won't do for your pet -- but wait until you see the vet bill. Americans will spend nearly $16 billion on veterinary care in 2015, according to the American Pet Products Association. The industry group's annual pet owners survey found that an average of $235 goes toward routine vet visits for dogs and $196 for cats.

    The total doesn't include non-routine expenses such as surgical vet visits: $551 and $398 a year on average for dogs and cats, respectively. Although pet insurance is an option, most pet owners pay for everything, from screenings to major surgery, out of their own pockets. If veterinary expenses have left you feeling a bit ill yourself, try these money-saving tips.

    Shop around before choosing a vet. Veterinarians charge a surprisingly broad array of prices for the same services, even in the same location. Cheapism.com found that the fee for neutering a pet in southern Connecticut, for example, ranges from a couple hundred dollars to nearly $1,000. Before settling on a vet, make calls and ask plenty of questions regarding prices for a variety of services.

    Look for wellness care packages. Keeping pets healthy is the easiest way to avoid costly problems and save money in the long run. Annual checkups and yearly vaccines are a must, but look into money-saving options first. Pet insurance may cover some preventative care, and some vets offer wellness packages that save a good chunk of change compared with paying separately for each vaccine or exam. Some wellness plans, such as those from PetSmart's Banfield Pet Hospital, include discounts on products and services not covered by the plan.

    Look into veterinary discount programs. Depending on the age and stage of your pet (in particular, very young or elderly), visits to the vet may pile up. With a discount program, pet owners pay a monthly or flat fee to get reduced prices on services and visits at participating providers. Pet Assure is one of the better-known discount programs and offers packages for as low as $7.95 a month. Beware, though -- Pet Assure and similar programs may not apply for major medical problems, and not all veterinarians participate.

    Give pets plenty of exercise. Aside from preventing problems such as obesity, regular exercise can keep pets from becoming bored, a state that can lead to destructive behavior, such as eating things they shouldn't. (Seems we all know of a pup that's downed a sock or devoured a piece of furniture.) This can prompt exorbitant emergency medical bills and surgery that could have been prevented.

    Keep up on heartworm, flea and tick treatments. Regular doses of preventative treatments can help avoid the cost of actually treating problems such as heartworm disease, Lyme disease, or fleas (which can spread throughout the home). These medicines are available at the vet's office, but Amazon and Costco also sell them, so compare prices before stocking up.

    Feed your pet well. In the interest of your pet's long-term health, don't just pick up the cheapest bag of food at the grocery store. Like humans, pets need a balanced diet. Cheapism's guide to the best budget dog food includes both canned and dry varieties. The website Dog Food Advisor maintains a comprehensive list of highly rated brands.

    Look for vets with emergency hours. Should an after-hours pet emergency arise, owners may get stuck at the local animal ER, which can cost a small fortune. To avoid these types of bills, do some advance research to find out if any vets in the area have emergency, weekend, or late hours, where a visit may end up costing much less than the ER.

    Question recommended treatments. In addition to the basics (e.g., vaccines and diet), there are a host of other treatments that may or may not be necessary for optimum health. Question the vet thoroughly on any recommendations before jumping in. For example, a canine influenza vaccine was recently introduced, but the American Veterinary Medical Foundation advises it is not necessary for every dog.

    Don't be shy about saying 'no.' X-rays, ultrasounds, and the like can be extremely expensive, and your pet may not always need them. Some vets may recommend the most expensive course of action first, so always ask about alternative, less costly treatment options.

    Request an itemized bill. Ask the vet for an itemized quote at every appointment and take a close look at the charges. Even if you can't dispute the bill this time, you'll have a better idea of services or fees that seem to be "extras" you can refuse next time.

     

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    By Cameron Huddleston

    Do you feel as if you'll be in debt forever? You're not alone. According to a survey commissioned by CreditCards.com, 13 percent of Americans say they'll never pay off all their loans, and another 8 percent say they won't pay off what they owe until they're at least 71 years old. That's a discouragingly large number of people who consider themselves stuck in debt with no way out.

    If you're in this situation, step back, set aside the despair and ask yourself how you got here in the first place. Here are 10 common reasons people fall deep into debt and can't get out of it. Identify the reasons that apply to you, then formulate a plan using our effective strategies to conquer the root causes of your debt.

     

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    A 2008 Honda Accord sedan is driven during a media event in
    Fabrizio Costantini/Bloomberg via Getty Images2008 Honda Accord
    DETROIT -- U.S. auto safety regulators are investigating reports that air bags on some older Honda Accords may not inflate in a crash.

    The probe by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration covers about 384,000 cars from the 2008 model year.

    The agency says in documents posted Friday that it received 19 consumer complaints that the air bag control computer failed in the Accord, which then was Honda's (HMC) top-selling model.

    A driver in Belleview, Florida, was injured when his car hit a concrete wall at 50 miles per hour and the air bags didn't inflate, according to a complaint filed with the agency. Several others complained that the computer had to be replaced to fix the problem and they were charged around $500.

    "This also means that the safety of the vehicle passengers and operators are in jeopardy and potentially face serious injury or death," another complainant wrote. People filing complaints are not identified in the agency's database.

    The agency says the malfunction causes the air bag warning light to illuminate on the dashboard and disables the air bags until repairs are made. Investigators will look into how often the problem happens and decide if a recall is needed.

    Honda said it is cooperating with the investigation and will continue an internal review. The investigation is based on a small number of complaints, the company said in a statement.

     

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    Hackers Release Confidential Member Information From The Ashley Madison Infidelity Website
    Carl Court/Getty Images
    By JACK GILLUM and TED BRIDIS

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. government employees with sensitive jobs in national security or law enforcement were among hundreds of federal workers found to be using government networks to access and pay membership fees to the cheating website Ashley Madison, The Associated Press has learned.

    The list includes at least two assistant U.S. attorneys, an information technology administrator in the White House's support staff, a Justice Department investigator, a division chief, and a government hacker and counterterrorism employee at the Homeland Security Department. Others visited from networks operated by the Pentagon.

    Federal policies vary by agency as to whether employees could visit websites during work hours like Ashley Madison, which could be considered akin to a dating website. But such use raises questions about what personal business is acceptable -- and what websites are OK to visit -- for U.S. workers on taxpayer time, especially those with sensitive jobs who could face blackmail.

    Hackers this week released detailed records on millions of people registered with the website one month after the break-in at Ashley Madison's parent company, Toronto-based Avid Life Media. The website -- whose slogan is, "Life is short. Have an affair" -- is marketed to facilitate extramarital affairs.

