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    GOP 2016 Debates
    Tom Stathis/APTechnicians work behind the candidate podiums before the start of the CNN Republican presidential debates at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
    By Linda Keslar

    Between Donald Trump's insults, Rand Paul's selfies and Jeb Bush's "anchor babies," the crowded race for the GOP presidential nomination is providing plenty of fodder for the headlines. And if tonight's second Republican debate on CNN is anything like the first, viewers should expect to see more of a boxing match than a detailed discourse on the issues.

    Sure, it's entertaining television, but the one-liners and big personalities make it hard to know where exactly the presidential candidates stand on personal finance issues -- key topics like taxes, health care and student loan debt.

    But most importantly, it's the economy, stupid: A spring Gallup survey showed Americans ranked the economy as their top concern at the polls.

    So in honor of tonight's main event, we've pulled together a cheat sheet on the 11 featured Republican contenders (listed accorded to CNN's rankings) to show you their stances -- so far -- on five key issues, with added insight from political pundits.

    And be sure to look for our second installment on the Democratic candidates next month -- in time for their Oct. 13 debate.

    1. Donald Trump

    The real estate tycoon turned Republican dark horse turned Republican front-runner is doing so well in the polls that America may just say, "You're hired!"

    "He's polling so far ahead of everyone else, he's really in a league by himself at this point," says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

    Here's where Trump stands ...

    Taxes: Raise taxes on the rich -- especially hedge fund managers -- to help relieve the middle class. Impose a one-time tax on the wealthiest Americans to help pay down the national debt.

    Jobs: No minimum wage increase. Impose tariffs on goods manufactured in China and Mexico to encourage U.S. companies to hire locally.

    Health care: Repeal the Affordable Care Act. Has spoken favorably of a single-payer universal health care system in the past. Now advocates for a private system "without the artificial lines around every state."

    Student loans: Critical of the federal government profiting off borrowers, but is less focused on refinancing student loans and more focused on creating jobs for recent college grads.

    Big-picture economy: Cut government spending to reduce the deficit. Wants to build a wall along the border with Mexico, and deport undocumented immigrants, saying they have a drag on U.S. taxpayers.

    2. Jeb Bush

    What political pedigree? The former two-term Florida governor hasn't been the shoo-in candidate many expected he would be because of the Bush name.

    Here's where Bush stands ...

    Taxes: Proposes having just three individual tax brackets: 28, 25 and 10 percent. Also plans to expand the earned income tax credit and get rid of the estate tax and alternative minimum tax.

    Jobs: Wants to create 19 million new jobs, although his game plan is light on details. Opposes the federal minimum wage, but is OK with a state-level minimum wage.

    Health care: Replace the Affordable Care Act with a consumer-driven plan at the state and local levels. He also wants to provide government funding to help cover major medical events for the needy.

    Student loans: Calls on colleges to be more accountable for helping students graduate on time -- and for helping them choose degrees that lead to employment, so they aren't piling on student loan debt.

    We've had Medicare and Medicaid for a long time, and they're popular programs. It's hard for me to see anyone getting elected saying they want to overhaul them.

    Big-picture economy: Says he'll achieve 4 percent gross domestic product growth over two terms -- a rate that Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution, questions. "I like to be optimistic, but 4 percent growth for eight years isn't in the ballpark [of possibility]," she says.

    3. Scott Walker

    The second-term Wisconsin governor was unbeatable in his home state -- even surviving a recall election -- but he's been struggling to make strides on the national stage.

    Here's where Walker stands ...

    Taxes: He says more details are to come, but Walker has called for returning federal tax rates to Reagan-era levels, when the top rate was 33 percent.

    Jobs: Walker and unions are like oil and water. As governor, he passed legislation that curbed the ability of public-sector workers to bargain collectively -- and pushed for right-to-work laws that barred workplaces from requiring union dues.

    Health care: Repeal the Affordable Care Act and provide tax credits to Americans at all income levels who don't have employer-sponsored insurance.

    Student loans: Favors giving universities incentives to keep tuition down. As governor, let student-loan refinancing laws fall by the wayside.

    Big-picture economy: Dismantle big government's involvement in areas like education, transportation, infrastructure and Medicaid. According to Baker, that last goal could prove to be problematic for Walker. "We've had Medicare and Medicaid for a long time, and they're efficient, popular programs," Baker says. "It's hard for me to see anyone getting elected saying they want to overhaul them."

    Ben Carson Campaigns At South Carolina Farmer's Market
    Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesBen Carson counts New York Times-bestselling author among his achievements.
    4. Ben Carson

    This former pediatric neurosurgeon -- known for being the first physician to separate twins joined at the head -- is a true political outsider. Despite this, the ultraconservative candidate has experienced a quiet surge as of late.

    Here's where Carson stands ...

    Taxes: Wants a flat-tax system in which every American would pay the same rate, between 10 and 15 percent.

    Jobs: No clear plan yet other than to say jobs will come with economic growth. Was quick to say that he had served on corporate boards after Trump criticized him for having no experience in creating jobs.

    Health care: Once called the Affordable Care Act "the worst thing to happen to this nation since slavery." Proposes giving every American $2,000 a year to add to a health savings account.

    Student loans: Opposed President Barack Obama's plan calling for two free years of community college, noting that Pell grants already assist poor students. Emphasizes taking personal responsibility for college costs through hard work.

    Big-picture economy: Ratify a balanced budget amendment. Revive the Glass-Steagall Act, which would force big banks to separate their investment and commercial banking practices. The latter is a typically Democratic stance, but as Baker notes, "there are substantial segments within the Republican party who are anti-Wall Street."

    5. Ted Cruz

    The first-term Texas senator is a Tea Party favorite, but "he's had the most air taken out of his balloon by Trump, who's very similar to Cruz in his extreme views," Kamarck says.

    Here's where Cruz stands ...

    Taxes: He has big plans, like abolishing the IRS, cutting corporate taxes to 15 percent and establishing an unspecified flat individual income tax that still allows for a large standard deduction for lower income earners.

    Jobs: His position: Raising the minimum wage will kill jobs. A strong oil and gas industry will create them.

    Health care: Introduced legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Supports allowing people to buy insurance across state lines.

    Student loan debt: Voted against legislation to allow student loan refinancing, and believes student loans should be controlled by states.

    Big-picture economy: Supports a balanced-budget amendment. Wants to privatize Social Security and eliminate the Department of Energy. Cruz introduced the American Energy Renaissance Act -- legislation that would deregulate and expand domestic energy production.

    GOP 2016 Rubio South Carolina
    Paul Vernon/APMarco Rubio's charisma made the freshman senator an early favorite.
    6. Marco Rubio

    Obey your thirst? That's what rising conservative star Rubio did during his infamous water-bottle moment in 2013, when he took a big swig while giving the GOP response to President Obama's State of the Union address.

    Kamarck says, "Rubio is not as much a red-meat Republican as some of the other [candidates], but his up-and-comer status could get him on the ticket."

    Here's where Rubio stands ...

    Taxes: Wants just two brackets -- 15 and 35 percent. Would get rid of estate, capital gains and dividend taxes -- as well as institute a new, $2,500-a-child tax credit.

    Jobs: Says they will come with economic growth and higher-education reform. Also advocates for more vocational training and for expanding apprentice programs.

    Health care: Wants to replace the Affordable Care Act with tax credits that will help people buy health insurance.

    Student loans: Supports income-based repayment, as well as "pay it forward" plans that allow individuals or organizations to provide students with money for school. In exchange, after graduation the student agrees to pay back a portion of their income for a set number of years.

    Big-picture economy: Says he will balance the federal budget within 10 years, instituting across-the-board spending cuts -- save for defense. Also plans to deregulate small businesses.

    7. Mike Huckabee

    The Southern Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor has made a name for himself by regularly making the TV rounds as a conservative talking head.

    Here's where Huckabee stands ...

    Taxes: Huckabee hearts tax reform -- and wants to eliminate corporate and individual income taxes, replacing them with a 23 percent federal sales tax that he dubs the FairTax. But Baker notes that likely won't sit well with modest-income voters. "Do people earning $40,000 a year really want to pay 23 percent on everything they buy?" he asks.

    Jobs: Believes his tax plan will help bring offshore jobs back to the U.S.

    Health care: Repeal the Affordable Care Act and let states "road-test" health care reform, although he hasn't provided details on what exactly that means.

    Student loans: Thinks students should be able to refinance all of their loans -- like mortgages and car loans -- to take advantage of low interest rates.

    Big-picture economy: Did we say "tax plan" already? Says FairTax will stimulate economic growth, and provide enough money to fund Medicare and Social Security.

    8. Rand Paul

    The former ophthalmologist, Kentucky senator and neo-libertarian has "gotten sidelined by the Trump phenomena, but he does represent a small but important faction of the Republican Party," Kamarck says.

    Here's where Paul stands ...

    Taxes: Wants to institute a flat tax of 14.5 percent on ordinary income, increase the standard deduction to $15,000 and offer a personal exemption of $5,000 a person. Paul also wants to lower the rate on capital gains and dividend income to 14.5 percent.

    Jobs: Blames big government for high unemployment rates. Wants to deregulate the oil and gas industry to create more jobs. Health care: Replace the Affordable Care Act with health savings accounts.

    Student loans: Make college tuition and student loan debt fully tax deductible -- and nix the Department of Education.

    She's like Trump. She's not a career politician, so her business record is going to be looked at carefully -- and she may have problems there.

    Big-picture economy: Plans to aggressively cut federal spending, raise the Social Security eligibility age and privatize Medicare. Also once proposed that bankrupt or economically distressed cities become "Economic Freedom Zones" that offer tax breaks for residents and businesses alike.

    9. John Kasich

    A former investment banker, nine-term congressman and second-term Ohio governor, "[Kasich is] probably the best-qualified person in the race," Kamarck says.

    Here's where Kasich stands ...

    Taxes: Cut corporate and individual income taxes -- and impose a flat personal-income tax. As governor, Kasich supported increasing sales taxes to help pay for income tax cuts.

    Jobs: Opposes raising the minimum wage, and as governor was against expanding unemployment compensation.

    Health care: Wants to replace the Affordable Care Act with a market-driven system, but stirred some controversy when he expanded Medicaid in Ohio -- a provision of Obamacare. "Given Obamacare was there, he said he would take advantage of it," Baker says.

    Student loans: As governor, proposed a 2 percent cap on annual tuition increases, and $120 million in college debt relief to help graduates of Ohio's public colleges.

