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DailyFinance.com

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    APTOPIX Financial Markets Wall Street Shopify IPO
    Richard Drew/APShopify and New York Stock Exchange officials gather May 21 to celebrate the start of trading of Shopify stock.
    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with the world's largest social networking website operator ready to give its 1.5 billion active users a new way to express empathy and a casual-dining chain offering a promotion that tarnishes its own brand.

    Shopify (SHOP) -- Winner

    You may not know Shopify, but it has friends in high places. The provider of cloud-based e-commerce solutions got a double shot of validation this week. On Wednesday it announced that retailers will be able to sell products on the Shopify platform right through their Facebook (FB) pages.

    Then it was revealed that it was teaming up with Amazon.com (AMZN) as the online retail giant's preferred platform as it migrates small and midsize merchants off the Amazon Webstore platform that is in the process of shutting down. Shopify is promising merchants that it can complete the migration of Amazon Webstore data with no downtime, and having Amazon's blessing can only help.

    Olive Garden -- Loser

    Darden Restaurants (DRI) is giving Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Pass another shot. The chain repeated last year's promotion, offering 1,000 cards allowing you unlimited pasta meals during a seven-week run for just $100. This time it added a family pass at $300, good for the passholder and three guests.

    Some will argue that the pass is a winner. The chain sold out of the 2,000 passes just as quickly as they were made available online. However, associating Olive Garden with gluttony and cheap pasta isn't the kind of free advertising that does a struggling brand any favors. Olive Garden has struggled with drawing guest traffic for more than two years, and this isn't going to change that.

    Cheap Tablet Seekers -- Winners

    If you are holding out for a tablet but can't afford an iPad, Amazon has a tempting value proposition for you. The dot-com darling is expanding its line of Fire tablets and that now includes a seven-inch device that retails for a mere $49.99.

    It's a price point low enough to make some serious noise this holiday shopping season. It's not going to be confused with the new iPad Pro, but its spec sheet is more than enough for you to use it as an everyday tablet if the petite size works for you. Amazon will likely be introducing millions of people to its digital ecosystem later this year as a result of the aggressively priced tablet.

    Conn's (CONN) -- Loser

    There are lingering concerns when it comes to consumer electronics retailing. An analyst at Stifel Nicolaus downgraded shares of Conn's on Tuesday, pointing to the problematic credit performance of the chain's deadbeat customers. Average account balances from borrowers and delinquency levels continue to rise and the analyst finds that more troublesome than any potential turnaround in sales.

    Facebook (FB) -- Winner

    The leading social networking website may not be a lovefest for much longer. Mark Zuckerberg revealed at a town hall meeting Tuesday that Facebook should be rolling out a "dislike" option soon.

    Facebook users have been asking for the option for years. It would give them the appropriate way to express empathy during times of crisis as well as voice displeasure when products, services, media and other things disappoint.

    There may be some legitimate concerns that the thumbs-down option could make it easier to bully others or generate friction, but the best value of any data is when it's honest and covers positive and negative feedback. It may be controversial, but I'm giving the thumbs-down a thumbs-up.

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

     

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    Construction At A Lennar Homes Development Ahead Of New Home Sales Data
    Mark Elias/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By MARTIN CRUTSINGER

    WASHINGTON -- An index of future U.S. economic health edged up slightly in August after a flat reading in July. The outcome in both months signaled economic growth could be moderating.

    The Conference Board said Friday that its index of leading indicators rose 0.1 percent in August following no change in July and a 0.6 percent jump in June. The July reading had initially been reported as a decline of 0.2 percent.

    Conference Board economist Ataman Ozyildirim said the index was signaling that growth will be moderate through the rest of the year "with little reason to expect growth to pick up substantially."

    Economists at BMO Capital Markets said the performance of the index in August mirrored the mixed signals facing the Federal Reserve, which wrapped up a highly anticipated two-day meeting Thursday with a decision to leave interest rates unchanged given all the uncertainty facing the global economy.

    Five of the 10 forward-pointing indicators that make up the index increased with the largest contributions coming from favorable interest rates and a rise in building permits.

    The biggest negative factor weighing on the index was the sharp fall in stock prices during the month, a turbulent period when investors grew concerned about developments in China, the world's second largest economy.

    While the Fed decided not to boost a key interest rate, which has been at a record low near zero since late 2008, many economists expect the central bank will raise rates at least once this year. The Fed has two more meetings this year -- in October and December.

     

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    Germany Volkswagen
    AP
    By MATTHEW DALY

    WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday that Volkswagen intentionally skirted clean air laws by using a piece of software that enabled about 500,000 of its diesel cars to emit fewer smog-causing pollutants during testing than in real-world driving conditions.

    The agency ordered VW to fix the cars at its own expense. The German automaker also faces billions of dollars in fines, although exact amounts weren't determined.

    The cars, all built in the last seven years, are the VW Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat models, as well as the Audi A3. The vehicles all contain a device programmed to detect when they are undergoing official emissions testing, the EPA said, adding that the cars only turn on full emissions control systems during that testing. The controls are turned off during normal driving situations, the EPA said.

    The EPA called the company's use of the so-called "defeat device" illegal and a threat to public health.

    "EPA is committed to making sure that all automakers play by the same rules," said Cynthia Giles, assistant EPA administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance.

    The EPA called on VW to fix the cars' emissions systems, but said car owners don't need to take any immediate action. The violations don't present a safety hazard and the cars remain legal to drive and sell, the EPA said.

    The German automaker said in a statement it is cooperating with the investigation, but declined further comment.

    The EPA said VW faces fines of up to $37,500 per vehicle for the violations -- a total of more than $18 billion. No final total was announced. California issued a separate compliance order to VW, and officials announced an investigation by the California Air Resources Board.

    Despite the seriousness of the violation, the EPA said VW will be given "a reasonable amount of time to develop a plan to complete the repairs," including both the repair procedure and manufacture of any needed parts.

    It could take up to a year to identify corrective actions, develop a recall plan and issue recall notices, the EPA said.

    Environmental groups hailed the EPA and California for moving aggressively to enforce clean air laws.

    "The charges here are truly appalling: that Volkswagen knowingly installed software that produced much higher smog-forming emissions from diesel vehicles in the real world than in pre-sale tests," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based advocacy group.

    O'Donnell accused VW of "cheating not just car buyers but the breathing public." He said the charges undercut industry rhetoric about "clean diesel" cars.

    The Volkswagens likely perform better with the emissions controls defeated than they do with them on, said Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief for the Cars.com automotive shopping and research site. Otherwise, he said, there would be no reason to have a setting that turns on the controls for tests and turns them off for regular driving.

    "Obviously it's changing the way the engine operates somehow that may not be pleasing to consumers," he said. "It would follow that it would put it into a very different feel in terms of operation of the vehicle."

    But Bragman said other countries may allow different modes for testing and normal driving.

    The allegations cover roughly 482,000 diesel passenger cars sold in the United States since 2008. Affected models include:
    • Jetta (Model Years 2009 -- 2015)
    • Beetle (Model Years 2009 -- 2015)
    • Audi A3 (Model Years 2009 -- 2015)
    • Golf (Model Years 2009 -- 2015)
    • Passat (Model Years 2014-2015)
    -AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this story.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Sinead Carew

    NEW YORK -- Wall Street stocks closed lower Friday in heavy trading as the Federal Reserve's decision to keep interest rates near zero fueled concerns about the potential impact of continuing weak global growth on U.S. corporate earnings.

    Apart from the state of the world economy, the Fed cited financial market volatility and sluggish inflation at home in its decision Thursday, while leaving the door open for a modest policy tightening later this year.

    Friday's volatility was also likely exacerbated by so-called "quadruple-witching," when options on stocks and indexes, and futures on indexes and single-stocks all expire, prompting investors to buy or sell shares to cover expiring contracts.

    The three major stock indexes each fell more than 1 percent, with all 30 Dow components in the red.

    "People are taking this to be another data point of a potentially deflationary environment. Deflation is bad for corporate profits and that leads to lower share prices," said Stephen Massocca, Chief Investment Officer at Wedbush Equity Management in San Francisco.

    The Fed's decision suggested a global economic environment that is unlikely to foster the kind of earnings growth needed to support stocks at their current, above-average valuations.

    Despite recent declines, the benchmark S&P 500 is still trading around 15.6 times forward 12 month earnings, above the 10-year median of 14.7 times, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine data.

    "What they introduced [Thursday] was that they're worried about the effects on U.S. growth based on foreign economies," said Scott Colyer, chief executive officer of Advisors Asset Management in Monument, Colorado.

    More than 10.9 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, compared with 8.1 billion average for the previous 20 sessions, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    It was the most active trading day since Aug. 24 when 14.2 billion shares changed hands as markets sold off on concerns about China's economic growth.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) closed down 289.95 points, or 1.7 percent, to 16,384.79, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 32.12 points, or 1.6 percent, to 1,958.08 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 66.72 points, or 1.4 percent, to 4,827.23.

    Oil Price Slide

    All 10 major S&P sectors ended lower, with the energy index's 2.6 percent fall leading the decline on falling oil prices. Industrials and materials also dropped more than 2 percent. Financials fell 1.9 percent as banks would have benefited from an interest rate increase.

    For the week, the Dow shed 0.3 percent, the S&P fell 0.1 percent and the Nasdaq rose 0.1 percent.

    Investors are now focusing on the next Fed meeting on Oct. 27-28, though a growing number of economists, including those at Morgan Stanley and Barclays, now wonder whether the Fed will raise rates at all this year.

    The CBOE volatility index, known as the "fear gauge," jumped 5.4 percent to 22.28, above its long-term average of 20.