    Few connecting from federal networks had listed government email accounts when subscribing. But the AP was able to trace their government Internet connections, logged by the website over five years and as recently as June. They encompass more than two dozen agencies, such as the departments of State, Justice, Energy, Treasury and Transportation. Others came from House or Senate computer networks.

    Records also reveal subscribers signed up using state and municipal government networks nationwide, including those run by the New York Police Department. "If anything comes to our attention indicating improper use of an NYPD computer, we will look into it and take appropriate action," said NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis.

    The AP isn't identifying the government subscribers it found because they aren't elected officials or accused of a crime.

    Many federal customers appeared to use nongovernment email addresses with handles such as "sexlessmarriage," ''soontobesingle" or "latinlovers." Some Justice Department employees also appeared to use prepaid credit cards to help preserve their anonymity but nonetheless connected to the service from their office computers.

    "I was doing some things I shouldn't have been doing," a Justice Department investigator told the AP. Asked about the threat of blackmail, the investigator said if prompted he would reveal his actions to his family and employer to prevent it. "I've worked too hard all my life to be a victim of blackmail. That wouldn't happen," he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was deeply embarrassed and not authorized by the government to speak to reporters using his name.

    Defense Secretary Ash Carter confirmed Thursday the Pentagon was looking into the list of people who used military email addresses. Adultery can be a criminal offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

    "I'm aware of it," Carter said. "Of course it's an issue because conduct is very important. And we expect good conduct on the part of our people. ... The services are looking into it and as well they should be. Absolutely."

    Focused Probe

    The AP's review was the first to reveal that federal workers used their office systems to access the site, based on their Internet Protocol addresses associated with credit card transactions. It focused on searching for government employees in especially sensitive positions who could perhaps become blackmail targets.

    The government hacker at the Homeland Security Department, who didn't respond to phone or email messages, included photographs of his wife and infant son on his Facebook page. One assistant U.S. attorney declined through a spokesman to speak to the AP, and another didn't return phone or email messages.

    A White House spokesman said Thursday he couldn't immediately comment on the matter. The IT administrator in the White House didn't return email messages.

    While rules can vary by agency, Homeland Security rules, for instance, say devices should be used for only for official purposes. It also prescribes "limited personal use is authorized as long as this use does not interfere with official duties or cause degradation of network services." Employees are barred from using government computers to access "inappropriate sites" including those that are "obscene, hateful, harmful, malicious, hostile, threatening, abusive, vulgar, defamatory, profane, or racially, sexually, or ethnically objectionable."

    The hackers who took credit for the break-in had accused the website's owners of deceit and incompetence, and said the company refused to bow to their demands to close the site. Avid Life released a statement calling the hackers criminals. It added that law enforcement in both the U.S. and Canada is investigating and declined comment beyond its statement Tuesday that it was investigating the hackers' claims.

    -Associated Press writers Alicia Caldwell and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Jake Pearson in New York and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.

     

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    Company Signs
    Getty Images
    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with the king of coffeehouses expanding its evening fare and a retail giant disappointing investors with its quarterly results.

    Starbucks (SBUX) -- Winner

    The baron of baristas is also apparently open to tapping a keg or uncorking a wine bottle as the hours drag. The cult-fave premium coffeehouse chain rolled out Starbucks Evenings on Tuesday, transforming some of its units in select markets into lounges complete with beer, wine and appetizers after 4 p.m. Yes, you can still get all of its signature beverages at that time.

    It's a smart move. Business peaks in the morning at Starbucks and while it's not exactly a tumbleweed-infested ghost town at night, there's clearly not the same kind of demand for caffeinated blasts of coffee later in the day. It's a great way to expand its offerings at a time when baristas have more time on their hands.

    Starbucks will be taking things slow. It envisions Starbucks Evenings at just a quarter of its more than 12,000 stateside locations in five years. If the concept takes off, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the rollout escalate.

    Ashley Madison -- Loser

    Some hackers apparently aren't cool with adultery. The mailing list of Ashley Madison -- the fling site that proudly positions itself as a place for married people to hook up -- was compromised. Reports Tuesday indicated that 32 million registered account addresses were made public following the hack.

    In a juicy twist, many of the email addresses apparently belong to the domains of some of big banking giants of New York City as well as federal employees. Let that be a lesson to anyone who thinks that it's OK to use a workplace email to register for a site that can come to haunt you in the future.

    Lumber Liquidators (LL) -- Winner

    One of this year's worst stocks bounced back on one of the market's darkest days. Shares of Lumber Liquidators soared 9 percent on Thursday with the rest of general market taking a hit.

    The hardwood flooring retailer got a rare boost after a Wall Street analyst upgraded her rating on the stock, raising her price target from $15 to $18 along the way. Cantor Fitzgerald's analyst recently toured a store with senior management, walking away with a feeling that gross margins in the long term won't be as low as she had initially feared.

    Lumber Liquidators has walked the plank this year. The stock had fallen nearly 80 percent in 2015 before Thursday's pop, most of that damage coming after "60 Minutes" ran a scathing report alleging that its China-sourced laminates had dangerous levels of formaldehyde. However, after months of analyst downgrades and plunging price targets, there's finally someone ready to pound the table.

    Walmart (WMT) -- Loser

    It isn't easy being Walmart these days. The stock hit another 52-week low after posting uninspiring quarterly results. Walmart lowered its profit guidance for the entire fiscal year. Adding insult to injury, rival Target (TGT) also reported fresh financials, and it actually boosted its outlook.

    Home Depot (HD) -- Winner

    The orange aprons are cleaning up. Home Depot came through with a strong quarterly report. The home improvement superstore chain experienced a 5.7 percent spike in comparable-store sales since the prior year, and it's also boosting its guidance.

    The strong report earned Wall Street's attention. Analysts at Argus and Credit Suisse raised their price targets on the retailer.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Home Depot, Lumber Liquidators and Starbucks. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lumber Liquidators and Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    oil well pump
    Shutterstock
    NEW YORK -- U.S. oil prices traded below $40 a barrel for the first time since the 2009 financial crisis, ending 2 percent lower Friday on signs of U.S. oversupply and weak Chinese manufacturing and notching the longest weekly losing streak in almost three decades.

    U.S. crude slipped below the $40 threshold following weekly data that showed U.S. energy firms added two oil drilling rigs last week, the fifth increase in a row. The rise in the number of rigs emerging after a second quarter lull in prices is adding to concerns U.S. shale production is proving slow to respond to falling prices, prolonging a global glut.

    Everyone is still looking at it saying, 'Wow, you still don't have production coming down.'

    "Everyone is still looking at it saying, 'Wow, you still don't have production coming down,' " said Tariq Zahir, founder at Tyche Capital in Laurel Hollow, New York.

