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DailyFinance.com

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    Inside A HireLive Retail Job Fair As Initial Jobless Claims Are Released
    Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- Private employers maintained a steady pace of hiring in August despite recent global financial market turmoil, suggesting that labor market momentum likely remains strong enough for the Federal Reserve to consider an interest rate hike this year.

    The ADP National Employment Report showed private payrolls increased 190,000 last month. While that was below economists' expectations for a gain of 201,000 jobs, it was a step-up from the 177,000 positions created in July.

    The ADP (ADP) report, which is jointly developed with Moody's Analytics, was published Wednesday ahead of the government's more comprehensive employment report to be released on Friday.

    Businesses are still hiring, but it is not clear if Friday's report will give the Fed either an 'all-clear' or a 'let's go slow' signal.

    "Businesses are still hiring, but it is not clear if Friday's report will give the Fed either an 'all-clear' or a 'let's go slow' signal," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.

    According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased by 220,000 jobs in August after rising 215,000 in July. There is, however, a risk of a weaker number as the first print of August payrolls has tended to be weaker in the last several years before being revised higher.

    But some economists were encouraged by the ADP report, which showed job gains in all sectors, except in the energy industry.

    "ADP does not show the same initial under-reporting bias in the initial release of the August data as payroll data from the government appear to display," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.

    "This apparent consistent trend in ADP payroll gains would reassure us that the trend in employment was little changed in August in the event that payroll growth drops noticeably below 200,000 in Friday's report."

    The unemployment rate is forecast to tick down 0.1 percentage point to a near 7½-year low of 5.2 percent. The August employment report will be released less than two weeks before the Fed's Sept. 16-17 policy meeting.

    The chances of an interest rate hike this month have been diminished by a global stock market sell-off in the wake of poor economic data from China. In addition, U.S. factory activity slowed to a more than two-year low in August, with some economists citing the financial markets turbulence as a factor.

    However, Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer told CNBC last week it was too early to decide whether the stock market rout had made a rate hike this month less compelling.

    The dollar rose against a basket of currencies, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt fell. Stocks on Wall Street rebounded from Tuesday's sharp losses.

    Strong Domestic Activity

    In August, manufacturing payrolls increased 7,000 after rising only 1,000 in July, the ADP report showed. The construction industry added 17,000 jobs in August on top of 15,000 jobs in July. Services industry employment increased by 173,000 jobs in August following a gain of 170,000 in July.

    "Outside of manufacturing, the domestic activity data is very strong," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto. "But Fed officials are clearly worried about an economic slowdown in China, commodity prices are lower, and there is little evidence of any marked pick-up in either wage growth or core inflation."

    In a second report, the Labor Department said nonfarm productivity increased at its strongest pace in 1½ years in the second quarter, keeping wage inflation subdued for now.

    The government revised productivity to show it rising at a 3.3 percent annual rate, the quickest since the fourth quarter of 2013, instead of the 1.3 percent pace reported last month.

    But the trend in productivity remains weak. Productivity rose 0.7 percent from a year ago instead of the 0.3 percent increase reported last month.

    Growth in productivity is an important determinant of the economy's non-inflationary speed limit. Though the second-quarter bounce back is dampening wage pressure for now, the weak trend in productivity suggests the economy's growth potential could be lower than the 1.5 to 2 percent pace that economists have been estimating.

    That would imply the spare capacity in the economy is being squeezed out more quickly than thought and that inflation pressures may take hold a little bit faster than had been anticipated.

    Unit labor costs, the price of labor per single unit of output, fell at a 1.4 percent rate in the second quarter, rather than increasing at a 0.5 percent rate as previously reported. Unit labor costs rose 1.7 percent compared to the second quarter of 2014.

    A third report from the Commerce Department new orders for U.S. factory goods rose for a second straight month in July on strong demand for automobiles, which could help to keep manufacturing supported as it deals with the buoyant dollar and softening global demand.

    -Chuck Mikolajczak contributed reporting from New York.

     

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    woman sitting at the desk ...
    Shutterstock
    By Bobbi Rebell

    NEW YORK -- Millennials get plenty of recognition for frugality and their desire to share everything from cars to clothes, but they also have the lowest average credit score of any generation, according to a new study.

    The average millennial credit score is 625, and 28 percent of them are ranked below 579, says NerdWallet, a personal finance website. In the world of credit scores, anything above 660 (out of 850) is considered good.

    Based on millennial credit habits, those scores may not improve.

    Among the key issues: Some millennials (18- to 34-year-olds) are shunning credit cards completely after hearing so many debt-related horror stories from the financial crisis. Others are applying for the wrong cards and getting rejected.

    Millennials are misunderstanding, or are simply unaware of, the benefits of credit cards.

    "Millennials are misunderstanding, or are simply unaware of, the benefits of credit cards," says Sean McQuay, NerdWallet's resident credit card expert.

    A recent study by Experian found that millennials are making student loan debt more of a priority. That's in contrast to the previous generation, Gen X, which prioritized getting credit cards.

    About a third of millennials have never even applied for a credit card, NerdWallet says. That means they aren't building credit and will have a hard time when they need a credit history.

    Millennials' avoidance of getting into the credit card game will cost them in the long run. For example, you need a solid credit score to rent an apartment, get the best insurance rates or just get a loan.

    Credit scores are even sometimes used to vet job candidates these days. Credit history is key for making grownup purchases -- and the length of that history is a big part of your credit score.

    The good news is that the majority of millennials have applied for a credit card. But when they do apply for credit, about half (48 percent) are motivated by an advertisement or promotion, according to NerdWallet's research. That can lead to a bad fit.

    For example, a millennial who doesn't drive shouldn't apply for a gas card. Credit cards aren't one size fits all.

    Ironically, NerdWallet's study found that millennials with the lower FICO scores -- between 300 and 579 -- are applying for credit the most. Not surprisingly, they also get approved less frequently.

    Credit Strategies

    Getting credit for the first time needs to be done strategically. Here's why: when a consumer applies for a new credit card, his credit score gets what is called a "hard" credit inquiry. The more inquiries a consumer has, the riskier he or she appears to be to lenders, and that in turn lowers his or her credit score. If you are starting out cold with no score, that gets amplified.

    "A good rule of thumb is to wait six months to a year between card applications," says McQuay.

    NerdWallet recommends Millennials take advantage of the free FICO scores now offered by many credit card issuers.

    Other potential sources for this information for some student borrowers include Sallie Mae, along with credit counselors.

    A common pitfall to avoid: store credit cards, which often come with an initial discount off items purchased. "They say, 'Do you want to save 10 percent?' And my answer is always only if you don't run my credit and that ends the conversation," says Cary Carbonaro, author of "The Money Queen's Guide."

    Your credit score goes down the more you shop for credit and keep adding outstanding credit lines, Carbonaro notes.

    Carbonaro's advice is to apply for low-limit cards and charge small amounts on a regular basis. Pay off your bills every month and slowly build a credit score.

    Be careful of rewards cards, too. Or at least do the math before you sign up. The average annual fee on a reward card is $58. The average reward rate is 1.14 cents a point. You have to spend $5,088, just to earn back your annual fee. If that's not likely to happen, it is better to go for the no-fee card, especially since almost one in five people didn't redeem any of their rewards last year.

    Paying cash for everything may sound great. But, like it or not, you need credit to establish yourself in the financial world. It's better to reward yourself with a strong credit history.

     

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    Aerial View of the Pentagon in Virginia
    Getty Images
    The month of August was a weird one at the United States Department of Defense, in at least two ways. For one thing, the Pentagon awarded $38.66 billion on new military hardware and services (not counting servicemembers' salaries and benefits). That's considerably more than what it ordinarily spends in any single month's time.

    For another, the Pentagon spent more than half of that money in just one day.

    And on one single contract.

    Introducing the Nation's Most Transparent Government Agency: The Pentagon

    How do we know this? Let's give credit where credit is due. The Pentagon may be a big spender (of your money). But it's a whole lot more open about how it spends that money, and what it buys with it, than are many government agencies. Every day of the week, almost in real time, the Department of Defense reports to U.S. taxpayers on what contracts it's issued, to whom, and for how much -- all right out in the open on its website.

    Today, we're going to give you a glimpse at those contracts, as we review the top five most interesting Pentagon contracts awarded last month. We'll begin with the one that knocked the lights out:

    $21 Billion for Training, but Not 1 Cent for Tribute

    More than anything else, the U.S. Pentagon spent its money on training last month. In the largest dollar-value contract we've seen in ... well, in a very long time, the U.S. Air Force contracted with 25 separate companies to supply it with "training systems."

    $20.9 billion worth of training systems. That's the amount of hardware "encompassing complex aircrew, maintenance, and system-specific training systems in support of warfighter training at operating locations worldwide" that USAF will be buying from defense companies such as Lockheed Martin (LMT), L-3 Communications (LLL) and Northrop Grumman (NOC) over the next 10 years.

    Call Tech Support!

    The training contract was definitely the biggest news coming out of the Pentagon last month, but it was far from the only large contract awarded. In fact, last month saw two more $2 billion-plus awards days, and a handful of $1 billion-plus days besides.

    On one of these days, Microsoft (MSFT) picked up a cool $163 million in extra funding on its contract to provide the Defense Information Systems Agency unspecified "Microsoft enterprise technical support services." As the Pentagon confides, in total, this contract is now worth $575 million to Mr. Softie.

    Sub-Hunters for the Navy

    Another of those big-dollar days was dominated by Boeing (BA), which grabbed a $1.49 billion deal late in the month on a partial-foreign military sales contract to supply the U.S. Navy with nine P-8A Poseidon sub-hunting aircraft and to sell four more to the Royal Australian Air Force.

    The U.S. Pentagon is apparently acting as intermediary on the latter sale. The Australians, however, will pick up the tab.

    And Speaking of 'Foreign Military Sales'...

    On Aug. 25, Bell Helicopter Textron won a $581 million order to supply nearly three dozen UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper combat helicopters to the U.S. Marine Corps -- but not just the Corps. As described in the Pentagon's announcement, these very modern combat helicopters have been ordered by "the Marine Corps and government of Pakistan."