    NYSE declining issues outnumbered advancers 2,139 to 929, for a 2.30-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,856 issues fell and 1,026 advanced, for a 1.81-to-1 ratio. The S&P 500 posted 4 new 52-week highs and 18 lows; the Nasdaq recorded 51 new highs and 65 lows.

    -With additional reporting by Saqib Ahmed in New York and Tanya Agrawal in Bangalore.

    What to watch Monday:
    • The National Association of Realtors releases existing home sales for August at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:

     

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    Holiday Shopping Black Friday
    Damian Dovarganes/APBlack Friday shoppers take advantage of bargains at Macy's last November.


    The first day of fall is still days away, and many of us are still in our shorts and flip-flops, but the Christmas season is already underway -- and not just for retailers.

    Many retail stores across the country have already stocked their shelves and decorated their stores for Christmas. The push for holiday sales seems to start earlier with each passing year.

    More surprisingly, nearly 32 million Americans have already begun their holiday shopping, according to a recent poll by CreditCards.com. And get this: Nearly 4.6 million Americans have already crossed the last gift off their holiday shopping list, the poll found. That's right -- it's only September, and their Christmas shopping is complete.

    "We love to complain about stores putting up holiday displays earlier and earlier each year," said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com. "But the truth is that millions of Americans start holiday shopping long before the first Christmas tree appears in a store."

    The CreditCards.com poll found that parents are twice as likely to have already started Christmas shopping (20 percent) compared with adults without children (11 percent).

    According to eMarketer, retail holiday sales are expected to jump 5.7 percent this year, with Americans spending nearly $886 billion on holiday-related purchases.

    Early holiday shoppers said buying up holiday goodies now helps keep their stress levels down, and it's also a way for them save time and money because they have time to comparison shop for the best prices, according to CreditCards.com.

    Melanie DeCarolis, a wine educator from Boston, told CreditCards.com that she starts shopping for the holidays in July and wraps it up in August.

    "If I put shopping off until December, I have only two paychecks left for it," she explained. "This way I can spread the cost out and the financial burden isn't so onerous."

    For more ideas on easing the burden of the gift-giving season, read "How to Save $500 for Christmas Shopping."

    Have you started Christmas shopping yet? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

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

     

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  • 09/18/15--22:00: Ready for the Robo-401(k)?
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    Retirement Plan
    Getty Images
    By Mark Henricks

    NEW YORK -- If you don't participate in your employer's 401(k) plan because signing up and working with it is too much hassle, or you do participate but think fees are too high, Betterment may have an answer. The nation's largest purveyor of automated investment advice is rolling out a new 401(k) platform called Betterment for Biz that aims to address both those issues. While it is aimed first at small employers, larger companies are also potential users.

    Betterment CEO Joe Stein says the New York-based company decided to enter the $5.5 trillion defined contribution retirement plan market, because it couldn't find a good platform for its employees. "After five months of a painful process and a really unsatisfactory client experience and a very expensive end result, we found ourselves scratching our heads and saying, 'How can the industry be so far behind the times?' " Stein said. "It spurred us to action."

    When Betterment for Biz becomes available in 2016, it will compete largely on cost. Stein says costs will be no more than 60 basis points of assets under management. That is similar to the average expense ratio 401(k) plan participants paid to invest in equity mutual funds in 2014, according to an Investment Company Institute study. However, small employers with fewer than 500 employees commonly pay more. Stein said options presented to Betterment cost more than 80 basis points.

    Betterment for Biz promises employers and participants easy-to-use, paperless online enrollment and management. Stein said that should encourage more employees to participate. The 2015 edition of the annual Transamerica Retirement Survey found that 80 percent of workers who were offered an employee-funded retirement plan took advantage of it, a number that has been steady the last few years.

    The 401(k) industry, including competitors, seems accepting of the new entrant. Lower cost is always good, said Chad Parks, CEO of San Francisco-based Ubiquity, which has offered flat-fee online 401(k)s to small employers since 1999. "The higher the fees, the worse it is for participants because of the compounding effects," he said.

    However, Parks said automated investment advice presents little improvement over available offerings. Ubiquity does not give advice directly to participants, instead contracting with outside fiduciary advisers for that service. And Betterment for Biz won't necessarily be cheaper, he said. According to Parks, Ubiquity's costs for small plans including advice are 30 basis points or less, or about half the high end of Betterment's expected costs.

    "In order to do something better and different, they can't just stop with lower cost and automated investing," Parks said. He says the industry needs to boost participation and increase amounts beyond the 8 percent of annual pay the ICI study found was the median contribution in 2015.

    "The main issue is coverage, not enough people in plans saving," Parks said. "At the end of the day, if there's not enough money in the account, it's not going to matter."

    Other providers are working to boost enrollment. Alison Daigle, product manager for ALEX, an employee benefits communication platform from Chicago-based Jellyvision, says clients report significant increases in participation in 401 (k) plans after beginning to use the platform. An easy-to-use and engaging interface is key, she said. "It's not generally enough to tell employees that they need to be saving for retirement and giving them the tools to do that," Daigle said.

    Cal Brown, a financial planner with Savant Capital Wealth Management, in McLean, Virginia, offers employers a 401(k) enrollment, management and advice platform developed by his company. He feels that Betterment's roboadviser technology will suit younger participants, but may not be for everyone. "One of our competitive advantages is we have a human being that is going to be an adviser that the owner or the administrator or any employee can call and talk of it they have question so issues," Brown said.

    Ubiquity's Parks predicted many large financial service companies would follow Betterment with improved 401(k) platforms. "We're all going to look at each others best practices," he said, "and come up with the next-generation small business 401(k)."


    Cramer: My #1 Investing Rule

     

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    USA, New Jersey, Portrait of couple sitting on sofa smiling at woman in blurred foreground
    Getty Images
    By Jane Bennett Clark

    These days, protecting your savings as you approach retirement -- with the goal of making it last as long as you do -- is like navigating between a rock and a hard place. Now in its seventh year, the bull market is one of the longest on record. That means by most standards that a bear market is overdue. Interest rates are almost certain to go up in the coming years, and bond prices fall when interest rates rise. "I see risk at both ends of the spectrum," says David Blanchett, head of retirement research at the investment consulting branch of Morningstar (MORN).

    The more distant future looks dicey, too. Over the next 10 to 30 years, we think stocks will deliver average annual returns of 6 to 8 percent, rather than the annualized return of 10.1 percent they have produced since 1926. If you buy a 10-year Treasury bond today, you know that you'll earn roughly 2.2 percent a year over the next decade. Expect a little more if you invest in individual high-grade corporate bonds. (Funds will be hard-pressed to match the return of investors who buy individual bonds and hold to maturity.) Inflation is projected to stay low, at 2 percent, but cash will earn less than that, with money market mutual funds yielding maybe 1.5 percent over the next five to 10 years.

    Longevity is a two-sided coin. There's the risk of outliving your portfolio and also the risk of underspending.

    In this low-growth world, calculating how much money you need in retirement and at what rate you can safely draw it down is challenging. Longer life spans further complicate such estimates. A 65-year-old man can now expect to live another 18 years, on average; a 65-year-old woman can expect to live another 21. "Longevity is a two-sided coin," says Maria Bruno, a senior investment analyst at mutual fund giant Vanguard Group. "There's the risk of outliving your portfolio and also the risk of underspending."

    Whether you're a few years away from retirement or a few years into it, you still have the ability to adjust your plan. The key is to be flexible and willing to rethink some of the old rules.

    Invest for the long haul. Traditional wisdom has it that you invest heavily in stocks while you're young and scale back that part of your portfolio to, say, 50 percent as you approach retirement, keeping the rest in bonds and other fixed-income investments. Near-retirees who are still shell-shocked by the bear market of October 2007 to March 2009 may cringe at the idea of putting even half their money in stocks. But short-term thinking poses a bigger risk, says Debra Morrison, a certified financial planner in Morristown, New Jersey. "What skews people's retirement asset allocation is that they're planning for the immediate future. Unless you have a terminal diagnosis, we're talking about another 20 to 30 years."

    That means entering retirement with a healthy portion invested in stocks for growth and gradually reducing that side of your portfolio to lower your risk as you age. "A portfolio of 40 to 60 percent in equities is a good starting point," says Bruno. The Vanguard Target Retirement 2015 Fund, which manages its investments for people retiring this year, allocates 49 percent of its assets to stocks and 51 percent to bonds. Over the next seven years, the fund will gradually change its mix until it reaches 30 percent in stocks and 70 percent in bonds. That's the model for all Vanguard target-date funds.

    Don Herlitz, 61, plans to retire in four years or so. An engineer at Cummins, in Columbus, Indiana, he has amassed a tidy sum in his 401(k) as well as in a cash-balance account (a hybrid with attributes of both a pension and a retirement savings account) the company set up when it closed its pension fund in 1997. Herlitz, who is saving for retirement on behalf of his wife, Paula, 58, as well, currently holds about 60 percent of his assets in stocks and has no immediate plans to change the mix. "I would hate to see the market crash right now because I don't have time to recover before I retire," he says. Still, if a downturn does happen, he and Paula are willing to ride it out.

    Michael Kitces, a partner at the Pinnacle Advisory Group, in Columbia, Maryland, and Wade Pfau, professor of retirement at the American College, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, suggest a different approach: gradually reducing your stock allocation to, say, 30 percent at the point of retirement and then raising it in retirement to 70 percent. Their rationale: Day one of retirement is when you're most vulnerable to the risk that a bear market will cripple the long-term growth of your portfolio. If you start with a low allocation to stocks and the market declines, you haven't taken a huge hit and can gradually add stocks back with the expectation that share prices will rise, says Pfau. If the market does just fine, "your wealth grows and you'll have more capacity to take risk later," he says.

