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DailyFinance.com

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    Inside A Best Buy Co. Store Ahead Of Earnings Figures
    David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesElectronics and clothing are on sale this month.
    By Jon Lal

    September is sandwiched between the final days of summer and the cooler months leading up to the holidays, making it a unique shopping season. Take advantage of these great deals and hold off purchasing other items until later in the year when the discounts will significantly increase.

    Here's your September shopping guide:

    What to buy:

    September kicks off with Labor Day, and this three-day weekend is a major sales holiday, as well. You can expect sales events when booking travel and hotels, shopping department stores, buying electronics and more.

    First, if you're in the market to buy a vehicle, September is an excellent time to do so. Not only will new models be hitting the lots this month, causing previous years' vehicles to go down in price, but salespeople at car dealerships will be trying to hit their third quarter goals. Use this fact to your advantage and haggle a little harder toward the end of the month.

    Another category that unveils new models this month is major appliances. With the exception of refrigerators (their lowest prices can be found in late spring), take advantage of the lower prices as stores clear out last year's models to make room for new.

    School begins in late August and early September, which means that school supplies and fall clothing will be discounted shortly afterward. Whether you can wait to buy a few of the kids' notebooks and pencils until the last minute, or you want to restock your own office with supplies, this is a cheap time to do so. Fall clothing featured for back to school will head into clearance later in September.

    Throughout the year, jewelry has a few peak seasons, most notably Valentine's Day and the holiday season in December. September is not one of the major "gift giving months" throughout the year, so jewelers are more likely to come down in price if you ask.

    If previous years are any indication, Apple will announce a new iPhone this September. As soon as a new iPhone is released, older models will go on sale. You can also find plenty of pre-owned iPhones for sale when Apple fans decide to upgrade. If you prefer Apple and are okay with a slightly older model, this is an ideal time to get a mobile phone.

    End-of-summer clearance will put an abundance of warm weather items on sale. From heavy duty equipment like grills and lawn mowers to plants, patio furniture and yard tools, stock up on the summer items you need now and you can find rock-bottom prices, though the selection might be a bit picked over.

    Lastly, if you're looking for a romantic getaway, September is an idea time to travel. Between Labor Day and the holiday season is a lighter travel time, so there are tons of discounts and deals. After kids go back to school, resorts are quiet and less crowded. Cruises are cheaper in September and through the fall, right up until Thanksgiving. Amusement parks will have discounts while the weather is still warm right before their closing date, so bring the kids for a day on the weekend and you can get a cheaper ticket. September is known as hurricane season in the Caribbean, but certain parts rarely get storms. Do a little research on weather patterns, and then check out the discounted packages at all-inclusive resorts.

    What not to buy:

    In September, you might spot a few sales or discounts that look tempting, but will ultimately they pale in comparison to the price drops before the holidays. Avoid buying items that are known for their deep discounts during Black Friday week, including televisions and game systems. You will only end up regretting that you didn't wait a few months for significantly lower prices.

    Enjoy what's left of summer and take advantage of the deals September has to offer!

    Jon Lal is the founder and CEO of coupons and cash back website BeFrugal.com, which saves shoppers an average of $27 an order thanks to coupons plus an average of 7 percent cash back at more than 4,000 stores.

     

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    credit report with score on a...
    Shutterstock
    By Nicholas Pell

    NEW YORK -- You might be surprised at just how much progress you can make in improving your credit in six months or a year.

    In fact, with a few nifty tricks, you can boost your credit score some 50 to 100 points in no time flat.

    Especially if you're looking at buying a house somewhere in the near future, you're going to want to aggressively pursue raising your credit score for the best rates possible, says John Heath, managing attorney with LexingtonLaw.

    Here's how to make that happen.

    First Things First: Pull Your Credit Report

    To know what you can do for starters, you're going to have to pull your credit report and look it over. That's where any path toward a higher credit score, aggressive or otherwise, is going to begin. What you're looking for is anything that's questionable, anything you don't recognize. "If there's an ID theft issue, contact the appropriate law enforcement agency," says Heath. But if you do see something that you don't recognize, don't assume that you've been a victim. It could be -- and probably is -- something far less insidious, such as an error.

    You'll also want to look at how much of your credit you're using on each of your accounts. This is called your "debt utilization" ratio, and it's the most powerful way to improve your credit in the shortest amount of time. "This factor is evaluated in the individual and the aggregate level," says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education with Credit.com. What this means is that you want both your credit usage on individual cards and across all cards to be less than one third. For example, if you have a $1,000 credit limit on a particular credit card, don't spend more than $300 without paying the balance off.

    Paying Down Debt Works

    The best thing you can do is aggressively attack your balances to lower your debt utilization ratio. "Paying down your balances makes a big difference and can be fixed the fastest," says Detweiler. So you might want to send off big checks, but there's another option: a consolidation loan. Detweiler points out that when you get a consolidation loan, not only are you getting one single payment every month, you're also lowering your utilization ratio to zero.

    "You have the same amount of debt, but it's an installment loan, rather than a revolving account," she says. Don't be surprised if you see a significant jump in your credit score after getting a consolidation loan. From there, you're basically just keeping up with your monthly payments so that you don't have another black mark on your credit.

    Detweiler notes that consolidation loans might not be available for people with credit scores under 620. For those people, she says that a 401(k) loan is an option. "It's not ideal," she says. "But there's no credit check, and it doesn't report to your credit at all." You have to be careful, because a 401(k) loan, not repaid properly, can significantly increase your taxes and come with a 10 percent penalty. But if you think you can do it, and it's your only option, at least give it a think.

    Addressing Errors and Other Black Marks

    If you're going to start attacking the black marks on your credit report, there are two main ways to do this. You either owe the money or you don't. If you don't think you do, you need to send a letter asking the company to prove that you do. After all, if someone approached you in the street and said that you owed them $100, you wouldn't just fork over a C-note. "You don't have to quote a federal law," says Detweiler. "You just have to ask them to investigate it."

    Heath recommends that you call up collection agencies and try to negotiate a settlement in relation to the collection. "You can let them know you'll pay them off if they can remove the collection from your credit report," Heath says. He says it's also not a bad idea to go back and find late payment notices from your original creditors and see if you can get them removed. "It's always a good idea to call them up and ask if they can do it just because you've been a good customer," he says.

    There aren't any shortcuts. But you can seriously make a change in your credit score in a year or less. Start putting your time, energy and money into it and monitor your credit score the whole time.


    Tips for Improving Your Credit Score

     

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    life insurance protection...
    Shutterstock
    You may have seen ads talking about "secret 770 accounts," financial vehicles that let you retire 100 percent tax free, aren't reportable to the IRS and never go down in value. Many of these ads have a tone that says "scam" to the more cautious investor. While it isn't fair to call them a scam, it is also not fair to call them retirement programs -- and, arguably, they shouldn't be called accounts either. They are simply a form of permanent, whole-life insurance.

    The name 770 account is derived from Section 7702 of the tax code (sometimes they are referred to as 7702 accounts), presumably to equate them to 401(k) retirement accounts that also get their name from the tax code. Section 7702 concerns the rules regarding taxes and life insurance policies, which can become fuzzy with whole-life policies that contain death benefits as well as investment components.

    With whole-life policies, death benefits are tax-free and the interest and gains in the account aren't included in the policyholder's current income. However, the death benefit could be lowered to impractical levels, making the cash-value so high that the life insurance policy is clearly an investment instead of the life insurance policy it was intended to be. Thus, you could have a more stable life insurance policy with the tax benefits of more risky investments.

    Section 7702 draws the line to which something can be called either life insurance or an investment. 770 accounts are life insurance contracts that, if properly designed, take you right up to that line without crossing it. There is nothing wrong with that -- that is why the line exists.