    Uncharacteristically, the Pentagon wasn't specific on which of these helicopters are destined for the U.S. armed forces and which for the Pakistanis.

    This Is Your Captain Speaking. Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto...

    Choosing one final "interesting" contract from a month that saw so many isn't easy. But after hitting all the biggest dollar-value awards, we'll close today with a very small one, but one that has big implications for the service. For a mere $9.8 million, Sikorsky Aircraft Company (soon to be owned by Lockheed Martin) has been hired to begin Phase II of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's ALIAS program.

    Under this program, Sikorsky will attempt to turn one of its iconic Black Hawk helicopters into a flying robot -- a very large, but unmanned, aerial vehicle. Sikorsky's task, according to the announcement of Phase I of the project earlier this year, is to "develop and insert new automation into existing aircraft to enable operation with reduced onboard crew." This would render the Black Hawk an "optionally piloted" vehicle that could, at need, fly into a war zone completely autonomous of human control, and at no risk to a pilot. So even if this was one of the smallest contracts awarded last month, it just might be one of the most important.

    These awards represent only a small sampling of the hundreds of contracts your tax dollars funded last month, of course. To see the rest, check out the U.S. Department of Defense contracts website here.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith wonders if the Pentagon knows that Toys 'R' Us already has remote control helicopters on sale already -- for just $19.99. Follow him on Facebook for all the latest in defense news.

    The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. 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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    Unhappy baby
    Getty Images
    By BREE FOWLER

    NEW YORK -- Several of the most popular Internet-connected baby monitors lack basic security features, making them vulnerable to even the most basic hacking attempts, according to a report from a cybersecurity firm.

    The possibility of an unknown person watching their baby's every move is a frightening thought for many parents who have come to rely on the devices to keep an eye on their little ones. In addition, a hacked camera could provide access to other Wi-Fi-enabled devices in a person's home, such as a personal computer or security system.

    The research released Wednesday by Boston-based Rapid7 Inc. looks at nine baby monitors made by eight different companies. They range in price from $55 to $260.

    There's a certain leap of faith you're taking with your child when you use one of these.

    The cameras are often mounted over a baby's crib or another place where they spend a large amount of time. They work by filming the child, then sending that video stream to a personal website or an app on a smartphone or tablet. Some of the cameras also feature noise or motion detectors and alert parents when the baby makes a sound or moves.

    "There's a certain leap of faith you're taking with your child when you use one of these," says Mark Stanislav, a senior security consultant at Rapid7 and one of the report's authors.

    The Rapid7 researchers found serious security problems and design flaws in all of the cameras they tested. Some had hidden, unchangeable passwords, often listed in their manuals or online, that could be used to gain access. In addition, some of the devices didn't encrypt their data streams, or some of their web or mobile features, Stanislav says.

    'Internet of Things'

    The problems with the cameras highlight the security risks associated with what's become known as the "Internet of things." Homes are becoming increasingly connected, with everything from TVs to slow cookers now featuring Wi-Fi connections. But many consumer devices often don't undergo rigorous security testing and could be easy targets for hackers.

    And if a hacker has access to one connected device, he or she could potentially access everything tethered to that home's Wi-Fi network, whether it's a home computer storing personal financial information or a company's computer system that's being accessed by an employee working from home.

    In the Rapid7 study, researchers rated the devices' security on a 250-point scale. The scores then received a grade of between "A'' and "F." Of those tested, eight received an "F," while one received a "D." All of the camera manufactures were notified of the problems earlier this summer and some have taken steps to fix the problems.

    "When one gets an 'F' and one gets a 'D minus,' there isn't an appreciable difference," Stanislav says. "And unlike a laptop where you can install firewalls and antimalware, you can't do that here."

    For example, researchers noted that the Phillips In.Sight B120 baby monitor, which retails for about $78, had a direct, unencrypted connection to the Internet. That could allow a hacker watch its video stream online, as well as remotely access the camera itself and change its settings, the report says.

    Phillips NV released a statement noting that the model in question has been discontinued. It added that its brand of video baby monitors is now licensed to Gibson Innovations, which is aware of the problems and it working on a software update designed to fix it.

    The researchers also tested the iBaby and iBaby M3S, Summer Infant's Summer Baby Zoom WiFi Monitor & Internet Viewing System, Lens Peek-a-View, Gynoii, TRENDnet WiFi Baby Cam TV-IP743SIC, WiFiBaby WFB2015 and Withings WBP01.

    Officials for iBaby, Lens Laboratories Inc. and TRENDnet didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Withings said he couldn't immediately comment on the report.

    Summer Infant says in a statement saying that it's reviewing the report's findings and will make sure that the needed precautions are taken to protect its customers' security. Gynoii says that it's reaching out to Rapid7 in hopes of fixing the issues with its camera.

    And WiFiBaby released a statement defending its camera's security, noting that its latest software requires users to set their own unique password when they set up their camera.

    Higher camera prices didn't translate to higher levels of security. In fact, the pricier models usually came with more features, which left unsecured could give hackers more ways to potentially access a camera or its video stream, Stanislav says.

    In order to protect themselves, consumers should keep an eye out for any camera or mobile application updates. In addition, if parents still want to use a camera that's known to be susceptible to hackers, they should use it sparingly and unplug it when it's not in use, Stanislav says.

     

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    Economy Fed Rate Hike
    Susan Walsh/AP
    By MARTIN CRUTSINGER

    WASHINGTON -- While U.S. housing and auto sales showed strength over the summer, manufacturers were feeling pressure from China's economic slowdown and the oil industry was squeezed by lower energy prices.

    That's the U.S. economic picture that emerges from the Federal Reserve's latest look at business conditions around the country. The Fed said 11 of its 12 regional banks reported that the economy grew at least modestly in July through mid-August. One of the Fed's regions -- Cleveland -- reported only slight growth.

    The Fed report, known as the beige book, will be used for discussion when the central bank meets next on Sept. 16-17. The gathering will be closely watched because of the possibility it will decide to start raising interest rates from record lows near zero.

    The recent stock market turbulence, triggered by worries about China's slowdown, has led some analysts to lower the odds for a Fed move in September. But other economists still believe a Fed rate hike this month is likely, especially if markets stabilize and Friday's unemployment report shows strong job gains continued in August.

    The Beige Book survey showed a somewhat mixed picture for manufacturing, with 10 regions reporting stable or positive growth overall but New York and Kansas City seeing declines.

    The Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Richmond and Dallas districts all said that a strong dollar had dampened manufacturing activity. Three districts cited China's deceleration as dragging on some business.

    The Chinese slowdown hurt demand for wood products in the San Francisco district, chemicals in the Boston area and high-tech goods in the Dallas region.

    The survey found that real estate activity improved throughout the country, with home sales and home prices climbing in all 12 districts. Auto sales were also a bright spot in most regions.

    "Expectations are generally optimistic that auto sales will improve or continue to be strong through the end of the year," the report said.

    Wages were reported to be "relatively stable" in most regions, although several districts noted wages heading higher in some industries. St. Louis said that almost three-fourths of the businesses surveyed reported rising wages in the last three months, while Cleveland reported intensifying wage pressure in construction, retail and transportation sectors. Kansas City and Dallas, both regions hit by layoffs in the oil industry, reported wage growth had either slowed or was flat.

    The overall economy expanded at a healthy annual rate of 3.7 percent in the April-June quarter. Most forecasters believe growth has moderated slightly to around 2.5 percent in the current July-September quarter but are looking for an acceleration to around 3 percent growth in the final three months of the year.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Noel Randewich

    NEW YORK - Wall Street stocks jumped almost 2 percent Wednesday in the latest volatile session as investors weighed the impact of a stumbling Chinese economy and global market turmoil on the Federal Reserve's impending decision about when to raise interest rates.

    U.S. investors have weathered over two weeks of unusually wide-swinging trade that has left the S&P 500 with its worst monthly drop in three years and a loss of 8.5 percent from an all-time high in May.

    What we're seeing today is not a recovery. It's market volatility, it's nervousness, it's an inability to call the direction of the market.

    "What we're seeing today is not a recovery. It's market volatility, it's nervousness, it's an inability to call the direction of the market," said Jake Dollarhide, chief executive officer of Longbow Asset Management in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

    "Through now and October we're going to see a lot more of this, a lot of volatility."

    U.S. labor markets were tight enough to fuel small wage gains in some professions in recent weeks, though some companies already felt a chill from an economic slowdown in China, the Fed said.

    The combination of more demand for workers and worries about Chinese economic growth underscores the challenge faced by the Fed at a Sept. 16-17 meeting where it may decide to raise interest rates for the first time since 2006.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) jumped 1.8 percent to end at 16,351.31 points. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) climbed 1.8 percent to 1,948.85 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) surged 2.5 percent to 4,749.98.

    The CBOE Volatility index, Wall Street's "fear gauge," fell 11 percent but stayed in territory not seen since 2011 after Standard & Poor's cut its credit rating on the United States for the first time.

    The recent turbulence has left the S&P 500's valuation at 15.1 times expected earnings, inexpensive compared to around 17 for much of 2015, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine data. But investors fear that the outlook for earnings may darken as China's economy loses steam.

    Concerns about China's economy pushed major U.S. indexes down almost 3 percent Tuesday and intensified fears of a long-term sell-off.

    Tech Gain Leads

    On Wednesday, all of the 10 major S&P sectors were higher, led by the technology index's 2.6 percent rise, helped by Apple (AAPL), up 4.3 percent, and Microsoft (MSFT), up 3.7 percent.

    Shares of banks and bond insurers rose after Puerto Rico's indebted public utility PREPA reached a deal with a key bondholder group.

    OFG Bancorp (OFG) surged 19.6 percent and First Bancorp (FBP) rose 9.8 percent.

