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    Halloween at Disney World Resort, Balloons Decorations Pumpkin Carved in Shape of Mickey Mouse Face, Orlando Florida
    It's apparently never too early to get into the Halloween spirit if you're a theme park operator. Comcast's (CMCSA) Universal Studios Florida kicks off Halloween Horror Nights this weekend. It won't be alone. Disney's (DIS) Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom also gets under way this week, giving guests a tamer experience complete with trick-or-treat stations and unique character greeting opportunities throughout the world's most visited theme park.

    Out on the West Coast, Cedar Fair's (FUN) Knott's Berry Farm in California kicks off the latest season of Knott's Scary Farm -- complete with 11 haunted mazes -- next week. Six Flags (SIX) transforms its seasonal coaster havens into Fright Fest starting shortly after that.

    Park operators realize that there's a lot of money to be made in trying to scare you and your friends this time of year. Let's go over the ways that you can keep as much of your money as possible while still enjoying the macabre mayhem.

    1. Know Your Discounts

    Haunts typically offer discounts for folks buying their tickets online. Ordering directly through to attend Fright Fest at Six Flags Great America -- just outside of Chicago -- can shave nearly half the price of admission on select nights.

    You definitely don't want to show up at the gate and buy your tickets the day of the event. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida has a gate price of $101.99 this year, but online entrances can be purchased for as little as $49.99 on select nights.

    You should also check the social media accounts of the park you expect to visit. Parks often team up with area supermarkets or drugstores for discounted admissions, though it's often not much better than what you can score online directly through them. Some also offer coupons through fast-food chains or products distributed locally. Halloween Horror Nights is running a promo based on Coca-Cola (KO) products, though you can always cheat and see UPC discount codes online.

    2. Timing Is Everything

    Most of the park haunts don't charge the same admissions every night of the week. Universal Studios Florida is a perfect example. Online tickets for Thursday and other off-nights can be had for $49.99, but that balloons up to $76.99 for Saturday.

    Tickets to Cedar Point's HalloWeekends in Ohio also cost more on Saturday nights. Combine HalloWeekends admission with the line-skipping Fright Pass and you will pay $21 less online if you go on a Friday in late October instead of a Saturday. Online tickets for Fright Fest at Six Flags Magic Mountain costs $5 more Saturday night than it does Friday or Sunday.

    It also will be easier on your pocketbook if you go early. Fright Fest at Six Flags Great America will set you back $10 less on the first Saturday in October than it does during the third and fourth Saturdays of the month. The closer you get to Halloween itself, the pricier the ticket is likely to be.

    The moral of the story is that if you can avoid Saturdays or late October, there are some real deals to be scored.

    3. Plan Ahead to Skimp on Express Passes

    Haunts get crowded, and that's a welcome opportunity for the parks with the more popular events to roll out premium-priced tickets that let folks bypass traditional lines. Some of the biggest operators even offer several classes of passes that provide expedited access. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Florida has the $70 Express Pass, where guests can wait in shorter lines than regular guests, or the RIP Tour, which starts at $140 for immediate access to all of the scare mazes in a group tour.

    These passes are great if you can afford them, and on busy nights it may be the only way to see it all. However, you can also plan ahead, and that doesn't mean just arriving early. You already know about avoiding Saturday nights and going early, in late September or early October, to maximize your savings, and that's also a good way to avoid the longest maze lines.

    There's more that you can do. Seasoned haunt-goers know that the scare mazes closest to the entrance tend to be the ones that guests flock to first. Start at the back of the park and you should be able to hit many of the attractions before you run into serious crowds. Check online forums and social network groups for tips on the best scare zones or the shows that can't be missed. With the right strategy, you can see all that is worth seeing without springing for the premium passes.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Walt Disney. 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. To read about one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond -- no tricks included -- check out our free report.


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    50 Dollar Bills
    Getty Images
    By Tahirah Blanding

    College, unemployment, or another major life change can require a major cut in spending to survive from week to week. There may still be a stigma attached to buying food at the dollar store, but perhaps it's time to get over it. found that it's possible to take care of the essentials, with a dollop of comfort thrown in, for less than $50 a week by shopping at a local Dollar Tree.

    Dollar stores can sell food cheaply in part because they sell smaller sizes than conventional grocery stores, stock items with long shelf lives and carry generic-brand products that aren't backed by enormous advertising budgets. That said, customers will also find reputable brands such as Welch's and Progresso. Some dollar stores accept manufacturer coupons. put together a week's worth of dollar store meals from a shopping list of 38 items (some purchased in multiples). Total cost: $45. The suggested menus presume that a few staples, such as oil and spices, already reside in the cupboard. Although some stores have a refrigerated section, canned and boxed goods dominate dollar store shelves, so fresh fruit and vegetables will have to be put on hold. Most of the items are sold in-store, although inventory varies. This may not be the most nutritious meal plan, but it will get one person through the week with a single trip to the dollar store.

    • Breakfast: Pancakes and coffee (Harvest Hill Light & Fluffy pancake mix, Harvest Hill pancake syrup, Nescafe Original instant coffee, shelf-stable Gossner Foods premium milk)
    • Lunch: Pizza (Camillo's 7-inch premade pizza crusts, Franceso Rinaldi pizza sauce, Country Line mozzarella cheese)
    • Dinner: Tuna pasta salad (StarKist chunk light tuna, Pagasa elbow macaroni, Libby's canned sweet peas or frozen peas, Calder's Gourmet mayonnaise
    If you take milk in coffee, be sure to refrigerate it after opening to pour over cereal and use in a recipe later in the week. A pasta salad recipe posted on calls for celery, which dollar store shoppers may have to forgo, but the rest of the ingredients are on the dollar-store shopping list or likely already in the kitchen. Make enough to have leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

    • Breakfast: Oatmeal, apple juice and coffee (Village Farm instant oatmeal, Ruby Kist apple juice)
    • Lunch: Leftover tuna pasta salad
    • Dinner: Barbecue chicken, rice and vegetables (frozen chicken, Original Restaurant Style barbecue sauce, Premier Fields long-grain white rice, Libby's canned mixed vegetables or frozen vegetables)
    The bag of Nescafe Original instant coffee contains 50 servings -- plenty to last all week. Most Dollar Tree locations now contain freezers stocked with items such as frozen meat and vegetables, which many consumers may prefer to more commonly available canned goods. Cook a second package of chicken to use for lunch tomorrow.

    • Breakfast: Cereal, coffee, apple juice (Hospitality raisin bran)
    • Lunch: Chicken salad sandwich (frozen chicken, Nature's Own bread, mayonnaise)
    • Dinner: Spaghetti and vegetables (Pagasa spaghetti, Hunt's pasta sauce, Libby's canned mixed vegetables or frozen vegetables)
    A comparison of the dollar store vs. Walmart found that cereal costs less per ounce at Dollar Tree, and for those who don't like raisin bran, many generic brands earn high ratings online. For lunch, shred the extra chicken cooked the night before and mix with mayonnaise to make a basic chicken salad. The pasta sauce comes in traditional, meat-flavored and mushroom varieties.

    • Breakfast: Scrambled eggs, toast with jelly or peanut butter and coffee (carton of eggs, Welch's Concord grape jelly, Greenbrier Farms creamy peanut butter, bread)
    • Lunch: Chow mein (Nissin microwavable meal)
    • Dinner: Rice, beans and a corn muffin (Vigo Spanish yellow rice, La Rosa dry red kidney beans, Marie Callender corn bread muffin mix)
    The mix makes five muffins. Save one or two to round out an upcoming dinner and eat the rest as snacks. Other items to have on hand to sate hunger between meals: a box of Select Choice chewy peanut butter and chocolate chip granola bars, Home Style Select tortilla chips and a jar of nacho cheese dip. The peanut butter and jelly can go on crackers as well as bread.

    • Breakfast: Oatmeal, apple juice and coffee
    • Lunch: PB&J and potato chips (Home Style Select kettle-cooked potato chips)
    • Dinner: Hamburger Helper (Hamburger Helper, Circle A Ranch home-style meatballs)
    No ground meat in the coolers? No problem. Crumble frozen meatballs into the Hamburger Helper. Save half the 5-ounce bag of chips for lunch tomorrow.