    Newsletters touting 770 accounts point out that big banks have millions of dollars tied up in these investments, and the extremely wealthy can use them as tax shelters. Are you extremely wealthy (or a big bank with thousands of employees)? If not, that is really an irrelevant selling point.

    The more money that you can devote to this form of investment, the more likely it is to make sense to you because of the tax sheltering aspects compared to other options at that income level. Limits on IRA contributions and other investments make 770 accounts far more attractive. However, you don't care how it affects big banks; you only care about whether it makes sense for you.

    As stated above, a 770 account gets as close to the line of a defined investment as possible without crossing it. Essentially, your life insurance policy is "overfunded" to the fullest extent possible. Over time, the growth allows the policy to be borrowed against to fund retirement costs. Keep in mind that that overfunding involves higher premiums -- to pay for the benefits, whole-life policies have far higher premiums than term life policies.

    Meanwhile, you do receive dividend payments (assuming you have purchased your policy from a mutual insurance company and your policy is structured to pay dividends). These constitute the yearly payments that 770 pitchmen refer to. Again, there is nothing special here; that is how life insurance works. Your premiums are designed by the insurance company to take those payments into account.

    Lost in the Marketing

    Also consider that it takes time for whole-life policies to build up sufficient cash value to meet your objectives -- the older you are, the less this form of investment makes sense. Unfortunately, as it is being pitched as a safe retirement program, this aspect can get lost in the marketing.

    Since 770 accounts are individual contracts with an insurance company, the burden is on you to find the collective fees and costs associated with the policy, as well as the interest rates that are charged when borrowing against the policy (guaranteed or variable) and what happens if repayments are late or missed.

    Whole-life contracts are often quite profitable for insurance companies -- that is why they sell them -- but you have to balance those costs against other uses of your money, such as investing in an IRA separately and buying term-life insurance to cover your insurance needs.

    To educate yourself on the topic, start by acquiring a thorough understanding of whole-life insurance policies (in this case, it is usually variable universal whole-life policies) from respected sources. Then if you are still interested, look at individual vendors of 770 plans to see the similarities and differences from a standard plan.

    Our advice isn't to sign anything until you can do a complete cost-benefit analysis, compared to an alternate use of your money (don't forget any life insurance needs you may have). Also, make sure that you understand the fine print of the contract regarding the possibility of interest rate changes or what happens when the money is withdrawn. If you can't do that analysis on your own, seek the advice of an independent financial planner.

     

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  • 08/31/15--22:00: 4 Dividend Stocks to Avoid
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    Dollar and pen on the chart
    Getty Images
    By Anne Kates Smith

    What's not to like about dividends? Income-seeking investors have flocked to them in recent years as interest rates have plunged. So have investors worried about an aging bull market and those seeking a buffer from volatility; they want to hunker down with dividend payers for the cushion they provide in downturns and for the way they seem to skirt the worst of the market's mood swings.

    Those are all valid reasons to shop at Yields R Us. But not all dividend stocks are alike. Many of the so-called bond proxies to which investors have turned for income, such as utilities, telecommunication companies, real estate investment trusts, or REITs, and companies that make essential consumer goods, are now way overpriced. A lot of them will get whacked when interest rates move higher -- in fact, many of them took a licking in the first half of 2015. And some have little to recommend them, apart from their dividends.

    In fact, says John Bailer, senior portfolio manager at The Boston Company Asset Management, you might consider some dividend payers wolves in sheep's clothing. They pose hidden risks to your portfolio, particularly if you're as interested in stock-price gains as you are in an income stream. Among the lurking dangers:

    Danger No. 1: Price

    No matter how you slice it, bond proxies are expensive relative to historical norms. For example, the median price-earnings ratio for the highest-yielding stocks in Standard & Poor's 500-stock index was recently 2 percent higher than that of companies with the fastest-growing dividends. Normally, the P/E of high-yielders is 12 percent below that of the stocks with the fastest-growing dividends. The least volatile stocks (a group dominated by dividend payers) recently traded at roughly 1.5 times the average P/E of the jumpiest stocks. Normally, there's little difference in P/Es.

    The story is the same if you look at companies by sector. Stocks of companies that make consumer necessities are commanding P/Es that are 8 percent higher on average than the premium P/E they're typically accorded, says the S&P's chief strategist, Sam Stovall. Utilities are even more expensive, despite this year's decline. The P/Es of stocks in the slow-growing utilities sector are normally 18 percent less than the S&P 500's P/E, says Stovall. Now, the discount is a mere 3 percent. "People should not yield to temptation by looking to dividends alone," quips Stovall.

    Overpriced dividend stock to avoid: The Clorox Co. (CLX, $116.15) yields 2.7 percent but trades at 24 times estimated earnings of $4.82 a share for the fiscal year that ends in June 2016. S&P analysts say a P/E of 21.5 times is more realistic for the consumer-goods company. That would put the stock price at $104, down 10 percent from the current level, sometime within the next 12 months. (Share prices and related figures are as of Aug. 19.)

    Danger No. 2: Limited Growth

    When the economy is growing, you want to benefit from the upswing. "If you think the economy is going to accelerate, as we're expecting, money will flow into industrials, tech and companies that make nonessential consumer goods, and people will hide less in consumer staples and utilities," says Wells Fargo global stock strategist Scott Wren. This year, utilities and consumer staples stocks are projected to log earnings growth of just 1.2 and 2.7 percent, on average, respectively -- among the lowest of all S&P sectors, with the notable exception of the beleaguered energy group, which is seeing declining profits. You don't have to forgo dividends in order to migrate to faster-growing, economy-sensitive stocks, you just have be willing to make dividend growth a higher priority than dividend yield. Bailer points out that S&P 500 stocks in the financial and technology sectors have logged average dividend growth of 30 percent annualized over the past three years.

    Low-growth dividend stock to avoid: This may surprise you, because Procter & Gamble (PG, $74.12) has been paying dividends since 1890. By all means, if you own stock in this consume products giant, known for brands ranging from Tide to Pampers, keep cashing those dividend checks. But you might find better potential share-price gains elsewhere. Despite P&G's plans to jettison some 100 brands, it will remain a plodding multinational behemoth, generating nearly $80 billion in annual sales. Dividend growth is slowing, too. The company's recent 3 percent hike is far less than the annualized hikes of 6.6 percent over the past five years. Analysts at UBS Securities are lukewarm on the stock, rating it "neutral." After years of subpar performance, P&G still faces challenges, and the turnaround will be slow, says UBS. And the strong dollar won't help matters.

    Danger No. 3: Rate Sensitivity

    When interest rates rise, the dividend wolves shed their sheep's clothing and can be seen for the risks that they are. In other words, bond proxies act like bonds, and that means they fall in price as rates rise. We've already seen a preview: From late May 2013 through December of that year, yields on 10-year Treasury bonds rose from 1.6 to more than 3 percent -- a debacle nicknamed the "taper tantrum" because it began when then-Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke signaled the end of the Fed's bond-buying program. During that period, a basket of bond proxies tracked by The Boston Co. -- consisting of utilities (mainly gas and electrics), telecom and staples stocks -- fell 5 percent as the S&P rose 17 percent. Earlier this year, when the yields of the 10-year Treasury jumped from less than 1.7 percent in late January to 2.3 percent in late June, the basket of bond proxies fell 4 percent, and the S&P rose 4 percent. Over the same period, the Dow Jones Equity REIT Index fell 14 percent.