    Ambarella (AMBA) slid 8.5 percent after the chipmaker's third-quarter revenue forecast failed to impress investors. Key-customer GoPro (GPRO) fell 5.5 percent after Raymond James said Ambarella's forecast likely means GoPro won't launch more products this year.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2,256 to 793; on the Nasdaq, 1,967 issues rose and 875 fell. The S&P posted 1 new 52-week high and 10 new lows; the Nasdaq composite racked up 20 new highs and 52 new lows.

    Volume was lighter than in recent days. About 6.7 billion shares traded on U.S. exchanges, compared to an average of 9.1 billion in the past five sessions, according to BATS Global Markets.

    -Sinead Carew in New York and Tanya Agrawal in Bangalore contributed reporting.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims, and the Commerce Department releases international trade data for July.
    • At 10 a.m., the Institute for Supply Management releases its service sector index for August, and Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Campbell Soup (CPB)
    • Cooper Cos. (COO)
    • Medtronic (MDT)
    • Verifone Systems (PAY)

     

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    a credit card on top of a fake...
    Shutterstock
    By Stacy Johnson

    If you live in America, have a decent credit score and can fog a mirror, you've probably received promotional offers for very low or zero percent credit cards. A zero percent credit line for a year or more can be mighty tempting, especially if you're laboring under the burden of high-interest debt elsewhere. Which brings us to today's reader question.

    I would really appreciate some advice about whether it is a good idea for me to take advantage of the zero percent balance transfer promotion with one of my credit cards.

    I recently came into some unexpected expenses and thought that maybe this might be an opportunity to limit the high interest I am currently experiencing with my credit card, which has more than $8,000 on it and an interest rate of 15.24 percent.

    Sincerely -- Struck by offer but don't want to make it a financial mistake

    The short answer to your question, Struck, is yes. If you can pay zero interest on all or part of an existing balance, you want to.

    That being said, there are things you need to know about credit cards, especially the zero percent interest kind. Here are some things to know about zero percent balance transfer offers.

    It's possible you won't get it. Zero percent card offers are normally made to those with good credit -- scores of 700-plus. While card companies typically screen before making offers, if your credit score changes before you submit an application, they could turn you down.

    Offers made by credit card companies are just that -- offers. They aren't guarantees.

    Mess up once, and you could lose the zero percent rate. Be sure to read the fine print. Many cards will include conditions, such as paying on time, to retain the zero percent rate. Make a payment that's one day late, and you could lose it.

    You'll probably pay a fee. This is the biggest drawback to transferring a balance to a zero percent card. The vast majority of issuers charge a fee ranging from 2 to 5 percent of the balance to transfer to their zero percent card.

    For example, if you transfer $8,000 to a card that charges a 4 percent fee, you'll be paying off $8,320.

    Do the math. That's why, before transferring any balance, you have to figure out how much it's going to cost you. There are calculators that can help determine just how much you'll save by transferring balances. For example, you can find one at CreditCards.com.

    I used that calculator to find out what you'd save by transferring an $8,000 balance to a zero percent card for 18 months, after paying a 4 percent fee. It says you'll save $1,509 in interest over the life of the 18-month promotional period, then $22 a month thereafter, assuming that you make only minimum payments. Not bad.

    Granted, you may not be able to transfer the entire $8,000 balance, and we don't know the transfer fee you'll pay. So, although the math will probably work out to your benefit, you need to do it yourself.

    Check the rate for purchases as well as transfers. Some cards offer a zero percent rate on balance transfers but charge a different rate on new purchases made on the card, as well as for cash advances. If the amount you're transferring will devour your entire available credit line, this won't be a concern, but if not, find out the terms.

    Have you shopped it? Since applying for credit is a hassle, when you do it, make sure you're getting the best bang for the buck.

    Like many consumer sites, we have a full list of balance transfer credit cards. Some have longer zero percent interest promotional periods than others, and some have lower post-promotional rates, better rewards, lower fees, etc.

    You obviously want a zero percent promotional rate, but decide on other features you'd like, then take the time to make sure you're getting the best deal.

    Are you using a Band-Aid when you need stitches? There's an elephant in the room with any balance transfer, namely, the reason you're juggling debt in the first place.

    As justification for carrying a balance, Struck says, "I recently came into some unexpected expenses." One-time, nonrecurring expenses are the perfect problem to solve with zero percent credit offers. But if you're habitually living beyond your means, a zero percent card is simply postponing the inevitable day when you reach the end of your credit rope.

    Obviously, whatever the source of your debt, paying less interest is better than paying more. But as you make these transfers, take some time to evaluate what got you here and what it's going to take to get you out. Then, if you need help, get it.

    Got a question you'd like answered?

    A great way to get answers to just about any money-related question is to head to our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth and, most important, post questions and get answers. It's also where I often look for questions to answer in this weekly column. You can also ask questions by replying to our daily emails. If you're not getting them, fix that right now by subscribing here.

    About me

    I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I've earned a CPA (currently inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.

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    How to Get Bank and Credit Card Fees Reversed

     

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    portland  maine   june 1  2014  ...
    Shutterstock
    By Cameron Huddleston

    Whole Foods' reputation for being pricey earned it the nickname "Whole Paycheck," but the grocery chain, which specializes in organic fare, does offer some deals. If you need to run in to pick up a specialty item, it's worth checking out several products that are competitively priced, said Gina Briles, a writer for Cheapism.com who has researched Whole Foods price comparisons.

    That said, if you're looking for the biggest bang for your buck, you "can't do all of your shopping at Whole Foods," said Briles. Read on to find out which Whole Foods deals are the best -- and which are the worst.

    10 Best Deals at Whole Foods

    Not everything Whole Foods sells is priced at a premium. Several items -- even when not on sale -- cost the same or less as similar items at other grocery and supermarket chains.

    Increasing competition from other grocers offering premium products has led Whole Foods to lower its prices and offer more promotions such as one-day sales on select items. Several of Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value brand products are priced low, and although there are no Whole Foods discount codes currently available, the chain does publish its Whole Foods sales flier online, which can be searched by store location and downloaded as a PDF.

    Here are 10 items that we found with the help of deal experts and through our own research that are some of the best deals at Whole Foods, so you don't have to feel guilty about buying these things at the upscale grocer.

    1. Organic milk. A gallon of Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value organic milk costs 20 cents to $1 less than the store brands of other supermarkets we checked. Only low-cost grocery chain Trader Joe's has a price as low as Whole Foods' $5.99.

    2. Non-dairy milk. For people who can't consume dairy or choose not to, Whole Foods has competitive pricing on its store-brand milk alternatives. According to research by Cheapism.com, a 32-ounce carton of 365 Everyday Value rice milk is about $1 less than the Rice Dream brand at Safeway. And we found that a 64-ounce carton of 365 organic soy milk at Whole Foods is the same price as Trader Joe's organic soy milk -- $2.99.

    3. Organic olive oil. Briles said that one of the best deals at Whole Foods is its 365 brand organic olive oil, which is priced lower than name brands and other supermarkets' organic store brands. For example, we found that a 33.8-ounce bottle of 365 organic olive oil costs $3 less than a 24.3-ounce bottle of Newman's Own organic olive oil at Kroger and about 5 cents less per ounce than the Wild Oats brand at Walmart.

    4. Organic chicken broth. At $1.99, a 32-ounce carton of 365 brand organic chicken broth at Whole Foods is priced 30 to 40 cents less than Trader Joe's and the supermarkets we checked. It's even a penny less than the Wild Oats 32-ounce carton of organic chicken broth at Walmart.

    5. Organic pasta. Most pastas aren't expensive, but you'll find especially good prices on the Whole Foods 365 brand organic pastas. For example, at $1.29, a 16-ounce box of 365 brand spaghetti is 10 cents less than the same size box of Wild Oats organic spaghetti at Walmart and 60 cents less than Kroger's Simple Truth brand. Also, the price of 365 brand conventional pasta is the same as or lower than the prices of name-brand and store-brand pastas at the supermarkets we checked.

    6. Almond butter. This alternative to peanut butter isn't cheap, so you'll save money by stocking up on jars of it at Whole Foods. You can get a 16-ounce jar at Whole Foods for $1 less than at Trader Joe's, according to Cheapism.com. We also found that the Whole Foods price is lower than the cost of Kroger's Simple Truth almond butter and the Maranatha brand at Walmart.

    7. Organic maple syrup. You can drizzle your pancakes with organic maple syrup for less money with the Whole Foods 365 brand, which we found sells for $7.99 for 12 ounces. This price per ounce beats smaller bottles at Kroger and Walmart by several cents.

    8. Organic coconut oil. If you like to use coconut oil for cooking or skin or hair care, Briles said you'll get a good deal with the Whole Foods 365 brand. According to Cheapism.com, a 14-ounce jar is a few dollars less than the Spectrum-brand organic coconut oil at Safeway. And we found that the 365 brand jar is $1 less than Kroger's Simple Truth brand.

    9. Long-grain brown rice. Trader Joe's specialty food offerings often are a low-cost alternative to many Whole Foods products. But Cheapism.com found that Whole Foods has the lower price on long-grain brown rice, at $5.79 for a 5-pound bag ($1.16 a pound) versus $3.29 for a 2-pound bag ($1.65 a pound) at Trader Joe's -- a savings of about 50 cents a pound. Stephanie Nelson, The Coupon Mom, said that Whole Foods' rice and grains sold in bulk -- where you scoop the amount you want out of a bin and into a bag -- offer savings over packaged versions of those items.

    10. Baguettes. Many of Whole Foods' bakery items aren't bargains, said Nelson. But we found that the organic French baguettes were a good deal at $1.29. Non-organic baguettes at Kroger and Trader Joe's were 20 cents to 70 cents more, respectively.

    10 Worst Buys at Whole Foods

    As if Whole Foods' upscale reputation weren't enough to deter value-minded shoppers, now the chain is contending with allegations that it systematically overcharged for prepackaged food in New York, according to CNN Money. Last year, The Los Angeles Times reported that Whole Foods paid $800,000 in fines to several California cities for pricing violations.

    Overcharging allegations aside, several items at Whole Foods are generally more expensive than similar offerings at other grocers. Click through to see 10 of the worst deals at Whole Foods.