    • Breakfast: Cereal, apple juice and coffee
    • Lunch: Tuna salad sandwich and potato chips (StarKist chunk light tuna, Breckenridge Farms sweet relish, mayonnaise, bread)
    • Dinner: Egg fried rice (Libby's canned mixed vegetables or frozen vegetables, Hisakawa soy sauce, eggs, rice)
    Add mayonnaise to the tuna and pickle relish to stir up a quick tuna salad posted on Allrecipes. For the fried rice, prepare a batch of long-grain white rice in advance -- many cooks assert that leftovers work best -- and use a recipe posted on Allthecooks as a guideline.

    • Breakfast: French toast, coffee, apple juice
    • Lunch: Soup with crackers (Progresso canned soup, Original Saltines)
    • Dinner: Baked chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables and corn bread muffins (frozen chicken, Idaho Supreme dehydrated mashed potatoes, Libby's canned mixed vegetables or frozen vegetables)
    By now the bread may be getting a bit dry and stale -- ideal for a quick and easy French toast recipe found on It calls for an egg and some of the remaining milk, plus a dash of cinnamon and vanilla if on hand.

    Grocery List

    Item Price
    1 box Harvest Hill Light & Fluffy pancake mix (16.5 ounces) $1
    1 bottle Harvest Hill pancake syrup (24 ounces) $1
    1 bag Nescafe Original instant coffee $1
    1 quart shelf-stable Gossner Foods premium 2 percent milk $1
    1 pack Camillo's 7-inch pizza crusts (2) $1
    1 jar Franceso Rinaldi pizza sauce (14 ounces) $1
    1 pack Country Line mozzarella cheese (3 ounces) $1
    3 cans StarKist chunk light tuna (5 ounces) $3
    1 bag Pagasa elbow macaroni (24 ounces) $1
    4 cans Libby's mixed vegetables (or frozen vegetables) $4
    1 jar Calder's Gourmet mayonnaise (10 ounces) $1
    1 box Village Farm instant oatmeal $1
    1 jar Ruby Kist apple juice (32 ounces) $1
    3 packages frozen chicken $3
    1 bottle Original Restaurant Style barbecue sauce (18 ounces) $1
    1 bag Premier Fields long-grain white rice (24 ounces) $1
    1 box Hospitality raisin bran cereal (7 ounces) $1
    1 loaf Nature's Own bread $1
    1 bag Pagasa spaghetti (24 ounces) $1
    1 can Hunt's pasta sauce (24 ounces) $1
    1 jar Welch's Concord grape jelly (9.5 ounces) $1
    1 jar Greenbrier Farms creamy peanut butter (10 ounces) $1
    1 carton eggs (12) $1
    1 Nissin chow mein meal (4 ounces) $1
    1 bag Vigo Spanish yellow rice (9 ounces) $1
    1 bag La Rosa dry red kidney beans (12 ounces) $1
    1 pack Marie Callender corn bread muffin mix (7 ounces) $1
    1 bag Home Style Select kettle-cooked potato chips (5 ounces) $1
    1 box Hamburger Helper $1
    1 bag Circle A Ranch frozen meatballs (6.24 ounces) $1
    1 jar Breckenridge Farms sweet relish (12.5 ounces) $1
    1 bottle Hisakawa soy sauce (10 ounces) $1
    1 can Progresso soup $1
    1 box Original Saltines $1
    1 box Idaho Supreme dehydrated mashed potatoes (8 ounces) $1
    1 box Select Choice chewy peanut butter and chocolate chip granola bars (6) $1
    1 bag Home Style Select tortilla chips (8.5 ounces) $1
    1 jar nacho cheese dip (9 ounces) $1
    Total $45


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    How to Save $500 by Christmas

    By Jim Gold

    Here we are in mid-September, settling into our frantic fall filled with work, school activities for many, football, the World Series, Halloween and Thanksgiving.

    Christmas follows swiftly. It's only 14 weeks away.

    Are you ready?

    We can't stop the clock, but planning now can ease holiday stress later, advises Todd Pietzsch, spokesman for BECU, Washington state's largest credit union.

    It can also save you money.

    Set a Savings Goal

    First, figure out how much money you think you will need for holiday presents. That's your Christmas savings goal.

    Pietzsch told Money Talks News you should assign a dollar amount to each person for whom you'll buy gifts. Who's on your list? Children, parents, spouses, nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters, friends? The office gift exchange? Anyone else? Can you pare your list?

    Add it up. And if you haven't put any money away yet for the holidays, divide by 14. Try to put that much away each week starting now by paying yourself first.

    For example, say you want to spend $500.

    Putting $36 a week away now will yield $504 by Christmas to cover presents.

    Set up an automatic deduction from your payroll check, or automate transfers from your checking account to your savings account, Pietzsch suggests. You can set up an account with a name, such as Christmas Club.

    Saving now means charging less for Christmas presents, even if you don't reach your total savings goal.

    "You don't want to get hit with a lot of credit card debt you can't pay," Pietzsch says.

    If you charge $500 in gifts on a credit card with an 18 percent interest rate, and pay only the minimum balance due each month of $20, it will take you 42 months, or more than three more Christmases, to be rid of this year's holiday debt, according to online payment calculators. In that time, you will pay $674 total including interest, making this year's gifts cost about one-third more that you planned.

    Track Your Money

    "The first step to savings is understanding where your money is going," Pietzsch says.

    BECU recently launched an online and mobile app called Money Manager. You can find a similar service with a Money Talks News partner, PowerWallet.

    With both, and other similar aggregating apps, you can view all of your accounts in one place -- checking, savings, retirement accounts and more. They let you set up budgets and track your spending by category.

    "You see where money is going," Pietzsch says. "You make it automatic again and see how you're progressing toward your goal."

    The apps show you if you're spending more than you planned to on dining out or gas, for example.

    You can see where you want to cut back spending, or where you have a financial cushion, says PowerWallet. You can also set up alerts for bill payments or when your spending strays from the plan.

    These tools can help you keep a clear picture of where you stand.

    Raising Holiday Cash

    If you're trying to come up with some Christmas cash, Money Talks News financial expert Stacy Johnson has a few suggestions:
    • Check your cell plan: If you're not using minutes that you're paying for, switch to a cheaper plan that could save you $20 a month. Consider dropping your landline for another $25 to $50.
    • Drop your gym membership: Stay in shape by jogging outdoors or weight lifting or following fitness videos. You'll get leaner while fattening your wallet by $35 (or more) a month.
    • Raise your insurance deductible: Change your car or home policy from a $250 deductible to, say, $1,000 and pocket as much as $200 right now.
    • Curtail cable: Drop premium movie channels to save $25 a month. Or cut cable altogether and save a lot more.
    More Ways to Get Ahead of the Holidays
    • Layaway: Some of your favorite department stores offer in-store and online layaway opportunities. At Kmart, for example, you can visit the layaway counter, put $10 down to set aside an item and then arrange an eight- or 12-week contract for paying off the item. You can't pick up the item until it's paid off, and there will be a service fee of $5 or $10, depending on the contract. But you won't be worried about paying off the item after the holidays, either.
    • Gift IOU: Worried about paying too much before Christmas, especially for a big-ticket game console or television that will be marked down more during January clearance sales? Wrap an IOU that goes with a less-expensive token gift, suggest some money experts. If the IOU goes to a child, you're also giving lessons in money management and patience.
    • Shop early: It's not too soon to look for bargains for people on your list. Look for end-of-summer clearance sales or online specials with free shipping. This is the time of year for deals on clothes, bikes and outdoor gear. Now is when you have time to ponder and shop relaxed instead of emotionally. Just don't lose track of where you stash the gifts you buy now.
    If you get started now instead of waiting until you're in the middle of the frenzied holiday season, you could give yourself the gift of less stress and more Christmas joy.

    Do you have tricks for saving for or during the holiday spending spree? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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


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

    Warehouse clubs promote themselves as being a fantastic way to save -- and there are bargains to be had. Warehouse clubs often offer competitive prices on electronics, small appliances and many household and food items -- provided, of course, that you buy them in bulk.

    But do warehouse clubs really save you a lot of money over the course of a year? Most clubs have an annual membership fee of at least $40, which means in order for a warehouse club to actually save you money, you need to save $40 on purchases, and then some.