    Big-picture economy: Big on a balanced budget. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, helped write the nation's most-recent balanced federal budget in the late 1990s.

    10. Chris Christie

    Second-term New Jersey governor whose campaign may have been hurt early on by Bridgegate -- and who's now contending with a bout of falling job-approval ratings.

    Here's where Christie stands ...

    Taxes: Wants three tax brackets, with top rate at 28 percent -- and would cut the corporate tax rate to 25 percent. Also wants to cap total amount of deductions and credits that individuals or married couples can take.

    Jobs: Use corporate tax incentives to grow jobs.

    Health care: Repeal the Affordable Care Act, but hasn't offered details yet on a replacement plan.

    Student loans: Supports boosting federal grant programs, income-share agreements and "pay it forward" plans with employers.

    Big-picture economy: Rein in government spending and reform entitlement programs, particularly Medicare and Medicaid. Plus, Christie wants to raise the full retirement age for Social Security to 69. Baker's take: "For seniors who have nothing but Social Security to support themselves, that's like a 12 percent cut in benefits -- and a big hit for a group that's not wealthy."

    GOP 2016 Debate
    Jim Cole/APCarly Fiorina was the first woman to run a Fortune 20 company.
    11. Carly Fiorina

    The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and the first woman to run a Fortune 20 company, Fiorina unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 2010.

    "She's like Trump," Kamarck says. "She's not a career politician, so her business record is going to be looked at carefully -- and she may have some problems there."

    Here's where Fiorina stands ...

    Taxes: Simplify the tax code, eliminating the estate tax and capital gains taxes on small-business investments.

    Jobs: Let states set the minimum wage and give small business the freedom to grow and create jobs.

    Health care: Repeal the Affordable Care Act and let the federal government subsidize state-run insurance programs for the most needy.

    Student loans: They should be a competitive business -- not a government "racket."

    Big-picture economy: Big believer in "zero-based budgeting," which would force federal agencies to justify their budgets fresh every year rather than build on prior-year funding. Says deregulation will grow small businesses.

    Look for our next article on the Democratic contenders in October.

     

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    Miss America 2016, Betty Cantrell Rings The New York Stock Exchange Opening Bell
    Steve Mack/Getty ImagesMiss America 2016, Betty Cantrel, rings the opening bell Wednesday at the New York Stock Exchange.
    By Sinead Carew

    NEW YORK -- Energy stocks pushed Wall Street higher Wednesday due to an almost 6 percent jump in oil prices, but many investors stayed on the sidelines a day ahead of the Federal Reserve's decision on interest rates.

    The energy index led a broad rally for the S&P 500 benchmark index with a 2.8 percent increase as crude oil prices settled up 5.7 percent after an unexpected drawdown in U.S. stockpiles.

    "Energy was what gave it the initial spark and the fact the energy rally kept rolling gave people reassurance they could step into other sectors as well," said Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments in Lisle, Illinois.

    Trading was relatively thin with only 6.6 billion shares changing hands on U.S. exchanges Wednesday, below the 8.03 billion daily average for the previous 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    The Fed is due to announce a decision Thursday afternoon to either end or extend seven years of near-zero interest rates, potentially relieving markets of months of uncertainty as investors have been trying to predict the timing of a hike.

    But the market's rise didn't indicate any real conviction about what the Fed will decide, said Tom Donino, co-head of trading at FNY Capital Management in New York.

    "It's either shorts covering, because they don't want to be short tomorrow ahead of the Fed meeting, or it's people that want to be long getting long in front of the Fed," said Donino. "The market's going to be volatile tomorrow."

    Wall Street's top economists are on unfamiliar ground: as the Federal Reserve decides whether to raise interest rates for the first time in years, they are deeply divided on what will happen.

    Fed fund futures see only a 30-percent chance that Janet Yellen and her colleagues will pull the trigger this week. Of the 80 economists polled by Reuters, only 35 said the central bank is likely to raise rates this week.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) closed up 140.1 points, or 0.8 percent, to 16,739.95, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 17.22 points, or 0.9 percent, to 1,995.31 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 28.72 points, or 0.6 percent, to 4,889.24.

    'Bit of Backbone'

    The materials sector was the next best gainer behind energy with an 1.4 percent rise after Glencore raised $2.5 billion through a share placement, boosting mining stocks and metals prices.

    "That put a little bit of backbone behind people who want to start buying these mining stocks here," said FNY's Donino.

    The S&P's telecommunications index, the only sector out of 10 in negative territory, fell 0.2 percent.

    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 out of the last 19 sessions.

    NYSE advancing issues outnumbered decliners 2,358 to 707, for a 3.34-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,753 issues rose and 1,056 fell, for a 1.66-to-1 ratio favoring advancers. The S&P 500 posted 9 new 52-week highs and 1 low; the Nasdaq recorded 39 new highs and 34 lows.

    -Tanya Agrawal contributed reporting.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims, 8:30 a.m., and the Commerce Department releases housing starts for August and the current account trade deficit for the second quarter.
    • At 10 a.m., Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia releases its survey of manufacturing conditions in the Mid-Atlantic states.
    • Federal Reserve policymakers meet to set interest rates. A statement is scheduled for 2 p.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Adobe Systems (ADBE)
    • Rite Aid (RAD)

     

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    Sneaky Credit Card Tricks

    By Jeffrey Tull

    Credit card companies love to dangle juicy offers in front of you. You might be "preapproved" for a zero-percent interest credit card or valuable sign-up bonus. Maybe it's even that fancy "gold" or "platinum" card you never knew you were eligible for.

    Unfortunately, some offers that sound too good to be true probably are. The amazing benefits you see in the bold lettering aren't always what you get once you understand the fine print.

    To sort out the credit card deals from duds, take a closer look before you apply, and be sure to keep these five red flags in mind:

    1. Rates that aren't guaranteed. One of the big draws of new credit cards is a low interest rate. But what you might not notice are the subtle caveats to the special rate that's prominently displayed. Some offers will have "as low as" printed in small letters in front of the APR. You might also see asterisks and superscripts that refer you to the fine print, where the text explains the best interest rate is only available to applicants with the best credit. In other words, the rate they're using to lure you in isn't necessarily the one you'll get.

    The best defense? Read the fine print, especially the "Rates and Disclosures" information. It's not exciting, but it will reveal what, if anything, is actually guaranteed. Banks are legally required to furnish this information in the easy-to-read format shown on the website of the federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. And if you're uncomfortable because you can't tell what the ultimate rate will be, don't apply.

    2. Fool's gold. "Gold cards" have been around for decades, with American Express debuting theirs in 1966. Since then, credit card companies have added silver, platinum and even palladium to the list of precious metals used in card names.

    While such cards may have indicated prestige in the past -- and there are still elite cards requiring exceptional income and expenditures -- most precious-metals labeling is meaningless.

    Solution? Choose a credit card by comparing the benefits that really matter, like low interest rates, low fees or rewards. Money Talks News has a credit card page, complete with reviews and a search function that can help you find the right card.

    3. Bogus business credit cards. Offers for small-business credit cards might seem like a great way to track business expenses and develop a credit history for your company. But these cards seldom live up to the hype and offer fewer consumer protections than consumer cards.

    With most small-business cards, it's your personal credit on the line, not that of your business. So using it doesn't create or develop a credit file for your business.

    In addition, small-business cards lack important protections that consumer cards have. The Credit Card Act of 2009 applies only to consumer cards, which means your business card can still be hit with fees and rate hikes that would be illegal for your personal plastic. So even if a particular business credit card has advantages, such as enabling you to track business expenses separately, you could be sacrificing consumer protections to get them.

    4. Big bonuses with a catch. It's easy to get drawn in by the sign-up bonuses offered on new cards. You might see an offer of $150 back or 25,000 airline miles just for opening an account. But there's often a catch.

    In many cases, you'll need to ring up a certain amount on your card within a specified time period, like $1,000 in purchases to get that $150, or $2,000 charged to earn 25,000 airline miles. While the details vary, completing these offers as stipulated may be difficult or even impossible, depending on your budget.

    Percent cash-back bonuses might not be all they seem, either. Some offers boast "up to 5 percent back" on your purchases, but that may be only at certain retailers, and not for every purchase you make. Some cash-back deals might be for a limited period after you open the account and may cap how much you can earn.

    When it comes to reward cards, understand what it takes to get the advertised perk. Consider the reason rewards exist: to make people spend (and borrow) more than they otherwise would. If that's a trap you feel likely to fall into, a rewards card may be, in fact, punishing you.

    Shop rewards cards and all other cards before you commit. Check out our credit card page to find additional choices.

    5. Not-so-special offers. Credit card offers come crammed with language that makes you feel like you're getting a special deal. Envelopes might be stamped with "Important" or "Confidential" to heighten the urgency. Once opened, you might be excited to find you're "preapproved" for a new credit card.

    Unfortunately, being "preapproved" doesn't actually mean the new card is yours. In fact, it doesn't really mean anything. You'll still need to apply for the card and go through the whole approval process as you otherwise would.

    Be careful when choosing a card because it appears to be a special offer made just for you. It may just be another trick to reel you in.

    Share your thoughts on credit card offers 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!

    Ari Cetron contributed to this report.

     

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    money and drugs isolated on...
    Shutterstock
    By Elizabeth Sheer

    A health insurance policy is no guarantee that prescription medications will be cheap. Many plans include a very high deductible, which means paying the drugs' full cost out of pocket, at least for a while. If this proves financially taxing, several pharmacies, insurance plans, pharmaceutical companies and nonprofits offer assistance in lowering the cost of necessary medications.

    Chain store prices. The drugstore isn't necessarily the best place to shop for cheap prescription drugs. A 2013 study by Consumer Reports found that prices for the same medicine varied widely by pharmacy, with the warehouse club Costco charging the least overall and CVS the most. The generic form of the anti-depressant Lexapro cost $7 at Costco, for example, and $126 at CVS (and you don't have to be a Costco member to use the pharmacy). A more recent search by Cheapism.com found Lexapro to be cheapest at Walmart ($8.71) and most expensive at Rite Aid ($64.08).

    Tip: Don't assume that national chains post the lowest prices. Independent drugstores often are willing to negotiate prices because they have more leeway in setting prices than the chains do.