    Rate-sensitive stock to avoid: It's hard to think of a more interest-rate-sensitive stock than Annaly Capital (NLY, $10.44), a REIT that invests primarily in mortgage-backed securities. Annaly, currently yielding 11.5 percent, makes money by pocketing the difference between the interest income generated by the longer-term securities it owns and the shorter-term borrowing costs to buy them. When the Fed raises short-term rates -- Kiplinger's expects the central bank to hike short-term rates in September -- it will wreak havoc with the company's interest income, the main driver of profits. Annaly is more at risk than other mortgage REITs, says Daniel Altscher at FBR Capital Markets, because it doesn't hedge against fluctuations in interest rates as much as its peers do. Altscher figures that just a 0.25 percentage-point increase in short-term interest rates could knock annual earnings down by 8 percent.

    Danger No. 4: Fundamental Hurdles

    Dividend investors shouldn't let a generous dividend blind them to industrywide or company-specific challenges that could trip up their stocks. For many multinational consumer-products companies that sell their goods overseas, for example, that could be the strong dollar. Electric utility stocks will struggle to maintain growth, says Bailer, as customers turn to solar and wind-generated power, or employ smart thermostats to conserve energy.

    Struggling dividend stock to avoid: GlaxoSmithKline (GSK, $43.30). The British pharmaceuticals giant is beginning to face stiff generic competition for its blockbuster respiratory drug, Advair, which accounts for 16 percent of sales; other respiratory therapies and a promising vaccine business have been slow to develop. The stock yields 5.5 percent, but if Glaxo continues to make such generous payments, its dividends threaten to swallow all of the company's free cash flow. Even though the stock has retreated 25 percent since early 2014, it still looks expensive, given Glaxo's deteriorating growth prospects, say analysts at Mirabaud, a London-based stock research firm.

     

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    Using a credit card.
    Getty Images
    By Allison Martin

    Many credit cards offer a slew of incentives to consumers who use them -- from cash back and other rewards to zero liability in case of fraud.

    But credit cards aren't always your best form of payment, especially if you aren't great with debt. In many cases, you are better off keeping the plastic tucked away.

    Here are 10 purchases you should probably avoid making with your magic plastic:

    1. Household bills. If you are already cutting it close for the month, you may be tempted to use plastic to pay the utility, cellphone or cable bill. But if you're not paying off your full balance each month, the interest you will be charged makes those monthly bills even more expensive.

    2. Cars. Car dealers often don't allow credit-card purchases, or may limit the amount of the purchase price you can put on your card. Dealers don't like credit card payments because they have to pay the 1 to 3 percent fee the card company charges to process the transaction

    You could exercise the cash advance option. But you'll pay a fee and a higher interest rate. Also, you won't get a grace period on the interest -- it will begin to accumulate right away.

    Instead of using a card, go to a credit union or bank to get financing approved at a reasonable interest rate before shopping for a car.

    3. Student loans. If you can't afford to pay your federal student loans, you have options, such as an income-based repayment plan, deferment, forbearance and possibly loan forgiveness. Take a look at "Finding Help With Your Student Loans" to learn more.

    Paying your student loan debt with a credit card increases the amount of interest you're paying on the debt. Even if you have a zero-percent introductory credit card offer, it will expire in time.

    And while the federal government will accept a credit card payment for loans in default, many student loan servicers won't allow this form of payment.

    4. Retail therapy. Think a new purchase will cheer you up? Perhaps. But remember that cash is king if you choose this mode of "therapy." That way, you won't let your credit card balance spiral out of control.

    5. Medical bills. If you use a medical credit card available through your health care provider's office to pay bills, be careful to read the fine print about your obligations.

    Also consider steps you can take to reduce health care costs. See "10 Ways to Fight High Medical Bills."

    6. A night on the town. Handing your credit card to an unscrupulous waitperson equipped with a skimming device isn't your only worry. If you're out on the town throwing back drinks, it's easy to run up a tab you can't afford.

    In these scenarios, it's best to pay with cash.

    7. Big-ticket items you can't pay off immediately. Credit cards offer great purchase protections and should be used for many big-ticket purchases. But buying something on credit when you can't afford to pay it off right away isn't smart.

    8. Credit card payments. You can't charge your monthly credit card payment on another credit card. But perhaps you've been tempted to use a cash advance from a credit card to bolster your checking account so that you can pay your other bills.

    We've already explained the folly of cash advances. Your credit card isn't an ATM and should not be used as one.

    There are real benefits, however, to transferring high-interest credit card debt to a new card with a generous zero-percent balance transfer offer. Just be aware of the balance transfer fee and the length of the offer.

    9. 'Sale' items. Convinced that you may miss out on savings if you don't purchase a specific item on sale right away? That's one of the warning signs of an impulse buy.

    Wait a day and think about whether you really need the item. Nine times out of 10, the answer will be "no."

    You aren't saving money by spending it for something you don't need.

    10. Unsecured online purchases. Does the Web address have an "https" at the beginning? If not, that's your cue to take your online shopping elsewhere.

    In fact, do your homework before purchasing anything online to make sure a company is reputable and not the source of many consumer complaints.

    What purchases do you refrain from making with your credit card? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.


    Pop Quiz: Credit Cards

     

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    A Car Dealership Ahead Of Motor Vehicle Sales Figures
    Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesA financing offer is displayed on the window of a 2015 Dodge Charger vehicle at a dealership in Moline, Ill.
    By DEE-ANN DURBIN

    DETROIT -- As China's auto market recoils, the U.S. remains a bright spot as it rolls on toward its best performance in more than a decade.

    China is still the No. 1 market, but sales there are slowing as the economy cools and cities impose car ownership limits to curb smog and congestion. At the same time, U.S. sales remain on pace to top 17 million this year for the first time since 2001.

    It's a reversal from six years ago, when U.S. vehicle sales plunged during the recession and China easily surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest car market. At least temporarily, automakers are left to rely on the U.S. -- and a recovering Western Europe auto market -- for sales growth.

    Sales figures for August released Tuesday by Sweden's Volvo Cars tell the story: Volvo's U.S. vehicle sales jumped 18.3 percent as the new XC90 SUV went on sale, and they rose 6.5 percent in Europe. But its sales in China plunged 10 percent. One of every five vehicles Volvo sells globally is sold in China.

    All major automakers released U.S. sales figures Tuesday. Total sales fell less than 1 percent to 1.58 million, but primarily because sales for a late-arriving Labor Day weekend will be included in September figures. Labor Day is typically a big sales weekend as dealers hold model year-end clearance sales. Last year the holiday was counted as part of August sales.

    Global figures for August will be released later this month.

    Increasingly confident U.S. consumers are being lured to dealerships by low interest rates, low gas prices and enticing new small SUVs like the Jeep Renegade and Honda HR-V despite some angst in the stock market caused by fears of the economic slowdown in China.

    For August, Ford (F) reported a 5 percent gain as sales of its new F-150 gained steam, and Fiat Chrysler's (FCAU) sales rose 2 percent thanks to strong demand for Jeep SUVs. Hyundai's sales were up 3 percent thanks to its new Santa Fe SUV. General Motors' (GM) U.S. sales were flat last month; it saw strong demand for the Chevrolet Silverado pickup but Cadillac sales declined.

    Toyota's (TM) U.S. sales fell 9 percent and Honda's (HMC) sales fell 7 percent, hurt by their car-heavy lineups in a market where buyers want SUVs. Volkswagen's sales dropped 8 percent. Nissan's sales were flat.

    Global Sales

    In Western Europe, car sales have risen for 22 months in a row, coming off a trough caused by the global recession and the debt and financial crisis in the countries that use the euro currency. Sales were up 7 percent through July, according to LMC Automotive.

    Lower European oil prices have put more money in consumer's pockets, and governments have eased austerity cutbacks aimed at reducing debt. But sales in Eastern Europe tumbled 11 percent because of the deteriorating economy in Russia.