    Which strategy you choose depends on your circumstances and risk tolerance, says Bruno. If you have a large portfolio and plan to leave money to your heirs, "a more aggressive allocation later can make sense for those who are comfortable with the additional market risk," she says. If, however, heavy losses in the stock market could affect your ability to cover living expenses, you may not be able to stomach that volatility as an 85-year-old.

    No matter what, aim for a portfolio that includes foreign stocks, including those from emerging markets, as well as large and small U.S. companies. Round it out with international bonds, real estate and some alternative investments, such as commodities and managed futures.

    To take advantage of rising yields, consider building a ladder of bonds that start to mature five years from now, says Pfau. According to this strategy, you buy a five-year bond now, then invest a like amount in new bonds in each of the next four years. If rates rise as expected, you'll earn more interest with each new purchase. When a bond matures, you can use that money for retirement expenses. If you invest in bond funds, it's the manager's job to make the most of rising rates while minimizing the negative impact on bond prices. (See How to Invest After You Retire.)

    Set your spending rate. Five years out isn't too soon to cal­culate how much you'll need to live comfortably in retirement and how much you can withdraw from your accounts without running out of money. On the savings side, one formula is to multiply your last year of preretirement expenses, minus Social Security and any pensions and annuities, by 25. When it's time to start withdrawals, the 4 percent rule is considered the standard. That is, you can safely take 4 percent of your savings in your first year of retirement and the same amount each year thereafter, adjusted for inflation.

    One problem: Those formulas rely on historical market returns and don't reflect future returns, which are likely to be lower. To avoid lowering your living standard and to keep from running out of money, you'd have to save 33 times preretirement expenses (rather than 25) and drop your initial withdrawal rate to 3 percent or less, according to a 2013 study by Blanchett, Pfau and Michael Finke, a professor at Texas Tech University. For instance, if your annual gap between income and expenses is $24,000, you'd need $600,000 ($24,000 x 25) to cover the gap at the 4 percent withdrawal rate and $792,000 ($24,000 x 33) to cover it at the 3 percent rate.

    For most people, upping the savings goal dramatically a few years away from retirement probably isn't realistic, says Srinivas Reddy, senior vice president and head of full-service investments for Prudential Retirement. You can, however, postpone retirement or work part-time after you leave your career job. Working longer "is a wonderful tool," he says, because it helps you save more and shortens the length of time you'll be withdrawing from savings. You can also postpone taking Social Security benefits. For every year you delay after age 62, benefits increase by about 8 percent until age 70. And anyone 50 or older can make catch-up contributions to retirement accounts. For 2015, you can add $6,000 to the $18,000 401(k) limit, and you can stash up to $6,500 in an IRA ($1,000 more than the basic contribution limit).

    One certain way to avoid running out of money is to take a percentage -- say, 4 percent -- from your portfolio each year and forgo the inflation adjustment altogether. Another is to calculate your withdrawals according to the actuarial tables the IRS uses for required minimum distributions, which you have to take anyway from tax-deferred accounts starting at age 70½. Both strategies depend on your investment performance, and they trade flexibility for safety. Plus, the RMD strategy may be overly conservative because it uses a life-expectancy table much longer than that used by Social Security.

    Here's another idea: Use the 4 percent rule as a starting point but adjust it up or down (or skip the inflation adjustment) depending on how your investments do in any given year. In a good year, you can give yourself a bonus, maybe upping the withdrawal to 5 percent. In a bad year, cut back. "Rather than taking a vacation in the south of France, maybe it's South Carolina," says Warren Ward, a certified financial planner in Columbus, Indiana.

    Use the bucket system. This approach combines withdrawal and investing strategies. In one "bucket" you hold enough money in cash and short-term CDs to meet essential and discretionary expenses over three to five years, and you keep the rest in another bucket invested in stocks and bonds. As you spend down the first bucket, you replenish it by taking profits from the second. Some financial planners suggest creating three buckets, the first with cash and CDs, the second with short- and intermediate-term bonds, and the third with stock and bond funds.

    The beauty of the bucket system is that you probably won't have to sell stocks in a market downturn to cover expenses. "Even in 2008, if investors had had five years to wait it out, their stock investments would have been in good shape by 2013," says Joe Heider, president of Cirrus Wealth Management, in Cleveland.

    A fixed annuity, which provides guaranteed income for life, can be a part of the strategy. You use the income from the annuity, along with Social Security and any pension money, to supplement or replace the part of your portfolio in cash and bonds. At today's interest rates, however, expect a modest payout. A 66-year-old man who buys an immediate annuity for $100,000 would be guaranteed $579 a month; a 66-year-old woman would get $554. To eke out more income, consider laddering annuities, or buy a deferred-income annuity (see Invest in a Deferred-Income Annuity to Reduce RMDs).

    Fixed annuities lock up a big chunk of the savings you might need later. John Sweeney, executive vice president for retirement and investing strategies at Fidelity, recommends devoting no more than 25 to 30 percent of your portfolio to annuities. "They're just another tool in the toolbox."

    Lower your tax bill. When you take money from savings for retirement, you're generally advised to tap taxable accounts first, then tax-deferred retirement accounts, and finally your Roth IRA. Here's why: If you've held the investment in a taxable account for more than a year, you'll pay the long-term capital-gains rate -- no more than 15 percent for most people. Plus, tapping taxable accounts first allows your tax-deferred accounts and tax-free accounts to continue to grow.

    Once you turn 70½, you're required to start taking distributions from IRAs and other tax-deferred retirement accounts. If you don't take a distribution of at least the required amount, you'll pay a penalty of half of the required amount you failed to withdraw.

    Generally, you should save drawing down your Roth IRA for last. You can withdraw your Roth contributions tax-free and penalty-free anytime; the earnings are also tax-free as long as you're 59½ and have held the account for at least five years. Unlike traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs have no annual distribution requirement. So if you don't need the money, you can let it grow and leave it to your heirs, who can take distributions tax-free.

    The exceptions. Now consider situations in which you might be better off departing from the standard advice. If you expect your RMDs to kick you into a higher tax bracket when you start taking them, it may make sense to take some distributions from your tax-deferred accounts before you reach 70½ (as long as they don't put you into a higher bracket). That income will be taxed at your lower rate, and you'll lower the amount of future RMDs, says Maria Bruno, of Vanguard.

    Add up your other sources of income and withdraw just enough from the tax-deferred account to keep you in the 15 percent tax bracket. If you need more income to cover expenses, take withdrawals from your taxable accounts first, followed by withdrawals from the Roth.

     

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  • 09/18/15--22:00: Faith-Based Health Care 101
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    Faith health insurance
    Getty Images
    When most people think of health insurance, they think of traditional insurers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, Humana (HUM) and UnitedHealthcare (UNH) that provide coverage to help pay for medical expenses to policyholders who pay their monthly premiums on time. However, there is a different kind of health coverage that a growing number of Americans today are choosing that falls outside the realm of traditional insurance.

    Faith-based health care cost-sharing ministries have been around for several decades, but they have become increasingly popular among many Christians since the Affordable Care Act was enacted. These cost-sharing ministries meet Obamacare's mandate that most Americans carry some type of health care coverage.

    What Is the Difference?

    There are several big differences between faith-based health care cost-sharing and traditional insurance. Two of the biggest are:
    1. Faith-based cost sharing isn't insurance. This means that cost-sharing ministries aren't licensed or regulated by any insurance board or department.
    2. You must be a professed, practicing Christian and live according to Biblical principles in order to join the organization. This includes regularly attending church, not using tobacco or illegal drugs, and not abusing alcohol or legal drugs.
    Unlike traditional insurers, faith-based health care cost-sharing organizations do not guarantee that members' health care costs will be covered. The reason why is simple: If they did, they would be insurance. However, all of the major faith-based health care cost-sharing ministries operating in the U.S. today state that 100 percent of their members' eligible cost-sharing submissions have been covered according to their organization's guidelines.

    Faith-based health care cost-sharing ministries generally accept all applicants who apply if they meet the Christian faith and lifestyle criteria noted above. They generally don't allow members to share medical bills incurred due to health conditions that existed before they joined -- however, pre-existing conditions don't preclude anyone from joining.

    Also, they generally don't allow members to share expenses for routine checkups, preventative care or dental and vision care. Members are encouraged to set aside some of the money they save due to the lower cost of participating in these organizations, compared to buying traditional insurance, (for most people) to pay for these expenses out of pocket.

    A Closer Look

    There are three major faith-based health care cost-sharing organizations currently operating in the U.S.: Christian Healthcare Ministries, Medi-Share and Samaritan Ministries. Here is a closer look at each:

    Christian Healthcare Ministries

    CHM was the first faith-based health care cost-sharing ministry to begin operations more than three decades ago. According to the ministry, CHM members have shared more than $1 billion in health care costs with each other since the organization was founded in 1982. There are currently about 140,000 people participating in CHM -- this is up nearly three-fold since early 2014, when there were about 55,000 CHM members.

    There are three levels of membership: Gold, Silver and Bronze. They are distinguished primarily by their monthly contribution amounts: $150 a person for Gold, $85 a person for Silver and $45 a person for Bronze. Monthly contribution amounts are similar to premiums, but the term "premium" isn't used because this would denote insurance, which CHM isn't.

    At the Gold level, CHM members can receive up to $125,000 in financial cost sharing per health incident for health care expenses that meet the ministry's guidelines after they have met their $500 personal responsibility. This is similar to an insurance deductible, but again, this term isn't used because it would denote insurance. Silver CHM members must meet a $1,000 personal responsibility and Bronze CHM members must meet a $5,000 personal responsibility.