    Discount programs. Pharmacy chains such as Walmart, Walgreens, Kmart, Target and even Kroger offer discount drug programs that cover hundreds of commonly prescribed generics. Some stores require an upfront membership fee to be eligible for these cheap prices. The Costco program is free for members, but CVS charges $15 a person, Kmart charges $10 for a household and Walgreen's costs $20 a person or $35 for a family. (Fees may vary by location.) These in-store pharmacies charge $4 for a monthly supply of generics and $10 for a 90-day supply. That's all well and good, but a generic may not be what your doctor prescribes even though the medication adheres to the identical formulation of the original patented drug.

    Generic medications. Consumer spending on pharmaceuticals jumped 13.1 percent to $374 billion in 2014, according to IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, in part due to the introduction of new brands and strong demand for specialty medicines. These drugs, and many of the top 10 sellers (total prescriptions), have no generic counterparts; only medications that have been available long enough for their patents to expire have generic equivalents. And inevitably, the original brand name drug is really expensive. Still, it always pays to ask the doctor if a cheaper generic is available. If not, there are alternative paths to lower-cost meds.

    Assistance programs. Health insurance companies usually offer tiered co-pays for prescription drugs, with the generic version being cheaper and brand names more expensive. Brand name drug manufacturers may subsidize the cost for financially strapped patients with health insurance through Patient Assistance Programs, or PAPs. This is often the only way that medications, particularly new formulations, are affordable. Sometimes doctors hand out discount cards along with the prescription; if they don't, ask for one. Most pharmaceutical companies also offer low-cost medications, with prices varying by income, for patients who lack health insurance or prescription coverage.

    If your doctor doesn't have a discount card and the medication is costly, go to NeedyMeds for information about PAPs and access to a discount card that opens the door to deals from drug manufacturers. The card is good for prescription drugs that aren't covered by insurance or if the pharmacy price with the discount card is lower than your co-pay. Look up the drug on the site to see if you can get help paying for it.

    Online resources. GoodRx provides coupons and discounts for use at pharmacies (e.g., Walgreens, Target, Rite Aid and Safeway) and identifies the cheapest local source for your prescription. A search for the medication turns up the prices at your neighborhood drugstores and at online mail-order houses. GoodRx also indicates if there is a generic formulation and, if not, when the drug comes off patent.

    Another money-saving resource is Rx Pharmacy Coupons. This site posts discount coupons for drugs, both brand name and generic, that can be used at dozens of drugstore chains and supermarket pharmacies across the country, as well as some independent pharmacies.

    Using any or all of these resources can save consumers money. For example, the rosacea medication Oracea costs between $263 and $483 for a one-month supply, according to GoodRx, and a generic equivalent won't be available until 2022. The manufacturer has a PAP, which provides a discount to people without insurance if their income is within 200 percent of the poverty line. Another alternative would be visiting Rx Pharmacy Coupons, which offers a coupon worth 50 percent off at participating pharmacies.

    Co-pay relief. Several sites offer help with co-pays for people presenting with conditions that require expensive drugs not covered by insurance.

    The Patient Access Network Foundation focuses on people with chronic conditions who are insured but whose income falls at, or below, the poverty line. The site contains a list of the covered drugs and a referral service to other organizations that offer co-payment assistance.

    Cancer drugs are among the most expensive and insurance doesn't always cover them. Cancer Care Co-Payment Assistance Foundation helps out with chemotherapy and FDA-approved "targeted therapy" drugs aimed at cancers. Assistance is available to patients with insurance or Medicare policies that cover a portion of the cost.

    Free samples. Pharmaceutical companies are constantly giving away free samples to doctors, who often pass them on to patients. The samples are always relatively new brand names without generic equivalents.

    Beware the moment when it's time to get more of the same, though. A study published in JAMA Dermatology in 2014 found that dermatologists who pass out free samples continue to prescribe the sample drugs, which cost more than alternative medications. If the drug is needed for an acute condition that's not likely to recur, a free sample could be just the ticket. If the condition is chronic, ask for more samples. Or, turn to another money-saving option.

     

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    wall street sign in focus ...
    Shutterstock
    By Anne Kates Smith

    You can't blame investors for being skittish about investing abroad, with volatility in Europe and an outright implosion in Chinese stocks. The recent trepidation exacerbates a bias that investors already have in favor of homegrown investments -- a misplaced patriotism that can pummel your portfolio.

    Recent research shows that U.S. stocks account for less than half of the global stock market but make up nearly three-fourths of U.S. investors' stock holdings. Investors from other countries are even more provincial. Canadian stocks represent just 4 percent of the world market but 60 percent of Canadians' stock holdings. And get this: Even in beleaguered Greece, where the stock market accounts for less than 1 percent of global market capitalization, the share of domestic stock holdings was recently 82 percent.

    Our home bias comes at a price: a dangerous lack of diversification that increases the volatility of returns over time and robs us of opportunities to invest in promising companies that just happen to be based elsewhere. True, in recent years a U.S.-based portfolio has been the best bet, but that's not always the case. For instance, international stocks in developed countries outperformed U.S. stocks from 1983 through 1988, and again from 2002 through 2007.

    Our preference for homegrown stocks goes deeper than nationality. A survey by Openfolio, a portfolio-sharing platform, found regional biases as well. For example, West Coast investors are 10 percent more likely than the average investor to hold tech companies, while Southerners are 14 percent more likely to load up on energy stocks.

    There are rational explanations for our home-country preference, especially when it comes to international investing. Foreign assets carry an additional currency risk. Trading costs might be higher. Information may be limited. But none of these fully explain what's known as the "home bias puzzle," says Hisham Foad, an economics professor at San Diego State University. Instead, says Foad, blame it on "the predictably irrational behavior of investors."

    Overconfident investors. Start with overconfidence. Studies have shown that investors have more faith in their ability to forecast domestic returns, even when it's unwarranted -- for instance, when they're presented with equivalent information about both foreign and domestic holdings.

    Loss aversion also plays a role. Investors typically feel pain from losses more acutely than they feel satisfaction from gains. "So you stick with a portfolio that's stable and safe in your own mind, even though empirical evidence says a diversified portfolio would be safer," Foad says.

    Finally, toss in some patriotism. Experiments with investors who spoke different languages and hailed from various countries found that they repeatedly chose to invest in companies with which they identified culturally.

    Is it so bad to invest in what you know, a philosophy espoused by many investment greats? No, but there's a difference between the investment savvy of an insider (or keen observer) and mere familiarity. The former conveys a real informational advantage; the latter doesn't. And the risk of concentrating your holdings -- nationally and, especially, locally -- are huge, says Scott Yonker, a finance professor at Cornell University who has studied home bias in fund managers. "If your local economy tanks, your portfolio tanks just when you lose your job."

    How much in overseas holdings is enough? Research by Vanguard, the giant investment firm, has found that you don't get any additional diversification benefit (chiefly a reduction in volatility) once you top 40 percent in foreign stock holdings. A 20 percent stake, which delivers 85 percent of the benefit, is a reasonable start.

     

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    nest egg for retirement
    Shutterstock
    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    How would you like to have an extra $155,000 to spend during your retirement years?

    You could have at least a portion of that if you worked on minimizing your 401(k) fees, says Yoav Zurel, CEO of cost assessment website FeeX.com. A 2012 study by public policy organization Demos found a median-income, two-earner household will lose nearly a third of their investment return to fees over their lifetimes. "One-hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars are basically evaporating from your retirement savings," Zurel says.

    While the government has taken steps to improve fee disclosure for 401(k) plans, many finance professionals say the current rules don't go far enough. Plus, IRAs don't come with all the same financial protections afforded to 401(k)s.

    The murky waters surrounding retirement fund fees may leave workers feeling confused, but experts say too much money is at stake to let yourself be nickel-and-dimed by excessive charges.

    Fees, Fees and More Fees

    Fees for 401(k) plans come in many forms, with some based on transactions, such as loans and distributions, while others are related to account and fund management. Of these, industry experts say investment management expenses can do the most damage to a retirement portfolio.

    Chad Parks, CEO of Ubiquity Retirement + Savings, runs a company specializing in low-cost 401(k) plans for self-employed workers and small businesses. He says Ubiquity Retirement + Savings is able to keep expenses to a minimum because it focuses on index funds. These, as well as target-date funds, typically have lower expense fees than actively managed mutual funds, which can charge above 1 percent of the invested balance.

    A 1 percent fee may not seem like a lot, but Parks says workers shouldn't be fooled. "A 1 percent difference in fees -- that's literally hundreds of thousands out of [your] retirement account over the course of a lifetime," he says.

    Workers with IRAs have other charges to worry about. In addition to management expense fees, brokers may get a commission off some IRA sales. Beyond that, advisers tack on fees for management services. "People have no clue their adviser is charging them anything," Zurel says. And yet adviser fees can double the amount some investors pay.

    Fee Transparency Rules May Not be Working

    In 2012, the Department of Labor issued rules intended to provide greater transparency of 401(k) fees. Unfortunately, the consensus seems to be the rules are doing little to increase consumer awareness.

    Zurel says that's because while the rules mandate fees be disclosed, it is left up to the companies to determine how best to do that. "[The government] didn't give any instructions on how to write it, how long [the disclosure] should be, etc.," he says. As a result, he's seen some disclosure forms that are pages long with key details buried in the text.

    "A lot of providers are making it difficult to find the fees [in plan documents]," Parks says. However, he adds that about 20 states are considering legislative or regulatory action to either limit fees or increase fee transparency within their borders.

    What's more, there is some talk at the federal level of extending the fee protections currently offered to 401(k) plans to IRAs as well. Parks explains that, traditionally, IRAs have been considered the domain of the IRS and are not subject to the same laws as other pension and retirement accounts. As a result, IRAs don't carry the same fiduciary duty -- that is, the requirement to limit fees and act in an investor's best interests -- as 401(k)s.

    Earlier this year, the Department of Labor issued a proposed rule that would require all financial advisers to work in their clients' best interests. Under the current system, there is nothing to prevent a broker from directing people to investments that carry higher commissions or other rewards for the adviser.

    How Much Is Too Much to Pay?

    While the government wrangles over how to best address the issue of fee transparency, it remains the responsibility of workers and investors to dig into their plan records and compare fee costs.

    As they do so, some people may undoubtedly wonder: At what point do fees go from being reasonable to excessive? That's a gray area, but Parks suggests anything over 1 percent for expense fees could be too much. "There's definitely an argument to be made that even 1 percent is high," he says. "I'd say under half a percent should be the goal in [the next] three to four years."