    Now there is concern about China, where new vehicle sales fell by unexpectedly wide margins of 3.3 percent in June and 6.6 percent in July. August sales figures should reflect Chinese consumers' reaction to a further 12.5 percent drop in the Shanghai Composite Index.

    Chinese sales growth peaked at 45 percent in 2009, the same year U.S. sales sank to a 30-year low of 10.4 million vehicles. But growth has steadily declined since then. Forecasters who had expected sales to grow 8 percent in China this year recently slashed that to as low as 1.7 percent.

    Slumping sales are likely to force German automakers, which are unusually dependent on sales to China, to issue profit warnings, said Bernstein analyst Max Warburton in an Aug. 27 report.

    If the sales slowdown in China continues, U.S. buyers could eventually see more vehicles imported from China, as automakers try to maximize production at the plants they have built there. Automakers could also shift vehicles planned for China to the U.S., but that could be a challenge because vehicles popular there -- like big sedans -- aren't necessarily popular here.

    "We're in a wait and see mode for China right now," said Akshay Anand, a market analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

    -AP Business writer Joe McDonald contributed to this report from Beijing. AP business writer David McHugh contributed from Frankfurt.

     

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    Aeropostale
    JeepersMedia/Flickr
    Summer is coming to a close and that means that malls across the country are selling back-to-school merchandise. Kids and teens don't want to be seen with what they wore last semester, making it an important time for retailers to stand out with their seasonal sales.

    Some chains will probably be more desperate than others and this is where it's handy for back-to-school shoppers to learn a thing or two about reading a quarterly report. If a chain is suffering through negative comparable-store sales or a spike in unsold inventory, this should translate into aggressive markdowns to either try to turn things around or clear out items that just didn't connect with customers at original prices.

    Weak stores translate into big sales. Let's see where the desperation is likely to result in markdowns this month.

    Aeropostale (ARO)

    It doesn't get much uglier than Aeropostale these days. The once-trendy chain is in a funk, and its stock is trading for about a buck. The typical Aeropostale store is ringing up roughly 20 percent less in sales than it was two years ago, and the chain's response has been to shut down many of its locations.

    The Aeropostale empire has shrunk to 826 stores from 1,072 during the past year, including 23 locations going dark in its most recent quarter. Sluggish sales and inventory left behind from shuttered stores should make Aeropostale a great place to strike up a deal on clothing -- if your mall's location happens to still be open.

    Francesca's (FRAN)

    Unlike Aeropostale, Francesca's is opening more stores than it's closing. The boutique approach, whereby it stocks a limited number of units of each item, is resonating in higher-end malls. Margins have also improved over the past year at Francesca's, something that historically doesn't bode well for the deal seeker.

    However, Francesca's makes the cut because it posted negative comps in its most recent quarter, and when it reports fresh financial results next week, it's expecting to post another decline in store-level sales. If it's a bad report next week, it's easy to see Francesca's getting more aggressive on pricing to woo back shoppers.

    Christopher & Banks (CBK)

    Another specialty women's apparel chain that should be providing generous prices is Christopher & Banks. It shocked the market a couple of weeks ago by announcing that comparable-store sales took a 12.4 percent year-over-year drop in its latest quarter. It also sees gross margins declining, something that loosely translates into lower markups on its merchandise.

    That's bad news for its investors, but great news for its customers. Christopher & Banks recently hired a consultant to help turn things around, and it will shed some light on its situation when it reports quarterly results next week. Any dramatic makeovers will likely be accompanied by big clearance sales.

    Williams-Sonoma (WSM)

    It's not just clothing on sale. Williams-Sonoma -- the company behind Pottery Barn and West Elm as well as its namesake housewares concept -- saw its stock take a 9 percent hit last week after posting mixed quarterly results.

    Sales were healthy, but margins were weak, suggesting that Williams-Sonoma continues to struggle to justify bigger markups on its wares. It's still holding up better than the first three companies on this list, but it makes the cut if we drop down from the income statement to its balance sheet.

    Merchandise inventories have risen 15.3 percent during the past year, even though net sales have only climbed 8.5 percent higher. Seeing inventory growing nearly twice as fast as revenue can be problematic for investors, as it often results in stores having to mark down older merchandise to clear up space.

    Enjoy chasing the deals, fellow back-to-school shopper.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Williams-Sonoma. 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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    Economy Manufacturing
    J Pat Carter/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. factory activity hit a more than two-year low in August as manufacturers struggled with a strong dollar, weak global demand and the lingering effects of deep spending cuts in the energy sector.

    Other data Tuesday, however, suggested the economy appeared to be on solid footing, with construction spending rising in July to its highest level since 2008.

    The Institute for Supply Management said its national factory activity index fell to 51.1 last month, the lowest reading since May 2013, from 52.7 in July. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the manufacturing sector.

    The decline in the index also likely reflected the recent global equities sell-off, which was triggered by concerns over China's slowing economy. The ISM's new orders subindex fell to 51.7, also the lowest level since May 2013, from 56.5 in July.

    The employment index slipped to 51.2 last month from a reading of 52.7 in July.

    Manufacturing, which accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. economy, has been under pressure from the strength of the dollar, which has gained 16.8 percent against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners since June 2014.

    A more than 60 percent plunge in crude oil prices since June last year has led to deep spending cuts in the energy sector.

    The U.S. dollar fell against a basket of currencies after the data, while U.S. stocks were trading sharply lower. Prices for shorter-maturity U.S. government debt rose.

    But apart from manufacturing, the economy is thriving. In a separate report, the Commerce Department said construction spending increased 0.7 percent to $1.08 trillion, the highest level since May 2008, after a similar gain in June.

    Construction spending has increased for eight straight months and was as up 13.7 percent compared to July of last year.

    The construction spending report rounded off a month of solid data that suggested the economy had retained much of its strength from the second quarter, when it expanded at a 3.7 percent annual pace. July data for consumer spending, industrial production, business spending, housing and employment painted a fairly upbeat picture of the economy.

    Construction spending in July was buoyed by a 1.3 percent jump in private construction spending to the highest level since April 2008. Spending on private non-residential construction projects surged 1.5 percent to the highest level since October 2008.

    Spending on private residential construction increased 1.1 percent in July to a near 7½-year high, reflecting gains in home building.

    Public construction outlays, however, fell 1 percent. Spending on state and local government projects, which is the largest portion of the public sector segment, dropped 1.1 percent. Federal government outlays rose 0.9 percent.

     

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    Amazon Smartphone
    Ted S. Warren/AP
    By MAE ANDERSON

    NEW YORK -- Amazon is upping the ante in the streaming-video competition with downloadable videos.

    The e-commerce powerhouse will now let members of its $99 annual Prime loyalty program download some shows and movies on its streaming video service to watch offline, or when there is no Internet connection available, for free.

    There's no doubt that the way people watch entertainment is changing anytime, anywhere viewing is important.

    To watch the content users can download the Amazon Video app for iOS or Android.

    Users will now be able to download shows like "Downton Abbey" and "The Good Wife," HBO shows including "Girls" and "Veep" and movies including "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."

    Shows will be downloadable to Apple and Android phones and tablets, including Amazon's Fire devices -- but not desktops or laptops.

    Other streaming services like Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu offer streaming-content only.

    "There's no doubt that the way people watch entertainment is changing_anytime, anywhere viewing is important," said Michael Paull, vice president of digital video at Amazon, which is based in Seattle.

    The downloadable videos are available to prime members in the U.S., U.K., Germany and Austria.

    Amazon has been expanding services for Prime members, including its Prime Instant Video service, to attract more subscribers to the annual program.