    How can you tell if a warehouse club is actually a bargain? Here are the key things to look for.

    Is the warehouse club in a convenient location?

    In other words, are you going to have to drive out of your way to get to the warehouse club? Or is it located near places where you already go on a routine basis?

    If the warehouse club is located in a place where you don't normally go, then you're incurring an additional expense for travel each time you visit the warehouse club, which adds to the cost of the membership. Unless you're saving a lot of money by going there, it's probably not worth it if you have to make a special trip to use the club.

    Does the warehouse club sell gas at a lower price than other local gas stations?

    This is the easiest way for a warehouse club to save you money. Compare the price of gas at the warehouse club to other gas stations in your area. How does the price a gallon compare? Then, consider how often you drive by the warehouse club and actually use it for filling up.

    I'll use myself as an example. I tend to fill up at my local Sam's Club about once a month, putting about 12 gallons of gas into my car. Each gallon at Sam's Club is about 7 cents cheaper than at other nearby gas stations, so I save about 84 cents a visit on gas, which adds up to about $10 a year. That means I only need to come up with about $30 in savings over the rest of the year to make up for that $40 membership.

    How do the prices on nonperishable food and household supplies at a warehouse club compare to the prices at your grocery store?

    The important thing to think about here is not the price of the item itself, but the price per ounce or price per serving. Often, nonperishable foods and household supplies are sold in large quantities at warehouse clubs, so you need to focus on the relative sizes of the package by converting all the prices to a standard unit -- an ounce or a sheet or a serving.

    The best way to compare prices is to use your smartphone. While shopping at your local grocery store, pull up the website of the warehouse club you're interested in. Then, use the website to compare prices between the items you normally buy and the ones listed at the warehouse club.

    Remember, it's often hard to get value out of bulk purchases of fresh goods from a warehouse club, as some of them may go bad quickly, undoing the bargain. Save the price comparisons for the nonperishable foods and the household supplies.

    Are you planning a major purchase in the next year that the warehouse club sells, and are the prices on that major purchase lower than where you might otherwise buy it?

    If you're considering a major purchase in the near future, such as replacement tires for your car or a replacement television, you may be able to save some money by buying the item at your local warehouse club instead of at the local department store, auto store, electronics store or online.

    Again, this is not a guarantee. You need to do your homework and compare prices. Are the tires at your local warehouse club actually cheaper than what you can find at the department stores and auto stores in your area? Is the television you're considering (or a similar model) less expensive at the warehouse club than at other stores and websites?

    As with the bulk purchased food and household supplies, you can check this easily on the warehouse club website. If you find that you would save money on just that single purchase, it's worth joining the club for a year just to save on that item.

    Warehouse clubs offer many avenues for potential savings, but you need to do the homework to find out if they translate into actual savings for you. You may find that they're a nice bargain, but you may also find that you're not saving much at all by shopping there, in which case your membership fees are better spent elsewhere.

    Trent Hamm is the founder of the personal finance website, which provides consumers with resources and tools to make informed financial decisions.


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    Consumer Credit
    Gene J. Puskar/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. consumer spending grew at a fairly healthy pace over the past two months, but factory production slipped in August, providing the Federal Reserve a mixed picture of the economy ahead of a rate-setting meeting later this week.

    The Commerce Department said Tuesday that retail sales excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services increased 0.4 percent in August after an upwardly revised 0.6 percent increase in July.

    These so-called core retail sales, which correspond closely to the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, provided the latest sign of sturdy economic momentum and suggested the recent stock market sell-off had little immediate impact on U.S. household spending.

    Today's data are positive news for final demand in the third quarter and should give the Fed more confidence in the spending outlook.

    A separate report from the Federal Reserve, however, showed manufacturing output fell a sharper-than-expected 0.5 percent as auto production slid, after a rise of 0.9 percent in July.

    Excluding autos, factory output was unchanged.

    Investors pinned their response on the general firm spending figures. U.S. stocks opened higher, the dollar strengthened against a basket of currencies, and prices for U.S. government bonds fell, sending their yields higher.

    "Today's data are positive news for final demand in the third quarter and should give the Fed more confidence in the spending outlook," said Laura Rosner, an economist at BNP Paribas in New York, referring to the retail sales data.

    Signs of sustained strength in the economy could encourage the U.S. central bank to raise benchmark overnight interest rates from near zero. The Fed's policy-setting committee meets on Wednesday and Thursday against the backdrop of a tightening U.S. labor market, low inflation and slowing global growth.

    U.S. financial markets have sharply dialed down expectations of a rate hike in the wake of the recent volatility in global equity markets. They are now pricing in a 25 percent probability that the Fed will announce a rate hike this week.

    Data ranging from employment to housing have suggested the U.S. economy retained most of its momentum from the second quarter, when output expanded at a 3.7 percent annual pace.

    The manufacturing sector, however, has been struggling, faced with the headwinds of a strong dollar, slack economies oversees and lower oil prices.

    A third report Tuesday showed factory activity in New York state contracted in September for a second straight month.

    Auto Sales Rise, but Production Down

    Overall retail sales rose 0.2 percent last month as strong gains in auto sales were offset by a 1.8 percent drop in the value of sales at service stations as gasoline prices declined.

    Receipts at auto dealerships rose 0.7 percent last month after rising 1.3 percent in July. Sales at clothing stores were up 0.4 percent, while receipts at building materials and garden equipment stores were down 1.8 percent. Sales at furniture stores fell 0.9 percent.

    There were sales increases for online retailers, restaurants and bars, sporting goods and hobby stores, and electronics and appliance outlets.

    The general bright news on spending was tempered by the soft factory data.

    The Fed said auto and auto-part production contracted 6.4 percent last month, reversing much of the strong gains registered in July.

    A drop in mining production combined with the drop in factory output to leave overall industrial production down 0.4 percent during the month, despite higher output for utilities.

    -Dan Burns contributed reporting.


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    Earns Target
    Damian Dovarganes/AP

    MINNEAPOLIS -- Target (TGT) is testing the online grocery delivery waters.

    The Minneapolis-based discounter has teamed with Instacart, the online grocery delivery service that started in 2012, to let shoppers in the Minneapolis area order fruits and other perishables, as well as household, pet and baby products, and have them delivered to their homes in as little as an hour.

    The service starts Tuesday. Target says it's exploring plans to expand to other markets.

    Target's move comes as the discounter aims to bolster its online business under CEO Brian Cornell, who came on board in August 2014 and is reshaping its business.

    The launch also comes as the online grocery delivery market is heating up.

    Online retail king (AMZN) began testing Amazon Fresh grocery delivery in Seattle in 2007 and has since expanded that service to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and parts of New York.

    Meanwhile, Walmart Stores (WMT), the nation's largest food retailer, is testing online grocery delivery and pickup in five markets. However, a national rollout for both retailers is still elusive.

    San Francisco-based Instacart, which works with other retailers including Whole Foods Market (WFM), Costco (COST) and Petco (PETM), said that Minneapolis is its 18th market.

    Here's how it works: Customers go online to or open the Instacart mobile app on their iPhone or Android device, click on the city and store, add items to their cart and then chose a delivery window. Shoppers can choose a one- or two- hour window, or some scheduled time in the future.

    The first delivery is free and future orders cost $3.99 for a two-hour delivery or $5.99 for a one-hour delivery for orders over $35.

    Target said it will be watching which grocery items shoppers put in their virtual cart.

    "There is certainly growth opportunity for this type of business, and we want to learn more about it," Target Corp. spokesman Eddie Baeb said.


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    business man and his bicycle ...
    I'm not one to think too much about retirement. Some of my money-blogging friends have their sites on full retirement by 35. I'm not one of those people. I like my work. I like the people I've met through what I do. And I would be doing some version of what I'm doing now, whether it paid well or not. But I also like the freedom to do what I want with my time. Self-employment and passive/semi-passive income gives me some of this. But you can never have too much freedom. I am looking forward to a future when I will work ... even though I don't really have to. This is the kind of retirement that I'm shooting for and I'm going after it in a lot of ways. One of them is in the method I use to get from point A to point B.