    1. Beef. Although Whole Foods does have sales on meat, its prices rarely go as low as supermarket sale prices, said Teri Gault, CEO of grocery savings website TheGroceryGame.com. And Whole Foods' "regular prices are most always higher than supermarkets' regular prices on any meat, whether organic or not," she said. For example, you'll pay twice as much for a non-organic steak at Whole Foods as you would for the same USDA-grade steak at supermarkets, Gault said.

    2. Organic chicken. Whole organic chickens usually cost $4 to $5 a pound at Whole Foods, while the average price at supermarkets is $3.50 a pound, Gault said. Trader Joe's charges just $2.69 a pound. We also found that Trader Joe's undercuts Whole Foods' price on organic chicken breasts by $3 a pound.

    3. Cereal. Name-brand cereals tend to be less expensive at supermarkets or discount stores that carry the same brands as Whole Foods, said Nelson. Even Whole Foods' 365 brand cereal costs more than other stores' own brands. For example, we found a 12.8-ounce box of Whole Foods 365 brand Multi-Grain Morning O's cereal (think generic Cheerios) for $3.39 versus just $2.99 for Trader Joe's version.

    4. Coffee. You can get your caffeine fix for a lot less at Trader Joe's. The discount grocer's 13-ounce container of organic, whole bean, French roast coffee is just $7.49 versus $11.99 for a 12-ounce bag of Allegro whole bean, French roast coffee at Whole Foods. We found that a 26-ounce container of Trader Joe's non-organic, French roast coffee is 12 cents less per ounce than the Allegro 16-ounce bag at Whole Foods.​

    5. Deli items. Whole Foods' deli offerings are beautiful but incredibly marked up, Gault said. For example, whole, non-organic roasted chickens are regularly priced at $9 at Whole Foods, which recently had a highly promoted sale on them for $5. The regular price for roasted chickens at supermarkets averages $5 to $7, she said.

    6. Fish. Whole Foods claims that it is the only national retailer with full traceability from fishery or farm to store. Perhaps that explains, in part, the higher price of its fish. For example, the regular price of wild swordfish steak at Whole Foods is $13.99 a pound -- $11.99 on sale -- Gault said. At supermarkets, however, the average regular price is $11.99 a pound, with sale prices averaging $6.97 a pound, she said.

    7. Frozen foods. Many convenience frozen foods cost more at Whole Foods, Gault said. For example, Van's frozen waffles are regularly priced at $3.79 at Whole Foods, while the regular price at supermarkets is $2.99, she said. We found that a 10-ounce package of Amy's Palak Paneer -- a vegetarian Indian dish -- is $5.59 at Whole Foods but just $3.99 at Kroger.

    8. Produce. The regular price of organic and conventional produce is generally higher at Whole Foods than at supermarkets, Gault said. In fact, in-season organic produce is usually a featured sale item in supermarkets. For example, organic peaches recently were on sale at Kroger for $1 less than the sale price at Whole Foods, Gault said. We also found that the regular prices on other organic items, such as 5-ounce packages of spring mix lettuce, are less at supermarkets and significantly cheaper -- by $1.50 -- at Trader Joe's.

    9. Specialty cheeses. Don't expect to find deals on artisan and imported cheeses at Whole Foods. You'll find much better deals at Trader Joe's. For example, we found that the prices of the various types of brie at Trader Joe's range from $5.99 a pound to $8.99 a pound, whereas the prices at Whole Foods range from $9.99 a pound to $13.99 a pound. A 4-ounce package of goat cheese is $2 less at Trader Joe's than the least-expensive offering at Whole Foods.

    10. Natural cat litter. If you want to fill your cat's litter box with natural, chemical-free litter, you'll find better deals on Amazon or even pet supply stores such as Petco than you will at Whole Foods. We found that an 11-pound bag of Whole Foods 365 brand natural pine cat litter is $15.99. However, 20-pound bags of Feline Pine Original cat litter sell for several dollars less on Amazon and Petco.com than the smaller Whole Foods bag.

    Prices included in this article are examples found at different store locations; prices can vary by location and are subject to change.

    This article, 10 Best and Worst Deals at Whole Foods, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Girl eating corncob at table in backyard
    Getty Images
    The holiday weekend is here and most people are probably thinking about relaxing, cookouts and generally making the most of the Labor Day break. However, this is also a good time to save some money if you know where to look.

    Let's look at some of the seasonal deals and things that are cheaper now than they were a year ago.

    1. Fill 'Er Up

    Whether it's one last summer getaway or you want to drive out to visit friends and family, there will be less pain at the pump this time around. The average price for a gallon of gas across the country, according to rate tracker GasBuddy.com, has fallen to $2.46 from $3.44 a year ago. That's a pretty big markdown, and it's going to feel even better if you travel to the same place every Labor Day weekend.

    It's true that gas prices are a bit higher since bottoming out at a little more than $2 earlier this year, but it's still a welcome year-over-year comparison this holiday weekend.

    2. Draped in Jewelry

    Labor Day isn't a romantic holiday, but if you've been waiting for the right time to snap up an engagement ring or any other form of jewelry, you'll have the long weekend to go shopping. The market prices for precious metals have been trending lower over the past year. An ounce of gold has shed more than 10 percent of its value since Labor Day last year, according to commodity watcher GoldPrice.org. If you're settling for silver, that metal has seen its cost plunge by a quarter of its value over the past year.

    3. Bargains on the Menu

    Restaurants tend to be busier than usual during holiday weekends, but that doesn't mean that they're skimping on deals. Several websites including RetailMeNot (SALE) and EatDrinkDeals.com have many Labor Day coupons and coupon codes to consider.

    Some of the coupons available at EatDrinkDeals include a BOGO burger offer at Jack in the Box (JACK), a 25 percent discount at Boston Market for Labor Day and a $5-off coupon at Olive Garden. It's good to check the coupon aggregators, because sometimes eateries don't prominently feature coupon-based promotions on their own websites.

    4. Make the Most of the Gig Economy

    One of the biggest trends of 2015 is what is being called the gig economy, with folks using their cars to make money on the side by delivering food and groceries or transporting people. With so many players trying to get noticed, there are some pretty nifty deals being doled out to first-time customers.

    Amazon's (AMZN) Prime Now is the leading online retailer's bold push to deliver locally available merchandise to your door within two hours if you're an Amazon Prime member. If it's available where you live -- and you haven't tried it -- Amazon is currently offering $20 off a $50 order with the code TRYITNOW. It's been billed as a "limited time offer" this summer, and you never know when it's going to end. Uber, Lyft and the many food delivery specialists also tend to offer big deals the first time you use them.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Amazon.com and RetailMeNot. 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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    Businessman with change
    Getty ImagesYou may be doing more harm than good by penny-pinching.
    By Geoff Williams

    While saving money is almost always a good thing, there are a few circumstances​ where frugality can end up costing you money. In the following 10 instances, thrifty ambitions can actually end up backfiring -- and hurting you financially. ​

    1. Buying used baby products. When it comes to cribs, car seats and high chairs, it's safer to spend more than buy the cheapest items you can find. Although baby products are heavily regulated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, recalls often occur and the standards on what is considered safe change. The high chair you found at a garage sale or thrift store may look sturdy, but for all you know, it was recalled three years ago because the screws sometimes come loose. Not only could you end up endangering your child, but you might have to buy a replacement.

    2. Skimping on footwear. Cheap and uncomfortable shoes not only hurt, but they can lead to blisters and calluses. You want to find a good fit with a high quality shoe to avoid future trips to the podiatrist's office. Cheap shoes also tend to fall apart more quickly. Save yourself money, and buy a quality pair the first time.

    3. Buying health insurance with the lowest premium. Of course, it's better to have not-so-great health insurance than no health insurance at all. But if you're comparison shopping between plans, don't automatically select the one with the cheapest premiums, because doing so could end up costing you in the end. If you end up paying more for doctor's visits, or even worse, skipping visits because you don't like the in-network health care providers, then that cheap policy will cost you.

    4. Not writing a will. Your decision to forgo a will won't personally cost you a dime, but you could end up leaving a lot less to your family and friends. That's because your estate could go through the court system and lose money in legal fees along the way. Instead, get your affairs in order in advance for the benefit of your loved ones.

    5. DIY appliance delivery. Sometimes consumers try to cut corners by transporting appliances themselves if the merchant doesn't offer free delivery. If you can borrow a friend's truck and avoid the delivery and installation charge, why not? Keep in mind that when you pay for delivery, the company is responsible for the appliance until it's installed. If you transport it yourself, and especially if you haven't purchased a warranty to cover accidents, you are taking a risk that you or a friend might drop and damage it.

    6. Buying something because it's interest-free for a while. It's tempting to buy something with a zero-interest window, like a "90-day, same-as-cash" offer, in which you're charged no interest if you pay for the product within 90 days. However, many people don't end up saving the money, and they end up paying more in accumulated interest. Instead, just save your money and make the purchase, if you really want it, when you have the cash on hand.

    7. Not going to the doctor when you're sick. This is a classic money (and health) mistake. You may have a treatable problem that goes undiagnosed and eventually becomes not so treatable. And it isn't just appointments with your general practitioner. Regular eye exams and dental checkups can shield you from bigger costs down the road.

    8. Leasing a car. In the short term, leasing a car might appear to be cheaper than purchasing one. But consumers typically get locked into making lease payments over a certain time period, even if their car needs change. Plus, when your lease ends, the car is no longer yours, so you have nothing to show for those monthly payments.

    9. Going with a cheaper mover. Hiring movers at a cut-rate price, at least without doing your homework, can be an expensive mistake. Cheap movers can show up with a truck that's too small or not enough workers to handle all the items. You might even end up paying much more than the initial estimate.

    10. Not putting much money, or any money, away for retirement. You don't need a lecture on how important it is to save for retirement. But if your employer has offered to match your contributions, and you leave that money on the table, you're giving up the chance to potentially receive thousands of dollars each year. You may be hanging onto your money right now, but you're definitely losing out in the long run.