    Shares of Amazon.com (AMZN) fell about 1 percent amid a broad market sell-off.

     

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    McDonald's Will Use Real Butter Instead of Liquid Margarine

    By Katie Little

    McDonald's (MCD) has some good news for dairy farmers and bad news for the lactose intolerant.

    The chain is changing the way it cooks items with English muffins (which are in its popular McMuffin line), biscuits and bagels to include real butter. Inside stores, some signs already advertise the nationwide switch.

    Two sources said the rollout would occur once locations deplete the supply of liquid margarine.

    McDonald's didn't respond to CNBC's requests for comment.

    One sign at a Manhattan location says, "We're proud to cook breakfast items on the grill with real butter and we toast our English Muffins, biscuits and bagels with real butter too."

    The signs are meant to both highlight the "real dairy" addition and warn those who are not able to eat items made with milk products.

    The move is just the latest in a series by the fast food giant aimed at tweaking the way it makes its food as it continues trying to turn around its struggling U.S. business. As part of the overhaul, McDonald's has said it would toast its buns longer, change how it sears and grills its beef, and increase the Quarter Pounder patty size.

     

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    Score Savings on Sports Tickets
    With sports season in full swing, now's the perfect time to catch your favorite team, but going to the big game doesn't have to mean big costs. Here are some tips on how to score tickets without busting your budget.

    The first easy way to cut your costs is to buy tickets for games that happen on weeknights instead of the weekend. A Tuesday night game is definitely going to be cheaper than a Friday. Those time slots tend to be less popular, so box offices tend to cut prices to get fans in the seats.

    Next, like in most sports, it's all about timing. Ticket prices will continue to increase as the game approaches. However, they will also plunge on the day of the game. Make sure to keep this in mind so you can get the best deal for your budget.

    Finally, another great way to save on first-rate tickets is buying from the secondary market. Websites like StubHub and TicketCity are a great start, but there's another site that helps you get the most for your buck. Seatgeek.com, is great because it aggregates deals from other sites to give you a comprehensive list of which deals are winners and which ones are losers.

    Before heading to the game, remember these tips so you can score great tickets while keeping your budget No. 1.

    View Poll

     

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    Airline Bag Fees
    Elaine Thompson/AP
    By Joan Lowy

    WASHINGTON -- Airlines should clearly disclose the cost of change and cancellation fees, as well as the size of the plane's seats, before a passenger buys a ticket, a federal panel said Tuesday.

    Hotels should also be required to include any mandatory fees in their room rates, the Transportation Department's Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections recommended.

    Some hotels have begun adding mandatory resort and other fees to bills even though customers say they weren't informed of them when they booked their rooms. The panel's recommendation on hotels was directed to the Federal Trade Commission, which has been investigating such so called drip pricing.

    Likewise, the four-member panel heard testimony that passengers must search to find the cost of change or cancellation fees that airlines hide in a ticket's fine print. The fees can run hundreds of dollars, especially on international flights. The Transportation Department should require the fees be spelled out clearly so that passengers are informed before a ticket purchase, the panel said.

    The panel also recommended that the Transportation Department permit airlines to choose whether to allow passengers to make wireless voice calls from planes during flights.

    Airlines have also shrunk the distance between a seat and the one in front by as much as 6 inches in recent years. It used to be that 34 inches between the seats was standard for economy class seats. But now 31 inches is typical and some airlines have wedged in so many seats that there is as little as 28 inches of room.

    The width of seats is typically 18 inches but has been reduced in some cases to 17 inches, and there are indications some airlines may shrink them even more, said Charlie Leocha, head of Travelers United, the consumer advocate on the panel.

    Seat shrinkage has raised concern that passengers may get blood clots if they sit for a long time without the ability to move around, and that passengers may not be able to quickly evacuate a plane in an emergency.

    The Federal Aviation Administration requires that aircraft makers demonstrate that all passengers on an airliner can be evacuated within 90 seconds with half the emergency exits blocked in order for the plane to be certified. There have been no evacuation tests of airliners with seats 28 inches apart, Leocha said.

    The panel recommended the FAA conduct more realistic evacuation tests, including of planes with seats as close as 28 inches apart.

    Leocha said he was disappointed the panel didn't recommend the FAA issue regulations establishing a minimum amount of personal space that must be allotted per passenger. There are already regulations that set a minimum amount of space that pets on planes must be allotted, he noted.

    Panel member Dave Berg, an attorney with Airlines for America, a trade group for major airlines, said he objected to the notion that the government should establish a minimum amount of space per passenger. Difference between seat sizes "goes to the heart and soul" of airline competition, and it would be inappropriate for the government to interfere in such competition by a deregulated industry, he said.

    The FAA is not required to act on the recommendations. The airline passengers advocacy group FlyersRights has filed a petition asking the FAA to establish a minimum amount of personal space per passenger.

     

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    A Closer Look at Google's New Logo

    By MICHAEL LIEDTKE

    SAN FRANCISCO -- Google is refining its famous logo as it prepares to become a part of a new holding company called Alphabet.

    The revised design unveiled Tuesday features the same mix of blue, red, yellow and green that Google has been using throughout its nearly 17-year history, though the hues are slightly different shades.

    Google (GOOG) also invented a new typeface called "Product Sans" that is meant to resemble the simple printing in a grade-school book. It will replace a serif typeface that Google has been using in its logo for more than 16 years. The "e'' in the company's name will remain slightly tilted to reflect Google's sometimes off-kilter thinking.

    Although this will be the sixth time that Google has changed its logo since Larry Page and Sergey Brin formed the company, this marks the most noticeable redesign since it dropped an exclamation point that appeared after its name until May 1999

    Google is donning the different look as it embarks on a new era. The Mountain View, California, company is pouring so much money into so many far-flung projects that have little or no connection to its main business of online search and advertising that it's getting ready to place everything under the Alphabet umbrella.

    Under this setup, Google will retain search, YouTube and most of the biggest divisions while smaller operations such as Nest home appliances, life sciences, drone deliveries and venture capital investments will operate as individual companies. All will be overseen by Alphabet, whose CEO will be the Google co-founder Page.

    Alphabet hasn't revealed what its logo will be yet, but the holding company isn't expected to be officially operating for a few more months.

    Google believes its new logo will provide a more versatile identity suited "for a world of seamless computing across an endless number of devices," the company said in a Tuesday blog post.

    The overhaul also will change the appearance of the letter "g'' that Google uses as its shorthand logo on the smaller screens of smartphones and other mobile devices.

    The "g'' will now be capitalized and displayed in color instead of being kept lowercase and white.

    A swirl of dots in Google's colors will also appear when a spoken command for information is being processed or one of the company's other services is performing a task.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By KEN SWEET

    NEW YORK -- Stocks plunged again Tuesday, continuing a rocky ride for Wall Street, after an economic report out of China rekindled fears that the world's second-largest economy is slowing more than previously anticipated.

    The sell-off adds to what has been a difficult few weeks for U.S. and international markets. U.S. stocks just closed out their worst month in more than three years. Tuesday's drop also dashed hopes that, after some relatively calm trading Friday and Monday, the stock market's wild swings were coming to an end.

    There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the U.S. economy, but we are going through this correction process.

    "This market remains fragile," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank. "There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the U.S. economy, but we are going through this correction process. We've got a rocky road ahead of us."

    Stocks started the day sharply lower and never recovered, with the Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) falling as much as 548 points. No part of the market was spared. All 10 sectors of the Standard & Poor's 500 index fell more than 2 percent. Just three stocks in the S&P 500 closed higher.

    "Monday's relatively peaceful markets are a distant memory as Chinese data and shares sparked another severe ... reaction from the developed world," said John Briggs, head of fixed income strategy at RBS.