    AAA estimates that it costs 60 cents to drive a midsize sedan for a mile. That's not just accounting for gas, but maintenance, insurance and all manner of upkeep -- even non-essentials. When you look at it that way, it makes you think twice before driving across town to the grocery store. If you live in an area with high traffic, you can tack on a few more cents to every mile. If we assume an average annual driving distance of 15,000 miles, you can total the annual cost of owning and operating a car at $9,000.

    Maybe you're made of money, but I'm not. $9,000 is no mean sum. That's just about exactly as much as the average American paid for health care in 2012. That's about as much as it costs to go to an American public college for a whole year. Clearly, it's a lot of money. And for the typical car owner, it's money that is thrown away without thinking twice about it. Because you have to have a car. Right?

    Well, nobody tells me what I have to do. A year ago, I stopped driving very much at all. My used 23-year-old Jeep was on its last legs. I wasn't going to pay for its high cost of maintenance. So when it died, I sold it for scrap and bought a bicycle instead. Now, let's compare the cost of riding a bike to the cost of driving a car. Some sources estimate that the cost of a good bicycle, accessories, and maintenance will set you back about 5 to 15 cents a mile. When I think of how much healthier I am as a result of riding a bicycle, I think this has to be cutting down on future medical costs, making bike-riding either free or possibly even profitable. Who has to have a car now?

    I know some of you have a commute. But consider the alternative. By finding a job closer to your house (or working from home), you can sell your car or drive it a lot less. By relying entirely on a bicycle and public transportation, you will save approximately $90,000 over 10 years. That's more than my house costs me during that same amount of time, folks. It's numbers like these that made me seriously reconsider my gas-guzzler. Simply giving up my car and traveling on two wheels isn't going to be enough to allow me an early retirement. But it's the kind of habit which is going to help. I'm going to be writing a series of the ways I'm cutting down in certain areas to beef up savings, investments and all-around frugality. In the end, it'll give me something resembling early retirement. And I hope you can join me there.


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    APTOPIX Federal Reserve Yellen
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen

    WASHINGTON -- Will they or won't they?

    Nine years after they last raised their benchmark interest rate and after months of feverish speculation, Federal Reserve policymakers this week may finally raise that rate from a record low near zero.

    Unless they don't.

    Financial markets have been zigzagging with anxiety as investors have tried to divine whether the Fed will start phasing out the period of extraordinarily low borrowing rates it launched at a time of crisis in 2008. With the job market now considered essentially recovered from the Great Recession, many economists say it's time to start edging toward normal rates.

    Others argue that many other factors -- from a sharply slowing China to the tumult in markets to persistently less-than-optimal inflation -- raise serious concerns. They say the Fed should wait, until later this year or even until 2016.

    It's kind of wild that we still don't know what they are going to do so close to the meeting.

    When the Fed announces its decision Thursday, followed by Chair Janet Yellen's news conference, no one is sure what to expect. Economists appear evenly split on the likelihood of a rate hike.

    "It's kind of wild that we still don't know what they are going to do so close to the meeting," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago.

    Even if the Fed does raise its benchmark short-term rate, no one expects a sharp or rapid sequence of hikes. The Fed's vice chair, Stanley Fischer, has suggested that the first hike would be a modest quarter-point increase in its benchmark rate from a range of zero to 0.25 percent to a range of 0.25 to 0.5 percent.

    The anxiety gripping investors stems in part from concern that once the Fed starts raising its key rate, other rates -- for mortgages, car loans, business borrowing -- will eventually rise. Some fear the economy might suffer.

    Yet the Fed's influence on many consumer and business rates is only indirect. In the short run at least, those rates could continue to stay low, held down by low inflation globally and by a flow of money into U.S Treasurys.

    Gradual Process

    Fed officials have stressed that once the central bank starts raising rates, the process will be extremely gradual. The Fed might pause for months after its first hike and assess the consequences before proceeding further.

    Until turmoil struck markets this summer, a September rate hike seemed a lock. Then, China's surprise decision to devalue its currency ignited fears that the world's second-largest economy was weakening faster than assumed. Stocks tumbled.

    At an economic conference last month in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Fed officials sent mixed signals about this week's meeting. Some indicated they were ready to raise rates if markets had settled and if the economy kept improving. The unemployment rate reached a seven-year low of 5.1 percent in August, while job growth, though solid, slowed a bit.

    In July, when Yellen delivered a midyear economic report to Congress, she reiterated that the Fed would likely raise rates before year's end. But she wasn't specific.

    Swonk foresees no rate hike this week. She noted that a hallmark of the Fed is to move cautiously when facing risks.

    'Ripple' or 'Storm'

    "There is more to be lost by being wrong and moving too soon than waiting a few months to see if China is just a ripple in the global economy or the precursor of a bigger storm," Swonk said.

    Likewise, Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University, Channel Islands, thinks the Fed will delay a hike.

    "A quarter-point won't mean much to the U.S. economy, but it could mean significant additional turbulence in emerging markets such as Brazil, Indonesia and India, which are already seeing sizable outflows of capital," Sohn said.

    On the other side of the debate is Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, who thinks the Fed will lift its rate by a quarter-point.

    "Given that the economy is strong and rapidly approaching full employment, zero interest rates don't make a whole lot of sense," Zandi said. "The longer they wait, the more uncertainty and volatility they are creating in financial markets."

    One reason for the likely gradual pace of rate hikes is that Fed officials want to make sure the new machinery they will deploy to control rates will work effectively.

    Before the Great Recession, the Fed would control its federal funds rate -- the rate banks charge each other for overnight loans -- by adjusting how much money the banks held. To lower rates, the Fed would buy Treasurys held by the banks. And the banks would use the money they received to step up lending.

    If the Fed wanted to raise short-term rates, it would sell Treasurys to the banks, thereby reducing the money the banks held and driving loan rates up.

    But all the bond buying the Fed did to cut rates left banks swimming in reserves. So the Fed needs other tools to influence rates. A key plan is to raise the interest the Fed pays banks on their reserves. The idea would be to set a floor on interest the banks charge their customers: Banks wouldn't be willing to lend at lower rates than they're receiving from the Fed. This could have the effect of reducing lending.

    Negligible Effect

    Yet economists generally say the effects of a series of small rate hikes will be negligible.

    David Jones, an economist and Fed historian, thinks a 1 percentage point increase in the Fed's rate would cause the yield on the 10-year Treasury note to rise only to about 3 percent by the end of 2016, from 2.2 percent now. That would mean only slightly higher mortgage rates -- not enough to derail the housing recovery.

    The dollar, which has risen sharply in the past year, could also increase further, which could slow exports. American producers have already suffered a slowdown in exports from the dollar's strength and weakness in overseas markets.

    Still, many economists predict little initial reaction to the Fed's first rate hike in nine years. A modest rate has likely already been discounted by investors, they say.

    "So long as the Fed doesn't send a signal that it is going to start moving rates up more aggressively, I don't expect any big changes in stocks, bonds or currency levels," Zandi said.

    Anatomy of a Rate Hike


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    Reynolds American
    Gene J. Puskar/APPackages of Camel Crush Bold and other Camel brand cigarettes on display at a shop in Pittsburgh.
    By Toni Clarke

    WASHINGTON -- Reynolds American (RAI) can no longer sell Camel Crush Bold or three other cigarette products in the United States because they may be more dangerous than similar older cigarettes, the Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday.

    The 2009 Tobacco Control Act requires that new cigarettes be reviewed by the FDA before being allowed on the market. No product introduced after Feb. 15, 2007 can carry a greater health risk when measured against an earlier, "predicate" product.

    The FDA found that the four Reynolds products, Camel Crush Bold, Pall Mall Deep Set Recessed Filter, Pall Mall Deep Set Recessed Filter Menthol and Vantage Tech 13 cigarettes, have different characteristics from their predicates that raise new health questions.

    Reynolds wasn't immediately available for comment.

    The FDA has received thousands of marketing applications from companies seeking to keep selling currently marketed products and from companies seeking authorization to sell brand new products.

    Products introduced after Feb. 15, 2007 were allowed under the 2009 law to remain on the market on a provisional basis as long as the manufacturer submitted an application by March 22, 2011. The agency has authorized 257 applications and denied 113, Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA's tobacco products division told reporters on a conference call.

    The Reynolds ruling is the most high-profile to date and comes three weeks after the agency told Reynolds and two of its rivals they couldn't claim their products are "natural" or "additive-free" without regulatory approval. Reynolds sells Natural American Spirit cigarettes through its subsidiary, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co.

    Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA's tobacco division, told reporters on a conference call that the Reynolds products included increased yields of harmful or potentially harmful constituents, higher levels of menthol and the addition of new ingredients. The company couldn't show that the changes don't raise new health questions, he said.

    In the case of Camel Crush Bold, Reynolds also failed to show that the addition of a menthol capsule in the filter didn't affect consumer perception and use.

    The FDA said it doesn't intend to enforce the ban on the Reynolds products for 30 days to allow retailers to get rid of their inventory.

    -Rosmi Shaji contributed reporting from Bangalore.


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    Friendship on a Budget
    We all love spending time with friends, but between dining out and shopping, hanging out with your pals can quickly add up. Here are some tips on how to spend time with your friends without overspending.

    First, try checking out some free community events happening in your neighborhood. Simply go online and check out your city's website to see what kind of free recreational activities are being offered. Between free concerts, museum exhibits, and volunteer work, there are a lot of low-budget options to choose from.

    Next, a great way to save with your friends is by taking up urban foraging. Urban foraging, is all about picking fruits, vegetables and edible plants from sanctioned areas around your city. Go to to find out where you can forage near you. Simply input your neighborhood, and you'll find a detailed map of all the great foraging opportunities nearby.

    Lastly, try to be creative with your plans. You can browse for treasures at the thrift store, throw a YouTube karaoke night, or start a book club, just to name a few ideas.

    So remember these tips the next time you hang out with your pals -- because building your friendships doesn't have to mean breaking the bank.

    View Poll


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    Earns Target
    Chris O'Meara/AP
    By Joseph Ax

    NEW YORK -- A U.S. judge Tuesday certified a class action against Target (TGT) brought by several banks over the retailer's massive data breach in 2013.

    U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson in St. Paul, Minnesota, said the banks could pursue their claims together over the breach, which compromised at least 40 million credit cards during the holiday season.

    This important ruling brings financial institutions one step closer to collectively holding Target accountable for its unprecedented data breach.

    In a statement, Charles Zimmerman, one of the lead lawyers representing the banks, said, "This important ruling brings financial institutions one step closer to collectively holding Target accountable for its unprecedented data breach."

    Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder said the company was "disappointed" and would evaluate its next steps after reviewing the decision.

    The ruling, which makes a settlement with the banks more likely, comes four weeks after Target agreed to pay as much as $67 million to financial institutions that issue Visa (V) cards, in a deal struck directly with the credit card network.

    Earlier this year, a proposed $19 million settlement with MasterCard (MA) fell through when not enough banks accepted the agreement.

    It isn't clear how many Visa card issuers accepted the terms of that deal by the deadline of Sept. 4.

    Snyder declined to comment on the number of institutions that have agreed to participate in the Visa deal but emphasized that the class action includes only those card issuers that haven't settled their claims.

    Attorney Zimmerman has said the Visa deal, like the failed MasterCard settlement, doesn't fully reimburse banks for their losses and was negotiated without input from the plaintiffs.

    Carrie Hunt, the general counsel for the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, praised the judge's decision and said it "constitutes one important avenue for recovery" for credit unions affected by the breach.

    The Target breach was one in a series of high-profile data security failures to hit major retailers, including Home Depot (HD) and Staples (SPLS).

    -Nandita Bose contributed reporting from Chicago.


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    Dow Rallies Nearly 400 Points After Uptick In Chinese Markets
    Andrew Burton/Getty Images
    By Noel Randewich

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks rallied more than 1 percent Tuesday after data showed healthy growth in consumer spending but did little to remove uncertainty about whether the Federal Reserve will raise rates this week.

    Speculation about when the Fed will end seven years of near-zero interest rates has dogged Wall Street for several months, with the picture complicated by recent market turbulence that some see as justification for the central bank to hold off.

    The debate around the Fed continues, but the Fed will do more damage waiting for December to raise rather than start the normalization process.

    "The debate around the Fed continues, but the Fed will do more damage waiting for December to raise rather than start the normalization process," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities.

    "If they don't raise rates this week, it's a bad signal."

    The Commerce Department said core retail sales rose 0.4 percent in August after an upwardly revised 0.6 percent increase in July. It was the latest sign of sturdy economic momentum and suggested the recent stock market sell-off had little immediate impact on U.S. household spending.

    U.S. interest rates futures implied traders place a 27 percent chance the Fed would end its near-zero interest rate policy Thursday, up from 23 percent late Monday, according to CME Group's FedWatch program.

    "It's tough to call," said Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments in Lisle, Illinois. "In the context of the world economy and the uncertainty around China, they might give it another month."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 228.89 points, or 1.4 percent, to end at 16,599.85 points. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 1.3 percent to 1,978.09 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 1.1 percent to 4,860.52.

    Movers and Shakers

    All 10 major S&P sectors were up, with the industrials index's 1.7 percent gain leading advancers and General Electric (GE) rising 2.1 percent. Microsoft (MSFT) jumped 2.18 percent, making the biggest single contribution to the S&P's rally. The financial index rose 1.7 percent, led by JPMorgan's (JPM) 2.2 percent rise.

    Stocks have been volatile since China devalued its currency in August. The S&P 500 has had moves of at least 1 percent in 12 of the past 18 sessions.

    The S&P remains down 4 percent for 2015 and recently traded at 15.4 times expected earnings, a tad cheaper than the 15-year average of 15.6 times earnings, according to Thomson Reuters Starmine.

    Shares of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU) rose 3.4 percent. The United Auto Workers union said it will keep talking with the automaker to reach a new contract for the company's U.S. factory workers, delaying a possible strike at its most profitable operations.

    Gray Television (GTN) jumped 13.3 percent after the broadcaster said it would buy Schurz Communications' television and radio stations for $442.5 million.

    Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE by 2,124 to 926. On the Nasdaq, 1,930 issues rose and 869 fell.

    The S&P 500 index showed three new 52-week highs and five new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded 39 new highs and 67 new lows.

    About 5.8 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 8.0 billion daily average for the previous 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    -Tanya Agrawal contributed reporting.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • Federal Reserve policymakers begin a two-day meeting to set interest rates.
    • The Labor Department releases the Consumer Price Index for August at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The National Association of Home Builders releases its housing market index for September at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:


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    Jeff Chiu/AP
    By Angela Colley

    Online auction giant eBay celebrated its 20th birthday this month. It's a big milestone for any company, especially an Internet-based one, but eBay (EBAY) isn't a stranger to milestones. From ground breaking innovations to quirky successes, the Internet giant has been in the thick of it since 1995.

    From its humble beginnings as AuctionWeb, developed by then relatively unknown software developer Pierre Omidyar, to the Internet retail superstar with 157 million active buyers, eBay has helped shape the consumer world. These are some of the company's biggest -- and strangest -- legacies.

    Developed the Peer-to-Peer Model

    Online peer-to-peer buying is huge. Sites such as Etsy (ETSY) connect independent artists with buyers all over the world. Hundreds of small time retailers boost profits through Amazon (AMZN). You can even donate to charity, or help out a family member through sites like GoFundMe.

    It's big business now, but in the 90s buyers were firing up their dial-up Internet to bid on rare Beanie Babies through the company that made the peer-to-peer industry huge.

    Made Online Shopping Easier

    Now we can order almost anything in one click with our smartphones, but it wasn't always that way. When online shopping was first getting off the ground, many retailers didn't even have integrated carts. Instead, every time you wanted to buy something, you were sent to a third-party merchant, where you entered in all of your information and waited.

    It wasn't an easy or secure way to pay, but eBay helped launch paying online 2.0 first by trying to develop their own payment system and then by acquiring PayPal in 2002.

    Created Millionaires

    Before online auction and selling sites, there were few ways anyone could make a bit of extra cash here and there. But the popularity and ease of eBay helped many people make a lot of extra cash -- even millions.

    Chris and Lisa Rush made an estimated $8 million in 2006 selling audio and stereo equipment, according to Entrepreneur. Dan Glasure brought in $2.5 million selling model trains and accessories. And Mark and Robin LeVine hit the million mark selling Bubble Wrap, according to The Huffington Post.