    U.S. October crude settled 87 cents, or 2.1 percent, lower at $40.45 a barrel, having touched a new 6½-year low of $39.86 a barrel. Front-month U.S. crude has fallen 33 percent over eight consecutive weeks of losses, the longest such losing streak since 1986.

    It pared some losses late in the trading session, as U.S. RBOB gasoline futures rebounded from a contract low, on news of a fire in a gasoline-making unit at PBF Energy's (PBF) 182,000 barrels a day Delaware City, Delaware, refinery.

    Brent oil ended $1.16, or 2.5 percent, lower at $45.46 a barrel. It hit a low of $45.07 and threatened to break below $45 a barrel for the first time since March 2009.

    Energy markets slid early in the day as world stock and currency markets joined an extended rout across raw materials this week, a slump accelerated Friday by data showing activity in China's factory sector, a huge user of many commodities, shrank at its fastest pace in almost 6½ years in August.

    With deepening gloom over demand growth from the world's second-biggest oil user, and expectations for a significant build-up in surplus oil stocks this autumn, dealers said most oil traders were unwilling to fight the tide.

    "The market is stuck in a relentless downtrend," said Robin Bieber, a director at London brokerage PVM Oil Associates. "The trend is down -- stick with it."

    Oil market speculators cut their bullish bets on U.S. crude to the lowest level in five years, reducing combined futures and options positions in New York and London by 14,884 contracts to 89,035 in the week to Aug. 18, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission said.

    The current collapse in oil prices, the second this year, has raised alarm within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, including some of its core Gulf members. However, there is no indication they will reverse their policy of keeping production wide open to defend market share, delegates told Reuters this week.

    -With additional reporting by Christopher Johnson in London and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Singapore.

     

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    Dow Plunges 500 Points Amid Fears Of China's Slowing Economy

    By Chuck Mikolajczak

    NEW YORK -- The S&P 500 suffered its biggest daily percentage drop in nearly four years Friday and the Dow confirmed it had entered into correction territory as fears of a China-led global slowdown rattled investors around the world.

    A report overnight showed China's manufacturing sector shrank at the fastest pace since 2009, exacerbating worries about the health of its economy and whether the government would take further steps to stem its slowdown.

    The Russell 2000 index of small-cap stocks (^RUT) also confirmed a move into correction territory, a 10 percent decline from its most recent closing high on June 23.

    A lot of people know this is way overdone. They are just waiting and they are going to step back in next week.

    The S&P slumped 5.8 percent for the week, its biggest weekly percentage decline since September 2011.

    "People are using China as the main thing as an excuse for selling," said Keith Bliss, senior vice-president at Cuttone & Co. in New York.

    "A lot of people know this is way overdone. They are just waiting and they are going to step back in next week."

    The sell-off was broad, with all 10 major S&P sectors in the red. The energy sector was one of the worst performers as U.S. crude oil slipped below $40 a barrel for the first time since the 2009 financial crisis. The S&P energy index dropped 2.6 percent.

    The CBOE Volatility index, a measure of the premium traders are willing to pay for protection against a drop in the S&P 500, jumped as much as 48.3 percent to 28.38, its highest since October. The index also notched its biggest-ever weekly percentage gain.

    Many investors anticipate the U.S. central bank to begin to raise interest rates by the end of the year, although expectations for a September hike were tempered by Wednesday's release of minutes from the Federal Reserve's July meeting.

    Apple (AAPL) fell 4.6 percent to $107.44 as investors continued to fret over its prospects in China, a key market for the iPhone-maker. The stock was the biggest drag on the S&P and the Nasdaq.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 530.94 points, or 3.1 percent, to 16,459.75, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 64.84 points, or 3.2 percent, to 1,970.89 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 171.45 points, or 3.5 percent, to 4,706.04.

    Big Weekly Losses

    For the week, the Dow dropped 5.8 percent and the Nasdaq tumbled 6.8 percent.

    The drag from Apple served to push the technology sector down 4.2 percent. The consumer staples index fell 2.6 percent, moving into the red for the year. Eight of the 10 S&P sectors are now in negative territory for the year.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,664 to 440, for a 6.05-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 2,004 issues fell and 823 advanced, for a 2.43-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The benchmark S&P 500 posted no new 52-week highs for the first time since Aug. 8, 2011 after S&P downgraded the U.S. credit rating, while there were 75 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 13 new highs and 276 new lows.

    Volume was heavy, with about 10.36 billion shares traded on U.S. exchanges, well above the 6.85 billion average this month, according to BATS Global Markets.

     

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    DISTRAUGHT WOMAN READING BILL
    Getty Images
    By Elizabeth Sheer

    Our house in the country is under renovation just about all the time. It's not particularly old, just particularly quirky. Much of it was built by the previous owners. Some features, such as the plumbing, are mostly jerry-rigged; others are just plain odd; and still others are beginning to fall apart. We're fixing things a little at a time, so that when we move in permanently, seven to 10 years from now, the house will be completely renovated and the infrastructure up to code. We save money where we can, but there is ongoing tension between time and money. What can we do ourselves and what should we pay someone else to do?

    Because this is a house we don't live in full time, we delegate several maintenance tasks we would normally handle on our own. One of those chores is plowing the snow. The driveway is about 75 yards long and must be plowed before we arrive, or the path to the house would be impassable. We pay $40 for each plowing, and in the snowy winter of 2015, we spent $400 to clear the drive.

    Other than that, we celebrated the new year with a determination to hold the line on maintenance costs. But our good intentions were dashed when the upstairs bathroom pipes burst in February, even though we're always careful to leave the heat on and the water turned off before leaving during the winter. The good news: The damage was minimal; the pipes that froze were on the outside of the wall. The bad news: The damage was minimal -- too small for homeowners insurance to cover. Fixing the pipe and replacing the parts cost $250. The contractor opened the kitchen ceiling to make sure there was no mold (there wasn't) and estimated four hours to repair the ceiling for a total of $480. Instead, after he put in a drywall patch, I took over and saved us $400.

    In the time vs. money debate, the former doesn't always win. My husband works long hours during the week, and sometimes on weekends, and there is only so much you can do around the house. Last fall, we decided to forgo chopping wood for the stove and had two cords of firewood delivered ($500). We moved enough logs into the house to last most of the winter, but the rest sat outside, covered with a tarp. We wanted to move the remainder to a small studio about 100 yards from the house and my husband concluded that the $100 cost of having someone else haul it was well worth the price.