    In addition, CHM members can join the ministry's Brother's Keeper program that provides financial cost sharing for eligible medical bills above and beyond the $125,000 limit. Brother's Keeper cost sharing for Gold members is unlimited, while Brother's Keeper cost sharing for Silver and Bronze members is capped at $1 million. The cost of Brother's Keeper varies depending on the number of program participants and the amount of medical needs, but averages about $25 a quarter.

    Medi-Share

    established in 1993 and administered by Christian Care Ministry, this is the second-oldest faith-based health care cost-sharing ministry in the U.S. Medi-Share members have shared and discounted more than $1 billion in medical bills since the organization was founded, according to its website. There are current about 100,000 people participating in this organization.

    There are several different Medi-Share membership options that are based on household size and what it calls the annual household portion, or AHP. Similar to CHM's personal responsibility, this is the amount of health care costs members must pay themselves before their medical bills are eligible for sharing. There are seven different AHP options: $500, $1,250, $2,500, $3,750, $5,000, $7,500 and $10,000. Note that the $500 option is only available for members between the ages of 18 and 29.

    Medi-Share also offers a program for seniors who are on Medicare: Senior Assist, which features a $1,250 AHP. In addition, Medi-Share offers a disability sharing program called Manna that can replace up to 80 percent of a disabled member's lost income for up to one year.

    The price of Medi-Share memberships varies widely based on the member's age and the AHP level that is chosen. Once the AHP is met, all eligible medical bills can be shared with other members. Medi-Share members are encouraged to use PPO health care providers and hospitals that have agreed to discount their fees for members whenever possible.

    Samaritan Ministries

    This organization was founded one year after Medi-Share, in 1994. It is smaller than CHM and Medi-Share, with about 25,000 current members.

    New members of Samaritan Ministries pay a one-time initiation fee of $200 a person. Membership levels are based on age and size of family: If at least one head of the household is over age 25, the monthly share amount for a single person is $180, for a two-person family is $360, for a family of three or more is $405, and for a widowed or divorced individual with children is $250. If at least one head of the household is age 25 or under, the monthly share amount for a single person is $140, for a two-person family is $280, for a family of three or more is $355, and for a widowed or divorced individual with children is $200.

    There are no lifetime or annual caps on amounts of eligible medical bills that can be shared through Samaritan Ministries. Nor is there a limit on the number of medical needs that can be shared by an individual or household.

    Right for You?

    Faith-based health care cost-sharing ministries are not the right health care option for everyone. However, if you are looking for a less-expensive alternative to traditional health insurance for yourself and your family and meet the faith criteria, they might be worth a closer examination.

     

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    By Holly Hammersmith

    Since it was founded back in 1994, Amazon.com (AMZN) has come to offer hundreds of thousands of items worldwide. Today the online marketplace remains one of the top shopping sites on the web with nearly $90 billion in annual sales. It also has evolved to offer unique features, from special discounts and shipping options to services like a gift registry.

    Amazon loyalists, as well as other shoppers with a strong interest in finding the best bargains, take note. You may be missing out on ways to save more on Amazon.com. Take a look at some of the lesser-known services available through Amazon.com.

    1. Monthly subscriptions. Looking to save on items you purchase on a regular basis? Amazon's monthly subscription service, known to savvy shoppers as "Subscribe & Save," offers a 15 percent discount to shoppers who order the same goods on a recurring basis; however, they must have at least five subscriptions. Subscribers can also receive free shipping.

    Cost of Service: Free and you can cancel at any time

    2. Two-Day Shipping. Amazon Prime offers many features, but probably the most popular is the free two-day shipping. Many of the 200 million-plus items on Amazon.com are eligible for this shipping service, which helps shoppers in need of a last-minute gift or who are unable to get to a store to shop in person.

    Cost of Service: $99 a year

    3. Compare Contractors. Find a licensed home repair or service professional instantly with Amazon Home Services. Shoppers can look for local service providers for electrical work, plumbing and more. Contractors compete with one another on pricing, allowing buyers to purchase services at competitive rates. Amazon Home Services is available in select cities.

    Cost of Service: Free

    4. Discover Launchpad. This is where "inventions take flight," Amazon declares on its Launchpad home page, which curates cutting-edge products from the latest startups. Items here include smart gear, gadgets and items for the home.

    Cost of Service: Free

    5. Make Way for Handmade. Move over Etsy.com (ETSY) and make way for Handmade at Amazon. This relatively new area of Amazon.com is your one-stop shop for homemade goods and wares. Items also include used and refurbished collectibles.

    Cost of Service: Free

    6. More for Mom. Moms are busy women. Amazon recognizes this and has introduced Amazon Mom, a service that provides extra savings for Amazon Prime members. Amazon Mom features free two-day shipping on millions of items, 20 percent off diaper subscriptions, a 15 percent baby registry completion discount, early access deals and more.

    Cost of Service: Free with your annual $99 Amazon Prime membership

    7. Gift Registry. Online shopping is so popular today that soon-to-be spouses are placing their gift registries online at Amazon.com. There are also baby gift registries for moms-to-be. Amazon offers a 10 percent completion discount on certain items in a registry. Additionally, details about the special event can be added to the top of the registry. An offshoot of Amazon's registry service is the "Wish List" tab on the website, which allows users to make lists for children's' birthdays, family gatherings, anniversaries and more.

    Cost of Service: Free

    8. Unlimited eBooks. You've no doubt heard of Kindle, which is Amazon's own electronic book-reading device. Amazon.com also offers hundreds of thousands of eBooks for sale every day. Books go on special occasionally and can be purchased for as little as 99 cents. For bookworms, try out Kindle Unlimited, a service that allows you to download unlimited eBooks, digital recordings and more.

    Cost of Service: $9.99 a month

    9. Past Purchases. Did you know that Amazon keeps a record of all of your purchases? Simply log into your account, click on "your account" and then "your orders." Here you will find orders dating back longer than you might remember. Each order lists your purchase, the cost of the item and the vendor. Looking to re-order something you purchased in the past? It couldn't be easier.

    Cost of Service: Free

    10. Gift cards. Amazon.com sells gift cards in a special section on its site. Shoppers can opt to have a gift card mailed to their address or to the home of the recipient with free one-day shipping. Alternately, shoppers can opt to print a gift card immediately at home or send an eGift card instantly.

    Cost of Service: Free

    Are you using Amazon.com to your benefit? If not, try out some of these services today and become an even savvier online shopper.

    This story, 10 Things You Didn't Know Amazon Could Do for You, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    By Gina Ragusa

    NEW YORK -- "Sarah" (whose name was changed upon request) can't read one more article about how identity theft occurs because the victim didn't take the necessary precautions.

    Three years ago, Sarah, a software engineer and programmer, was the victim of a nefarious attack that brought an already cautious and knowledgeable consumer (and industry professional) to her knees. "It started with tax returns where I later learned, only through the fact that my brother was also hacked, that someone accessed our information through our mortgage provider and stole every aspect of my personal and financial identity," she said.

    During the mortgage crash, Sarah's information became vulnerable, as her investment property in South Florida ended up on the auction block. "Once this happens, a slew of leaches and dubious individuals have access to your information," she remarks. "Unfortunately, my brother and I were part of those thousands of people who were hacked and my life as been a nightmare ever since."

    She's certainly not alone. There are 15 million identity theft victims each year in the U.S., and credit card fraud nationally is estimated to be $10 billion to $12 billion alone.

    "My lesson was that it can happen to anyone no matter if they take the right steps and play by the rules.

    Never one to pay with her debit card and someone who has always watched her credit card charges, Sarah was also the queen of shredding all physical mail containing even the smallest about of personal data. She had intimate knowledge of how online protective measures worked, and where they failed, and took steps beyond what the average consumer would consider.

    "My lesson was that it can happen to anyone no matter if they take the right steps and play by the rules," she says. "I have very few tips for others, because my information was released by a third party. I'm so frustrated when I read the articles that essentially blame the victims. People think that if they are cautious their information isn't vulnerable, but that's just not true anymore. Any time you provide your Social Security information or pay for something online you put yourself at the mercy of the institutions' security measures."

    Sarah says that three years later she is still waiting for the other shoe to drop as new fraud issues have arisen in drips and drabs. "Will it ever end? It's hard to tell because just when I think I'm covered something new crops up. My finances have been disrupted so many times, I finally put a security freeze with the three national consumer credit reporting agencies -- Transunion, Equifax and Experian."

    Coming from an industry professional, Sarah's story is jarring, especially to the average layperson who uses a credit and debit cards on an ongoing basis and just follows the protective steps provided by their bank or news resource.

    It's Not You, It's Them

    IBC Bank's senior vice president of electronic services Kevin Mullins understands Sarah's tale of woe and agrees that scammers can always find the loop holes, regardless of your tenacity.

    Mullins is in the process of upgrading thousands of customers' plastic to EMV-chipped cards, which are designed to reduce fraud and says that Sarah is in the right for the feeling of uneasiness.

    "The concern is about counterfeiting," he says. "That's where thousands have been burned. That's where Target, the banks and Home Depot have been burned."

    He explains that adding an EMV-chip to each credit card won't completely solve the problem but is one piece to a larger puzzle.

    "I wish I could say there is a magic bullet that would wipe out fraud but it takes many different steps working toward the problem that will at least reduce the likelihood of having your financial data stolen," Mullins said.

    EMV cards are designed reduce the physical opportunity of having your magnetic stripe data lifted and mass produced, which should alleviate a decent amount of fraud. "However for making online purchases, the risk still exists," Mullins contends. "Until we get into widespread tokenization for cards we aren't going to reduce the risk of using your card online."