    Proved That Weird Sells Online

    Whether its underpants for your hands or inflatable toast, if it's quirky, someone is going to buy it. And eBay is the reigning king of quirky sales. In 2004, a casino paid $65,000 for a walking cane. The cane owner's son believed it was haunted by his grandfather. Then in 2008 two sisters from Virginia sold a cornflake in the shape of Illinois for $1,350.

    Helped Lead the Mobile Shopping Revolution

    Mobile retail wasn't invented by eBay, but the company's success in the field helped legitimize the idea for consumers, investors, and even businesses. The company also proved it was still a retail powerhouse.

    Back in 2009, eBay had hit a slump. The company's stock was barely more than $10, an 80 percent drop from its peak, according to The New York Times. But mobile shopping changed that.

    After eBay went mobile, sales jumped. More than 90 million users downloaded the mobile app, and in one quarter, 600,000 users made their first mobile purchase, according to eBay's then-CEO John Donahoe.

    Pioneered Reinventing Yourself Online

    Many online retailers have tried to reinvent themselves with varied success, but eBay proved that any company, even overnight successes, can roll with the times.

    While eBay started as a traditional auction model, consumers grew impatient with the auction times. As online shopping became more common, and competitors like Amazon started offering faster shipping times, consumers wanted a faster shopping experience and eBay provided it. "Buy it Now" replaced most traditional auctions. By 2010, "Buy it Now" sales accounted for 59 percent of eBay's business, according to Mashable.

    Ahead of the Game in Transparency

    In 2012, eBay's corporate blogger Richard Brewer-Hay was the first to live-tweet a company's quarterly earnings call, according to Mashable. Today, companies live-tweet or stream practically anything in an effort to seem more transparent to their customers.

    All told, eBay has had a record breaking-tenure on the Internet landscape, but we're betting we'll be celebrating its 40th birthday as well. After all, according to Time, at any given time there are an average of 800 million listings on the site -- and that certainly isn't a sign the giant is ready to slow down.

    Angela Colley has covered everything from money saving technology to how the Mayans might affect your savings. She's appeared on publications like MainStreet and MSN Money. You can follow her on Twitter @angelancolley.


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    Mature Woman Looking at Household Bills
    Getty ImagesNot all of the common knowledge about retirement is true.
    By Tom Sightings

    You don't really know how you're going to live in retirement until you start doing it. But that doesn't mean you can't plan ahead, start to envision your retirement lifestyle and begin to put pieces of the puzzle together.

    There's lots of advice, and many guidelines, to help you chart your way through retirement. Here are seven common assumptions, and the reasons why some of them are true, some are false and a few of them are in between.

    1. Social Security will be there for you. True. Many workers in America have lost faith in Social Security, thinking the system will be bankrupt by the time they become eligible to collect their benefits. But the fact is, the current system is sound, just the way it is, for another two decades. Yes, lawmakers may make some modest cuts to extend the system. Or, if nothing gets done, there could be deeper cuts later on. But Social Security won't go bust.

    2. Social Security will pay the bills. False. The average Social Security retirement benefit is currently $1,331 a month. That's $15,972 a year, which happens to be the poverty line for a couple with no dependents. Meanwhile, the maximum benefit for someone at full retirement age (currently 66) is $2,685, and even for those who wait until age 70 to retire, the maximum is $3,501 a month. That sounds better, but if you qualify for the maximum benefit, you were earning over $100,000 annually, and so you're probably not going to be happy on $32,220 a year.

    3. Inflation is no longer a worry. Maybe. The pundits have declared that inflation is dead, and now actually worry about a decline in the cost of living. Last year the average consumer price index went up barely 1 percent. But remember the 1970s and 1980s, when inflation routinely came in at 5 percent or more? Even in the early 2000s, inflation chugged along at closer to 3 percent. So, $100 from the year 2000 is worth only about $72 today. If you retire at age 66, and expect to live another 20 years, $100 will then be worth only about $64 today, or maybe less.

    4. The stock market will pump up your income. Maybe. The stock market has been ratcheting up since 2009, and it's produced a lot of wealth for retirees who have invested in stocks and mutual funds. But, as recent events remind us, while the stock market is a good place to invest for the long term, it can put a pretty painful dent in your finances in the short run. So stay invested with your long-term savings, but don't keep any money in the market that you might need in the next five years.

    5. You can always keep working. Maybe. Many baby boomers express an interest in working after they retire, usually as a consultant or in a part-time job. This pans out for many people, especially those who are able to keep options open with their old company. But the fact is, only a small fraction of retired people are actually working. Why the discrepancy? Jobs are not that easy to get for people over 65, and as we hit our 70s we may find that we don't have the interest or the stamina to continue in the labor force.

    6. You'll receive an inheritance. Maybe. But even the most affluent aging parents can be bled dry if they end up in a nursing home, especially if they don't have long-term care insurance. The average nursing home costs several thousand dollars a month, and fees can go much higher depending on where you live and what kind of services are needed. But even without punishing care giving costs, many elderly parents live well into their 90s, and simply spend down most of their children's inheritance.

    7. You can live on less money. True. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that you'll have less money in retirement than you did when you were working. The good news is that you need less money. You will likely pay lower taxes and won't be subject to the payroll tax. Your kids are probably grown up, so you're not supporting them anymore. And there are many ways to cut your bills, such as downsizing your home, traveling off season and taking advantage of a wide array of senior discounts.

    Tom Sightings blogs at Sightings at 60.

    Are You Saving Enough for Retirement?


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    Mother and daughter shopping with coupons in grocery store
    Getty Images
    By Raechel Conover

    Who doesn't love a good bargain? Well, many of the discounts on this list are right in front of consumers but often overlooked. Others take a bit of digging. If you think you've uncovered every last source of savings, read on to make sure.

    Receipt Coupons. Many store receipts bear coupons on the back -- especially those from supermarket registers. I recently picked up a free watch battery by using the coupon on the back of a receipt. Other discounts I've noticed on receipts include $3 off a pizza.

    Customer Surveys. Think about all the times there's a request at the bottom of a receipt to participate in a survey. Now think about the number of times you've taken action to be eligible for a freebie or discount. Taco Bell enters participants into a $500 sweepstakes drawing (three to five winners a month); taking a Subway survey brings a free cookie; and Chick-fil-A offers something free on the next visit, such as a sandwich. Many retail outlets and other restaurants want feedback and are willing to pay for it. Don't pass up the opportunity.

    Ticket Stubs. Sporting events and concerts are well known for teaming up with restaurant and fast-food sponsors. Next time, check the back of the ticket stub for a coupon. Sometimes event sponsors give away freebies if the home team wins or scores. Fans in Ohio have been offered free chili at Wendy's when the Columbus Blue Jackets hockey team scores three goals and two free toppings at Donatos Pizza for each goal by the Columbus Crew soccer team.

    Work Discounts. Before signing on with a cellphone provider, for example, check to see whether your employer (or your spouse's employer) qualifies you and family members for a discount (usually up to 10 percent). If you already have a plan, the discounted rate can probably be activated starting with the next billing cycle. The same goes for fitness clubs, although this deal is generally available through the employer's health insurance provider.

    Home Insurance Discounts. There are several ways to qualify for discounts on home insurance. Deadbolts on every entry/exit door as well as up-to-code smoke detectors can easily net a 5 percent rate cut. Installing a smoke detector system that alerts the authorities may qualify for even more money off. Check with your insurance company for these and other overlooked discounts on homeowners insurance.

    Car Insurance Discounts. Excellent driving record? That could justify a discount on car insurance. The same goes for student drivers who earn good grades, but these discounts are often not well advertised. Calling and speaking directly to a representative is a good way to start.

    Coupon Mailers. Coupon packets from the likes of Valpak probably show up in the mail on a regular basis. Look closely instead of just tossing them in the recycling bin; there may be unneeded coupons for big-ticket items, but often there are also everyday coupons that can yield savings. For example, I've used a coupon from Paper Mint (now Local Flavor) to save $5 on $40 worth of plants for the yard and bought three rooms of carpet cleaning for the price of one. The mailers also include coupons for local dining that are worth clipping.

    Cash Coupons. Retailers such as Kohl's and Old Navy run cash promotions regularly. Customers who spend a certain amount get "Kohl's Cash" or "Old Navy Super Cash" that can be used on a subsequent shopping trip (the dates usually are specified). For every $50 spent at Kohl's, for example, the retailer offers a coupon for $10 that can be used just like cash in the store, with no minimum purchase.