    Last year's big project was installing a stone patio and moving and extending the balcony above it to serve as a pergola. For this we budgeted $10,000. But right away, things went awry. Removing the old balcony pulled off a chunk of siding and the existing electrical outlets were dead. The cost of additional labor and materials: $1,180. The patio work wasn't completed by the time snow started falling. When I was finally able to contemplate the patio in April, I realized the plans drawn up independently by the stonemason, the contractor and myself didn't mesh. So this spring, the patio was amended and extended, with drains and a gravel/stone-dust mix in the driveway to ease spring flooding and a flower bed around the perimeter edged in steel -- all for an extra $2,800.

    Once the weather warms, my primary job is the garden. We have about an acre and a half of lawn, and I would like to replace half of it, little by little, with flowers and bushes. I do the digging myself, although dig is something of a euphemism. The soil is typical rocky New England shale and you can't so much dig as hack at it with a pick-ax, which makes very slow going. In the perpetual tug between time and money, I opted for time and resigned myself to spending five to seven years to bring the gardens to fruition. We budget $1,000 a year for the garden and this spring I spent about $1,020 on plantings and soil amendments. I easily could have overspent by calling in a backhoe at a rate of $350 a day, plus labor.

    To prepare for next year's beds, I've laid compost-covered corrugated cardboard over large swathes of lawn to kill the sod and turn into mulch. This tactic, however, complicated the lawn mowing and the guy we hired quit. So we're back to the time-money debate again. Should we look for someone else to mow or buy a mowing tractor that I can use? In the past we've spent about $600 a year for mowing, so a tractor would pay for itself in four to five years. But no one seems to want this job and in the end we had no choice but to buy a tractor, with attachments, for $2,700. The next phone call was to an arborist, who wanted $2,000 to remove dead trees, dangling branches and cut off parts of a diseased tree. We opted for a less professional approach and saved $1,400.

    I really wanted this year's project to be a laundry room so I could stop dragging sheets and towels to the city and back. But we're using our home improvement budget for maintenance again: Several windows need to be fixed, so I'll be transporting laundry for some time to come.

     

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    Mother with Baby Using a Laptop
    Alamy
    By Marianne Hayes

    Five years ago Sarah Hosseini had a great gig as a TV producer for a news station in Charlotte, North Carolina.

    She loved the work, and expected a continual -- and satisfying -- climb up the career ladder. So she never imagined that having a baby at 25 would forever change that trajectory.

    But that's exactly what happened.

    "I wanted to take a little time off for the birth of my child -- more than the three months of maternity leave my corporate job was willing to give me, but definitely less than a year," Hosseini, 30, recalls.

    When she asked her boss about possibly extending her maternity leave, or implementing partial work-from-home hours for a bit, she was met with a hard no -- it was all or nothing.

    Because her $30,000 salary would have been completely eaten up paying for full-time day care, Hosseini decided to quit her job.

    Since then she's become a freelance writer, and had another child. And while she earns about the same amount as she did at her old job, she goes without such employee benefits as paid time off and subsidized insurance coverage.

    Returning to a full-time job in television production is appealing, but Hosseini knows that she'd have to start at a lower-level position, along with a salary cut -- and she can't afford that.

    "My old career path has run dry," she says. "I never wanted to be forever banished from my career, or thrown off my professional track, all because I had kids."

    The 30 Percent Mommy Penalty

    Working Mom: 'I Opted Out for a Few Years - and Paid for It'
    Courtesy: Angelina CapalboAngelina Capalbo went from making $75,000 a year to $22 an hour when she went back to work.
    Stories like Hosseini's aren't uncommon. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a woman's earnings generally take a 30 percent dive after being out of the workforce for two to three years.

    "There's a ton of discrimination for women who've taken time off to care for their kids, which is technically illegal but doesn't stop people from doing it," says Sarah Jane Glynn, director for women's economic policy at the Center for American Progress.

    There's even a name for the phenomenon: "the mommy penalty."

    From an employer's perspective, Glynn recognizes the rationale used in paying less. Should someone who hasn't been working for an extended time really command the same type of salary and position as someone who's been consistently working and keeping their skills fresh?

    The answer, says Glynn, depends on your industry and your role.

    "If you're talking about someone who works in technology, it can make an enormous difference in terms of whether or not you're up-to-date on skills," she explains. "But if you're a high school teacher, taking time off probably isn't going to mean that you'll be unable to keep up with your peers if you return to work."

    However, she argues that, in most cases, women can be brought back up to speed pretty quickly. So why are so many women still being hit with the mommy penalty even if they're able to hit the ground running?

    It may be about more than just the amount of time spent away.

    The way moms are perceived in the workplace can be an additional salary factor -- whether or not they took a break from their job.

    Dads who live with their kids experience an over 6 percent pay bump. On the flipside, mothers are hit with a 4 percent pay decrease for each kid they have.

    Battling the Mommy Bias

    According to research out of the University of Rhode Island, working moms are often viewed as being less competent, committed and productive as their childless peers.

    "We don't have these same assumptions about men," Glynn says. "There are actually studies that show the reverse -- people assume that fathers are going to be more dedicated to work because they now have an additional mouth to feed."

    One recent study from the research group Third Way found that, on average, dads who live with their kids experience an over 6 percent pay bump. On the flipside, mothers are hit with a 4 percent pay decrease for each kid they have.

    "People have this idea that, when you're a mom, your life is going to revolve around your kids in particular ways -- that's going to be your No. 1 priority. And it's going to distract you from being a good worker," Glynn says.

    All of these factors, adds Glynn, can make women who take a break more financially vulnerable to unexpected changes -- from a partner's job loss to divorce -- in their family's financial situation.

    Angelina Capalbo, a 35-year-old administrative worker in Unionville, Connecticut, dealt with this firsthand.

    When she had her daughter six years ago, the original plan was for Capalbo to stay home until her child was ready for kindergarten, while relying on her husband's salary to keep them afloat.

    But when they divorced two years later, Capalbo was hastily thrown back into the workforce.

    Prior to having her daughter, she'd been making $75,000 a year, plus bonuses, as an executive assistant. Unfortunately, walking back into that type of setup proved impossible.

    The only gig Capalbo was able to secure was an administrative position that paid just $15 an hour. Since then, she's bounced around to similar jobs and is currently earning $22 an hour as a temp-to-perm office worker.

    And short-term financial struggles aren't the only concern for Capalbo. She's also had to put building up her emergency fund and saving for retirement on the back-burner -- moves that could put her future in jeopardy.

    "I think that's a nasty surprise that women, in particular, end up experiencing when they've taken extended spells out of the labor force [to stay with children]," Glynn says. "Anybody who understands how compound interest works knows that it's really important to be putting money away during your 20s and 30s, so if those are the years that you're taking off, that can really hit you down the line."