    In the end, the Dow lost 469.68 points, or 2.8 percent, to 16,058.35. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC)​ fell 58.33 points, or 3 percent, to 1,913.85 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) fell 140.40 points, 2.9 percent, to 4,636.10.

    As it's been for the last several weeks, the selling and problems started in Asia.

    An official gauge of Chinese manufacturing fell to a three-year low last month, another sign of slowing growth in that country. The manufacturing index, which surveys purchasing managers at factories, dropped to a reading of 49.7 in August from 50.0 in July. A reading below 50 indicates a contraction.

    China's stocks sank on the news, with Shanghai Composite Index closing down 1.2 percent. The index has lost 38 percent of its value since hitting a peak in June.

    Eye on China

    The Chinese economy has been a focus for investors all summer, and the concerns have intensified in the last three weeks. China devalued its currency, the renminbi, in mid-August. Investors interpreted the move as a sign that China's economy wasn't doing as well as previously reported.

    Investors moved into traditional havens like bonds and gold Tuesday. Bond prices rose, pushing the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note down to 2.16 percent from 2.22 percent on Monday. Gold rose $7.30, or 0.6 percent, to settle at $1,139.80 an ounce.

    Faced with the possibility of slowing demand in China, the commodity markets once again took the brunt of the hit.

    U.S. crude oil fell $3.79 to close at $45.41 a barrel in New York. Brent Crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell $4.59 to close at $49.56 in London.

    Energy stocks were once again among the biggest decliners. Exxon Mobil (XOM) fell nearly 4 percent and Chevron (CVX) fell 2.5 percent. Exxon is down 22 percent this year, Chevron 30 percent.

    In a sign of how battered energy companies have been this year, ConocoPhillips (COP) announced it was laying off 10 percent of its workers, roughly 1,800 workers, as a reaction this year's plunge in oil prices.

    Along with worries about China, speculation about whether or not the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates as soon as this month continues to weigh on markets. Traders say a lot hinges on the August jobs report, which will be released this Friday. Economists are forecasting that U.S. employers created 220,000 jobs in the month and that the unemployment rate fell to 5.2 percent.

    Eye on the Fed

    The Federal Reserve meets Sept. 16 and 17. Some economists are predicting that policymakers will be confident enough in the U.S. economic recovery to raise interest rates for the first time in almost a decade. While Fed officials are mostly focused on the U.S. economy, they can't ignore problems in the global economy.

    "China's problems are totally a concern for the Fed," said Tom di Galoma, head of rates trading at ED&F Man Capital. "With inflation remaining low here, I just don't a reason why they would raise rates."

    Markets in Europe were broadly lower. Germany's DAX fell 2.4 percent, France's CAC-40 lost 2.4 percent and the U.K.'s FTSE 100 index declined 3 percent. Japan's Nikkei 225 was also volatile, dropping 3.8 percent. The Hang Seng in Hong Kong sank 2.2 percent. Stocks also fell in South Korea and Australia.

    The dollar fell to 119.68 yen from 121.20 yen on Monday. The euro rose to $1.1307 from $1.1225.

    In other energy markets, wholesale gasoline fell 10.3 cents to close at $1.396 a gallon, heating oil fell 12.3 cents to close at $1.578 a gallon and natural gas rose 1.3 cents to close at $2.702 per 1,000 cubic feet.

    Copper lost 4 cents to $2.30 a pound and palladium slumped $23.05 to $578.50 an ounce. The price of silver edged down four cents to $14.61 an ounce and platinum edged down $2.10 to $1,008.40 an ounce.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • The Labor Department releases second-quarter productivity data at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Commerce Department releases factory orders for July at 10 a.m.
    • The Federal Reserve releases its Beige Book survey of regional economic conditions at 2 p.m.

     

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    McDonalds To Offer Its Breakfast Menu All Day Long
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
    By Lisa Baertlein

    LOS ANGELES -- McDonald's (MCD) U.S. franchisees have voted to begin offering all-day breakfast on Oct. 6, a widely expected move that the company and investors hope will help reverse slumping sales and traffic at the world's biggest fast-food chain.

    Many U.S. consumers like to eat breakfast foods at all hours of the day. McDonald's is the top choice for those so-called "Breakfastarians," according to a recent survey from YouGov BrandIndex, a brand perception research service.

    McDonald's all-day breakfast menu will include hotcakes, yogurt parfaits, oatmeal, hash browns, sausage burritos and either McMuffin sandwiches or biscuit sandwiches, according to the company, which did not say how much the new program is expected to boost results.

    Richard Adams, a former McDonald's franchisee turned consultant, said McDonald's has told franchisees that all-day breakfast will lure 200 customers a week per restaurant.

    McDonald's is expected to back its breakfast expansion with a significant advertising campaign, and Adams predicted that the company will get an initial sales boost from expanded breakfast service.

    All-day sales of McDonald's iconic McMuffin sandwiches at the chain's more than 14,000 U.S. restaurants could increase sales by as much as 2.5 percent a year, according to an internal company presentation obtained by Bloomberg News.

    "Will this be a long term fix for McDonald's USA? We won't know until well into 2016," Adams said.

    Some franchisees worry that extended breakfast service could complicate operations and slow service at a time when company executives have vowed to simplify and streamline the chain's menu.

    To that end, McDonald's said that regional operators can decide whether to cut certain menu items based on local customer preferences.

     

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    cheerful senior couple enjoying ...
    ShutterstockDownsizing to a new home, condo or apartment that costs significantly less than your current home can give your nest egg a quick boost.


    You have many opportunities to fix your retirement finances before you retire. You can ramp up your savings, eliminate debt and make smart decisions about when to sign up for Social Security and other types of retirement benefits. But even after retirement, it's not too late to fix a funding shortfall. Here are some ways to improve your cash flow after leaving your job.

    Remember required minimum distributions. Retirees are required to take annual withdrawals from traditional 401(k)s and IRAs each year after age 70½ and pay the resulting income tax bill. Missing a distribution triggers a 50 percent tax on the amount that should have been withdrawn.

    Minimize taxes. Many retirees have some of their savings in traditional retirement accounts, Roth accounts and regular savings and investment accounts, each of which has a different tax treatment. Having money in these three types of accounts gives you opportunities to save on taxes and flexibility in when you pay them. Income tax will be due on every distribution from traditional retirement accounts, but retirees can withdraw money from a Roth account that is at least five years old without incurring any additional tax on that money. "From the time they retire until they take Social Security, there's a window of time to do a Roth conversion and to take some money out of the 401(k) account and put it into a Roth IRA," says Anne Ward, a certified financial planner for Allodium Investment Consultants in Minneapolis. "You are actually prepaying taxes, so that later in retirement, when the required minimum distributions start, you are not forced to take out quite so much."

    Downsize. Moving into a new home, condo or apartment that costs significantly less than your current house can allow you to improve your nest egg in a short amount of time. However, you need to factor in the costs of selling your home and relocating, and make sure you will free up enough cash at the end of the house swap to make the move worth it. "If you are going to sell the home that you raised your children in because it's a four-bedroom house in the suburbs with a bigger yard, you have to make sure you go to a lesser priced house," says Kevin Reardon, a certified financial planner for Shakespeare Wealth Management in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. "If it's only $25,000 less, you may save some money on annual maintenance, but much of that will go toward the expenses when moving." If you move outside your current neighborhood, consider whether you will have friends and family nearby to spend time with in retirement.