    On the Packaging. Sometimes there's a coupon right on a package; batteries, electronic gadgets, and even foodstuffs come to mind. Look carefully while shopping and peel off this easy-to-overlook discount upon reaching the checkout lane.

    Online Coupons. Before heading out to shop, do a quick search online for coupons. Some require printing at home, and others can be pulled up on a smartphone. Customers at Michaels, for example, can often find 40 percent-off coupons and use them just by flashing a smartphone at the register. Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores and Hobby Lobby post similar coupons on their websites.

    Social Media Deals. Deal sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial offer rewards for referring people through social media. For example, consumers who refer a friend can earn $10 in Groupon Bucks if the friend buys a Groupon using the referral link. LivingSocial has a similar program and also gives members the deal they want for free if they refer three friends who buy the deal.

    Check-In Discounts. Shoppers can earn freebies and discounts just for walking into a store and checking in via Facebook or another social networking site. (Not all stores offer deals this way, but it's worth checking.) Smartphone apps such as ShopKick let customers earn points or credit just for walking into retailers on their list. Users who accumulate enough "kicks" can cash them in for gift cards.


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    fitting solar panels to roof of ...
    By Ellen Chang

    NEW YORK -- Reducing energy costs on a daily basis can help consumers and small business owners save thousands of dollars each year. Energy bills can easily add up, of course, but in addition to finding cheaper rates online for electricity, heat or air conditioning, there are some other nimble ways to slash costs.

    First of all, determine if your city qualifies for deregulated electricity or natural gas. A lower rate can result in savings quickly, especially during months of higher usage of air conditioning or heating.

    Determine the pricing structures and if the local utility company offers any incentives. Many electricity companies offer discounts when power is used during off-peak hours.

    "Understanding how you pay for energy gives you the ability to develop and implement strategies for things like peak pricing, points in time that can make or break an energy management program," said John Rajchert, president of Honeywell Building Solutions, the Morristown, New Jersey, technology and manufacturing company.

    Robust energy management is about striking a balance between what a household or business needs and what's most effective for comfort and operational effectiveness.

    "Start off by taking an inventory of the equipment used in the office or building, and figure out the baseline of performance during various times throughout the day," Raichert said.

    This centers on doing a simple energy audit-- whether by yourself or with an outside contractor or consultant.

    "Improving energy efficiency is all about determining how to manage a building's [or house's] base load and making adjustments when grid-wide energy use and costs peak," he said. "It's not one or the other. With this insight, you can ensure your building is only using the amount of power necessary at specific times, helping to squeeze out as much energy savings as possible."

    Consolidated Edison, for example, offers lower rates on weekends, holidays and weekdays from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. Planning accordingly -- for when demand and costs are low -- can help garner savings. It's possible for a homeowner to save some $30 a month with this strategy -- $360 annually. Consider replacing your current light bulbs with LEDs since lighting remains a "significant portion of electricity usage," said Alexander Goldstein, CEO of Eligo Energy, an energy retailer based in Chicago which provides electricity to residential and commercial customers in deregulated states.

    Another plus is that LED bulbs are up to 10 times as efficient and last up to 50 times longer compared to incandescent bulbs. To boot, they are better for the environment compared to florescent or CFL bulbs. In fact, given that lighting can total 5 to 10 precent of household energy costs, the average consumer can save $75 to $200 annually by switching over to more efficient bulbs.

    Those older model computer monitors or televisions that have the cathode ray tubes, or CRTs, should also be replaced with the newer liquid crystal-display, or LCD, screens, because they use less power.

    At home or in your business, examine your current servers for your data and consider "consolidating multiple older servers into new more efficient hardware" or simply using the cloud, he said. Servers are large consumers of power and also emit heat, requiring additional air conditioning to keep them at a very low temperature constantly.

    If you haven't swapped them already, power switches with motion sensors are a good method to reduce the use of electricity when a room is empty. The lights will automatically turn off when inhabitants or employees leave for an extended period, making the task of saving power relatively easy.

    Upgrading Technology

    Some older homes and offices still have their original thermostats. Opt for a programmable thermostat, because you can program temperatures for peak hours of business or use, Goldstein says. With a smart thermostat, consumers can save 30 percent on their home's heating and cooling bills.

    The amount of electricity being used in a home or office is substantial, said Ernest Freeman, vice president of engineering in Hartford Steam Boiler's Loss Control Engineering Group, a Hartford, Connecticut-based equipment breakdown insurance company. Leaving on various appliances "not only draws power, but also generates heat that can contribute to higher cooling bills," he said.

    Using tools that can automatically shut down appliances such as coffee makers, water coolers, vending machines and registers can lower the amount of vampire loads. Devices that are plugged in, but shut off, are still using electricity. A better option is to plug equipment in the office into power strips. A smart power strip is a good investment, because it "senses when a product is not in use and eliminates its standby power consumption," Freeman said in a blog post.

    For homeowners and business owners who want to invest in long-term infrastructure, installing solar panels could yield additional savings. A lower reliance on the power grid is a benefit and companies can either lease or buy panels. Although the solar panels are expensive to install at first, the savings range from six to eight times over 25 years, the duration of most panels, said Jim Nelson, CEO of Solar3D, the Santa Barbara, California, company that produces technology for solar cells.


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    3 Worst Things to Buy New for Kids

    By Andrea N. Browne

    Kids cost a lot to raise. During the first 18 years of a child's life you'll spend on average about $245,000 for food, housing, child care, education and other related expenses. Considering how costly it is just to provide them with the essentials, it makes financial sense to look for ways to save on the things your kids want but don't actually need. One easy way to do this is to buy used rather than new.

    Here are three things that you should avoid buying new for your kids to cut costs.

    While older children might balk at the thought of wearing slightly used clothing, little kids won't know the difference. You can save big by buying gently worn baby and toddler clothes at consignment sales hosted by your local church or by going to an actual consignment store. You can even look online.

    At, the online consignment retailer sells more than 4,000 kids' brands in like-new condition for an average of 65 percent off the original retail price.

    Kids tend to break or lose their cellphones pretty easily, so it could be a waste of money to buy a brand new smartphone that costs hundreds of dollars. Instead, you could buy your child a pre-owned phone for much less. On, for example, you can buy pre-owned phones that have gone through a 30-point inspection for about 40 percent less than newer models. You can also find refurbished phones on websites such as or

    Your son or daughter may like a certain sport and want to join a team, but they could lose interest after a few tough practices. And even if they remain committed, they will probably outgrow equipment quickly. So it would be wise to buy most sporting equipment used rather than new. One mom we talked to saved 50 percent on boxing, lacrosse and horseback riding equipment she bought at resale stores such as Play It Again Sports. Some sports leagues even have trade-in days when parents can swap kids' equipment at no additional cost.

    Check out five more of the worst things to buy new for your kids.


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    Consumer Price Index Rises For First Time Since October
    Scott Olson/Getty Images
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. consumer prices unexpectedly fell in August as gasoline prices resumed their decline and a strong dollar curbed the cost of other goods, pointing to tame inflation that complicates the Federal Reserve's decision whether to hike interest rates.

    The Labor Department said Wednesday its Consumer Price Index slipped 0.1 percent, the first drop since January, after edging up 0.1 percent in July. In the 12 months through August, the CPI rose 0.2 percent after a similar gain in July.

    Signs of a disinflationary trend reasserting itself are in stark contrast with a fairly healthy economy and a rapidly tightening labor market, and highlight the dilemma Fed officials face as they contemplate raising interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade.

    You can make a strong case either way for the Fed to begin raising interest rates or waiting.

    The U.S. central bank's policy-setting committee was due to start a two-day meeting later Wednesday. While solid data on consumer spending, housing and employment have been supportive of a rate hike, the case for higher borrowing costs has been undermined by recent global financial markets turmoil.

    "You can make a strong case either way for the Fed to begin raising interest rates or waiting," said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

    "The prudent risk management approach would argue for them to hold off, but if the Fed was really data dependent there is a very a strong case to raise rates on Thursday."

    U.S. financial markets were pricing a 29 percent probability of a lift-off in the Fed's benchmark overnight interest rate Thursday, little changed from before the data's release.