    How to Get Back in the Game -- and Get Paid Your Worth

    Salary Confessions of Working Moms: 'I Opted Out for a Few Years—and Paid for It'
    Courtesy: Alison RissoAfter losing her job post-maternity leave, Alison Risso snagged a better, higher-paying gig.
    When Alison Risso, now a public relations professional in the Washington, D.C., area, had her second child nine years ago, her boss assumed that a slower work pace might be a better fit for her.

    "While I was on my maternity leave, I got a call saying I'd be switched over to a smaller department," recalls Risso, 42. "I wasn't expecting it -- and wasn't consulted about it."

    The lateral move came with the same salary, but a less hectic workload. And Risso says her boss, also a mom, had good intentions, thinking she was doing Risso a favor by lightening her load a bit.

    The new department was indeed less hectic -- because it was generating less revenue and not performing as well as others. And this all played into the reason why Risso was laid off later that year.

    The situation had a happy ending, though: Risso snagged a better position at another company, and was able to negotiate a higher salary.

    According to Evelyn Murphy, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and founder of the WAGE Project, knowing your worth -- and being ready to negotiate -- is critical for moms who are navigating a return to the workforce.

    Many women -- regardless of where they are in the earning spectrum -- don't know how to assess their worth in the marketplace.

    "It shouldn't really matter if you've been out of work for several years raising kids or not," Murphy says. "It's about what you'd bring to the job."

    And that's why Murphy advises moms who are just getting back in the game to approach the situation without assuming they'll have to take a demotion or pay cut just to secure a job.

    Murphy, who's been leading salary negotiation workshops for nearly a decade, says that many women -- regardless of where they are in the earning spectrum -- don't know how to assess their worth in the marketplace in an independent way.

    Her advice? Before you walk into any interview, thoroughly research what the current going rate is for that particular job in your given area -- and then use that information during the negotiation process.

    Glynn adds that women opting out of full-time work for a few years should also think about their big-picture plans. Do you want to eventually return to your career? If so, staying connected to your industry can be the key to a smooth reentry.

    This might mean working part-time, or doing some freelance work during the years you're at home, which will help keep your resume fresh and current.

    "Even if it's something as simple as keeping in touch with your colleagues and regularly having coffee with them, just maintaining that network is super important," Glynn says. "Not only so you're abreast of what's happening in your field, but also because those kinds of networks, frankly, are increasingly how people find jobs."

     

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Minnesota Vikings
    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
    How do you go from being on top of the world with a multimillion-dollar contract to filing for bankruptcy? By spending like it is never going to end. Former football superstars are finding that out the hard way.

    Studies have shown that a high percentage of NFL players declare bankruptcy after their playing days, and many others suffer financial difficulties. A Sports Illustrated article from 2009 indicated that after two years of retirement, a whopping 78 percent of former NFL players went bankrupt or suffered financial stress due to joblessness or divorce -- although in fairness, that analysis falls into the heart of the Great Recession.

    A recently released study by the National Bureau of Economic Research focused on the bankruptcy aspect. The NBER working paper studied NFL players who had been drafted between 1996 and 2003. The authors found that bankruptcy filings began relatively soon after retirement and continued all the way through the first dozen post-retirement years.

    Taken in total, almost 16 percent of the players studied declared bankruptcy during the first twelve years of retirement. The bankruptcies didn't correlate with the amount of money made over a career or the length of time in the league.

    Keep in mind that there are plenty of undrafted players who spend some time in the NFL (just over 31 percent in 2013 according to the Elias Sports Bureau) and most make nowhere near the money that drafted players do. Adding those players could skew the statistics either way -- the undrafted players made less money to save, yet the undrafted player may have a greater sense of how short the NFL experience can be and may be more likely to engage in financial planning.

    Financial planning, or more precisely the lack of it, is the main point. While the NFL Players Association started a financial wellness program around the time of the Sports Illustrated article, too many players either don't take the advice or don't fully understand it. It is hard for an NFL athlete to fully grasp the fact that his career is short-lived and that he must plan for the future.

    The NBER paper points out that NFL players don't follow the "life-cycle model" of savings. In this model, people try to balance their consumption over their lifetime and save for the future, instead of simply consuming more in proportion with their current income. One could argue that most Americans don't follow that model either -- but most Americans don't get annual contracts averaging millions of dollars, especially knowing in advance that the income is short-term.

    The author of the 2009 Sports Illustrated article, Pablo Torre, created four general categories that often lead NFL players astray.
    • The Lure of The Tangible -- Owning a restaurant, bar, or car dealership is a tangible, sexy idea. Investing a portion of your wealth in a diversified portfolio containing lower risk assets isn't.
    • Misplaced Trust -- Bad financial advice is a common thread. Too often there is a trusted adviser who didn't deserve that trust, whether through incompetence or fraud. Players that lack the financial understanding to understand risk or spot fraud can easily fall for "can't miss" investments.
    • Family Matters -- Divorce is common among athletes; prenuptial agreements aren't. Divorces with NFL athletes tend to occur after retirement, when the athlete has far less income (if any) than during his playing days. In essence, he loses a disproportionate amount of his likely lifetime wealth.

      The other aspect of family matters involves prolific procreators such as former running back Travis Henry. Paying child support for one child can be a financial burden. Multiply that by 11 children with 10 different women, and you end up in jail for failure to pay child support (as Henry did).
    • Great Expectations -- Your peers are living large, and you have a new set of "friends" that sap your resources. What is an NFL athlete to do? Young NFL players often follow the pack with spending and don't think about being taken advantage of by hangers-on.
    If the NFLPA's efforts succeed in raising financial awareness among NFL players, perhaps a follow-up study in a few years would show dramatic improvement. While no one can blame these working players for having fun both on the field and off, this research shows that a hard-hitting tackle of spending trends will prevent them from being blindsided in retirement.

     

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    Never Exceed Your Smartphone Data Cap Again

    By Ari Cetron

    The smartphone has become one of those how-did-we-survive-before-we-had-it types of inventions. As of 2013, about two-thirds of Americans own the devices, which let you send text messages, check your email, check Facebook, get a stock quote, read the newspaper, play games, take pictures, send those pictures to friends, look up the name of the guy from that movie whose name you can't remember right now. Apparently, you can even use them to make a phone call.

    But so many of those activities use data. Pretty much everyone who has one of these phones is familiar with the three parts of the contract: making calls, sending texts and data usage. Of these, it's the third that can easily run up your bill. Now, there are a lucky few who got an iPhone 1 with an unlimited data plan that's been grandfathered in.

    The rest of us have our lives measured in megabytes. At the end of the month, we need to ponder whether posting this one thing on Facebook is worth going over the data cap -- and seeing a huge jump in our bills. The best way to avoid that modern-day conundrum is to keep on top of your data over the course of the month. Here are 10 ways to help you keep it under control.