     

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    Caucasian couple in pajamas shopping online with digital tablet
    Alamy
    By Sandra Block and Kathy Kristof

    These days, consumers have a vast array of financial products and services to manage. Consider these digital resources to help you keep track of it all:

    1. Automatic bill payment and saving. To keep a record of bill payments and how the money is spent (helpful if you're trying to stick to a budget), check out Mint.com. Another alternative is PersonalCapital.com, which provides budgeting tools and will track your investments, too.

    2. Credit cards. Free tools at www.creditkarma.com help you gauge where your credit stands and show how you can improve it. You can also get access to your TransUnion credit report, updated weekly.

    3. Insurance. The Insurance Information Institute offers Know Your Stuff, free software that will help you create a record of your possessions. It's also available as an app for iPhone and Android smartphones. Your insurance company may also provide mobile or online tools you can use to record information you'll need to file a homeowners or auto insurance claim.

    4. Password management. PCMag.com provides a good rundown of the password managers available (along with their prices).

    5. Paper files. Shoeboxed.com offers a free service that allows you to upload as many as five documents a month; after that, prices range from $9.95 to $99.95 a month, based on the number of documents stored and other services. Or use a free cloud-based service.

    6. Retirement accounts. Your IRA provider probably offers tools you can use to figure out whether your overall port­folio is appropriately diversified, based on your age and risk tolerance. To see if you're saving enough, use our Retirement Savings Calculator.

     

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    Trade Gap
    Lynne Sladky/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. trade deficit fell in July to its lowest level in five months as exports rose broadly, signaling underlying strength in the economy amid concerns about a global growth slowdown.

    While other data Thursday showed an increase in the number of Americans filing new applications for unemployment benefits, the trend in jobless claims remained consistent with a strengthening labor market. Activity in the vast services sector also hovered at a 10-year high in August.

    There is little evidence that the abrupt deterioration in financial market conditions and the heightened concerns about the global economy have begun to affect the U.S. economy.

    "There is little evidence that the abrupt deterioration in financial market conditions and the heightened concerns about the global economy have begun to affect the U.S. economy," said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

    The Commerce Department said the trade gap narrowed 7.4 percent to $41.9 billion, the smallest since February. When adjusted for inflation, the deficit fell to $56.2 billion from $59 billion in the prior month.

    The smaller deficit implied a modest contribution to gross domestic product from trade early in the third quarter. Trade added 0.3 percentage point to the economy's 3.7 percent annualized growth rate in the second quarter.

    Data ranging from consumer spending to employment and housing have suggested the economy retained much of its momentum from the second quarter and was on solid footing when global financial markets were rocked by turbulence triggered by worries over China's economy.

    Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher after the data. Investor sentiment also was boosted after the European Central Bank indicated it could prolong its monetary stimulus program.

    The dollar rose against a basket of currencies, while prices for longer-dated U.S. Treasuries fell.

    In a separate report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 282,000 for the week ended Aug. 29.

    The claims data has no bearing on Friday's closely watched employment report for August as it fell outside the survey period. According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased by 220,000 last month after rising 215,000 in July.

    But job gains could come in below expectations as the first reading of August payrolls has tended to be weaker in the last several years before being revised higher.

    Eyes on Fed

    The August employment report will be released less than two weeks before the Federal Reserve's Sept. 16-17 policy-setting meeting. There is speculation the U.S. central bank could raise interest rates at that meeting.

    The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 3,250 to 275,500 last week.

    It was the 23rd straight week that the four-week average remained below the 300,000 threshold, which is usually associated with a strengthening labor market.

    A third report from the Institute for Supply Management showed its services industry index slipped to 59 last month from a reading of 60.3 in July, which was the highest since August 2005. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the sector.

    Fifteen out of 18 service industries, including real estate, construction and retail trade, reported an expansion in activity -- the most since October. Only mining reported a contraction.

    "The domestic economy is holding strong. The Fed must weigh this against the prospects of a weakening global economy as they decide whether to raise interest rates in two weeks," said Jay Morelock, an economist at FTN Financial in New York.

    The strong services sector should help offset the drag on the economy from manufacturing, which has been hit by a strong dollar and spending cuts by energy companies.

    But the buoyant dollar's negative impact on the economy is starting to ease. Exports increased 0.4 percent to $188.5 billion in July, the first rise since April. There were increases in exports of food, industrial supplies and materials, and capital goods in July. Automobile exports also rose.

    Imports fell 1.1 percent to $230.4 billion, led by consumer goods such as pharmaceuticals and cell phones. However, automobile imports were the highest on record and the value of crude oil imports was the highest since January.

    Soft import growth is usually associated with sluggish domestic demand. The weakness, however, is probably related to a slowdown in inventory accumulation as businesses try to whittle down a huge stockpile of merchandise accumulated in the first half of 2015.

    The politically sensitive U.S.-China trade deficit was $31.6 billion in July, up 0.4 percent from June. That trade gap will be closely watched in the coming months in the wake of China's recent devaluation of its currency.

    Exports to Canada fell 8.3 percent in July and could come under more pressure after the Canadian economy slipped into recession in the second quarter.

     

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    CVS Health Store Revamp
    Mary Altaffer/APSmoking cessation products are on display where cigarettes used to be displayed at the front of the CVS drugstore in New York City.
    By Nandita Bose

    CVS Health (CVS) says its decision to stop selling tobacco products last year led to a 1 percent decrease in cigarette sales in some states where the drugstore chain has a sizeable presence.

    The September 2014 decision hurt sales, with general merchandise revenue at CVS pharmacies open at least a year falling 7.8 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, the company said Thursday. However, CVS said it benefited in others ways. In the eight months since the decision, nicotine patch purchases rose 4 percent from a year earlier in the 26 states where it had a market share of 15 percent or greater. The company also said the average number of visits to its retail clinics for smoking cessation counseling nearly doubled.

    The 1 percent reduction in sales of cigarette packs occurred in 13 of the states where CVS's market share was at least 15 percent. The company said the decline equated to the average smoker in those states buying five fewer packs of cigarettes, or a total of 95 million.

    The company estimated it held 1.5 percent to 2 percent of the U.S. tobacco market before it stopped selling the products, which accounted for about $2 billion in annual sales.

    For the analysis, CVS said it compared cigarette pack purchases in markets where it had a presence with those where it didn't. Researchers looked at sales in drug, food, big box, dollar, convenience and gas station retailers.

    Chief Medical Officer Troyen Brennan said many people thought that smokers would go elsewhere to buy cigarettes once the chain stopped selling them.

    "The data shows that our decision to not sell cigarettes did have an impact," he said.

    CVS has 7,800 retail pharmacies and is the second-largest manager of prescription-drug benefits in the United States.

     

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    senior woman working at...
    Shutterstock
    By Mark Miller

    CHICAGO -- Planning to work longer to bolster your retirement finances?

    It can make a big difference, but it is tough to pull off. Half of all retirees leave the workforce earlier than planned due to a health problem or job loss.

    Blue collar workers with physically demanding jobs are most susceptible to early retirement, according to conventional wisdom. New research confirms that, but it also shows at least one type of early-retirement risk is spread much more widely across job types than previously thought.

    These findings serve as a reminder that while working longer is a worthy aspiration, it is not a reliable financial plan. They also underscore a fallacy in the policy debate about raising eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare.

    Almost every occupation has one ability that would be expected to decline with age.

    Researchers at the Center for Retirement Research developed a "susceptibility index" for early retirement that ranks 400 occupations on a 1-100 scale (100 is highest risk). They did it by cross-analyzing the federal Occupational Information Network database and the Health and Retirement Study, a long-running University of Michigan research project on Americans over age 50. The susceptibility index looks at the abilities required to do a job and measures the likelihood that those skills will decline with age.

    The index doesn't measure the risk of early retirement due to job loss or other factors, such as the need to care for a family member. Instead, it looks at cognitive, psychomotor, physical and sensory abilities required to do various jobs. The key finding: highly educated professionals can be as susceptible to early retirement risk as a steelworker or truck driver.

    "Almost every occupation has one ability that would be expected to decline with age," says Anek Belbase, research project manager at CRR and a co-author of the report.

    The occupations least at risk are those where verbal skills are key. "These also are jobs where people rely on social skills, which tend to be constant or improve with age," Belbase says. The group includes sales representatives (index ranking: 4), judges and magistrates (5), receptionists (6) and bookkeepers (10).

    Cognitive Skills

    If your job requires a high level of cognitive skill, you might be at greater risk, depending on the type of cognitive skill needed. "Crystallized" cognitive ability, or knowledge, tends to accumulate with age and boosts your odds of functioning well at older ages. But "fluid" cognitive ability, which includes things like episodic memory and reaction time to new information, tends to decline with age.

    "A CEO mostly makes decisions using crystallized knowledge, but fluid intelligence does decline with age, and that is very important for some types of decision making," Belbase says. Still, CEOs scored just 21 on the index, far lower than designers (63), dentists (67) and photographers (71).

    On the high end of the susceptibility scale are automotive service technicians and mechanics (100), electricians (96), detectives (83), and iron and steelworkers (98).

    CRR's findings underscore the substantial risks to a financial plan of relying on extra years of work.

    An unplanned early retirement requires stretching savings over more years, with fewer years of saving at high income levels just before retirement. Early retirement also can mean early filing for Social Security benefits, which reduces annual income substantially for the rest of a retiree's lifetime. And if early retirement comes before you qualify for Medicare (at age 65), the cost of health insurance can rise substantially.

    The scattering of risk across occupations also has important public policy implications. Proponents of boosting eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare argue that we can all delay claiming these benefits because we are all working longer these days. But it would create unnecessary, unpredictable retirement outcomes for millions of Americans.

    How to know your own susceptibility number? Belbase's index has not been published in its final form, and there is no online tool yet that can show an occupation's susceptibility. Belbase's research will be published sometime in the next 12 months, along with downloadable charts of the index rankings.

    "If you want to assess your chances of being able to work as long as you want, simply talk to older workers in your field," he suggests. "If you can't find any, that means you should probably have a back-up plan."