    Keith Klein, a certified financial planner and owner of Turning Pointe Wealth Management in Phoenix, argues investment decisions shouldn't boil down to a specific fee percentage. For investments tied to index funds, such as the S&P 500, it may be best to go with the least expensive option, but for other investments, fund growth may be just as important. "Does the fee really matter if you get a better return?" Klein asks.

    Reining in Your Retirement Fund Fees

    For those who decide the fee really does matter, there are a number of online tools available to help compare costs and see how funds stack up. Morningstar (MORN), for instance, offers a fund comparison tool that includes information on fees, and Zurel's free website FeeX analyzes the fees associated with specific IRA and 401(k) portfolios.

    "They are shocked time and time again," he says of the feedback he receives from the site's users. "They only thought they were paying load or transaction fees [rather than a management expense fee]." Once FeeX analyzes a user's portfolio, it then recommends a lower-cost plan.

    Klein agrees keeping fees low is a good thing for consumers, but he also says people shouldn't lose sight of the big picture. "Simple things like comparing expense ratios will help [increase retirement savings], but reducing fees on investments can only help so much," he says. "The biggest problem we have is Americans don't save enough."

    In other words, it's great to save 1 percent on investment fees, but you need to have money in your account for it to make a difference. After all, saving 1 percent of nothing doesn't amount to much of anything.

     

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    Woman not enjoying a meal
    Getty Images
    By Paul Michael

    Growing up, I often remember seeing my parents noticeably upset with the service they received or the products they had bought. After one particularly poor experience at a restaurant they said, "We just won't eat here again." But when asked, "How was the meal?" they both smiled and said "Fine, thanks."

    Now, maybe this is the classic reserve of the English or maybe they're too polite for their own good, but that was not the correct way to go about it.

    When you have a poor experience with anything, you need to speak up and also ask for compensation of some kind. It's the natural way to keep these places in check, so that bad service or poor quality products are not constantly being presented to the public. Always be polite and treat the people you're dealing with respectfully, but if any of the following eight instances occur... ask for a discount.

    1. When You Get Poor Service at a Restaurant

    Let's just clarify that the service should be uncharacteristically poor. If you wait a long time to get seated on a Friday evening or your server is so busy he or she forgets to bring the extra fries you ordered, give the place -- and your server -- a break. This is more about poor service that could easily be avoided.

    If the food arrives cold, the fish is raw, the meat is very overcooked or the server is just plain rude, you definitely have a reason to talk to the manager. Explain what has happened, how it impacted your dining experience and ask for a discount. In most cases, you will get at least a few of the items removed from your bill. In extreme cases, when everything went wrong, you may very well be told not to pay anything. However, if the server was great in spite of all the problems, don't forget to leave him or her a tip.

    2. When Your Event Seats Aren't Good

    Unless you are warned specifically before you buy them (some will say things like "obscured view" or "partial view of stage" and should already be discounted), there is no reason to pay the same price as other people if your seats are terrible. This happened to me when I went to see Cirque du Soleil. There was no warning that the seats I bought were right behind one of the poles holding up the big top. My wife and I were leaning left and right through the entire performance. After, I spoke to the staff and received a discount and a free CD of the music from that evening. If you have poor seats, ask to speak to the event manager. Demand a discount, if you can handle the poor seating or ask to be moved if it is possible.

    3. When Anything Is Not Quite as Described

    From the food or service, to the product attributes, if you were sold something based on information that was slightly incorrect, you should demand a discount. If the tool set indicates "25 great tools for around the home" and there are actually only 23 inside, that's misleading. This can sometimes happen when manufacturers change the product, but not the packaging. In any case where you have been a little misled, intentionally or not, you are entitled to a discount. You'll get it, too.

    4. When the Product Is a Floor Model

    Do not let the store clerk fool you with a bunch of tricky talk about this item not being able to be discounted any further. The floor models are used. They may not have been used in someone's home, but they're used nonetheless. In some cases, for much longer than if it was in a home; especially those TVs and computers that are on the shop floor day in, day out.

    So, find a manager and ask for the price to be reduced beyond what is shown on the sticker. They want to get rid of these items. They'd obviously prefer to sell it to someone who will pay sticker, but they will go lower. And as the item is used and most likely blemished, you should demand a discount. I do this every time and it has worked every time.

    5. When You Pay Cash

    Cash is king. That's as true today as it was fifty years ago and if you are lucky enough to have the money on hand to pay in cash, be it something small or a new home, you should definitely take advantage of it. "How much of a reduction can I get if I pay cash for this house, right now?" This is something buyers aren't expecting and it is incredibly tempting. Cash is a sure thing. Financing can fall through, interest rates fluctuate, but cash is cash. In stores, merchants pay fees for credit card transactions, so you could easily get a cash discount.

    However, don't expect this discount when buying a car. Dealerships get big incentives for financing offers and you take that away from them if you offer to pay cash. In fact, you may pay more if you pay cash, so don't do that. You can always pay off the loan a week or two later.

    6. When the Item is Broken, Scratched or Dented

    Why would you pay for a broken item at all? Well, it all depends what you want to use it for. If it's a superficial break, say on the case of the product, but the product itself works just fine, ask for a discount. The store is more than happy to oblige. If you notice a huge dent on the fridge that was just delivered, but the dent won't be seen or you just don't care, ask for a discount. If the item is scratched or damaged but it doesn't impair the function and you are okay with it, ask for your discount. And if the item is completely broken, but you want to repair it yourself or need it for parts, ask for a big discount.

    In all cases, you are doing the store a favor and they will be happy to negotiate a deal. This even goes for sellers on Craigslist or eBay. If the item is not as pristine as described, but you're happy to take it, ask for the discount.

    7. When the Seller Is in a Hurry

    If you ever encounter a "motivated seller" you know you're about to get a discount. Motivated sellers are those who need to sell and sell fast, usually because they're about to leave the state. Sometimes, they need money quickly, for reasons you probably don't want to ask about. Whatever the reason, you should take advantage of this. Flea market sellers will offer discounts as they are packing up for the day and so will people operating garage sales. Smile, ask for a discount and you'll usually get it.

    8. When the Store Is Closing or Going Out of Business

    Blockbuster. Circuit City. Sharper Image. They all bit the dust and they all had "closing down" sales. When this happens, start haggling. A store that is going out of business presents problems for buyers, especially when it comes to buying things that may have warranty issues. For this reason, you should demand a discount. When one store is closing, perhaps because a particular location is not performing as well as it should, you don't have as much leverage. But you can still ask for a discount, because they are "motivated" to sell and that, as just discussed, gives you bargaining power.

    When have you asked for a discount?

     

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    home construction housing starts economy august
    Lynne Sladky/APA builder works on the site of the Landmark community, a group of condos and townhouses built by Lennar Homes, in Doral, Fla.
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans filing new applications for unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level in eight weeks, suggesting the labor market continued to strengthen despite the recent tightening in financial market conditions.

    While other data on Thursday showed housing starts fell for a second straight month in August, they remained above the one million-unit mark, which signals a housing market growing at a solid clip. In addition, building permits rose last month.

    Speculation will now shift to December as the next most likely month for U.S. rates to start rising.

    The signs of a firming economy are supportive of an interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve later this year, after the U.S. central bank Thursday kept borrowing costs near zero, citing concerns about the global economy.

    "Speculation will now shift to December as the next most likely month for U.S. rates to start rising," said Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit in London.

    "The 'data dependent' Fed will want to see further robust non-farm payroll growth between now and then as well as indications that the pace of economic growth is not wilting under the pressure of China's slowdown."

    Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 11,000 to a seasonally adjusted 264,000 for the week ended Sept. 12, the Labor Department said. That was the best reading since the week ended July 18, when claims hit their lowest level since 1973.

    It marked the 28th straight week that claims remained below the 300,000 threshold, which is usually associated with a strengthening labor market. Economists had forecast claims holding at 275,000 last week.

    The dollar fell against a basket of currencies on the Fed's rate decision, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt rallied. Stocks on Wall Street rose in volatile trade.

    Firming Labor Market

    The claims data covered the period during which the government surveyed employers for the nonfarm payrolls portion of the September employment report. Claims fell 13,000 between the August and September survey weeks, suggesting some pickup in job growth after slowing in August.

    Labor market conditions are tightening, with record high job openings. At a 7½-year low of 5.1 percent, the unemployment rate is within the range most Fed officials think is consistent with a low but steady rate of inflation.

    In a second report, the Commerce Department said groundbreaking for new homes dropped 3 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 1.13 million units last month.

    Despite the fall, which reflected declines in groundbreaking on single and multifamily projects, starts remained above a one million-unit pace for the fifth straight month. Building permits increased 3.5 percent last month to a 1.17 million-unit pace, after declining 15.5 percent in July.

    "The small dip in August housing starts is minor considering the sustained momentum we've seen in housing overall in 2015," said Bill Banfield, vice president at Quicken loans in Detroit.

    "When you couple the slow but steady rise in single-family unit construction with an increase in builder confidence, it's further support that housing is returning to its place as a major player in driving economic growth."

    The firming labor market has unleashed pent-up demand for housing, especially among young adults. A report Wednesday showed confidence among homebuilders advancing to a near decade high in September.

    In August, groundbreaking for single-family homes, which accounts for the largest share of the market, fell 3 percent to a 739,000 unit pace. Single-family home building in the South, where most of the home construction takes place, rose 9.2 percent to the highest level since December 2007.

    Starts for the volatile multifamily segment fell 3 percent to a 387,000 unit rate. Single-family building permits rose 2.8 percent in August to their highest level since January 2008. Multifamily building permits rose 4.7 percent.

    A third report showed manufacturing continued to struggle against the headwinds of a strong dollar and soft global demand.

    The Philadelphia Fed said its business activity index fell to minus 6 in September from positive 8.3 in August. A reading below zero indicates contraction in the region's manufacturing.

    -Dan Burns contributed reporting from New York.

     

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    federal reserve interest rates economy janet yellen
    Susan Walsh/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
    By MARTIN CRUTSINGER

    WASHINGTON -- As it does once each quarter, the Federal Reserve will deliver a triple-dose of news Thursday afternoon -- a policy statement, economic forecasts and a news conference by Chair Janet Yellen. But all eyes will be on one question:

    Is the Fed raising interest rates from record lows?