    One area that remains vulnerable is when the card isn't present. Sarah says one of the most recent reports of credit card compromise was with an EMV-chipped card that was used online. "When you're paying online, a chip on your card makes no difference at all," she says.

    Diane Morais, Ally Bank's CEO and president, says that as customers transition to the EMV-chipped card, her bank's message is simple. "Regardless of whether [the customers] have an EMV debit card or not, we guarantee they won't be liable for any unauthorized transaction as long as they report the unauthorized transaction within 60 days from when their statement is made available," she said.

    Morais adds that Ally offers an online and mobile security guarantee that ensures customers will not be liable for any unauthorized online or mobile banking transaction as long as they report it within 60 days from when their statement is made available.

    Shred Your Documents, Protect Your Password ... Blah, Blah, Blah

    Sarah says she went beyond what is typically suggested to protect her financial information, yet was still victimized. "I can't read one more story that lists the same protective measures," she says. "Shredding my information and protecting my passwords is second nature."

    Aside from the usual recommendations, Mullins suggests asking about out-of-band authentication, which provides a protective layer if the customer's account is reached through a new or unrecognized computer or mobile device. "You will have to input and validate information that is straight off the core system to continue to conduct business," Mullins says. "Even if online banking is compromised, the hacker wouldn't be able to gain access to the user's account because out of band authentication would have to take place."

    "When additional verification is needed, we activate extra security measures like asking a question that only the customer knows the answer to, or sending a security code to a device they've registered," Morais says. "This is often called two-step, two-factor or multi-factor authentication."

    Morais also suggests customers ask their bank offers access to free anti-virus or anti-malware software.

    Another protective measure consumers can take is to read the privacy statements included with any financial encounter.

    "I understand that the legalese jargon can be complex to understand and process, but if you can look for the area regarding whether the organization shares your information with a third party provider, you can either re-consider the agreement or ask questions," says Alan Akahoshi, security leader for digital banking solution provider Digital Insight.

    Most recently, The Today Show's "Hacking of America" series featured the pitfalls of using insecure free Wi-Fi hotspots at airports and popular tourist destinations such as Times Square in New York City. The news segment cited that 92 percent of free Wi-Fi users never read the disclaimer that sometimes clearly states the "network will access personal information."

    With regard to EMV, Akahoshi agrees that the technology is a step in the right direction. "However, until we get to the stages where EMV readers and cards are more prevalent, consumers will face the same challenges," Akahoshi says.

     

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    These are interesting times for die-hard gamers. The marketplace is evolving, but there will still be plenty of new video game consoles purchased this holiday shopping season.

    It used to be easy. There were two and sometimes three major consoles, and every few years gamers would upgrade to the latest model of their platform of choice. It's a different world these days. Whether you're in the market to buy a new system for yourself or as a gift, let's go over three questions that every potential buyer needs to ask.

    1. Will It Be Cheaper If I Wait?

    Sony (SNE) will cut the price of its PS4 system in Japan come Oct. 1, and while there's no indication that it will also slash prices in the U.S. and Europe, it's hard to fathom Sony's console selling for roughly $292 in Japan and higher everywhere else.

    The PS4 has now been on the market for nearly two years, making a price cut ahead of the holiday shopping season a possibility. If Sony moves, it follows that Microsoft (MSFT) and perhaps even Nintendo will follow suit. With the holiday shopping season set to heat up in a few weeks, it wouldn't be a surprise if a price war breaks out, rewarding those who wait to make a purchase.

    2. Do You Really Need a Console?

    Die-hard gamers will swear by their platforms, but mainstream audiences might see things differently. Some folks are spending more time on consoles streaming online video than playing games, making it possible that a set-top-box media player would be the better and significantly cheaper option.

    You can't play "Call of Duty" through your Roku box or Chromecast stick, but it could be the more cost-effective investment if you find yourself spending more time playing apps on your smartphone or tablet than you do with your console controller.

    3. Are There Other Ways to Get Your Game On?

    It's probably not a coincidence that the next generation of Apple TV is emphasizing enhanced video game apps. Folks usually associate iOS and Android apps with casual games along the lines of "FarmVille" or "Clash of Clans," but Apple TV and a new gamer edition of Amazon's (AMZN) Fire TV are out to raise the bar.

    Apple TV and Fire TV make the most of high-def TVs to go beyond what you can do with your smartphone. They work with third-party controllers. The new Apple TV with its Siri remote and compatible controller offers everything from "Guitar Hero" to "Rayman." You're not just crushing candy anymore.

    We're also getting to the point where virtual reality systems will start to get cheaper. Whether it's niche leader Oculus Rift or an accessory along the lines of Samsung Gear VR for Galaxy Note owners, there's a whole new gaming experience on the horizon. In short, non-console options are starting to grow more viable, making a multiyear investment in a new PS4, Xbox One, or Wii U a cloudier decision.

    Right now, nothing compares to an Xbox One or PS4 gaming experience. The same may not be true in just a couple of years.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Amazon.com. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    By Kimberly Palmer

    When it comes to saving money, the Web is your friend. Certain sites make it exceedingly simple to compare prices and find a great deal. All you need is your phone or computer and Internet access. The following 10 sites will help you save time and money:

    Unsubscribe to ads. Unroll.Me might be one of the easiest ways to remove temptation from your email inbox. The tool collects all of those advertising emails sent to you from retailers -- and anyone else who uses a bulk emailing list - and puts them into a daily "rollup" email you can peruse whenever it's convenient. That way, you won't get spammed all day, and you can still catch emails that matter to you.

    Getting the latest shopping tips. Run by Lisa Koivu, a former contributor to the U.S. News Frugal Shopper blog, ShopGirlDaily.com keeps you abreast of the latest trends in the retail world, including the best ways to score a deal or where to find the best price for fall boots. She also publishes gift guides and information on affordable subscription boxes.

    Stop paying for shipping. Before you make any online purchase, a stop at RetailMeNot.com is in order. Not only does the site collect coupons, but it also tracks free shipping codes and other discount information that can ensure you get the best deals available at tens of thousands of stores.

    Consider already-opened products. Just as a new car loses value as soon as it's driven off the lot, new products also lose value after a customer opens them and then returns them to the store. That's where Blinq.com comes in. The site partners with retailers to sell discounted items to customers who don't mind minor signs of use or the fact that the packaging has been opened.

    Get cash back. A slew of new sites offering cash back have popped up to help you save at checkout. One popular option, Ebates.com, lets you opt for scheduling in-store pickups instead of delivery, if that's more convenient for you. The pickup option also guarantees you don't pay for shipping.

    Layer gift cards. The gift card layering method is another frequently used tool by savvy shoppers. If you know you have to make a purchase from a certain retailer, such as Starbucks or Amazon, you can first purchase a gift card that comes with a discount. For example, at GiftCardGranny.com or Raise.com, you might be able to buy a $50 gift card for $40, which shaves an automatic $10 off your purchase.

    Use more coupons. You might have already incorporated coupons into your shopping routine, but you can probably find even more if you visit coupons.com. The site lets you search for items by categories, such as apparel, food and personal care, so you can make sure you get the best deals for items on your shopping list.

    Get Amazon deals. If you buy frequently from Amazon, then you'll want to visit camelcamelcamel.com to track specific items on your list. The site will let you know as soon as prices drop on Amazon so you can time your purchase to get the best deal.

    Grab a group coupon. They're no longer the hot new thing in the coupon space, but LivingSocial and Groupon can still alert you to amazing deals. You often have to act quickly to get a voucher, and smaller, local restaurants can get crowded after a sale, but the sites let you try new things, from massages to smoothies, for cut-rate prices.

    Don't forget to be social. With banks and retailers increasingly communicating their best deals over Twitter and Facebook, it can literally pay to follow or friend them. You can also use social media to request refunds or report problems, which can translate into savings. Just be sure to keep personal information like account numbers offline or in private messages.

    Kimberly Palmer is a senior editor for U.S. News Money. She is the author of the new book, "The Economy of You." You can follow her on Twitter @alphaconsumer, circle her on Google Plus or email her at kpalmer@usnews.com.

     

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    Natural cleaner. Vinegar, baking soda, salt, lemon
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    By Hana Livingston

    Homemade cleaning products have myriad advantages over store-bought counterparts, the two most important being their lower toxicity and cost, as many can be made for pennies on the dollar. Most of these recipes utilize common ingredients already lingering in cabinets, such as baking soda, lemon juice, salt, alcohol and olive oil. Essential oils aren't necessary, but a few drops of lavender or mint, say, can add a nice fragrance to the mix.

    Fizzy toilet bowl cleaner. This homemade way to deep-clean a toilet is reminiscent of elementary school science class: Add one-half cup baking soda and 1 cup white vinegar into the bowl. For extra deodorizing power, add about 10 drops of an essential oil with a heavy-duty fragrance. Let it sit for a few minutes, fizzing away, before scrubbing with a toilet brush.

    Carpet cleaning and freshening powder. Look no further than the kitchen pantry to freshen carpets with little effort. To make this carpet cleaning powder, courtesy of PopSugar, add the following into a blender: 2 cups baking soda, one-half cup cornstarch, one-half cup cornmeal, four bay leaves, 1 tablespoon whole cloves, and 1 tablespoon Borax (optional). Pulse until the mixture is an even consistency and transfer to a sprinkle-top container, easily found at a dollar store. Sprinkle the powder generously over carpet and let sit for at least two hours or overnight, then vacuum.

    'Faux Breeze' freshening spray. Use this homemade freshener by natural living blog BrownThumbMama instead of Febreze. Thoroughly combine 1 tablespoon baking soda with two to three drops of an essential oil in a dish. Add to a spray bottle with 1 cup distilled water and shake vigorously until the baking soda dissolves. Spray in the air or on fabric surfaces that need freshening, such as linens, upholstery, shoes, and carpets.