    By the way, reporters and news analysts, I am pleased to say, scored a 37, so count on me to stick around here for a while.

    -The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

     

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    Gas Prices Continue To Drop
    Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images
    By JONATHAN FAHEY

    NEW YORK -- It has been more than a decade since U.S. drivers paid so little to fuel up for that last road trip of summer.

    The national average price of gasoline this Labor Day weekend will be its lowest at this time of year since 2004, a result of low oil prices and a quiet hurricane season that has allowed refineries to churn out gasoline and diesel.

    "The year of cheap fuel continues," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service.

    The national average price of gasoline fell to $2.44 Thursday, nearly $1 a gallon cheaper than last year.

    That means drivers will save about $15 on a typical fill-up. For the four big driving days of the weekend, Friday through Monday, Americans will spend $1.6 billion less than last year, according to an analysis by Kloza's OPIS. They are expected to drive more miles, encouraged by low fuel prices, but not enough to burn up their savings.

    Gasoline prices often rise toward the end of the summer driving season as supplies dwindle and rough weather disrupts production along the Gulf Coast, where much of the nation's fuel is made.

    But crude oil prices have plunged because producers in the U.S. and around the world have been furiously pumping oil while at the same time economic weakness in China, Japan and Europe raises concerns that future demand growth will slow. At around $47, oil is down 23 percent from its June 10 high and around half the price it was last year at this time.

    The low crude prices and humming refineries have helped the national average price of gasoline fall 17 days in a row, according to AAA. Refinery production has remained high because refiners' raw material costs are have fallen faster than the price they get for their products. U.S. supplies of gasoline are above where they were at this time last year.

    For most of the country, below $2 is in our future for November and December.

    September can be a choppy month for gas prices because refiners conduct maintenance while switching over to winter blends of gasoline and supplies can get tight. But prices are expected to drift lower and then drop sharply in the late fall and winter as demand for gasoline declines but refineries keep running to meet demand for heating oil and diesel. They can't make one type of fuel, like diesel, without also turning out gasoline.

    "For most of the country, below $2 is in our future for November and December," Kloza says.

    By this weekend, 10,000 stations around the country, mostly in the Southeast, will be selling gasoline for less than $2 a gallon. South Carolina's average has already sunk to $2, lowest in the U.S. California drivers had a difficult summer, often paying far more than drivers elsewhere because of refinery problems in the state. Midwest drivers suffered through a short spike because of a refinery problem in Ohio.

    Now prices everywhere are falling, but Western drivers are still paying far more than the national average. California and Nevada drivers are both paying more than $3 per gallon on average, and the top 11 state averages are all out west. The lowest prices are found in the Southeast and near the Gulf Coast.

     

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    Markets Rebound From Previous Days Decline
    Andrew Burton/Getty Images
    By KEN SWEET

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks moved slightly higher Thursday as markets calmed after a recent bout of turmoil. Investors were encouraged by comments from European Central Bank policymakers, who said they were willing to provide more stimulus to the region's economy, if needed.

    Investors now turn to Friday, when a key jobs report will be released that could help determine whether or not the Federal Reserve raises interest rates this month.

    There's a lot of trepidation in the market over what the Fed will do, and it's only getting worse as we get closer to the meeting.

    "There's a lot of trepidation in the market over what the Fed will do, and it's only getting worse as we get closer to the meeting," said Kristina Hooper, head of investment strategies at Allianz Global Investors. The Fed's two-day meeting begins Sept. 16.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) added 23.38 points, or 0.1 percent, to 16,374.76. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) rose 2.27 points, or 0.1 percent, to 1,951.13 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) fell 16.48 points, or 0.4 percent, to 4,733.50.

    Stocks started the day solidly higher, but momentum waned as the day dragged on. Major indexes slipped briefly into the red by mid-afternoon before ending mostly higher.

    Investors were initially encouraged by news out of the European Central Bank, where President Mario Draghi said the bank is ready to give the eurozone a bigger dose of stimulus should inflation across the 19-country bloc fail to pick up. Along with keeping interest rates low, the ECB is pumping 60 billion euros a month into the region's economy through purchases of government and corporate bonds. The program is slated to run at least through September 2016.

    "Draghi said in 2012 he would do whatever it takes to grow the eurozone economy and he's holding to that promise," said Quincy Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial.

    European markets jumped on the news. Germany's DAX closed up 2.7 percent, France's CAC-40 rose 2.2 percent and U.K.'s FTSE 100 rose 1.8 percent.

    Higher U.S. Rates

    At the same time the ECB is stimulating Europe's economy, the Federal Reserve could raise U.S. interest rates for the first time since the financial crisis. While chances of a September interest rate increase have diminished because of signs of weakening global growth and a sell-off in Chinese stocks, many believe the growing U.S. economy may be ready to withstand higher interest rates.

    Friday's jobs report for August, a key gauge of how the U.S. economy is doing, could play a big role in guiding that decision by the Fed. Economists are forecasting that employers created 220,000 jobs last month and that the unemployment rate fell to 5.2 percent.

    The price of oil followed the stock market higher. U.S. crude rose 50 cents to close at $46.75 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, rose 18 cents to close at $50.68 a barrel in London.

    In other futures trading on the NYMEX:
    • Wholesale gasoline rose 1.2 cents to close at $1.437 a gallon.
    • Heating oil rose 1 cent to close at $1.619 a gallon.
    • Natural gas rose 7.7 cents to close at $2.725 per 1,000 cubic feet.
    In other markets, U.S. government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.16 percent from 2.19 percent late Wednesday. The euro fell to $1.1134 from $1.1238. The dollar fell to 119.91 yen from 120.24 yen.

    The price of gold fell $9.10 to settle at $1,124.50 an ounce, silver rose four cents to $14.70 an ounce and copper rose six cents to $2.39 a pound.

    What to watch Friday:
    The Labor Department releases employment data for August at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.

     

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    By Cameron Huddleston

    Many workers, including those nearing retirement age, say they're not saving enough to retire comfortably. Those concerns were illuminated in the recently released 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald & Associates. Of 1,003 workers surveyed, more than half say they have less than $25,000 saved, and nearly 30 percent say they have less than $1,000 in savings.

    Some of the workers surveyed say they were unable to save because they're barely making ends meet. Others, however, admitted that they could be doing a better job saving, perhaps with a little more motivation or discipline. If that sounds familiar, keep on reading.

    GOBankingRates asked financial planners and retirement experts for their favorite strategies for squeezing more savings out of a paycheck. Perhaps you've heard of some of these clever ways to save -- but they're worth repeating.

    1. Calculate What You Need to Save. Many people don't know how much they need to put away for their retirement, said Kathleen Hastings, a certified financial planner and portfolio manager with FBB Capital Partners. "Unless you have a good idea of where you want to be when you retire, you're shooting in the dark with blinders on," she said. So calculate how much you should be setting aside for the standard of living you desire.

    Start by using a free online calculator, such as Vanguard's Retirement Income Calculator or the Fidelity myPlan Snapshot, to get a general idea of how much you need to save. Once you have an estimate, you might be more motivated to boost your savings.

    2. Automate Savings. Don't give yourself the option of whether to set aside money each month. Automate your savings so it's not a choice, said David Brooks, Sr., president and CEO of Verus Wealth Management. That means having contributions to a workplace retirement account such as a 401(k) automatically withdrawn from your paycheck or setting up automatic deposits into an individual account such as an IRA from your checking account.

    With this approach, the money is deposited into savings before you have a chance to spend it. Plus, it will save you the time and hassle of having to transfer money to a retirement account each month on your own.

    3. Get Your Employer's 401(k) Match. Would you say no to free money? Probably not. But plenty of employees do each year because they don't contribute enough to their 401(k) to get the full matching contribution from their employer. In fact, one in four plan participants miss out on receiving a full match by not saving enough, leaving an estimated $1,336 of free money on the table, according to research by Financial Engines, an investment advisory service.

    Check with your human resources department to find out if your employer offers a 401(k) match. What's most common is when employers contribute 50 cents for every $1 contributed by an employee to his or her 401(k) up to 6 percent, according to the 401kHelpCenter.com. For example, if you earn $40,000 a year and contribute just 3 percent of your salary, but your employer offers a 50-cent match up to 6 percent, you're missing out on $600 a year in free money.

    4. Set Up Your Own Match. If your employer doesn't match your contributions to your workplace retirement plan, then set up your own match, said Zach Gieske, an operations analyst at Stable Value Investment Association, a nonprofit resource on retirement investing. Instead of purchasing a daily cup of coffee or a take-out lunch, he recommended putting that money into savings.

    "It really helps get you in a saving frame of mind, and even has a side benefit of making you more aware of how seemingly little purchases can add up in your budget," Gieske said.

    5. Boost Your Contribution by 1% Annually. Increasing the amount you stash away in savings by just 1 percent each year will significantly raise your account balance over the long haul, Brooks said. Here's an example from Fidelity Investments: A 25-year-old earning $40,000 a year who contributes just 1 percent more of his salary each year (or $33 more each month) until age 67 would have $3,870 additional yearly income in retirement, assuming a 7 percent rate of return and a 1.5 percent annual pay raise.

    6. Stash Your Pay Raise in a Retirement Account. People don't often increase their retirement contribution when they get a raise, said Robert Johnson, president and CEO of The American College of Financial Services, which provides continuing education for financial professionals. But it's an easy way to grow your savings.

    Workers are already used to making ends meet on their old salary. So continue to live on that and put the raise into a retirement account, Johnson said. Do the same with an annual bonus.

    "Your retirement nest egg will increase very quickly if you take that simple step," he said.

    7. Put Your Tax Refund in a Roth IRA. Tax refunds might seem like you're getting free money, which increases the desire to spend it, but keep in mind that it's your money that the Internal Revenue Service has collected interest-free. Hastings recommended putting that refund to work for you. Deposit it into a Roth IRA.

    You can contribute up to $5,500 in a Roth IRA in 2015 and another $1,000 for a maximum contribution of $6,500 if you're 50 or older. You won't get a tax deduction for your contribution, but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. Your modified adjusted gross income must be less than $116,000 if you're single or less than $183,000 if you're a married couple filing jointly to contribute the maximum amount.