    Economists remain unsure, though the consensus seems to have shifted against the likelihood of an increase in the Fed's benchmark short-term rate. Turbulence in financial markets, persistently low inflation and risks to the global economy from China's sharp slowdown could lead the Fed to delay a hike until December or later.

    Beyond that blockbuster decision, Fed watchers will be looking for other significant nuggets in the stream of information that will emerge Thursday.

    Here are five things to watch for:

    Interest Rates

    The biggest news, of course, is whether the Fed will announce in a statement at 2 p.m. Eastern time that it's raising its target for the federal funds rate -- the interest that banks charge each other on overnight loans. Back in 2008, the Fed slashed this rate to a record low near zero, where it's remained since, through more than 50 Fed policy meetings. In keeping the rate that low, the Fed has tried to bolster the economy's recovery from the worst downturn since the 1930s.

    Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer has suggested that when the central bank does move, the increase will be a modest quarter-point hike, from a range of between zero and 0.25 percent to a range of between 0.25 and 0.5 percent. This is the rate banks charge each other for overnight loans. But it influences other rates throughout the economy.

    Traditionally, the Fed has sold Treasurys to the banks as a way to shrink their reserves and raise rates. But with the banks swimming in reserves from all the cash the Fed has pumped into the financial system, the central bank plans to use additional tools to boost rates.

    These include raising the interest it pays banks on their reserves. This would push bank lending rates up because banks won't be willing to lend at lower rates than they're receiving from the Fed.

    Pace of a Rate Hike

    Chair Janet Yellen and other Fed officials have stressed that whenever they start raising rates, they will do so very incrementally. The goal is to assess the impact of a slight rate hike before going further. In doing so, the Fed would try to avoid derailing the economy or spooking investors.

    Some have speculated that the pattern of rate hikes will be four quarterly increases of a quarter-point each. If that held true and if the Fed began the process Thursday, the funds rate would equal a range of 0.75 percent to 1 percent by mid-2016 -- still low by historical standards. Consider that 1 percent was the previous record low for the funds rate reached in June 2003.

    The rate stayed at that level until June 2004, when the Fed began its previous round of rate hikes. Look to the Fed's policy statement and Yellen's remarks at her news conference for any clarity on the pace of rate hikes.

    Jobs and Wages

    At their most recent meeting, the Fed's policymakers said the job market had to show only "some further improvement" for them to consider raising rates. Previously, they had said they needed to see "further improvement." The addition of "some" was seen as a signal that the job market was closer to satisfying the Fed. Unemployment has reached a seven-year low of 5.1 percent, within the Fed's stated target of 5 percent to 5.1 percent.

    But the Fed's standards for a healthy job market go beyond the unemployment rate. The policymakers regard the proportion of adults who are either working or looking for work as too low. And the number of part-time workers who would prefer full-time jobs remains unusually high. Pay growth for workers has been generally meager, too. A more nuanced picture of how the Fed views the job market could emerge from its policy statement and updated economic forecasts or from Yellen's comments to reporters.

    Inflation

    In contrast to employment, the Fed is much further from achieving its other mandate: Maintaining price increases of around 2 percent. Its preferred measure of inflation, excluding volatile food and energy, has risen just 1.2 percent over the 12 months that ended in July and has stayed below its 2 percent goal for more than three years. A rise in the dollar's value and declines in energy prices have further depressed inflation.

    The Fed has been saying it doesn't want to start raising rates until it's "reasonably confident" that inflation is moving back to its 2 percent target. Last month, Fischer said his confidence was "pretty high" because of his belief that lower-priced energy and a higher-priced dollar were temporary factors that would eventually fade.

    The Fed might clarify its inflation views in its policy statement or through the inflation forecast in its updated economic projections. In June, the Fed predicted that inflation, excluding energy and food, would be near 2 percent by the end of 2016.

    If that expectation holds, it would signal that the Fed's confidence in moving toward its 2 percent inflation target hasn't been shaken.

    Yellen's Words

    Yellen, of course, is the most important voice on the Fed, and she hasn't spoken publicly in two months. Since then, China has devalued its currency, inciting fear that troubles in the world's second-largest economy were worse than previously thought. Some worry that a severe slowdown in China's economy would chill growth in the Unites States and other economies.

    Partly as a result, Wall Street and other financial markets around the world have endured a nerve-rattling streak of turbulence and sinking prices this summer.

    How are all these developments shaping the Fed's decision-making? Yellen's remarks at her news conference may shed some light.

     

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    Scarlett Johansson SodaStream Partnership
    Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SodaStream
    We have become a country of soda-jerk hobbyists, but we're not fizzing up our own soft drinks to save money. That became obvious last week when PepsiCo (PEP) announced that it is expanding its test of Pepsi-branded flavors that are available for SodaStream (SODA) machines in select Florida markets.

    SodaStream owners everywhere can now buy the Pepsi HomeMade, Sierra Mist HomeMade and Pepsi Wild Cherry HomeMade syrup caps (plastic capsules that contain enough flavoring to transform a liter of sparkling water into soda) through SodaStream's website or dozens of Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) stores. Making fresh Pepsi products from the convenience of your home sounds cool, but don't make the false assumption that it's cheaper than buying the traditional bottled and canned pop.

    A four-pack of the PepsiCo caps will set you back $3.49. Each cap is enough to make a half-liter serving, so you're basically paying $3.49 for 2 liters of Pepsi or Sierra Mist. That's a lot more than what the 2-liter bottles sell for at stores and it's not the final cost of the beverage. Don't forget that you have to pay for the carbonators and the math there starts at 50 cents for transforming two liters of still water into sparkling water. It all adds up to nearly $4 for 2 liters of Pepsi. If you were planning on buying a SodaStream beverage maker to save money on soda, you're going to be in for a rude (yet caffeinated) awakening.

    More Than Just Value

    SodaStream is a cost-effective purchase for folks who crave fresh sparkling water, coming in at just a quarter a liter. However, the math starts to get cruel when you're going for flavored soda. SodaStream's own bottled syrup flavors are available for a lot less than PepsiCo's caps, but it's never as cheap as generic store brands.

    That has never been the point for SodaStream, however. Its marketing message has emphasized convenience, freshness, and environmental benefits.

    Promoting convenience is easy. Lugging 12-packs of cans and 2-liter bottles from the supermarket every week can grow tiresome. The ability to make soda with a reusable bottle replaces the traditional round trip with a simple rinse. Yes, there is the cumbersome carbonator to exchange, but that's only necessary after every 60 or 130 liters.

    Freshness is debatable. The ability to brew carbonated soda on demand is nifty, but it's not as if unopened cans or bottles of soda taste stale. Some folks swear by the fresh taste of SodaStream, but others don't notice or care.

    The environmental message has been a big part of SodaStream's guerrilla marketing campaign, in which it has paraded around the world an exhibit featuring a cage full of disposed soda cans and bottles. It has also pointed to landfills and water pollution caused by consumption of retail soda. This isn't a message that's going to resonate with everyone, but it could strike a chord with eco-minded consumers.

    So, yes, making soda at home has its benefits -- just don't go thinking that it's the secret to saving money.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of SodaStream. The Motley Fool owns and recommends PepsiCo. The Motley Fool owns shares of SodaStream and recommends Bed Bath & Beyond. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Want a sweet deal? Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Amazon Cheap Tablet
    Eric Risberg/AP
    Amazon.com (AMZN) made it official Thursday, introducing a new entry-level tablet that will be available starting later this month for just $50. Its popularity is inevitable given the low sticker price, but let's break down the many reasons that one of its buyers might very well be you.

    1. It's the anti-iPad. At a time when Apple (AAPL) is rolling out its priciest tablet ever -- the iPad Pro that starts at $799 -- Amazon's giving shoppers something cheaper.

    2. It has a reasonable display size of 7 inches. That's slightly smaller than the iPad mini with its 7.9-inch screen, but The Wall Street Journal was reporting earlier this month that Amazon's bargain-priced device would be just six inches.

    3. This is the first tablet that's so cheap that it's being sold as a discounted six-pack. Amazon is making a package of six Fire tablets available for $249.95. Order six tablets and enter the code FIRE6PACK on checkout and the sixth one will be free. That lowers the price to $41.66 apiece. Who says that beer and soda are the only things that are cheaper when sold as six-packs?

    4. At $50, it costs less than a single video game. Die-hard gamers will argue that it's not a fair comparison, but it's now an argument to be made.

    5. At $249.95 for the marked-down six-pack, we're talking about a half-dozen Fire tablets for less than a single iPad mini.

    6. The Fire has half the internal storage memory of the iPad mini, clocking in at a mere 8 gigabytes, but there's a microSD slot so you can dramatically expand capacity if you need to do that.

    7. The battery life is weak at seven hours, but that's more than enough time to entertain you on a trip, commute, or relaxation break.

    8. At less than $42 each in volume, we're probably at the point where newspaper and magazine publishers can bundle long-term digital subscriptions with free tablets as readers.

    9. You should never leave a tablet in your car, but as far as smash-and-grab robberies go, this could be the one time that replacing your window won't be cheaper than replacing the gadgetry that was stolen.

    10. The leading online retailer is also launching Amazon Underground, an app store experience where it claims that more than $10,000 in apps, games and even in-app items are available for free.

    11. Amazon is also claiming that the $50 Fire tablet is twice as durable as the iPad Air.

    12. That last point is notable, because you can now hand over a tablet to your child without freaking out as much whenever it takes a tumble. Durable or not, it's still less pain on your pocketbook to have it replaced.

    13. Yes, there's a camera in there -- two, actually. They're not great, of course, but the rear-facing one can record 720p HD video. The front-facing one is a weaker VGA camera that could make do for Skype and other purposes.

    14. The front-facing camera means that it's cheaper to videoconference with family and friends. You're now just $100 away from a pair of tablets as a videoconferencing solution.

    15. There will be more tablets in the classroom. Remember when only ritzy prep schools "went iPad" a couple of years ago? Now tablets will be accessible to even more knowledge-hungry students.

    Killer App

    There are a lot more than 15 reasons that the new Fire will be a hit this holiday shopping season. However, there is likely just one reason that Amazon is making this move: Amazon wants to drive more consumers to its thriving ecosystem of digitally delivered videos, books, music, games, and apps.

    Willing to sell hardware at or below cost -- and that's likely the case here -- is an investment in tablet owners engaging more in Amazon's playground. With the cover charge continuing to drop to dabble in the ecosystem, it's not a bad place to be.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Amazon.com and Apple. 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.