    Lower cost of living. Retirees often have time to invest in saving money. You might be able to negotiate lower rates on services you use, take the time to find and use a coupon or be able to visit several stores to comparison shop. Once you reach a certain age, you also qualify for senior discounts. "You could do a defensive driving course, and then get a discount on your car insurance," Ward says. "You can take advantage of travel discounts that people in the workforce can't take advantage of because they don't have the flexibility to leave on a Tuesday."

    Extra income. Many retirees take on part-time jobs or find creative ways to bring in income, often for the cash as well as the social benefits the job provides. You might be able to find a part-time job in your community that suits your tastes. "Perhaps if they like golf, they can work at a golf course -- get paid a little bit, maybe some free golf to go with it. For someone who enjoys working around the house, maybe they can get a job at Home Depot for 20 hours a week," says Scott O'Brien, a certified financial planner for WorthPointe Wealth Management in Austin, Texas. "These part-time jobs serve a number of purposes: [You] can delay the start of Social Security payments, thus allowing the benefit to grow, may get health insurance coverage, which otherwise may be very expensive, and gives the retiree something to keep them active and engaged." You can also use the skills from your former career to consult, mentor or occasionally take on projects when it suits your schedule.

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

     

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    Cutting a Card
    Getty Images
    By Brian O'Connell

    NEW YORK -- Managing a credit card and your credit score at the same time is no easy task -- although that's exactly what consumers have to do on a regular basis, with no shortage of risk to their financial health involved.

    "Credit cards are a convenient way for consumers to purchase items now and pay them off over time," said Charles Chung, vice president of consulting and analytics for Experian. "However, if mismanaged, credit cards can get consumers into an unmanageable financial situation that can have a negative effect on their credit rating and as a result, future credit will come at a higher price or they may even be denied credit."

    It's a common fallacy that closing credit cards will always help your credit rating.

    One area -- call it a "myth," Chung says -- is when consumers close a credit card, and expect that to mean a subsequent hike in their credit score. "It's a common fallacy that closing credit cards will always help your credit rating," Experian says in a recent study. "Focus more on the amount of available credit being utilized, making sure you are not over extending your debt beyond levels you can manage. Closing good accounts could actually hurt your credit rating."

    Of course, where there's a will, there's a way -- and that goes double for consumers looking to close down a card and protect their credit score. First up, know what's at stake when you cut that piece of plastic in half. "Closing a credit card affects two factors used to calculate credit score -- length of credit history, which accounts for 15 percent of your score, and balances -- also known as debt to available credit ratio -- which accounts for 30 percent," says John Janney, past president of the National Financial Awareness Network.

    If you need to close a credit card, it's best to close the youngest account with the smallest credit limit to minimize the damage, Janney adds.

    "Closing older accounts or accounts with larger credit limits may lower your score, because it makes you look, at least on paper, as if you're new to the credit game and have less credit to work with," Janney says. "My recommendation for someone wanting to close a credit card to is shift balances from the youngest card to the oldest card and close the younger account once its balance reaches zero -- not before. The credit effects may be less harmful, but they will also be temporary."

    Also, consider your options -- there is no shortage when it comes to closing a credit card account, experts say.

    There may be many reasons why you want to close a credit card, and understanding why will help you make the right decision and avoid hurting your credit, says Alex Matjanec, chief executive officer of MyBankTracker.

    "For example, if the issue is your APR is too high, negotiate with your card issuer," he says. "In many cases, they would prefer to lower it and keep you than have to spend money acquiring a new customer. On the other hand, if you have multiple cards and some are costing you money, you may want to consolidate as the hit to your credit score may outweigh the money you are wasting on fees."

    The 'Split' Approach

    Of course, you could opt for the "split" approach, and cut your card in half but keep the account open. "Closing a credit card could hurt you because it eliminates your payment history," notes William Matthews, a self-described millennial finance adviser located in Houston. "For example, if you have a Visa card for three years and kept a low balance, paid on time, closing that account will wipe out the good payment history which helps give you a higher credit rating."

    It's better, Matthews says, to cut the card with scissors but leave the account open. "This gets tricky when you have to pay a membership fee for a card you no longer use," he adds. "[Alternatively] keep the card but only use it once a quarter for groceries or gas just to show activity on the card."

    John Schmoll, who runs the personal finance website Frugal Rules, says he has canceled numerous credit cards himself, with minimal to no impact on his credit.

    "Both my wife and I have 810-plus scores," Schmoll says, adding that if you have two or more cards from the same issuing bank, ask to transfer the limit you have on the card you'll be canceling to another card. "This is important, as it won't impact your credit utilization ratio," he says. "I've done this every time I've canceled a card and in most instances the entire amount is transferred."

    Also, if you want to cancel a card, consider calling your other card issuers and asking them to increase your limit. "If you've been a good customer it's possible they will and thus potentially replace what you're losing and mitigate the impact on your credit," Schmoll adds.

    If you're mulling over the notion of closing down a credit card, count to ten first, and consider the right way -- and the wrong way -- to peel away from your plastic. Your credit score will be all the better for it.

     

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  • 09/01/15--22:00: Modern-Day Tipping Dilemmas
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    Asian male barista holding coffee out
    Getty Images
    By Miriam Cross

    Tipping a restaurant server or cabbie goes without saying. But when it comes to a barista or Uber driver, the ex­pectations aren't so clear. Here's how to navigate new tipping practices.

    When I swipe my card to pay for my latte, the payment screen prompts me for a tip. Am I obligated to give one? Once, cafes and carry-out joints simply left a tip jar next to the cash register. Now your receipt may include a line for gratuities­ -- or a digital payment screen may have preset tip options for your order. Manually entering your own tip amount takes time. Hitting "no tip" in front of the cashier makes you look cheap.

    Nevertheless, gratuities aren't necessary in venues without sit-down service (including those where you pay up front and someone brings you your food), says Daniel Post Senning, spokesman for the Emily Post Institute, so don't feel guilty about pressing "no" or drawing a line through the extra space on your receipt. When the counter staff go out of their way to accommodate your requests, however, tipping is a way to show thanks.

    Do I tip my Uber driver as I would a regular taxi driver? Tipping on Uber rides is a murky issue. Contrary to some assumptions, a tip isn't factored into your fare (the only exception is uberTaxi). However, the company states on its website that you don't need to tip. And because the fare is automatically charged to the credit card you have on file, you can't add a tip via the Uber app. (Uber's competitor, Lyft, does allow riders to tip through its app.)

    So are you off the hook with Uber drivers? Yes and no. "Tipping is not a rock-solid social expectation, as in a restaurant," says Post Senning. At the same time, drivers are free to accept gratuities. (It's another misconception that Uber doesn't permit them to.) If you have cash and want to show your appreciation to the driver for, say, efficiently navigating a complicated route, offer the same 15 to 20 percent you'd pay for a regular cab ride.

    Whether or not you tip, be sure to reward a good driver by leaving a positive rating and feedback after you get dropped off, says Thomas P. Farley, of What Manners Most, an etiquette consultancy.

    A restaurant added an automatic 18 percent service charge to my group's check, but the service was terrible. Should we have paid it? More restaurants are charging a mandatory service fee. If you experienced very poor service, speak with the manager and see what remedy he or she suggests or, if you feel a smaller gratuity is appropriate, determine an amount you think is fair and ask the manager to redo the bill. However abysmal the service, though, don't stiff your waiter, because you never know what behind-the-scenes factors affected how you were treated.

     

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  • 09/01/15--22:00: The Best End-of-Summer Sales
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    Family running together on beach
    Getty ImagesSummer might be almost over, but the sales are lingering.
    By Noelle Buhidar

    With all these back-to-school sales flooding the market, it feels as if the sun is setting on our summer state of mind. But here's the thing: Labor Day is super late this year. It isn't until Sept. 7, which means we've got a couple weeks left of that good old summer spirit. So to help you eke out a little more fun before the autumn chill sets in, here's a roundup of the hottest end-of-season clearance sales.