    8. Adjust Your Withholding Allowances. Getting a big tax refund from Uncle Sam means that the government held on to money that you could have used to pay bills or invest. So if you usually get a fat refund, consider adjusting your payroll withholding allowances so you can keep more money in your paycheck each month. The higher number of allowances you claim up to a point, the lower the tax refund.

    File a new W-4 form with your employer to claim more allowances. Use the IRS.gov withholding calculator to figure out how many allowances to claim. If you received the average refund of about $3,000, you could get an extra $250 each month by adjusting your withholding. Then deposit that money into a retirement account.

    9. Make Catch-Up Contributions. You can kick retirement savings into high gear once you turn age 50 because the IRS tax code lets you make catch-up contributions. In 2015, you can add an extra $6,000 to a 401(k), 403(b) or 457 plan for a maximum contribution of $24,000. You can boost traditional and Roth IRA contributions by $1,000, bringing the total amount you can set aside to $6,500.

    10. Start a Self-Employed Retirement Account. Being self-employed doesn't mean your retirement savings options are limited. Self-employed individuals can contribute 25 percent of their income, up to a maximum of $53,000,to a Simplified Employee Pension IRA, known as a SEP IRA, or to a 401(k) that you set up with an investment firm such as Fidelity or Charles Schwab.

    "One of the most overlooked ways to save for retirement is through a SEP IRA," said Tom Balcom, a certified financial planner in Florida and founder of 1650 Wealth Management.

    11. Save in an HSA. A Health Savings Account is meant to help people with high-deductible health insurance policies set aside money to cover out-of-pocket medical costs. But it also can be part of a retirement savings plan.

    "When in retirement, this account can continue to be used to pay for medical expenses, preserving more of the traditional retirement savings and income," said Christian Sees, owner of Integrus Financial, a financial services company.

    Contributions to an HSA are tax-deductible or made with pre-tax dollars. The funds grow tax-deferred and withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are tax-free. In 2015, you can contribute up to $3,350 if you have an individual health insurance policy with a deductible of at least $1,300. If you have family coverage with a deductible of at least $2,600, you can contribute up to $6,650.

    12. Downsize, Then Retire. Don't wait until you retire to downsize to a smaller home. The sooner you cut your housing expenses by downsizing, the more money you'll have to set aside for retirement and the more time that money has to grow.

    If you downsize from a $250,000 house to a house that costs $150,000, for example, and factor out the costs of selling and moving (10 percent of the selling price), you'll have $75,000 that can be added to savings, according to a report called Using Your House for Income in Retirement by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

    Consider this: If you withdraw 4 percent of that $75,000 annually, according to the report's calculations, you can increase your yearly income in retirement by $3,000. If you downsize even earlier, say in your 40s, and invest that $75,000 in a portfolio with a mix of stocks and bonds with a 6.5 percent annual rate of return, it could grow to nearly $250,000 over 20 years.

    13. Save Spare Change. Tossing spare change in a jar might seem like an old-fashioned approach to saving, but you'd be surprised how quickly your nickels, dimes and quarters can add up. "Cash it in twice a year and put it into a savings account that you never touch," said John Graves, author of "The 7% Solution: You Can Afford Retirement."

    You can take a slightly more sophisticated approach by letting your bank do this for you. For example, Bank of America's Keep the Change Savings Program will round up debit card purchases to the nearest dollar and transfer the difference to a savings account. Graves said his account at Wells Fargo allows him to designate an amount to be automatically transferred from checking to savings every time he makes a purchase. See if your bank offers a similar feature.

    14. Use an App or Online Tool. Mobile apps make it easy to automate your savings if you lack the discipline to do it on your own. For example, the SavedPlus app moves a percentage of the amount you spend on purchases into your savings account. It claims that its users save, on average, $350 a month. Or you can link the Acorns app to your debit or credit card, and it will round up your purchases to the nearest dollar and invest the difference into a diversified portfolio of index funds.

    Digit is a free online service that links to your checking account and analyzes your income and spending habits to figure out how much you can set aside in savings. The service then automatically puts that money into savings for you. The Digit savings account does not earn interest, though, so you'll want to move the money into an interest-bearing account.

    15. Invest What You Save. People often talk about how much they saved on groceries, clothes, gas and more. "But do they really save it?" said John Sweeney, executive vice president of retirement and investing strategies at Fidelity Investments. "If you 'saved' money at the pump or the grocery store, then why not literally save it?"

    Keep track of how much you saved by using coupons or buying items on sale and put that money into a savings or retirement account. "You'll see how quickly $10 to $20 here and there can add up," Sweeney said.

    16. Claim Lost Money and Invest It. States hold billions of dollars in unclaimed assets, from money in inactive savings accounts to uncashed payroll checks, unclaimed pensions and tax refunds, insurance payments and more. The federal government also holds onto lost money. Some of it may be yours.

    Visit MissingMoney.com to search its database of unclaimed property records at participating states. Or you can search state-by-state through the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. You can use the Where's My Refund tool at IRS.gov to see if you're owed a tax refund. And you can search for unclaimed savings bonds at TreasuryHunt.gov. Deposit any money you find into your retirement savings.

    17. Save for Your Spouse. Typically, you must have earned income to contribute to an IRA. However, if you work but your spouse does not, you can make contributions for your partner in a spousal IRA.

    You must be married and file a joint tax return and can contribute up to $5,500 a year ($6,500 if you're 50 or older). You can choose either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA if your income falls below certain levels. This is a solid approach to creating a nest egg for a non-working spouse or stay-at-home parent.

    This story, 17 Clever Ways to Save More for Retirement, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Inside A Target Corp. Store Ahead Of Earnings Figures
    David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Courtney Jespersen

    This year, we've taken the labor out of Labor Day shopping so you can sit back, relax and shop. Rather than search for deals yourself, we've rounded up our top nine picks for the best sales of Labor Day weekend 2015.

    Best Buy

    Labor Day is more than a weekend-long affair at Best Buy, and customers can use this promotion to bring home a new washer, dryer or other appliance at a low price. Through Sept. 16, the store is hosting a Major Appliance Sale, with deals of up to 30 percent off on select models.

    If you're in the market for a new washer and dryer, the Samsung high-efficiency steam front-loading washer and electric dryer, for instance, is $1,499.98 for the pair. That's $700 off the original price.

    You can take advantage of free delivery and free haul-away on eligible major appliance purchases of $399 and up. Shoppers can also get 18-month financing on eligible major appliance purchases of $599 or more.

    H.H. Gregg

    H.H. Gregg is offering some pretty steep discounts -- up to 35 percent -- on furniture, appliances and more.

    Through Sept. 12, the store has major deals on washers, dryers, HDTVs, sectionals, recliners, laptops and printers, just to name a few.

    Shoppers can enter the promo code "LABORDAY" at checkout, or print an in-store coupon to get even more savings. You can get $50 off qualifying purchases of $499 to $1,498.99, $100 off qualifying purchases of $1,499 to $2,998.99 and $200 off qualifying purchases of $2,999 and up.

    HP

    HP is offering savings of up to 50 percent (plus free shipping) on products made for both productivity and fun.

    Here's a sample of what Hewlett-Packard is offering this Labor Day:
    • Savings up to $600 on laptops
    • Savings up to $450 on desktops
    • Savings up to $90 on monitors
    • Savings up to 50 percent on printers and accessories
    Keep in mind that prices are valid through Sept. 8.

    Amazon

    At Amazon, get in the Labor Day spirit with discounts on products you can use to take a break from work. The online marketplace has discounted select movies, books and more. Shoppers can even score savings up to 90 percent off on magazines.

    Visit Amazon's Labor Day section to browse the current deals. The majority of these discount opportunities are time-sensitive, so check the ending time and date on each product to see how long the sale price will last.

    Target

    Labor Day marks the end of summer, and Target is offering Labor Day shoppers some discounts on the essentials they may need to stock up for the new season ahead. The retailer is slashing prices by 25 percent on select clothes, shoes and accessories. Plus, select home items are up to 25 percent off.

    Additionally, online through Sept. 7, the store is offering an extra 10 percent off eligible clothing, shoes, accessories and home items when you use the promo code "LABORDAY" at checkout. And, before you finish your online transaction, remember that Target offers free shipping on orders $25 or more and free returns on everything.

    Kmart

    Kmart's holiday sale is an online-only event that boasts discounts across a variety of departments. This sale ends Sept. 7.

    Here's a look at just some of the noteworthy deals:
    • 70 percent off the Jaclyn Smith Brookner four-piece cushion seating set (now $239.99, regularly $799.99 )
    • 28 percent off Kenmore freezer refrigerator in white (now $599.99, regularly $769.99 )
    • Up to 20 percent off HDTVs
    • Up to 60 percent off luggage
    The store is also offering free shipping on orders $49 and up, and it's unveiling exclusive, limited-time doorbusters. Check for these on Kmart's home page.

    Sleep Train Mattress Centers

    Sleep Train Mattress Centers has launched its "mattress price wars" in honor of the holiday weekend, and that equals savings of up to $400 (more, in some cases) on brand-name mattresses. Plus, you can get free same-day delivery, too.

    We found the Beautyrest Recharge 1000 Pillow Top Mattress king size on sale for $1,799.99. That's $400 off the $2,199.99 original price.

    Ashley Furniture Homestore

    It seems that this Labor Day is all about the furniture deals. Online Ashley Furniture shoppers can take up to 25 percent off sitewide on eligible purchases. Some products are half off in the store's home decor section.

    The Dinelli sofa, for example, is on sale for $479.20 (regularly $599 ). That's $119 off. And if your home needs a little light boost, the Roisin floor lamp is available for $74.99 (regularly $149.99 ).

    Staples

    Office supply store Staples makes checking off the final items from your back-to-school list a little easier with Labor Day-inspired discounts up to 75 percent or more .

    You can find savings on nearly every possible office essential, such as charging cables, wireless speakers and desks.