    Amazon's New Lineup

     

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    Federal Reserve
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
    By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Federal Reserve kept interest rates unchanged Thursday in a bow to worries about the global economy, financial market volatility and sluggish inflation at home, but left open the possibility of a modest policy tightening later this year.

    In what amounted to a tactical retreat, Fed Chair Janet Yellen said in a press conference that developments in a tightly linked global economy had in effect forced the U.S. central bank's hand.

    The U.S. economy has been performing well enough to perhaps justify a rate hike "and we expect it to continue to do so," Yellen said shortly after the Fed's policy-setting committee released its latest statement following a two-day meeting.

    But Yellen added that "the outlook abroad appears to have become less certain," driving down U.S.

    In light of the heightened uncertainty abroad ... the committee judged it appropriate to wait.

    equity prices, pushing up the dollar, and tightening financial conditions in a way that may slow U.S. growth regardless of what the Fed does.

    "In light of the heightened uncertainty abroad ... the committee judged it appropriate to wait," Yellen said. "Given the significant economic and financial interconnections between the U.S. and the rest of the world, the situation abroad bears close watching."

    The policy statement also nodded squarely to international events as a decisive variable within Yellen's "data-dependent" Fed.

    "Recent global economic and financial developments may restrain economic activity somewhat and are likely to put further downward pressure on inflation in the near term," the statement said.

    However, the Fed maintained its bias towards a rate hike sometime this year, while lowering its long-term outlook for the economy.

    Fresh economic projections showed 13 of 17 Fed policymakers foresee raising rates at least once in 2015, down from 15 at the last meeting in June. Four policymakers now say rates shouldn't be raised until at least 2016, compared to two who felt that way in June.

    The Fed has policy meetings in October and December.

    In deciding when to hike rates, the Fed repeated it wanted to see "some further improvement in the labor market," and be "reasonably confident" that inflation will increase.

    The dollar fell against a basket of currencies after the release of the statement, trading about 1 percent lower against the euro. Stocks initially edged higher before turning lower in choppy trade, while prices for U.S. Treasuries rose.

    'More Dovish'

    Taken as a whole, the latest Fed projections of slower GDP growth, low unemployment and continuing low inflation suggest that concerns of a so-called secular stagnation may be taking root among policymakers. One policymaker even suggested a negative federal funds rate.

    The median projection of the 17 policymakers showed the Fed expects the economy to grow 2.1 percent this year, slightly faster than previously thought. However, its forecasts for GDP growth in 2016 and 2017 were downgraded.

    The Fed also forecast inflation would creep only slowly toward its 2 percent target even as unemployment dips lower than previously expected. It sees the unemployment rate hitting 4.8 percent next year and remaining at that level for as long as three years.

    The Fed's projected interest rate path shifted downward, with the long-run federal funds rate now seen at 3.5 percent, compared to 3.75 percent at the last policy meeting.

    "The Fed has become more dovish, with growth projections revised down amid rumblings of 'secular stagnation.' But there's a clear signal that, in the absence of any serious derailing of the economy, rates will rise before the year is out," said Chris Williamson of financial information services firm Markit.

    The vote on the policy statement also was a sign of how China's economic slowdown and market slide left Fed officials unnerved about the state of the world economy. Only Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker dissented.

    Fed officials like board member Jerome Powell and Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart in recent months had publicly endorsed a September rate hike, forming a near majority along with longstanding inflation hawks like Lacker.

    In the end, however, they were left with a muddled picture marked by low U.S. unemployment and steady economic growth, but no sign that inflation has begun to rise towards the Fed's target.

     

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    Markets React To Fed Interest Rate Announcement
    Andrew Burton/Getty Images
    By Sinead Carew

    NEW YORK -- Major Wall Street indexes gave up a 1 percent rally to end lower Thursday after the Federal Reserve cited concerns about global economic growth in its decision to hold off on raising interest rates.

    The U.S. central bank held rates steady in a bow to worries about the global economy, financial market volatility and sluggish inflation at home, but it left open the possibility of a modest policy tightening later this year.

    The S&P financial index led the decline after being among the top performers throughout the prior five sessions.

    The decline in financial stocks, which benefit from higher rates, alongside the rise in utility stocks suggest that investors now believe interest rates will remain low for longer than previously expected.

    Investors' focus turned to the next Fed meeting on Oct. 27-28 as they were still left to figure out the timing for the Fed's first benchmark rate increase since 2006.

    All the uncertainty that was in the market leading up to this meeting is still in place.

    Trading was extremely choppy after the Fed's 2 p.m. statement, with major U.S. indexes swinging between session highs and lows. The three major U.S. indexes all rose more than 1 percent for a while during Fed Chair Janet Yellen's 2.30 p.m. press conference, but then retreated.

    "All the uncertainty that was in the market leading up to this meeting is still in place. There was very little clarity given," said John Culbertson, chief investment officer of Context Asset Management in Philadelphia.

    "You're going to hear the same conversation in the markets for the next 30 days that you heard in the last 90 days," he said, citing difficulties making "high-conviction trades."

    Questions about when the Fed will shift gears have dogged Wall Street for months -- a situation complicated in recent weeks by market turbulence linked to slowing growth in China and worries about the health of the global economy.

    "In our minds it was the correct decision. The inflation data does not support a rate hike at this time. You throw in some of the global turbulence and [that] supports the decision to leave rates unchanged," said Brian Rehling, co-head of global fixed income at Wells Fargo in St. Louis.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 65.21 points, or 0.4 percent, to 16,674.74, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 5.11 points, or 0.3 percent, to 1,990.2 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 4.71 points, or 0.1 percent, to 4,893.95.

    Slim Chance

    Ahead of the news, U.S. interest rates futures had indicated only a 25 percent chance the central bank would raise rates Thursday, and 35 of 80 economists polled by Reuters earlier this week expected an increase.

    Only four of the 10 major S&P sectors ended higher, with the utility index, up 1.3 percent, having the best day. The financial services index turned negative during Yellen's comments and ended down 1.3 percent while the telecommunications index dropped 1.1 percent.

    Trading was heavy with nearly 8 billion shares changing hands Wednesday on U.S. exchanges, in line with the 8.1 billion daily average for the previous 20 trading days, which saw a spike in volume according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE 1,866 to 1,201, for a 1.55-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,546 issues rose and 1,244 fell for a 1.24-to-1 ratio favoring advancers. The S&P 500 posted 15 new 52-week highs and 2 lows; the Nasdaq recorded 59 new highs and 31 lows.

    -Rory Carroll contributed reporting from San Francisco.

    What to watch Friday:
    • At 10 a.m.: The Conference Board releases leading indicators for August, and the Labor Department releases state unemployment data for August.

     

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    Hispanic couple shopping in grocery store
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    By Raechel Conover

    Grocery shopping on a budget is tough for anyone, but throw in the fact that I usually shop with a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, and the outing is hardly the most fun part of my week. Every month when we look at our budget, the supermarket is one place I think I can save more. At the same time, I'm picky about what I buy and where I shop; I strongly prefer to eat and feed my family organic and fresh foods. In general we spend roughly $150 a week on groceries, including all paper products and cleaning supplies -- and the four gallons of milk my two boys drink every week. Here are some tricks I use to try to limit grocery spending.

    Buy meats in bulk. Meat is one food that's definitely worth buying organic. Why? Because I don't want my family to eat meat pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones, or from animals fed a diet of genetically modified corn. I used to buy our meat from Whole Foods but eventually wised up. After visiting a few local farmers markets, I found a farmer willing to sell me organic meat in bulk three or four times a year. We have a chest freezer in the basement that's handy for storing all the extra meat.

    Hit Costco once a month. Costco really helps me stretch my grocery budget. All the paper goods we use (paper towels, toilet paper, tissues, napkins, paper plates) are available at cheaper prices in bulk. Ditto on cleaning supplies. I believe in chemical-free cleaning, so we barely use household cleaners, but dishwasher detergent, dish soap, and laundry detergent all come from Costco. Additionally, we buy certain bulk food items at the warehouse club once a month. Did you know Costco has a wide selection of organic food? We buy organic maple syrup, fruit snacks, applesauce pouches, and frozen fruit and vegetables. Costco carries the best fresh organic berries I've seen this summer, so we always grab those, as well as anything else that looks good in the produce section.

    Make a list and stick to it. I don't enter any grocery store without a list. Sticking to a list is hard -- especially with two youngsters begging for everything they see. To avoid a grocery store meltdown over wants vs. needs, I give my kids choices. When looking at cereals, for instance, I let them choose between two options. I just make sure that each is cheap or on sale and I'm okay with whichever they pick. I do this for fruit snack flavors, types of crackers, yogurt varieties, etc. This makes them feel as though they're getting what they want, yet the items are already on my list.

    Make a meal plan. One thing that makes it easier to make a list and stick to it: a weekly meal plan. If I know what we'll be having for dinner each night, creating a list takes very little extra effort. (Breakfast and lunch during the week are simple affairs, so I don't need a meal plan for those.)

    Plan a meatless dinner once or twice a week. In our weekly meal plan, I always include one dinner without meat. If our budget is tight for the month, or I exceeded the grocery budget the week before, I'll throw in a second meatless dinner to save some cash. Often we have vegetable omelets, homemade veggie pizza, or bean burritos. During the summer, vegetable pasta salad and caprese salad with crusty bread are rotated in. If we're really feeling lazy, sometimes we have grilled cheese and soup. I always make sure everyone feels satisfied on these nights by setting out extra protein, such as apple slices with peanut butter or cottage cheese and sliced fruit.

    Make your own at home. Another component of saving at the grocery store is making food at home that I could easily buy. "Easy" is the sticking point for many people -- yes, it takes more effort to make certain things, but shelling out extra cash for packaged items hurts the budget. Foods I make at home include sandwich bread, snacks (e.g., energy balls, cookies and muffins), tortilla shells, salad dressing, and pasta sauce. I also buy whole heads of lettuce, whole carrots, and other vegetables and prepare them myself rather than pay more for pre-cut produce. Ditto on cheese: Buying in large blocks and using a good shredder saves a lot.

    Cook in bulk and freeze. Another way I stretch our budget is to make large portions -- more than we can eat in one meal. This way I know I can rely on leftovers later in the week rather than buy ingredients for a whole new meal. Sometimes I prepare enough to freeze half and help the budget in another week. I do this most often with spaghetti sauce, certain slow-cooker meals, and potpies.