    Patio furniture: Say goodbye to that rickety wicker chair you've been sitting in, and just barely tolerating, all summer long, and splurge on a cushy new patio set. Because retailers are looking to clear their floors and storage space to make way for, dare I say, leaf blowers, snowblowers and even holiday decorations, they'll part with their patio furniture for peanuts. Home Depot is clearing out its inventory for up to 40 percent off, Lowe's is unloading its collection of chairs, tables and rugs for up to 50 percent off and Pier 1 Imports has slashed its prices by up to 70 percent. For outdoor sectionals, check out Pottery Barn, which is currently offering several models for up to nearly $3,000 off. No, that's not a typo. Oh, just think of the lounging you could do! Toss in a cashmere blanket and a good book, and you'll be set well into fall!

    Grills: For hardcore grillers, the outdoor cooking season never ends. So if you're in need of an upgrade, and just think what you could do with six burners rather than just four, strike now while the sales are red-hot. Sears has gas grills for up to 50 percent off. Char-Broil has seared up to $40 off several models, and with a coupon code, you can take off an additional 15 percent (or up to another $55 dollars). Cuisinart grills at Best Buy are up to $46 off. And for your grilling accessories, such as grill grids or sausage baskets, try Sur La Table, which is clearing out its inventory for up to 75 percent off.

    Bathing suits: Trust and believe, there's still time to swim, and even if it's not for long, there's always next year. The sales on swimsuits are just too good to pass up right now. Old Navy, for instance, has bikini bottoms and tops for $5 and $7, respectively (both originally $20), and one-pieces for $13 (originally $40). Macy's has suits by Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Nike and Calvin Klein for over half off, plus an additional 15 percent off with a coupon code. Victoria's Secret's suits are up to 60 percent off. SwimOutlet.com has over 1,000 items on its end-of-summer sale list, including many that are 80 percent off. And while you're at it, you might as well pick up a plush beach towel, too. Lands' End has sprawling 78-inch-long polka-dot ones for $15 (originally $40), while Pottery Barn has a few for nearly half price, plus free shipping.

    Shades: You've probably abused your poor sunglasses by sitting on them, dropping them and tossing them in your bag, where they get scratched by sand. So now is the perfect time to consider replacing your old pair. After all, the sun shines all year long, and the sales on shades are gleaming right now. Bluefly.com has designer models, including Givenchy, Chloe, Dior, Jimmy Choo and Oliver Peoples, for up to 85 percent off. (Every single pair of Bertha shades, which retail for $450, for example, are now $59.) The Sunglass Hut has over 250 pairs on sale, including Ray-Bans, Pradas and Miu Mius. For a sportier look, OpticsPlanet.com has several Bolle models on sale for nearly half off until Labor Day. The prices are so good that it's worth taking the chance, even if you can't try them on. Besides, each of those retailers offers free returns.

    Boards: You've watched your friends (in real life and on Instagram) riding the waves and paddling into the sunset. Now's the time for you to get in on the action, as surf and stand-up paddleboards are on sale. Global Surf Industries is currently offering both types of boards for up to 60 percent off. For paddlers, L.L.Bean has many models for up to 20 percent off, while Overton's has more than 50 boards on sale, most for over $100 off. For wave riders, Backcountry.com has brands, including Surftech and Lib Technologies, for up to 50 percent off. Of course, you can always just drop into your local surf shop, especially if you need guidance on selecting the right board. Some even sell gently used boards, a perfect introduction for kooks. (That's surfer slang for beginner. Of course, you'll learn that soon enough.)

    Now get out there and have fun!

    Noelle Buhidar is a shopping expert at RetailMeNot, a leading digital offers destination that helps consumers save money when they shop.

     

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    WD-40
    Jeepers Media/Flickr
    By Karla Bowsher

    WD-40 is marketed as a "multi-use product."

    It's known for the capabilities for which it's usually enlisted -- such as lubricating squeaky hinges, loosening rusted parts and driving out moisture. (In fact, "WD" stands for "water displacement.")

    But WD-40's uses extend well beyond those roles.

    WD-40 Co. (WDFC) offers thousands of uses for its namesake product on its website, including 2,000-plus uses contributed by the product's devotees. Pros and amateurs alike have been discovering more uses since the original WD-40 product was developed in 1953 after 39 failed attempts. (Thus, the "40" in its name.)

    We've rounded up some of the least known but most helpful uses below.

    If your instinct is to save a buck by buying a generic equivalent, we applaud you. But following through on that instinct might be more challenging than usual in WD-40's case.

    The product has few competitors, equity research analyst Joseph Altobello, currently of Raymond James Financial, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2013. Liquid Wrench, a brand-name product, and a few store brands could be the closest things to knock-offs.

    The newspaper noted the following about the San Diego headquarters of WD-40:

    The company keeps a room filled with knock-off brands that have tried and failed to mimic the product. Some of the cans look uncannily like regular WD-40. [Chief Executive Garry] Ridge calls that room the mortuary.

    If you try a new use for WD-40 or a knock-off, test it in a small inconspicuous area first. WD-40's list of fan-submitted uses notes that the company has not tested those suggestions, and that "customers should exercise common sense whenever using WD-40" and read the label.

    Indoors
    • Remove stickers, decals, price tags and tape. It also works on adhesive residue they might leave behind.
    • Remove scuff marks. This includes shoe scuff marks on floors and the interior of car doors as well as chair-back scuff marks on running boards on walls.
    • Remove dried toothpaste stains.
    • Dissolve glues. Examples from WD-40's website include removing glue from carpet, leather and other surfaces; removing hair-extension glue from hair; and removing glue stains from jeans.
    • Remove coffee stains. Examples from the website include cups, tables, counters and floor tiles. Just be sure to wipe up all fluid from floors so no one slips.
    • Remove chewing gum. The website mentions gum on hair, shoes, carpet, concrete and lunch trays.
    • Remove permanent marker from dry-erase boards.
    • Remove crayon, colored pencil, modeling clay and Silly Putty. Crayola specifically recommends WD-40, among other products, for various surfaces.
    • Separate stuck Lego building bricks.
    • Clean grass stains, paint and dog poop off shoes.
    • Dislodge salt-impregnated ice from boot soles.
    Outdoors
    • Deter wasps from nesting. For evicting the buggers from a nest or preventing them from building one, users of Reddit's "LifeProTips" message board agree on WD-40's effectiveness. Just don't spray a nest while wasps are around. As one commenter who made this mistake puts it: "They do not like it, and will attack."
    • Prevent grass from collecting on lawnmower blades.
    • Deter squirrels from raiding backyard bird feeders. WD-40 Co. CEO Ridge recently told the Los Angeles Times that his favorite story about an unusual use for WD-40 was about a woman who sprayed it on her bird feeder pole because squirrels were filching bird food: "Can you imagine those little squirrels trying to climb up that lubricated pole?"
    • Prevent snow from sticking to shovels and snowplow blades.
    • Open frozen mailbox doors.
    Vehicles
    • Remove dead bugs from various parts. WD-40's website mentions radiators, grills, bumpers and paint.
    • Remove bird droppings from hoods and roofs.
    • Prevent car parts from freezing in winter. The website mentions locks and windshield-wiper spray nozzles.
    • Remove barnacles from the bottom of boats.
    For more unusual uses for household products, check out "85 Uses for Baking Soda -- and How It Could Save Your Life" and "33 Uses for Baby Oil (Most of Which Don't Involve Babies)."

    Do you have a favorite use for WD-40? Or a favorite alternative product? Share your thoughts in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

    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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