    1. Figure out how much data you need. The best way to avoid going over your cap is to have your cap in the right place. If you find yourself hitting or exceeding the cap regularly, it's probably cheaper to get a higher cap than to pay the overage fees. AT&T has a calculator that can help you figure out how much data you might use in a month. The questions are fairly generic, so it should work if you use another carrier, too.

    2. Use Wi-Fi early and often. If you are on a Wi-Fi network, the information goes to a router and then off into the Internet, instead of going through a phone company's antennas. This means that data you use via Wi-Fi doesn't count toward your total for the month. Many people have routers set up in their home. If not, they can be fairly cheap and easy to set up nowadays. And if buying the router helps you stay under your data cap, it should be a good investment over time. If you're not home, use someone else's Wi-Fi wherever possible. Many businesses offer free Wi-Fi to customers. And it is considered socially acceptable to ask for a friend's Wi-Fi password when you're at their house.

    3. Watch the photos. In the scheme of data usage, photos are not the worst. But if you're a heavy Instagram user, or you really, really like to tweet out a picture of your dinner, that can easily change. You can take pictures all day long without impacting your data plan, it's only when you send them out that they start to matter, so be judicious about which ones you share.

    4. Careful with the music. People just don't listen to the radio, or their playlist, like they used to, but streaming music can eat up data. Apps can stream at a very high bit rate, sometimes up to 320 Kbps, which means you're using 2.4 MB per minute. Check your preferences, and go for the lower bit rate. Or just listen to all those songs you downloaded before you started listening to Pandora.

    5. Careful with the video. Video is, of course, sound with moving pictures, so it stands to reason that it uses more than either photos or audio. Streaming a video can use 50 MB per minute, a number that can get you to your data cap pretty quickly. Instead, try downloading the video to your phone when you're on a Wi-Fi network and playing it back later. Yes, everyone wants to see the dancing cat video right now, but if you wait 10 minutes until you're on Wi-Fi, it will end up saving your wallet a bundle.

    Uploading videos also can be a data-heavy enterprise. It's tempting to put up the video of the kid's graduation right there while you're watching it, but does it need to be done in real time? Wait until you're back home and can do it the old-fashioned way -- on a Wi-Fi network, or from your desktop after you sync.

    6. Games can be costly. Things like "Words with Friends" or "Angry Birds" -- does anyone still play "Angry Birds"? -- aren't too bad. But the action-packed shooters or kinetic driving games eat data. Everyone likes those time-wasters now and then, but be careful with them.

    7. Stop the video chats. These are basically video and use data the same way. So Skype or FaceTime, or whatever app you use is using lots and lots of data. You are actually both sending and receiving video; it's a double-whammy that you should try to avoid.

    8. Turn off auto-updates and notifications. This is sort of a stealth data hog. Your phone will constantly be checking in with apps you use frequently to see if there's an update. Email, Facebook, games you might play, the weather. If you allow push notifications, it means your phone is constantly looking for notifications to push at you. Each time it looks, it uses data. A small amount, generally, but it adds up. Go to your settings and turn off these pushes. You'll still be able to check the app, but it will only use the data when you want it to, not when it wants to.

    9. Buy the app. Tons of apps are free to use, as long as you put up with ads on the screen, but if you buy the app, no more ads. Those ads, besides being visually annoying, are using your data. If it's an app you use regularly, buying it will remove the visual blight of the ads, and save you on data costs.

    10. Get a data compression program. This will degrade the quality of your photos or videos, but it will save you lots of data. There are numerous options for both iPhone and Android, so shop around and find one that works for you.

    Have other tips to share? Let us know in the comment section 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!

     

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    Young Family with Real Estate Agent in Front of New House
    Getty ImagesYou can't get money from a credible financial institution without an appraisal, so, they're pretty important.
    By Geoff Williams

    When you think about buying a house, you think about the plentiful cabinet space you hope to find in the kitchen, or ample bedroom size. You probably aren't thinking about the home appraisal.

    If you're selling a home, you're probably daydreaming about the home you plan on moving into next. You're probably wondering how much you can sell your home for, too.

    But whether you're selling or buying, you probably aren't thinking much about the home appraisal process. It isn't one of the most glamorous parts of buying or selling a home, and yet if home appraisals disappeared tomorrow, the real estate market would come crashing down.

    So if you're about to buy or sell a home and know little about appraisals, it's time to change that.

    What are they? A home appraisal is a very educated guess as to how much your property is worth.

    Why are home appraisals important? No credible financial institution will lend you money for a house without an appraisal.

    The appraisal lets a bank or lender know what the loan collateral will sell for in a worst-case scenario.

    "The appraisal lets a bank or lender know what the loan collateral will sell for in a worst-case scenario," says Bart Jackson, an appraiser in Charleston, South Carolina, who is also a real estate agent with Charleston Preferred Properties, a residential real estate brokerage firm.

    In other words, to go with an extreme example, the bank doesn't want to be stuck with a home they lent the borrower a million dollars for but can only sell for $100,000 because that's all it is worth. The homebuyer shouldn't want that either, of course.

    So appraisals exist for good reason, but what can make them a tense time for all parties is that they're conducted after you've negotiated a price, agreed to buy or sell the house and signed the contract. So it's in everyone's best interest that the appraisal is close to the price that both seller and buyer have agreed on.

    That said, if it turns out you're about to buy a house for a wildly inflated price, that doesn't necessarily mean you're obligated to buy the house. But if you aren't careful, it could mean just that.

    The sales-and-purchase agreement should address the possibility that your appraisal comes in below the purchase price, and allow you to terminate the contract or renegotiate the price, says Robert Pellegrini, a real estate attorney based in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

    "If not, you could be obligated to cover the difference for a lowball appraisal, and that could mean you're on the hook for thousands," Pellegrini says.

    Who pays for the home appraisal? Usually, it's the seller who pays for it at closing, which can be as high as several hundred dollars. The national average cost for a property appraiser is $309, according to data compiled by HomeAdvisor.com.

    How do home appraisals differ from home inspections? The two often get confused, but they aren't the same thing. Both an appraiser and inspector will walk around the house and take a good look at it (usually, the inspector comes first), but they're each at the house for different reasons. The appraiser is looking at the value of the home; the inspector is looking for any defects with the home that may cause you financial grief later.

    Of course, if the appraiser notices a problem, she won't ignore it. If the appraiser spots a leaky sink or some loose wiring, she may request an inspection, says Staci Titsworth, regional manager for PNC Mortgage in Pittsburgh.