    Use coupons. This one is pretty self-explanatory, but you would not believe how hard it is in our busy life to find the time to search out coupons. I usually do this as I'm getting the shopping list ready, starting with paper coupons and store apps. I also search coupon sites such as Coupons.com, Red Plum, and Smart Source for printable coupons. Certain brands send out coupons on a regular basis. I signed up for the Driscoll's mailing list and regularly receive emailed coupons for produce we buy regularly. I use coupons only for products I would be buying anyway, and if the coupon requires me to buy more than I need just to get the discount, I don't do it.

    Sign up for store rewards cards. Aside from Costco, our primary shopping destination is Kroger, where the Kroger Plus Card helps save big bucks on groceries and gas. The grocery chain mails coupons for specific foods or money off a total purchase, and the card gets us discounts on stocked products that vary by the week. It's definitely worth the time to sign up for the loyalty cards offered by nearby grocers.

    Shop at more than one store. I am a loyal Kroger customer in part because of the store's Simple Truth Organic line. It makes buying organic much cheaper. That said, there are some things that can't be beat at Whole Foods (such as certain organic produce) or Trader Joe's (such as pre-made pizza dough and pizza sauce).

    Shop the sales. No matter where I'm shopping, I look for the weekly sales list first. Kroger places weekly circulars at the store entrance, while the local Whole Foods and Trader Joe's use chalkboards. This information lets me know immediately what's on sale so I can check it against my list, grab it, and move on.

    Go to the store only on grocery day. This may be the single most important thing I've started doing: We never -- I repeat, never -- set foot in the store anytime during the week except on grocery day. That means buying enough staples to get us through the week and avoid repeat visits. I know if we break this rule we will surpass our grocery budget, because if we go to the store, we always think we need (really, want) something else besides what we went in to buy.

    Check out strategically. Remember that make-a-list-and-stick-to-it tip from earlier? Sure, stuff makes it into our cart that wasn't on the list. My solution to this is the way I check out: I unload the cart first with the things on our list. After the cashier rings up those items, I ask for the total. If we're under budget, I pick a few items that weren't on the list and add them to the haul. An occasional splurge is fine, so long as we're not overspending.

     

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    USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Young woman looking at jar with coins in it
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    By Mark Henricks

    NEW YORK -- So ... are you single? If you are a 20-something, chances are nearly 2 out of 3 that you are. A 2014, Gallup poll found 64 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds reported being single and living alone. Gallup also found the percentage of young adults not in a committed relationship has jumped from 52 percent a decade earlier. And that makes it strange that so much of today's retirement planning advice ignores the special challenges of the single saver.

    Single, unmarried people planning for retirement face a host of differences, including reduced need for life insurance (but higher need for long-term care coverage) compared to their hitched-for-life colleagues. The biggest difference may be lower income, especially since today both members of most married couples are working, notes Beth Lynch, a financial planner with Schneider Downs Wealth Management Advisors in Pittsburgh. Less income, basically, makes it harder to save.

    Single people need to make sure they save a greater amount to their tax-deferred accounts and start early.

    "Single people need to make sure they save a greater amount to their tax-deferred accounts and start early," Lynch says. "They also need to build a larger emergency savings account than that of a two-person income household. They do not have anyone else to lean on should they lose their job, or have an extended illness."

    Unfortunately, as the proverb suggests, one person can't live half as cheaply as two.

    The biggest single expense for most people is housing, and single people still have to pay rent and mortgage bills, often on a residence that could house two. In fact, married people in their late 20s spend about $7,200 less per person, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that means singles have that much less left over for saving.

    On the plus side, singles will find it easier to decide how to spend what they do have. "Couples may be on two different sheets of music when it comes to money," notes Larry Rosenthal, a financial planner in Manassas, Virginia. "One may be a saver, one may be a spender."

    Whether they are savers or spenders, some decisions are likely to be different for singles, because they lack dependents. Life insurance represents one of those. "If somebody passes, you have to ask the question, 'Is there going to be someone else who will suffer a financial hardship?'" says Rosenthal. "If the answer is 'No,' they may not need it."

    On the other hand, singles have greater need for long-term care insurance. Married people can hope that a spouse will help out in case of declining health due to old age or medical issues. "Singles need a plan to take care of themselves mentally and physically as they age, often with long-term care insurance," notes Jacob Gold, a financial planner with Voya Financial in Scottsdale, Arizona.

    When it comes to annuities, singles also have different needs and opportunities. Annuities are insurance company products that allow savers to put aside money, usually in a single large lump sum, in return for future monthly payments that are guaranteed for life. Annuity buyers can opt for higher monthly payments that stop when the individual passes away or lower payments that will continue to be paid to a surviving spouse. "A single person may not have anyone else relying on those retirement dollars, so opting for the larger monthly payments may make more sense and increase retirement income," Gold says.

    Additional wrinkles pop up with regard to Social Security. A married, divorced or widowed retiree can opt to get benefits based on a current or former partner's lifetime earning record, which may allow for higher Social Security payments, notes Lynch.

    "The individual who has never been married can only receive benefits on their income record," she says. "This means more planning on when to retire and when to start taking Social Security benefits."

     

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    Woman Studying and Reading Food Label in Front of Refrigerator
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    Are you one of the millions of Americans tossing hundreds of dollars in the trash each year?

    Probably so if you don't understand those "sell by," "use by" and "best before" labels stamped on groceries you buy.

    A report by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the vast majority of Americans misinterpret food labels and throw out perfectly good food. By understanding some simple terms, you can keep that money in your pocket, rather than toss it in the trash can.

    'Sell By' Date

    If you throw out food based on the "sell by" date, you aren't alone. The study found that more than 90 percent of consumers make that mistake. Yet keeping food past that date doesn't mean it's unsafe.

    In reality, the "sell by" date is used by manufacturers to let grocery stores know they should not sell food past that date simply to ensure it still has some shelf life remaining after a consumer purchases it, according to the report.

    'Best Before' Date and 'Use By' Date

    "Best before" and "use by" dates don't mean you should toss that food away. Those labels typically indicate the manufacturer's estimate of when the food will be past its peak for quality. But that doesn't mean the food is unsafe, the report says.

    There is no standard that establishes those dates. Laws vary by state, and manufacturers have their own rules for setting dates. Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stepped in to address the confusion.

    Infant formula is the only product for which the date on the label is federally regulated.

    Staying Safe

    Given the confusion over dates, you are probably wondering how long you can safely keep food without jeopardizing your family's health -- or your own pocketbook.

    The federal government gives you good starting points. At FoodSafety.gov, you'll find recommended refrigerator and freezer storage times for various meat products.

    Most meats can be safely stored in the refrigerator for a few days and in the freezer for a few months. But the site points out that freezer storage guidelines are only for quality, and that foods can stay safely frozen indefinitely.

    You'll find more in-depth information on food safety and the limits of labeling on the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service website.

    Those eggs you bought last week can be safely refrigerated for three to five weeks. And who knew that shelf-stable canned meat and poultry is still good after two to five years?

    The Whole Foods Market website has helpful information on storing dairy products and cheese. Storage times vary greatly, so you might want to take that into consideration when deciding what to buy. Opened butter, for example, will last one to two weeks, while opened margarine will last four to six months.

    On the Spice Islands site, you'll find information on the shelf life of spices and herbs. Buying whole spices rather than ground spices is a better choice because they last longer.

    And you'll find safety and storage recommendations for nearly every product under the sun at StillTasty.com. Wonder how long you can keep that raw shrimp in the fridge or freezer, or whether that unopened package of spaghetti that got buried in the back of the pantry is still good? The answer is just a click away.

    What guidelines do you use for determining how long food remains safe? Share your thoughts in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

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


    How to Stop Throwing Away So Much Food

     

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    PlentiTogether LIVE - Show
    Getty ImagesRadio personality Elvis Duran at the PlentiTogether Live concert in New York City in July.
    By JOSEPH PISANI

    NEW YORK -- Filling up on gas at an Exxon station can now earn you a discount on a T-shirt at Macy's: That's the idea behind Plenti, a loyalty program launched earlier this year that lets users earn rewards for purchases from a variety of businesses.

    I tried Plenti for a few months, and although it takes a few minutes to set up, I found it to be an easy way to earn a few bucks back on money I was spending anyway.

    How It Works:

    Plenti uses a point-based system that converts back into cash that can be used at certain business that take part.

    Spending that earns points includes paying AT&T (T) cellphone bills, buying gas at Exxon Mobil (XOM) stations, shopping at Macy's (M) department stores or Rite Aid (RAD) drugstores, paying auto or property insurance premiums at Nationwide, paying bills from energy provider Direct Energy, signing up for online video streaming company Hulu, or renting a car from Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National or Alamo.

    Signing up for Plenti is free and can be done on its website or inside a partner's store. Although Plenti is run by credit card company American Express (AXP), no credit card is needed to use it.

    Plenti gives users a plastic card that can be scanned in stores or gas stations. Plenti's app has a copy of your card, too, so you don't have to carry around the plastic one everywhere. If you want to earn Plenti points through a credit card, the company offers a Plenti-branded American Express card that earns one point for every $1 spent anywhere. Its other cards don't earn Plenti points, but American Express reward points can be converted into Plenti points.

    The amount of points you can earn varies at each partner, but in most cases, every $1 spent earns one point. There are exceptions: At Exxon Mobil gas stations, one point is earned for every gallon of gas bought.

    There are also ways to earn more. At Macy's, for example, buying clothing earns one point for each $1 dollar spent, but buying perfume or makeup earns two points for each $1. Check each partner's website to see how Plenti points can be earned.

    Once 200 points are earned, they can be used as cash at certain Plenti partners. Each 100 points is equal to $1, so cashing in 200 points will get you a $2 discount. Point balances can be checked on the Plenti website or app.

    The Good

    Plenti is easy to use, especially if you already frequent the partners that are part of the program. I linked my Macy's credit card to my Plenti account, so any purchases I make at the department store automatically earn points, without me having to pull out the Plenti card. You can also link Plenti to your AT&T or Nationwide account once, and it will automatically earn points.

    There are also chances to earn more points through special offers. Rite Aid, for example, offered 100 points for buying three packs of Halloween candy. The bonuses are posted in stores and also on Plenti's website and app. Sometimes you need to click on the bonus deal to activate them, but many are activated automatically.