    Other deals include:
    • Up to 60 percent off select printers
    • Up to 50 percent off select chairs
    • Up to $60 off select iPad models
    • Up to $270 off select Windows 10 laptops and desktops
    Check the product details of each sale item to see how long the discount lasts. Most products will be reduced from now through Sept. 5.

    Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, which saves consumers cash and compares everything from shopping deals to credit cards.

     

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    Inside Costco Wholesale Co. Ahead of Earnings Release
    Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Kyle James

    Is Costco really worth the $55 annual fee? If you're on the fence about joining the warehouse club, this is undoubtedly a question you've asked yourself many times. While Costco can contain spending traps for undisciplined shoppers, the store also provides many unique ways to save money. Money that can easily cover, and greatly exceed, the $55 annual membership. Here are a few items that provide enough savings to justify the annual fee. (See also: 10 Things You Probably Didn't Know You Could Buy at Costco)

    1. Wine. If you regularly buy wine from your local liquor or grocery store, you're probably overspending. According to Andrew Cullen, founder and editor of CostcoWineBlog.com, your local Costco sells an excellent selection of wines at very affordable prices.

    "I'd say wines at Costco, from my experience in the Atlanta area, are generally priced 10 to 20 percent below other liquor stores," says Cullen. "Compared to grocery stores, that difference would be even higher." If you're buying at least five bottles of wine a month, that savings alone will typically pay for your annual membership.

    Cullen adds that the "handpicked nature of the selection" at Costco is another factor that gives them an edge when it comes to buying wine. "Regardless of the varietal or region or price range, wines from Costco typically offer a strong quality to price ratio, almost like they have to pass a screening before they are presented in the stores. That's not to say I haven't encountered a few duds here and there, but all in all, the quality of the selection is pretty good." But like anything in the warehouse, if you pass on a particular wine selection, be aware that it may be gone the next day, never to return.

    2. Car tires. If you're in need of a new set of tires for your car, the $55 membership fee can easily be recouped with a single purchase of four passenger tires. I recently priced a set of four tires for our minivan and Costco was $85 cheaper than my local tire shop and $120 less than what the dealer was asking. Savings was really noticeable when I factored in installation fees which were a reasonable $15 a tire at Costco, compared to $45 at the dealership.

    Other side benefits of buying your tires from Costco includes lifetime balancing and rotations, free flat repairs and a 60-month road hazard warranty.

    3. Lunch or dinner. Another easy and tasty way to recoup your $55 is at the very affordable Costco food court. Easily their most famous offering is the hot dog and soda meal, which is really hard to beat. For only $1.50, you get a big hot dog and a 20 oz. soda with free refills. It only gets tastier with an excellent condiment bar which features a fresh onion slicer so you can load up your dog. I have a hard time passing up this meal whenever I visit the warehouse close to the lunch hour as it's a very affordable way to grab a quick bite.

    The savings aspect is probably greatest when talking about their pizza. For only $10, you get an extra large pizza that can easily feed a family of four or five, depending on how big the appetites are. But if you have kids and are hosting a birthday party, soccer party or the like, you can really save by ordering pizza from Costco. You'll be able to feed a lot of people a quality meal, and with the lean prices, you'll come out ahead when comparing the price to most local pizzerias.

    Insider tip: When checking out from Costco, be sure to place your food court order directly from your cashier. That way you'll only have to pay once and can save time by simply picking up your food from the pick-up window and completely bypass the food court line.

    4. Movie tickets. If you go to the movies at least once a month, you should be buying your movie tickets directly from Costco. Popular theaters that regularly sell discount tickets at Costco include Cinemark, Regal, AMC and Cinelux. For example, right now you can buy a 10-pack of tickets for AMC Theaters for $84.99. Before you ask, these tickets have NO expiration date and can be used seven days a week. With tickets hovering around $11 to $13 nationally, you just saved about 30 percent off your next movie. For a family with kids who love seeing a flick in the theater, buying your movie tickets at Costco is a total no-brainer and can single-handedly pay for your annual Costco membership.

    5. Gift cards. Once you take notice of the gift card deals at Costco, you'll never buy one anywhere else. They sell gift cards for restaurants, theme parks, local attractions and golf outings. Savings on average is 20 to 30 percent off the face value of the card. For example, right now they have four $25 Smashburger gift cards for $79.99 and five $10 Jamba Juice gift cards for $34.99. If you buy discounted gift cards at Costco for places you know you'll be buying from anyways, or are looking for cheap gift ideas for teachers and coaches, you can save significant money.

    6. Prescription drugs (especially generics). If you're buying prescription drugs on a monthly basis, you can easily recoup your membership fee by purchasing from Costco. According to a study by Consumer Reports, shoppers can easily save more than $55 per year by buying their generic drugs from the Costco pharmacy. The reason Costco can charge less has to do with their huge inventory and ability to buy in bulk from suppliers and pass the savings along to you. Also, while drugstores like CVS and Walgreens depend heavily on drug sales, Costco can afford to give a discount on prescription drugs and stay profitable.

    By understanding the products at Costco that are a great value, you can easily justify the $55 annual membership fee. Just be sure you don't blow the money you save on the bright and shiny objects Costco stocks in the front section of the warehouse. Stuff you had no idea existed, but clearly can't live without...stuff that also happens to pad their profits. (See also: 15 Things You Should Buy at Costco)

    What other Costco items will help you save enough money to cover the annual membership?

     

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    Woman eating chocolate
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    Multinational beverage and snack companies spend billions each year enticing us to rip the tab off a can of sugary soda or lovingly peel away the foil from a milk chocolate candy bar. Could they actually be doing us a favor?

    Coca-Cola (KO), for one, thinks it is. The beverage giant introduced its 7.5-ounce "Coke Mini" can in 2009, claiming that the diminutive refreshment represented a smart choice for those who wanted to enjoy the taste of Coke without overindulging.

    Since then, the slighter can's popularity has burgeoned and it continues to reap rewards for Coca-Cola. The mini format grew by double digits in the second quarter of 2015, versus unit case volume growth of only 2 percent for Coke's total beverage portfolio.

    Coke executives see this as a win for both the company and its customers. CEO Muhtar Kent described the phenomenon earlier this year: "[W]hen you compound double-digit growth in smaller packages over a number of years, this starts becoming really meaningful, meaningful in terms of both how you can impact calories, how you can entice a broader consumer group because essentially ... you're following a consumer -- and that really works."

    Fellow beverage giant Starbucks (SBUX) also professed its desire to follow the consumer when it introduced its "Mini Frappuccino" at the beginning of this summer. The company said that it developed the drink after numerous customer requests for a smaller version of its popular Frappuccino beverages.

    At just 10 ounces, the Mini Frappuccino has, according to Starbucks, one-third less sugar and one-third fewer calories than a 12-ounce "tall" serving. (Alas, these numbers are before the addition of any whipped cream or flavorings.)

    Big Business Wants to Help You Watch Portions

    The marketing around tinier servings is increasingly aligned with a practice known in dietary and nutrition circles as "portion control." This concept encourages us to carefully watch portions of healthy foods -- as well as foods which may represent guilty pleasures -- as a sensible way to balance what our bodies need with what they often crave.

    A popular method for implementing portion control involves invoking images of common objects to gauge reasonable sizes of food servings. The Mayo Clinic, for example, suggests that to estimate a healthy portion of cooked skinless chicken (about 2.5 ounces), you should picture two-thirds of a standard deck of cards. WebMD says a healthy serving of chocolate is roughly the size of a box of dental floss.

    Snack manufacturers must love the trend toward portion control, as they've become adept at creating ever smaller, often individually wrapped treats. In many instances, the consumer pays a steeper per-ounce price for a more compact indulgence, resulting in higher margins for the manufacturer.

    For example, Lindt Chocolate's "Hello Chocolate Minis," individually wrapped miniature chocolate bars sold together in single packs, work well for the portion control-conscious consumer (as well as being highly shareable, I should add). It takes two minis to equal the dental floss-pack sizing guideline, so you get twice the pleasure from tearing open the little packets and devouring them.

    But you'll pay a premium for the portioning. A 4.9-ounce bag of Minis in your local grocery store can range from 20 to nearly 70 percent higher in price on a per-ounce basis than say, a Lindt "Classic Recipe" Hazelnut Milk Chocolate Bar.

    The Marketing Hook Is Persuasive, but Should Consumers Bite?

    It may be difficult at first to see the point of making a guilty pleasure like chocolate or Coca-Cola less "guilty." Aren't manufacturers simply taking advantage of consumers in the most cynical fashion?

    Maybe not. It's interesting to think about the personal economics underlying scaled-down, "mini" products. On one hand, you're getting less value for your dollar. Yet, odd though this may seem, you're also paying the manufacturer to ensure your moderation. And corporations can't be blamed for responding to market demand, as Starbucks did.

    Moreover, the long-term economic benefit of curtailing consumption of sodas, candies and the like, and thus leading a healthier lifestyle, surely outweighs the premium you'll pay for a bit of portion policing.

    Before you scoff at the argument, consider that many consumers, myself included, will pony up extra cash for foods and beverages marketed in positive terms, such as "sustainable," "local," "organic," "preservative-free," etc. We often willingly pay more for what we think will advance our well-being.

    Big business, whether it truly cares about our well-being or not, certainly understands our cravings and ultimately knows how to push our buttons to induce a purchase. Take Haagen-Dazs, which has been hooking grocery store shoppers with a tiny, 3.6-ounce "cup" version of its ice cream in freezer sections for years. The company's marketing tagline brilliantly captures that mythical, promised win for both manufacturer and consumer:

    "Haagen-Dazs single serve cups are perfectly portioned. Indulge. A little."

    Motley Fool contributor Asit Sharma has no position in any stocks mentioned, but he's invested quite a bit recently in those "perfectly portioned" Haagen-Dazs cups. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Starbucks. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2016 $37 calls on Coca-Cola, short January 2016 $43 calls on Coca-Cola and short January 2016 $37 puts on Coca-Cola. The Motley Fool recommends Coca-Cola. 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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