    How long does the appraisal process take? It used to take a couple of days, but in recent years, ever since the recession -- when federal guidelines changed the appraisal process -- it's more often a week or two. Underwriters can request more information about the house than they could in past years, and gathering that data and photos can take time for the seller and real estate agent, which can mess up the closing date, putting everyone on edge.

    What factors go into deciding the worth of a house? Plenty. "The appraiser is looking at the key characteristics of the property including square footage, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, condition of the home, current recently sold comparables that are close in proximity and health and safety issues," Titsworth says.

    That said, most real estate agents will tell you that it's the recently sold comparables -- that is, houses that are similar to your own -- that are the main factors in appraising a home. It's all about property values.

    If you're a homeowner, what can you do to improve the process? Nothing, once it starts. "You're powerless during the appraisal process," Pellegrini says. But before the appraiser comes by, you can take these common-sense steps.

    "It's important to have the property look as good as it possibly can. You want to help the appraiser see your property's potential so they will possibly reconcile a value closer toward the upper end of the range," Jackson says.

    After all, appraisers are only human. You could have a really cool house easily worth between, say, $300,000 and $325,000, but if it's junkie, it's easy to imagine the appraiser coming down closer to $300,000.

    To that end, Jackson says the day the appraiser comes, the lawn should be mowed, the landscaping weeded and the bushes trimmed. Clean the house. Get out the air freshener. Turn on the lights and open the blinds, Jackson says.

    "It's also very helpful to sit down the day or night before the appraiser arrives and make a list of repairs and improvements that have been done to the house over the past several years," he says.

    So if you've put on a new roof or bought a new hot water heater, let the appraiser know, Jackson says. "Note anything you can think of -- the appraiser will decide what is important to the value. It does not have to be formal or detailed. Just thoughtfully note everything so you can give it to the appraiser before he or she leaves."

    But don't get too excited if you've spent a lot on repairs and renovations. Your $30,000 kitchen remodel may help the appraisal, but it won't automatically mean your house is worth an extra $30,000.

    What a good real estate agent will do. If you're selling the home, your agent will be there to meet the appraiser and share the home improvements you've jotted down -- and offer other data as well.

    "In the past, we would just meet the appraiser to open the door so that they could view the home," says Josh Muncey, a real estate agent in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Now, Muncey will come armed with a folder of information on comparable homes that justify the sale price.

    "We even call around to other brokers to ask what other properties that have not closed yet are currently under contract for since they are often slated to sell for a price well above asking, and it's critical that the appraiser has this information."

    Basically, says Melissa Terzis, a real estate agent in the District of Columbia: "The more information a seller and their agent can give an appraiser that they can't find out just from checking the listing and walking through the home, the better."

     

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    Senior African American woman paying bills
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    By Kate Appleton

    For many Americans, lack of savings is making even the thought of retirement feel increasingly stressful.

    A Bankrate.com survey examined the state of our nest eggs -- and found that 1 in 10 working Americans haven't contributed to retirement funds at all in this year or last.

    "That data point is a trouble spot," admits Greg McBride, Bankrate.com chief financial analyst. "It's the highest it's been in polls we've done and does dilute the good news we saw in other areas."

    The limited availability of employer-sponsored 401(k)s and unfamiliarity with alternatives like IRAs are two possible obstacles. Stagnant incomes, McBride adds, continue to hold back saving rates.

    In the race to retirement, millennials (aged 18 to 29) are at the back of the pack, with those survey respondents least likely to be contributing to 401(k)s or IRAs.

    Sure, their golden years are a long way off, but millennials are missing out big by delaying. Financial pros like to say that time is your greatest ally in saving for retirement because of the power of compound growth.

    As for that good news? It turns out that 19 percent of Americans are socking away more this year than last, while only 14 percent are falling behind. (About half are holding steady.)

    "We've never seen a gap that big in favor of those saving more -- it's a reversal over the past few years that's consistent with greater job stability," he points out. "And it suggests recognition that retirement savings won't happen if you don't do it."

    The pressure's increasingly on you, the future retiree, and maybe that's a reason why the overall sense of financial security declined, especially among women surveyed.

    There isn't necessarily a quick fix to get yourself into that 19 percent power group of savers. But you can watch out for these common retirement mistakes as you shore up your nest egg.

     

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    Couple sitting on chairs at beach, smiling
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    By Jason Notte

    NEW YORK -- Fall doesn't start for about another month, but welcome to the start of fall's bargain travel season.

    The travel calendar is loaded with great off-peak dates in the early weeks of December, much of January and even early summer, but seldom does everything come together as well as it does in late August and the September weeks following Labor Day. Rick Seaney, chief executive of travel site FareCompare.com, notes that Aug. 25 begins fall bargain travel season by taking a huge bite out of the price of travel. With children going back to school, older kids headed to college and their parents immersed in back-to-school shopping and fall routines, Seaney notes that demand for hotel rooms and flights plummets starting on that date, recovers briefly for Labor Day and slides into a deep autumn lull.

    "As for airfare prices, they can drop as much as a third or more over summer airfare," Seaney says. "For my money, autumn is the best time of the year for a vacation: it packs the one-two punch of great weather and great airfare prices."

    Back in July, Seaney and his crew put this theory to the test by pricing out late-August flights from Dallas to New York, Los Angeles to New York and Chicago to Miami. A Dallas-NYC weekend trip that cost $282 from Aug. 21-23 dropped 23 percent to $217 for Aug. 28-30. A four-day trip from L.A. to New York that fetched $382 from Aug. 20-24 fell 18 percent to $312 when it was pushed back to Aug. 28-31. If you're looking to escape Chicago for Miami, the $230 cost of a week-long trip from Aug. 11 to 17 drops 27 percent to just $167 from Aug. 25 through Aug. 30. Granted, Atlantic hurricane season has a whole lot to do with the discount on that last entry, but FareCompare wasn't alone in noting the steep drop-off in airfare pricing nationwide around this time of year.

    Way back in May, travel site Hopper noted that flights to Seattle, Denver, San Francisco and New York that averaged $430 to $490 in late May and June dropped by $100 or more by the week of Aug. 30. Granted, you wouldn't want to book the last week of August now, but late September tends to be just as charitable and falls within FareCompare's recommended booking window of 30 days to three months before departure. An added tip: If you book online on a Tuesday at about 3 p.m. Eastern, you stand the best chance of hitting an airline sale and getting the best price on tickets.

    Meanwhile, the folks at TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals note that the cost of rental homes are sliced nearly in half from August to September. The houses in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on Martha's Vineyard, that averaged nearly $3,000 a week in August, drop to about $2,150 a week in post-Labor Day September. Spots in Ocean City, Maryland, that fetched $1,500 a week in August slump to less than $1,100 by September.