    Garbage disposal refresher. Unseen build-up in the garbage disposal doesn't just cause odors; it can also contribute to clogged pipes over time. The DIY website Hello Natural recommends adding citrus peels into an ice cube tray or mini-muffin tin. Top with distilled vinegar and freeze overnight. Pop the cubes out of the tray or tin, sealing in a plastic bag for later use. When in need, toss a cube down the garbage disposal while it's running. The ice and vinegar will clean the disposal's blades while the peels will give the kitchen a citrus aroma.

    Citrus enzyme wonder cleaner. Enzyme cleaner is lauded for its ability to power-clean everything from floors to clothing to fresh produce. It's surprisingly easy -- and cheap -- to whip up enzyme cleaner with a recipe from the DIY website One Good Thing by Jillee. Add 2 cups chopped citrus peels into an empty 2-liter bottle with 7 tablespoons brown sugar and 1 liter water. Shake the bottle vigorously until the sugar dissolves. Write the date on the bottle and then let it ferment for two to three months, shaking every few days. When finished fermenting, dilute one-half cup enzyme concentrate with 1 liter of water. Can't wait for the mixture to ferment? Add 1 teaspoon yeast to the bottle when mixing together to speed up the process to two weeks, although some claim the cleaner isn't as effective with this method.

    Reusable dryer sheets. Homemade dryer sheets are just as effective as store-bought, plus they're cheaper and more eco-friendly because they can be used again and again. Start by cutting square sections from cotton fabric, such as old linens, T-shirts, or dishrags. Place these cloths in an airtight container. Using a PopSugar recipe, mix one-half cup white vinegar with five to 10 drops tea tree oil, lavender oil, or another pleasant-smelling essential oil. Pour the fluid into the container to dampen the cloths. To use, squeeze out any excess liquid -- aim for a damp cloth -- and toss into the dryer with wet clothes just like a store-bought dryer sheet. When the dryer sheet has done its job, return it to the container for another use.

    No-scrub microwave cleaner. Over time the microwave becomes stained with old food splatters but is often forgotten during cleaning binges. To clean without too much elbow grease, halve a lemon and squeeze the juice into one-half cup of water in a heat-safe measuring cup. The Kitchn says to heat this in the microwave for three minutes and then let sit for five minutes. Voila -- now use a sponge to easily wipe down the microwave.

    Homemade Goo Gone. Get rid of sticky residue from price tags and labels as well as any mystery gunk on kitchen cabinets, refrigerator handles, and such. A paste of equal parts coconut oil and baking soda, the invention of lifestyle blog Rosy Blu, is a DIY gunk remover. Apply the paste to stickiness and let sit for a few minutes. Then rub gently until the gunk is gone, using a scouring pad to help out if needed.

    Lemon dusting spray. Dusting spray from One Good Thing by Jillee eliminates dust while olive oil polishes wood surfaces. To make, add 1 cup water, one-quarter cup white vinegar, 2 teaspoons olive oil, and 10 to 15 drops lemon essential oil, or a citrus oil such as grapefruit, tangerine, or orange, to a spray bottle. Before each use, shake the bottle well to combine the oil and water. Spray directly on furniture and buff with a soft cloth. While this is intended for wood surfaces, it can also be used on other home surfaces that need dusting.

    All-natural fabric softener. Making a DIY fabric softener isn't just cheaper; it also eliminates the residue that builds up on clothes from store-bought fabric softeners, according to the website DIY Natural. Just add one-third cup white vinegar to each laundry load, either through the fabric softener dispenser or a Downy ball. Miss that delightful smell that comes with fabric softener? Add a favorite essential oil, about 20 to 30 drops per gallon of vinegar. If using essential oils, shake the mixture well before each use.

    Silver cleaner. The blog Mrs. Kendall provides these instructions to vanquish tarnish: Into a bowl, add a crumpled ball of foil, warm water, 1 tablespoon baking soda and 1 tablespoon salt. Immerse the silver in the bowl and watch tarnish disappear without any scrubbing. (The lifestyle and interior design website Apartment Therapy put this well-known old wives' tale to the test and declared that, indeed, it works.) Remove the silver from the water and rub gently with a towel to complete the tarnish removal.

    Makeup brush spray and soak. Every health and beauty guru emphasizes the importance of clean makeup brushes for maintaining beautiful skin and reducing breakouts. To make your own brush cleaning solution, according to the natural living blog Live Simply, add the following to a bottle: 1 cup distilled water, one-half cup witch hazel, 2 teaspoons liquid Castile soap, and 1 teaspoon olive or coconut oil. Shake to combine. Use this to mist makeup brushes daily or, for heavy-duty cleaning, submerge brushes in the solution for 10 minutes.

    All-purpose disinfectant. Real Simple recommends combining one-half cup white vinegar, one-half cup vodka, and 1-and-one-half cups water with 10 drops lemon essential oil and 10 drops lavender essential oil in a spray bottle for an all-purpose surface disinfectant. Shake well to combine. To use, spray surfaces and let sit for 10 minutes before wiping clean with a microfiber cloth.

    Grout and tile power cleaner. Even a relatively clean bathroom looks dingy if the grout between the tiles is dirty. To clean it, the website Mrs. Clean endorses mixing three-fourths cup baking soda, one-fourth cup hydrogen peroxide and 1 teaspoon liquid dish soap into a squeeze-top container. Use a soft-bristled brush or old toothbrush to apply the paste to grout and leave for at least 15 minutes. Wipe away and rinse clean with warm water. To brighten tiles and tubs, squeeze the mixture onto a sponge, scrub, and rinse with water.

    Granite countertop cleaner. While visually appealing, granite countertops can be tricky to clean and maintain. Instead of splurging on a specialty granite cleaner, make your own with a base of rubbing alcohol, which dissolves grease, disinfects, and leaves no streaks. One Good Thing by Jillee says to add the following in a 32-ounce spray bottle: one-quarter cup rubbing alcohol, three drops liquid dish soap and a few drops of essential oil to mask the alcohol smell. To finish, fill the bottle with distilled water and shake. To use, spray granite surfaces and wipe clean with a paper towel.

    Drain unclogger. A clogged drain is no cause for panic with this trick from Real Simple. Pour one-half cup baking soda and one-half cup white vinegar down the drain. Cover with a wet cloth, wait five minutes, remove the cloth, and flush it all down with boiling water.

    Streak-free glass cleaner. The necessary ingredients for shiny windows and mirrors are already in your cabinets. For an easy and cheap DIY glass cleaner, combine 2 cups water, one-half cup white vinegar, and one-quarter cup rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle. The vinegar dissolves dirt and grime while the alcohol prevents streaks. Spray onto the glass surfaces in your home and car with a microfiber cloth.

    Powerful stain fighter. To combat stubborn stains, sometimes a little extra oomph is needed in the form of a pre-treating solution. An easy DIY stain treatment from One Good Thing by Jillee is up to the task. Mix two-thirds cup dish soap, two-thirds cup ammonia, and 6 tablespoons baking soda with 2 cups warm water in a spray bottle. Shake before each use (the baking soda tends to settle) and spray generously on stains before laundering. Due to the ammonia, don't use this on anything you plan to wash with chlorine bleach.

    Bleach alternative. Harness all the cleaning and germ-killing powers of bleach with a DIY alternative. A recipe from the website Hippy Homemaker: Into an empty gallon jug, pour 1-and-one-half cups hydrogen peroxide (3 percent solution) and one-half cup lemon juice; top off with distilled water. An optional add-in is 1 tablespoon citric acid, which helps whiten fabrics and soften hard water (mix with the lemon juice to dissolve before the water is added). This bleach alternative can be used with laundry or anywhere around the home, just the same as bleach.

    Multipurpose cleaner. Does the thought of all these various cleaners boggle your mind? Opt for one multipurpose product to clean glass, stainless steel, porcelain, wood and so on. To make, simply combine equal parts water and white vinegar in a spray bottle. Countless websites and magazines swear by this easy recipe, which is also ultra-cheap to concoct.

     

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    EPA Accuses VW of Cheating on Emissions Test

    By FRANK JORDANS and PAN PYLAS

    BERLIN -- Pressure piled on the head of Volkswagen (VLKAY) on Monday, in the wake of an emissions-testing scandal that saw more than 13 billion euros (around $15 billion) wiped off its market value in one trading session.

    Following revelations that the German carmaker had rigged U.S. emissions tests for about 500,000 diesel cars, the company saw its share price in Frankfurt close down a stunning 17.1 percent at a near three-year low of 133.70 euros. Earlier in the session it had fared even worse, tumbling by more than 20 percent.

    The scandal emerged Friday when the U.S.'s Environmental Protection Agency accused VW, the world's biggest carmaker by sales, of skirting the country's clean air rules. In response, VW has halted sales of some vehicles in the U.S. and pledged to cooperate with regulators in an investigation that could, in theory, see the company fined up to $18 billion.

    At the moment, I'd be surprised if Winterkorn can ride this out, but in Germany there's often a slightly slower process in these matters.

    Though VW CEO Martin Winterkorn apologized Sunday for the fact that his company had "broken the trust of our customers and the public," the company faces a huge financial cost as well as damage to its reputation at a time when business has gone off the boil.

    Industry analysts said the VW CEO also faces difficult questions himself in the coming days, particularly at a scheduled board meeting Friday.

    "At the moment, I'd be surprised if Winterkorn can ride this out, but in Germany there's often a slightly slower process in these matters," said Christian Stadler, professor of strategic management at Warwick Business School.

    Stadler said that if VW were a U.S. company, then the CEO would have faced acute pressure to go more or less immediately.