    The Not-So-Good

    The places you can earn points are limited. Out of the seven corporate partners, I use only two regularly: Macy's and Rite Aid. American Express says it expects to add more partners soon. Another drawback: You can't spend Plenti points at certain partners, such as Nationwide. But that may change, too. AT&T, for example, started letting Plenti users cash in their points at stores last month.

    Plenti requires some time setting up. You'll need to go to the each partner's website to make sure your Plenti card is registered. You can also do this inside Macy's or Rite Aid stores.

    The Bottom Line

    Plenti is worth the minimal effort required to set it up. Even though it doesn't work many places yet, it is likely to get better as more businesses take part.

    It won't save you a wheelbarrow full of cash, but since June, I earned 247 Plenti points, mostly from a shopping trip at Macy's. I cashed the points at Rite Aid after a message on the cash register said I could use them on my purchase. I agreed, and got $2.47 off batteries and soda, a discount I wouldn't have had otherwise.

     

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    Beautiful Woman holding up Car Key
    Getty ImagesIf you're ready to lease new wheels, make sure you research your options in advance.


    Leasing a car doesn't have to be difficult. Whether it's negotiating yourself or hiring a broker, you can get a good deal on your next lease.

    While I've only had positive experiences with brokers because they do save time, money and lots of energy, I also know that it is possible to get the same deal, if not a little bit better, if you can invest some time into it. Here are some easy tips to consider when negotiating your next lease deal:

    Research, especially online.

    Start thinking like a broker. Research and negotiating skills are essential tools that help brokers make their money. During the research process, you can look at the dealer specials and incentives, but you can also find out what your local brokers are offering as well. I also found that the Edmunds.com discussion board is helpful in comparing what other customers have gotten on their leases for similar cars or even asking for advice. Having a baseline for negotiation will work in your favor.

    You can even use the discussion forums, located at forums.edmunds.com, to ask your own questions. You just have to set up an account to start posting.

    Ask questions.

    Once you've done your research, you should know what model, make, trim and options you want on your next vehicle. Locate that vehicle in your area. To save some time, you can go to Edmunds.com and search inventory under the year, make and model of the car. You can set the search to find anywhere from a 50 to 200 mile radius. Once you find the car you're looking for, you can start to ask questions of the dealer over the Internet or by phone. Ideally, you'll find more than one car that you like, so you can compare your prices and options.

    Make an appointment with an Internet fleet manager.

    If you've ever worked with a broker, the Internet fleet manager is the one they negotiate with. In most cases, you've already pre-negotiated over the phone with one or more dealers. Once you have an offer that's right around the ballpark figure you're looking at, it's time to pay them a visit.

    Continue to negotiate.

    Just think of your pre-negotiated price as a number that is very close to what you want to pay, but still not close enough. You can use many factors to negotiate. First, check if the car's been sitting on the lot longer than 90 days. You can do that by checking the manufacturer's date on the car. If it has, more than likely the dealer will be aggressive in trying to move the car. Sometime during your negotiating process, you may want to mention that you also worked with a broker in the past and you would like the pre-negotiated fee as a savings passed onto you for not going through a broker. It doesn't hurt to ask.

    Be honest.

    I've dealt with dealers who've ripped me off when I was pregnant with my first child, so I get when people automatically assume the worse when they enter a dealership. Many stereotypes and movie clips come to mind. Having said that, dealers also deal with customers who probably aren't the nicest people in the world, either.

    Remember, dealers are people, too. If you've already pre-negotiated an offer, you should have a good sense of what type of person you're dealing with. Come with an open mind and if you're really close to getting the deal that you want, it doesn't hurt to tell them the perfect magic number that will close the deal. Hiding it and making them guess while wasting hours on end isn't productive for you or the dealer.

    Just in case your in-person negotiations take longer than expected and you're stuck at the dealership for several hours, try to pack snacks, as well as toys for any kids you have along. If you don't feel rushed, then you can take your time and make the best choice for you and your budget.

    Susan Yoo-Lee is a mother of two and will be launching her new money-savings blog, Minus the Price, later this year. You can find her on Twitter @SusanYooLee.

     

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    Apple Worldwide Developers Conference Opens In San Francisco
    Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesCraig Federighi, Apple senior vice president of software engineering, left, shakes hands with Apple CEO Tim Cook during the Apple WWDC in June.
    By Heather Somerville and Jane Wardell

    SAN FRANCISCO and SYDNEY -- A significant number of Apple (AAPL) customers are reporting their mobile devices have crashed after attempting to upload the new iOS 9 operating system, the latest in a line of launch glitches for the tech giant.

    Twitter and other social media were awash with disgruntled customers reporting two distinct faults, with one appearing to be linked specifically to older models of Apple iPhones and iPads.

    They said they were aware of the problem and their engineers were working on it 24/7, but they couldn't tell me when -- or how -- I would get a solution.

    "It is beyond inconvenient to not be able to use your phone for a day," said student Pip Cordi as staff in the Apple store in central Sydney looked at her phone Friday. "I have a lot of apps that I use for school -- things like language apps and dictionaries and that's all really important for my studies."

    Another iPhone user, Zorry Coates, said she had spent three hours in the Apple store and had been left with the option of either returning her phone to factory settings -- losing any non-backed-up data -- or waiting until Apple technicians announced an update.

    "They said they were aware of the problem and their engineers were working on it 24/7, but they couldn't tell me when -- or how -- I would get a solution," Zorry said.

    "I'm very annoyed because it's wasted half my day. They pride themselves on being a company that's flawless."

    Apple's headquarters in San Francisco didn't respond to a request for comment late Thursday. An Apple spokesman in Sydney said the company had no comment.

    Despite any troubles, significant numbers of iOS users had upgraded; more than 16 percent, according to Mixpanel, a San Francisco, California-based analytics company, as of 4 p.m. Pacific time Thursday.

    Error Message

    Charlie Brown, a technology expert at Sydney-based Cybershack, said any number of dissatisfied customers was significant in the social media era, particularly following the troubled rollout of iOS 8. Apple released several further updates to iOS8, but some of the bugs were never fully fixed.

    "The risk to Apple in terms of having dissatisfied customers is that as their customer base grows, so will the number of those dissatisfied customers," said Brown.

    One group of users reported that iOS 9 upgrade would fail after several minutes, requiring them to start the process over. Many posted screen shots of the error message they received: "Software Update Failed."

    That problem was likely caused by servers that were overloaded when too many people tried to download the upgrade simultaneously, tech analysts said.

    "It's like the Black Friday thing," said Bob O'Donnell of Technalysis Research, referring to the major U.S. shopping sale day after Thanksgiving. "Some websites get creamed on the traffic on Black Friday."

    Other users, many of them with older devices, reported their devices seizing up on a "swipe to upgrade" page. The latest upgrade had been deemed by Apple as "friendly" to the older devices after the iOS 8 problems.

    "Apple were saying the downloading mechanism doesn't take as much space to download," said Sydney-based Graham McKay, an IT support specialist.

    McKay and Brown said they always advised clients to wait several days before downloading any new upgrades from Apple, Google (GOOG) or Microsoft (MSFT) to make sure any glitches had been found and ironed out.

    Metering the upgrade, or allowing users to upgrade in waves rather than all at once, would have been a smarter approach, O'Donnell said.

    "It's a lot about setting expectations," he said.

    Apple did this week delay the release of watch OS 2, its updated operating system for the Apple Watch after it discovered a bug in development.

    -Melissa Redman contributed reporting.

     

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    Federal Reserve
    Jacquelyn Martin/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
    By JOSH BOAK

    WASHINGTON -- So what will it take for the Federal Reserve to finally raise interest rates?

    The U.S. economy is now in its seventh straight year of expansion. It's growing at a steady if unexciting 2.2 percent annual rate. Unemployment has sunk from a 10 percent peak to a reassuring 5.1 percent. Auto and home sales have accelerated.

    Yet on Thursday, Fed officials declined to lift rates from record lows.

    The decision left some Fed watchers mystified over what the central bank needs to see to begin phasing out a policy it launched in 2008 to help save a collapsing economy. Many consumers and businesses wouldn't even likely feel the consequences of a single rate hike, at least not immediately. And Yellen has stressed that the Fed's rate increases would be modest and gradual.

    At a news conference, Fed Chair Janet Yellen declined to spell out what exactly would give the Fed enough confidence to raise the federal funds rate -- the interest that banks charge each other -- from near-zero.

    "I can't give you a recipe for exactly what we're looking to see," she said.

    What she does see now are too many lingering risks.

    Inflation is still undershooting the 2 percent target that the Fed regards as consistent with stable growth. Financial markets have turned stormy as doubts have spread about whether Chinese officials can sustain decent growth in the world's second-largest economy.

    Emerging markets from Brazil to Malaysia are struggling. Europe is straining to avoid stagnation. And falling oil prices have pulled Canada -- the largest U.S. trading partner -- into recession.

    The doubts remain so severe that the Fed appears to consider even a mild rate hike -- one that many economists say will barely affect most Americans -- a step too far.

    Yellen signaled some concern Thursday about China's slowdown and volatile financial markets. But many economists say the Fed is paying particular attention to three key gauges in weighing whether to raise rates. They say the Fed needs to see:

    A Stable Dollar

    The dollar has risen 14.8 percent against a basket of currencies in the past year. This has hurt U.S. manufacturers by causing their American-made goods to become more expensive abroad. It also reduces inflationary pressures because foreign-made goods become cheaper. A stronger dollar can put inflation further below the Fed's target rate.

    Steady Oil Prices

    A barrel of oil has more than halved in value to $44.07 over the past 12 months. That decline has suppressed inflation. The Fed forecasts that its preferred inflation measure will be just 0.4 percent this year -- a fraction of its 2 percent objective. Fed officials may be reluctant to act until they believe that oil prices have bottomed.

    An Even Stronger Job Market

    Over the past year, employers have added 2.9 million jobs, and the unemployment rate has dropped a full percentage point to 5.1 percent. The Fed considers that level consistent with a "balanced" economy. But the hiring has yet to spur faster wage growth -- a trend that would improve people's well-being and, Yellen stressed, help inflation reach the Fed's objective.

    The Fed doesn't want to assume that all three of these economic measures will naturally improve. So on Thursday, it said essentially that it needs more time before finalizing a decision.

    But even by the time of the Fed's October or December meeting, the direction of the world economy might remain hazy. China might be unable to show within a few months that it can manage a transition to slower growth now that its years of 10 percent annual gains are over. Europe might face continued softness.

    "It might not be definitive," said Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West. "We might have another nail-biter come the December meeting."

     

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