    "Early fall is a great time for a vacation -- travelers can avoid the humidity and crowds of the peak summer travel period, but still enjoy beautiful warm weather, while saving substantially on the cost of their vacation rental," says Laurel Greatrix, a TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals spokesperson. "Rates drop across most of the U.S, particularly in beach destinations, and budget-conscious travelers can easily save themselves one-quarter to half of what they'd pay in July or August. Beyond the savings, vacation rentals offer travelers flexibility, amenities such as full kitchens, pools and patios and more space, making them a great option for travelers of all types."

    While some of the biggest rental discounts can be found at Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and North Topsail Beach, North Carolina (both 34 percent less than their summer peak), the best deal is found a bit further up the Atlantic Coast. Bethany Beach, Delaware -- with its massive homes and ocean views -- offers a 44 percent cut that drops the average price of a weekly rental from $1,900 during the peak summer months to less than $1,100 in early fall. That's a 44 percent decrease that offers all of the offseason discount with none of the wintry chill.

     

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    Highway Funding States
    Ted S. Warren/AP
    By Jeffrey Dastin

    NEW YORK -- The average price of a gallon of gasoline remained steady in the past two weeks, as price rises in several Midwest cities offset cuts in the West, according to the Lundberg survey released Sunday.

    Regular grade gasoline dropped just one-third of a cent to average $2.71 a gallon, according to the biweekly survey conducted on Aug. 21.

    While a rebound in gasoline supply has helped lower prices in California, motorists elsewhere in the country reeled from increases as the largest crude distillation unit of BP's Whiting, Indiana refinery remained closed for repairs.

    The average price of gasoline is down 77 cents a gallon from the same year-ago period, according to the survey.

    "From here, big retail gasoline price cuts are very likely, unless crude oil prices reverse course and climb back up to the May and June levels," said survey publisher Trilby Lundberg in Camarillo, California.

    U.S. crude touched a new 6½-year low of $39.86 a barrel Friday following weekly data that showed U.S. energy firms added two oil drilling rigs last week, the fifth increase in a row. It settled at $40.45 a barrel.

    The rise in the number of rigs emerging after a second-quarter lull in prices is adding to concerns that U.S. shale production is responding slowly to falling prices, prolonging a global glut.

    Lundberg said the lower U.S. crude price may cause refiners and gasoline retailers to slash selling prices -- spoiling their currently wide margins -- as they try to gain a leg up on their competition.

    "Retail gasoline prices may well fall more than 20 cents a gallon in coming weeks if crude oil prices do not surge," Lundberg said.

    The highest-priced gasoline in the survey area of the 48 contiguous U.S. states was in Los Angeles at $3.67 a gallon, down from $3.80 in the Aug. 7 survey.

    The lowest price was in Charleston, South Carolina at $2.10 a gallon.

     

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    iPhone Glitch
    Rogelio V. Solis/AP
    By Anya George Tharakan

    Apple (AAPL) said it would replace a limited number iPhone 6 Plus phone cameras due to faulty back cameras that take blurry photos.

    The affected phones were mostly sold in a 4-month period between September 2014 and January 2015, Apple said on its website.

    The company, whose shares were set to open at their lowest this year on Monday, said a small component in the affected 6 Plus's iSight back camera may fail.

    Apple said it would replace the phone's camera free of charge if it takes blurry photos and falls into a particular serial number range.

    Eligible serial numbers can be checked on Apple's website.

    CORRECTION: This story has been corrected from an earlier version to note that Apple will replace cameras not recall the phone.

     

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    Wall street, New York, USA.
    Alamy
    Plenty of stocks go up and down in any given week. The gainers inspire us to keep investing. The decliners keep greed in check while reminding us about the risks of the equity markets.

    Let's go over some of last week's best and worst performers.

    Zulily (ZU) -- Up 42 percent last week

    One of the market's biggest winners was Zulily, which soared after agreeing to be acquired by QVC's parent company. It's been a wild ride for investors. Zulily went public at $22 in late 2013, trading as high as $73.50 just three months later. Investors were impressed by the online retailer's growth potential, but sentiment turned when sales growth began to decelerate and profitability was meager.

    The stock had plunged all the way into the single digits by May of this year, and that's probably around the time that QVC began sniffing around before making a cash-and-stock offer that was initially valued at $2.4 billion.

    New York & Co. (NWY) -- Up 26 percent last week

    One retailer moving higher during an otherwise ugly week was New York & Co., taking flight after posting a blowout quarter. Comparable-store sales rose nearly 4 percent relative to a year earlier, positioning the apparel retailer nicely for the back-to-school shopping season.

    New York & Co. landed at the high end of its earlier guidance, and its new outlook for the current period calls for more improvement in comps and operating results.

    Sprint (S) -- Up 13 percent last week

    The country's third-largest wireless carrier moved higher after introducing the iPhone Forever plan. The plan lets customers pay just $22 a month for the entry-level iPhone with the ability to upgrade whenever they want the latest model.

    It's a sweet deal that the major carriers are unlikely to match. It should attract those on rival services who want the low monthly rate with access to the shiniest new iPhone release.

    Amira Nature Foods (ANFI) -- Down 60 percent last week

    The New York Stock Exchange's biggest sinker was Amira Nature Foods. The distributor of basmati rice got off to a bad start when BMO Capital Markets downgraded the stock on Tuesday, but things got substantially worse when it announced a day later that it was replacing its accounting firm with a new independent auditor.

    Prescience Point Research Group called into question its past three years of financial statements earlier this year. Amira is standing by its numbers, but the replacement of its bean counters (or grain counters, if you will) is naturally going to alarm some investors. The stock should bounce back if the malfeasance accusations don't hold up.

    The Fresh Market (TFM) -- Down 34 percent last week

    If you're going to put up a bad quarter, doing so during the market's worst week in four years is only going to make things worse. The Fresh Market got tossed like bad produce after posting unflattering financials. The upscale grocer saw comparable-store sales decline for the quarter, and its adjusted profit of 36 cents a share -- flat with the prior year's showing -- fell short of analyst expectations.

    This has generally been a lousy year for premium supermarket chains. If you're selling high-end fare like the Fresh Market does, or selling organics, your stock is probably trading substantially lower in 2015.

    Ambarella (AMBA) -- Down 17 percent last week

    Finally, we have video-chip maker Ambarella stumbling on reports that it will soon face competition in the promising drone camera market. Re/code reported that Qualcomm (QCOM) is eyeing the video-chip market for airborne cameras on drones, leading some to worry that the fat margins that Ambarella has scored in recent years as the provider of choice for leading wearable and surveillance cameras will be challenged in the future.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Ambarella and Qualcomm. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Ambarella and Qualcomm. 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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