    The EPA said VW used a device programmed to detect when the cars are undergoing official emissions testing. The software device then turns off the emissions controls during normal driving situations, allowing the cars to emit more than the legal limit of pollutants.

    Guido Reinking, a German auto expert, said that for a company to engage in such blatant trickery the company's top executives would have to be informed.

    Winterkorn, an engineer by training, led research and development across the VW group from 2007. He became chairman of the management board the same year.

    "It's almost impossible to imagine that he didn't know about this special way of programming the engine," Reinking told German television station n-tv.

    Volkswagen marketed the diesel-powered cars, which account for about 25 percent of sales, as being better for the environment. The cars, which were built in the past seven years, include the Audi A3, VW Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat models.

    The EPA has ordered VW to fix the cars at its own expense but said car owners don't need to take any immediate action. The EPA insisted that the violations don't pose any safety hazard and said the cars remain legal to drive and sell while Volkswagen comes up with a plan to recall and repair them. However, it said the cars pose a threat to public health.

    The EPA also indicated the scale of the fines that could be imposed on VW. It said the carmaker could be hit with up to $37,500 a vehicle for the violations -- a total of more than $18 billion.

    The California Air Resources Board is also investigating, while German authorities are looking into whether the company bent the rules there, too.

    "The auto manufacturers have to work closely with U.S. authorities to comprehensively clarify the matter," Michael Schroeren, a spokesman for Germany's environment ministry told reporters in Berlin. "We expect reliable information from the car manufacturers so that [German authorities] can check whether comparable manipulation has happened in Germany or Europe."

    Echoes of Toyota

    VW's current plight has echoes with Toyota (TM), the company it overtook in the first half of the year to become the world's number one by sales.

    The Japanese automaker recalled 9 million cars between 2009 and 2011 after some of its vehicles experienced unintended acceleration, way more than the half-million or so that VW is taking back. The cost to Toyota of that recall, including fines, was a little more than $5 billion, according to Warwick Business School's Stadler.

    "The numbers are lower and there are no fatalities involved," Stadler said. "This suggests that in the 'heat of the moment' the long-term effect on Volkswagen may be overstated. Sure it will hurt, but maybe not quite as bad as we expect right now."

    Still, if other regulatory authorities decide VW has a case to answer, then the carmaker faces the potential for even bigger fines.

    "The news so far revolves around the U.S. impact, but if European investigators become interested the potential penalties could multiply very quickly," said Chris Beauchamp, senior market analyst at IG.

    Volkswagen's woes in the markets were felt across the European car market Monday. France's Renault saw its share price drop 3.2 percent while BMW ended 1.5 percent lower. Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz, closed 1.4 percent lower.

    -Pylas reported from London.

    (This story has been corrected to show that Winterkorn became chairman of the board in 2007, not 2009.)

     

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

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

    Intra-Cellular Therapies (ITCI) -- Up 117 percent last week

    The market's biggest gainer last week was once again a biotech company. Intra-Cellular Therapies saw its stock more than double after positive test results in the late-stage clinical trials for a promising schizophrenia drug.

    Intra-Cellular's treatment proved effective only with the highest dose, but that only means that it will make that much more money if the drug that tackles schizophrenia symptoms clears regulatory hurdles.

    Fitbit (FIT) -- Up 26 percent last week

    Shares of the maker of fitness trackers got an excellent workout after Target (TGT) announced that it would make Fitbit bracelets available to its employees for free. This is a pretty big deal and not just because there are roughly 335,000 employees on the cheap-chic discounter's rolls.

    Corporate wellness is an important perk these days, and if Target's buying its employees Fitbit, it could behoove other retailers to follow suit. Fitbit offers a cost-effective way to measure movement, encouraging wearers to lead more active lifestyles.

    Yandex (YNDX) -- Up 11 percent last week

    Russia's leading search engine got a double dose of good news. The first boost came in the form of Google (GOOG, GOOGL) being found guilty in a Russian antitrust probe having to do with the way the dot-com darling bundles apps in Android mobile software.

    The other boost came in the form of a Goldman Sachs (GS) upgrade. Yandex has been hit with weak ruble concerns and Russia's volatility, but Goldman Sachs feels that the stock is undervalued despite the challenges.

    Raptor Pharmaceuticals (RPTP) -- Down 42 percent last week

    There's no denying that upstart biotechnology companies make up the market's most volatile industry. We saw that this week as Intra-Cellular was the market's biggest winner, and we are seeing that again with Raptor Pharmaceuticals as its biggest loser. The stock took a big hit after coming up short in a mid-stage clinical trial for what once was a potentially promising treatment for pediatric fatty liver. It failed to meet its primary endpoint, which basically means that it's not an effective treatment.

    La Quinta (LQ) -- Down 14 percent last week

    Investors checked out of La Quinta after a couple of problematic developments. The hotel chain lowered its guidance, and that's never going to please Mr. Market. La Quinta also announced that its CEO would be resigning, rocking investors who prefer stability at the top. Its CFO will be taking the helm.

    Wall Street didn't take kindly to the news. At least two major firms -- Citigroup (C) and JPMorgan (JPM) -- downgraded the stock on the double dose of unwelcome news.

    Sonic (SONC) -- Down 11 percent last week

    Finally, we have the leading chain of drive-in restaurants shifting in reverse after a poorly received sales update. The company behind the chain of more than 3,500 Sonic fast-food restaurants offered up a tantalizing headline in a press release last week, boasting about the 7.3 percent spike in comps it achieved during the fiscal year that ended in August. However, dig a few sentences into the release, and you will find that comparable-restaurant sales only grew at a 4.9 percent clip during the final quarter.

    It gets worse. Sonic initiated guidance suggesting that comps will climb 2 to 4 percent in the new fiscal year that began this month. Yes, the restaurant-level sales are still positive, but we're looking at decelerating growth. The market was clearly holding out for something better.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Google (A and C shares). The Motley Fool recommends Yandex. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Home Sales
    Richard Vogel/AP
    By Jason Lange

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. home resales fell more than expected in August, a cautionary sign for the U.S. housing market which has recently looked on stronger footing.

    The National Association of Realtors said Monday existing home sales dropped 4.8 percent to an annual rate of 5.31 million units.

    Economists polled by Reuters had forecast a 5.51 million-unit pace of home sales last month. Sales were up 6.2 percent from a year ago.

    The decline in August might be due to rising prices shutting out potential buyers, said Lawrence Yun, the NAR's chief economist. Home sales fell most in America's South and West, areas which had recently seen the fastest price gains, he said.

    Nationwide, the median home price fell slightly in August to $228,700. That was still up 4.7 percent from a year earlier, but left the year-over-year rate at its lowest since August 2014. Prices in the West were up 7.1 percent from a year earlier.

    July's sales pace was revised slightly lower to 5.58 million units.

    A string of strong reports on the U.S. housing market have supported the view that the U.S. economy is building up steam and closing in on the point when the Federal Reserve will hike interest rates to keep it from overheating.

    The housing market has been adding to quarterly economic growth although home sales and construction remain far below levels seen in the years before the 2007-09 recession.

     

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    Hispanic woman holding open sign in shoe store
    Getty Images
    By JOYCE M. ROSENBERG

    The growth in Hispanic-owned businesses in the U.S. is outstripping that of companies in general, according to a study released Monday.

    Between 2012 and 2015, the number of Hispanic-owned businesses has grown at an annual rate of 7.5 percent, 15 times faster than the 0.5 percent growth rate for all companies, according to the study by the consulting firm Geoscape and the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

    There are an estimated 4.07 million Hispanic-owned businesses in the country, up 57 percent since 2007, the study said.

    Revenue at Hispanic-owned companies has also surged, rising 88 percent to a projected $661 billion this year from $351 billion in 2007.

    Many choose to create their own businesses because they didn't see the opportunities in Corporate America.

    While Geoscape expected an increase in growth of Hispanic-owned businesses, the pace came as a surprise, said Cesar Melgoza, CEO of the Miami-based company that has released other studies on Hispanic business in the U.S.

    One reason for the increase is the difficulty some Hispanics have found working and advancing in big U.S. companies.

    "Many choose to create their own businesses because they didn't see the opportunities in Corporate America," Melgoza said.

    Many Hispanic entrepreneurs have started service companies like restaurants, he said. That's in line with the continuing overall growth of the service sector of the economy, but some Hispanic owners who recently arrived in the U.S. tend to start companies in industries that they're familiar with, such as construction or landscaping, Melgoza said.

    The fastest growth over the past three years has been in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, where the number of Hispanic-owned businesses grew by 30 percent. Geoscape attributed the increase to the migration of Hispanics into these states for jobs and their low cost of living relative to other regions. The slowest growth has been in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with the number of businesses increasing 20 percent.


    From Big Dreams to Owning a Small Business

     

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    Key Speakers At The Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC)
    Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    Apple (AAPL) has designated building an electric car as a "committed project" and has set a target shipping date for 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

    The project has been code-named Titan and its leaders have been given permission to triple the 600-person team, the Journal said, citing people familiar with the matter.

    For Apple, a "ship date" doesn't necessarily mean the date that customers receive a new product; it can also mean the date that engineers sign off on the product's main features, the Journal said.

    Apple spent more than a year investigating the feasibility of an Apple-branded car, including meeting with two groups of government officials in California, according to the Journal.

    Sources told Reuters in August that Apple was developing a car and studying self-driving technology, but it was unclear if the iPhone-maker was designing a vehicle that could drive itself.

    Apple wasn't immediately available for comment.

    The Cupertino, California-based company doesn't currently plan to make its first electric vehicle fully autonomous, the Journal said.

    Apple has been consistently hiring car experts as part of its effort to build a team in automated driving.