    A Reuters survey of 80 economists showed 45 expected the U.S. central bank to keep its short-term interest rate near zero.

    Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher in the wake of the soft CPI data. Prices for U.S. Treasuries rose marginally, while the dollar fell against a basket of currencies.

    Tightening labor market conditions, marked by record high job openings and a 5.1 percent unemployment rate, have so far not spurred faster wage growth.

    Sluggish wage gains and a strong dollar have contributed to keeping inflation below the Fed's 2 percent target. Economists had forecast the CPI unchanged in August and rising 0.2 percent from a year ago.

    Dollar Dampening Inflation

    The so-called core CPI, which strips out food and energy costs, ticked up 0.1 percent last month after a similar rise in July. The muted gains in the core CPI reflect the dollar's impact on the cost of imported goods.

    The dollar has gained 17.1 percent against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners since June 2014.

    In the 12 months through August, the core CPI increased 1.8 percent. It was the fifth time in six months that the 12-month change was 1.8 percent. The Fed tracks the personal consumption expenditures price index, excluding food and energy, which is running well below the core CPI.

    "One thorn in the Fed's side is inflation. I don't think today's CPI number really advances the debate on whether we are any closer to getting to that 2 percent target that the Fed is clearly focused on," said Mike Moran, head of economic research for the Americas at Standard Chartered Bank in New York.

    Last month, gasoline prices fell 4.1 percent, the biggest drop since January, after rising 0.9 percent in July. Gasoline prices had risen for three straight months. Food prices gained 0.2 percent as the cost of eggs increased 7.7 percent.

    Egg prices are now up 35.3 percent from a year ago, following the avian flu that struck some parts of the country early in the year. There were increases in prices for tobacco and apparel. However, airline fares fell 3.1 percent and used car prices declined for a fourth straight month.

    The rental index increased 0.3 percent last month, matching July's gain. Demand for rental accommodation is being driven by rising household formation as the sturdy labor market encourages young adults to leave their parental homes.

    The hot rental market is helping to fuel home building activity, with a separate report Wednesday showing homebuilder confidence near a decade high in September.


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    olive garden pasta pass returns
    Olive Garden via AP

    NEW YORK -- Olive Garden is bringing back its "Pasta Pass" that lets people gorge on as much pasta as they want for seven weeks. And friends and family are welcome to pig out too this year.

    The restaurant chain known for its free breadsticks says it will sell 1,000 of the $100 regular Pasta Passes starting Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern time on its website. It will also sell 1,000 family Pasta Passes, which will cost $300 and let cardholders bring along up to three guests.

    The return of the promotional stunt comes after the passes sold out in 45 minutes last year and generated considerable publicity for Olive Garden, which is trying to modernize its image as customers have turned elsewhere in recent years. Late night talk show host David Letterman even devoted a top 10 list to the Pasta Pass, saying that one of its clauses is that a person's dignity is not refundable.

    The passes will let people mix and match from a selection of sauces and pastas, including a gluten-free variety this year. The passes also come with unlimited soft drinks and, as with other Olive Garden meals, unlimited soup or salad and breadsticks. The passes are good from Oct. 5 through Nov. 22 at the chain's more than 800 U.S. locations.

    The passes aren't transferable, so the cardholder has to be the one using it.

    Jose Duenas, executive vice president of marketing at Olive Garden, said the media attention the passes generated last year was an affirmation that people still have strong feelings for the chain. The promotion this year is a way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Bowl, which cost $9.99 and lets people eat as much pasta as they can in a single visit.

    Olive Garden isn't necessarily trying to tap into Americans' love of unlimited food with the Pasta Pass, Duenas said.

    "We see it as a manifestation of Italian generosity," he said.

    Whether the Pasta Passes are worthwhile for customers depends on how often people use them. Last year, cardholders used their Pasta Passes an average of more than twice a week, according to Olive Garden.

    Even though the Pasta Passes generated a lot of attention for Olive Garden, parent company Darden Restaurants Inc. (DRI) is still working on turning around the chain's performance after its board was taken over by investor Starboard Value.

    Sales at established Olive Garden locations have edged higher for each of the past three quarters. But the lift has been a result of higher pricing and menu mix; customer visits have continued to slip.

    Darden, based in Orlando, Florida, reports its latest quarterly results Tuesday.


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    Federal Reserve The Great Debate
    Andrew Harnik/APThe Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building in Washington.
    By Casey Bond

    NEW YORK -- It's not uncommon for today's employees to feel as though they'll work until the day they die. Thanks to the Fed, that could be reality for much of the American workforce.

    According to the new 2015 Life and Money survey released by GOBankingRates, 1 in 5 respondents identified "planning for retirement" as their biggest financial challenge. Some 16 percent of Americans said their biggest fear was never being able to retire at all.

    This data isn't surprising. Monetary policy over the last seven years has motivated borrowers while punishing savers. The Federal Funds rate has hovered from 0 to 0.25 percent since December 2008, making debt alluringly cheap. On the other hand, sources of safe, fixed interest income such as savings and CD accounts have become negative-return investments once inflation is factored in.

    Why The Fed Doesn't Want You To Retire

    If it seems as though the Federal Reserve is discouraging Americans from retiring, you're right.

    One of the major goals behind keeping rates down is encouraging spending and spurring economic growth following the Great Recession. Our national income to support domestic GDP could drop significantly if a large number of people retired. "The more people who work, the more money they have," said Paul Morrow, assistant professor at Husson University's College of Business in Bangor, Maine. "The more money they have, the more money they spend,"

    Hoarding cash with the goal of permanently exiting the workforce contradicts everything the Fed wants to accomplish.

    When Will Interest Rates Rise?

    That said, the Fed presumably can't keep interest rates at near-zero forever -- though experts have been predicting a rate hike for a long time.

    "The rate hike is becoming something like the Great Pumpkin from the Peanuts cartoons ... higher interest rates from the Fed are out there somewhere, but never quite seem to materialize, no matter how patiently we wait," said Lawrence Solomon, a certified financial planner and director of investments and financial planning at OptiFour Integrated Wealth Management. Like many, however, he expects interest rates will finally go up sometime in the fourth quarter of this year or early first quarter 2016.

    The longer we're all held in interest rate limbo, the more unpredictable -- and dramatic -- the results of a rate hike will likely be on markets and American's finances. Unfortunately, no one can say with certainty whether the effects will be mostly positive or negative until it happens. For those who hope to retire some day, that uncertainty is disconcerting at best.

    To be sure, some observers of the monetary policy say that a rate hike will be beneficial. "I actually believe that a rate hike will be well-received by the market, as it has been much anticipated," said Robert R. Johnson, president and CEO of The American College of Financial Services. "The market is suffering from Fed fatigue, and a rate hike would eliminate any uncertainty that market participants have with respect to the Fed. One investment truism that seems universal is that markets abhor uncertainty."In anticipation of rising rates, there are a few steps future retirees can take to preserve their wealth.


    "Investors would be well served to do some sector rotation in their portfolios," Johnson said. He recommended selling some stocks from industries that perform well during falling rate environments, such as apparel, retail, construction, durable goods and autos, and buying stocks in industries that perform well during rising rate environments, such as energy, consumer goods, utilities, food and steel products.

    In the long-run, however, Johnson advised investors to temper their expectations in a rising interest rate environment, as returns on equities will be lower in general.


    Investors should get out of bonds and look for other safe, secure options to protect their money, said Michael Foguth, president and founder of financial services firm Foguth Financial Group in Howell, Michigan. "History shows when interest rates go up, bond values go down. Most people use bonds for safe money -- when interest rates go up, bonds will no longer hold the title of safe."

    Long-Term Debt

    Increasing the fed funds rate directly affects how much it costs banks to borrow from each other. The direct effect for consumers will be that the cost to borrow will increase. "If you have a variable rate mortgage loan or are in the market to borrow money for a large purchase, the fed rate hike will make borrowing slightly more expensive," said Kyle Winkfield, managing partner at Englewood, Colorado-based O'Dell, Winkfield, Roseman & Shipp, which provides retirement financial services. Borrowers should either lock in today's low rates, or work to eliminate potentially expensive debt that could eat at future retirement savings.

    How the Fed Rate Hike Affects the Stock Market


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