    Apple has hired this year Megan McClain, a former Volkswagen engineer with expertise in automated driving, and Vinay Palakkode, a graduate researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, a hub of automated driving research.

    Apple also hired a senior engineer from electric carmaker Tesla Motors (TSLA), according to a LinkedIn posting.

    Apple's shares were up 1.3 percent at $114.98 on the Nasdaq.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By BERNARD CONDON

    NEW YORK -- Stocks rose broadly Monday, recouping some losses from a sell-off last week, as investors tried to look beyond uncertainty about the outlook for interest rates.

    The major U.S. indexes fell into losses in the afternoon on sharp declines for drugmakers. The drop was sparked by a tweet from Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton about plans to unveil policy proposals that would stop "price gouging" in the industry. But rising technology and banking shares helped lift the market by the end of the day.

    Investors who have been buying the dips in recent years have benefited, so perhaps they'll use that strategy until it doesn't work anymore.

    Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank, said investors have been rewarded for buying after sell-offs during the current bull market that has run for more than six years, and so they were inclined to buy again.

    "Investors who have been buying the dips in recent years have benefited," he said, "so perhaps they'll use that strategy until it doesn't work anymore."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) closed up 125.61 points, or 0.8 percent, to 16,510.19. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) rose 8.94 points, or 0.5 percent, to 1,966.97. Nine of the 10 industry sectors in the index rose. The Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) gained 1.73 points, or less than 0.1 percent, to 4,828.95.

    Last week's broad slump last week was triggered by a decision from the Federal Reserve not to raise interest rates. Low borrowing rates have helped stocks triple in price since 2009, and a decision to keep them low normally would encourage investors to buy shares.

    But the central bank cited concerns over a global economic slowdown for delaying a hike, and that spooked investors already on edge after weeks of seconding guessing growth in China and the impact of struggling emerging markets with plunging currencies.

    Financial stocks rose Monday after comments from Federal Reserve officials over the weekend suggested some still foresee a rate increase as likely this year. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart said Monday that he was "confident" of a rate rise this year.

    Movers and Shakers

    Citigroup (C) rose 42 cents, or 0.8 percent, to $50.71. Stocks of financial companies dropped sharply Friday over fears that lenders would have to hold off increasing borrowing rates on their customers since the Fed had decided to hold off on hiking rates itself.

    Biogen (BIIB), a maker of specialty drugs, was among the big losers after Clinton's comments on drugmakers. The stock dropped $17.51, or 5.6 percent, to $297.16. Dow members Pfizer (PFE), Merck (MRK) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) also fell.

    Atmel (ATML), a California-based semiconductor company, was one of the day's big winners. The stock surged after the company accepted an offer worth about $4.6 billion in cash and stock from Britain's Dialog Semiconductor. Atmel provides electronics products used in the industrial, automotive, consumer, communications, and computing markets. Its stock jumped 92 cents, or 13 percent, to $8.19.

    In Europe, stocks stabilized from losses Friday. Britain's FTSE 100 index rose 0.1 percent while the CAC-40 in France climbed 1.1 percent. Germany's DAX rose 0.3 percent.

    The price of oil rose on expectations that U.S. production would continue to slip, helping to eventually ease the supply glut. Investors are also betting that a higher price for wholesale gasoline could spur refiners to process more crude. U.S. crude rose $2 to close at $46.68 a barrel in New York. Brent Crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, rose $1.45 to close at $48.92 in London.

    In metals trading, the price of gold fell $5 to $1,132 an ounce. Silver rose 5.8 cents to $15.22 an ounce and copper was little changed from Friday at $2.39 per pound.

    In other futures trading on the NYMEX:
    • Wholesale gasoline rose 4.7 cents to close at $1.403 a gallon.
    • Heating oil rose 2.3 cents to close at $1.514 a gallon.
    • Natural gas fell 4.7 cents to close at $2.605 per 1,000 cubic feet
    In government bond trading, prices fell. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.20 percent from 2.13 percent on Friday.

    What to watch Tuesday:

    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • AutoZone (AZO)
    • CarMax (KMX)
    • Carnival (CCL)
    • ConAgra Foods (CAG)
    • Darden Restaurants (DRI)
    • General Mills (GIS)

     

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    Doctor with digital tablet comforting older man in hospital
    Getty Images
    By Ellen Chang

    NEW YORK -- High deductible health insurance plans are becoming commonplace as more employers are shifting health insurance costs to their workers.

    Consumers are gravitating toward plans that have lower monthly deductibles in an effort to lower the costs of their monthly premiums. High deductible plans have many advantages, especially for millennials and Gen-Xers who rarely go to the doctor because they are healthy and don't rely on many prescription drugs. The catch is that the out-of-pocket costs might prove to be a surprise for consumers who don't budget for meeting the higher deductible.

    "If they're young and healthy, a high deductible plan may be a good fit," said Nate Purpura, vice president of consumer affairs at eHealth.com, an online health insurance exchange based in Mountain View, California. "Shoppers who come to these plans in pursuit of lower premiums don't always understand what they're getting themselves into."

    Benefits of Buying a High Deductible Plan

    Saving money each month is critical for many consumers who are healthy and would rather allocate the extra money toward paying down their student or auto loans or stashing the money away for a rainy day if an emergency arises.

    Shoppers who come to these plans in pursuit of lower premiums don't always understand what they're getting themselves into.

    The monthly savings can also be allocated toward a Health Savings Account, which provides the same tax advantages as an IRA. Only people who have a high deductible plan can open an HSA account at a bank or credit union. The plan must have an annual deductible of $1,300 for individual coverage or $2,600 for a family, according to the IRS. The maximum amount of the contribution is $3,350 for individuals and $6,650 for families.

    Consumers can buy their HSA though their employer, but also through the open marketplace. There are a myriad of HSAs out there, but look for the ones that charge no or minimal fees for monthly account maintenance and transactions. Some accounts are more basic and are more akin to a regular savings accounts, but other ones give you the option to choose from various stocks and mutual funds.

    "You can choose anything that is on the market," she said. "They are totally portable, are owned by you and have no affiliation with your employer."

    What's more, high deductible plans remain a favorite, because they give consumers more control over how much they are spending on healthcare, said Sally Pipes, CEO of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco. Since there are now 14.5 million HSAs, research has found that consumers who have chosen high deductible plans and paired them with these accounts has resulted in reductions in health care spending of 15 percent each year, she said.

    "If an emergency strikes, the high deductible policy can protect a patient from astronomical medical bills," Pipes said.

    Millennials and Gen-Xers might be able to benefit the most from the combination of the plan with an HSA, especially if their account goes largely used, leaving them with a "sizeable nest egg in their HSA, which they can spend however they like on health care or anything else once they turn 65, she said.

    Disadvantages of a High Deductible

    Consumers who often have doctor's appointments or need treatment for a chronic medical condition and need to use prescription drugs on a regular basis should avoid these plans, said Purpura.

    Determine if you can pay for the entire annual deductible from your savings in case of an unexpected hospitalization or illness occurs.

    "People who are savvy about high-deductible health insurance plans and HSAs can amass thousands of dollars over just a couple years and use that money to cover co-payments or their deductible in the event of a serious medical issue," Purpura said. "They can use also it to pay for things like glasses or dental care and other things that many standard health insurance plans don't cover."

    Some workers turned to high deductible plans to defray some of the costs with 46 percent of employees who selected a major health insurance plan with a high deductible of $1,000 or more last year, up from 34 percent who said the same in 2014, according to a recent Aflac survey.

    A majority of employees have regretted this choice in hindsight with 52 percent who found the high deductible plans to be a poor choice while 59 percent said the plans were financially detrimental. Millennials expressed the greatest amount of regret with 65 percent who said they disliked the plan.

    Individuals who choose plans with higher deductibles should also consider opening an HSA or buying additional voluntary insurance for critical illness, which can cover the cost of deductibles or lower the impact to their budget, said Matthew Owenby, chief human resources officer at Aflac.

    In some cases, it is not that consumers prefer high deductible plans, but rather are forced to choose them, because companies are shifting the financial burden onto employees, said Dave Ratcliffe, principal of health and productivity practice at Buck Consultants at Xerox in New York. Now consumers also "have more skin in the game," he said.

    One critical issue when employees select these plans is that they tend to put off doctor's appointments even though preventative care such as annual checkups are completely covered.

    "Employees look at high deductible plans and think they will have high expenses," Ratcliffe said. "The challenge is to make sure the plan is set up so employees understand preventive care is covered and incentivize employees to seek preventive care."

    Looking for Better Deals

    Since 75 to 80 percent of Americans aren't meeting their deductibles, consumers are looking for better deals, said Vish Banthia, founder and chief medical officer of ZendyHealth, the Los Angeles health care cost comparison company. Some doctors will negotiate on procedures such as getting allergy testing or an MRI, so consumers can save 10 to 80 percent of the cost.

    "Up until now, health care has been one of the only industries in which nobody knows the price tag for the medical procedures until you get a super high medical bill after the fact," he said. "Our website shows you the national average."

    The HSAs can cover certain medical expenses and many common ones include prescription medications, doctor and dentist visits and eyeglasses. Contributions to an HSA aren't subject to federal income taxes and can be invested like an IRA. The advantage of HSAs is that any unused funds roll over each year and any remaining money can be used for retirement after the age of 65.

    Consumers who opted to purchase coverage on the public health insurance exchanges are especially good candidates since most of the purchased plans, including silver and bronze plans under Obamacare are high deductible plans.

    "You fund it ahead of time, which means you will get a discount for any medical procedures you need in the future, said Laura Adams, insuranceQuotes.com's senior analyst said. "It can add up to some substantial savings."

     

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