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DailyFinance.com

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    ShutterstockBackdoor contributions to your Roth IRA are important for your retirement savings once your annual income surpasses $131,000.
    By Greg Ostrowski

    Looking to achieve tax-free growth on retirement assets, but think because of your income level, a Roth IRA can't possibly work for you? As a self-employed or high-earning professional, there are several strategies that you should know about that may allow you to create a Roth IRA and enjoy more tax-free income in retirement.

    First, let's talk basics. A Roth IRA is a type of account that allows people to save after-tax, non-deductible money for retirement. Roth IRAs are viewed favorably because they provide tax-free growth on your assets, and tax-free qualified retirement withdrawals with no required minimum distributions.

    If you think that income tax rates will continue to rise, tax-free distributions would be a valuable benefit. However, under current laws, the ability to contribute directly to a Roth IRA phases out completely once your income surpasses $131,000 ($193,000 for joint filers), shutting out many high-earners who would enjoy the greatest benefits from a Roth IRA.

    Fortunately, higher-earning professionals and business owners can take advantage of several perfectly legal loopholes to create backdoor Roth contributions.

    Option 1: Traditional IRA to Roth IRA conversion. The simplest strategy is to contribute the annual limit to a traditional IRA and then convert those contributions to a Roth IRA. To be eligible to contribute to a traditional IRA, you must have reportable income and must be younger than 70½ at the end of the year in which you make the contribution. While some may be able to take advantage of a deduction for their traditional IRA contribution, high-income earners and participants in workplace retirement plans will probably not receive a deduction.

    The IRS removed income limitations on Roth conversions in 2010. This loophole means higher income taxpayers can contribute to a traditional IRA on a non-deductible, or after-tax, basis and subsequently convert money to a Roth IRA with no tax liability.

    Here's how it works:
    1. Contribute the maximum amount to a traditional IRA for 2015 ($5,500 or $6,500 for those older than 50).
    2. Convert the account to a Roth IRA in 2015. If you took a deduction for the contribution, you will owe taxes on the conversion. If you didn't take a deduction, your conversion is tax-free.
    If you already have prior year contributions and earnings in your traditional IRA at the moment of conversion, you may owe taxes on that money, so it's wise to consult a financial professional with experience on conversions before proceeding.

    Option 2: 'Serial' SEP-IRA to Roth IRA conversion. If you're a small business owner or self-employed professional, a SEP-IRA may be a good option for you. SEP-IRAs are attractive to a small business owner because you can still direct your investments, but contribute far more than the traditional IRA's annual limit. Even better, contribution limits aren't affected by participation in a 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan, assuming the SEP-IRA and 401(k) are with two separate employers not under common control.

    While the SEP-IRA's sizable contribution limits can be appealing, it has the same tax disadvantages of a traditional IRA. SEP-IRA qualified retirement distributions are taxed as ordinary income when taken at age 59 or older. Fortunately, as with a traditional IRA, SEP-IRA holders can convert their accounts to a Roth IRA, albeit with a tax liability. A high-income earner could sock away additional savings by first channeling contributions through the SEP-IRA, and doing a subsequent conversion, year after year. The tax liability can be mitigated if you convert in subsequent years, which is where the "serial" part of the conversion comes in.

    Here's how the strategy works:
    1. Contribute the maximum amount to a SEP-IRA for 2015.
    2. Receive the full tax benefit in the 2015 tax year for SEP-IRA contributions.
    3. Convert the account to a Roth IRA in 2016.
    4. Pay taxes on the conversion in tax year 2016.
    Assuming your income levels remain the same or increase, you could repeat this process each year. All things equal, your subsequent years' Roth IRA conversion liability from the SEP-IRA is neutralized by your deductible SEP-IRA contributions for that tax year.

    Option 3: After-tax 401(k) to Roth IRA rollover. In late 2014, the IRS clarified the rules regarding after-tax contributions in a 401(k); as of 2015, you can now roll these over into a Roth IRA. If your 401(k) allows after-tax contributions and allows you to withdraw these contributions each year, you might be able to take advantage of this strategy to help kick-start your Roth IRA.

    Here's how it works:
    1. Maximize your pre-tax 401(k) contributions (typically $18,000 in 2015 or $24,000 for workers 50 and older).
    2. Make additional after-tax contributions up to the IRS maximum ($53,000 or $59,000 for workers 50 and older). Keep in mind that employer matches count toward your annual maximum.
    3. Roll over the after-tax contributions and earnings into a Roth IRA. While your after-tax contributions can be rolled over tax-free, you will owe taxes on the earnings. The IRS currently allows you to choose between converting the untaxed earnings to the Roth IRA now and paying taxes on them in the same year, or rolling them over to a traditional IRA and paying taxes on the withdrawals in retirement.
    Some caveats and addendums. Before you spring into action with any of these strategies, there are some important caveats that you need to understand. The first is called the "pro-rata rule," which dictates the taxation of IRA distributions (including conversions) when the IRA owner has any traditional IRA or SEP-IRA containing both pre-tax and after-tax money (workers can allocate pre-tax and after-tax amounts from 401(k) distributions to avoid this issue). One additional wrinkle is the "step transaction doctrine," which could complicate the tax consequences of a conversion that is done too soon after a contribution to the original IRA. The "serial" SEP-IRA strategy typically works best for a self-employed person with no other covered co-workers.

    The bottom line. On the surface, income phase-outs and contributions limits can make it challenging for high-earning professionals and business owners to save meaningfully for retirement using a Roth IRA. Fortunately, the strategies we've covered in this article offer savvy savers an opportunity to boost the amount they save and potentially increase their tax-free income in retirement. All that being said, every individual's situation is different and details matter. To find out whether these Roth conversion strategies are right for you, talk to a qualified financial professional or a tax expert who specializes in these types of conversions.

    Securities offered through SII Investments Inc., Member FINRA, SIPC. Advisory Services offered through Scarborough Capital Management, a registered investment adviser. SII and SCM are separate companies. Neither SII nor SCM provide tax or legal advice.

    Opinions, estimates, forecasts and statements of financial market trends that are based on current market conditions constitute our judgment and are subject to change without notice.

    This material is for information purposes only and is not intended as an offer or solicitation with respect to the purchase or sale of any security.

    Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal. No investment strategy can guarantee a profit or protect against loss in periods of declining values. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Diversification and asset allocation do not guarantee positive results. Loss, including loss of principal may result.

    Greg Ostrowski is a blogger for The Smarter Investor. Greg is a certified financial planner and managing partner of Scarborough Capital Management, offering low-cost, flat-fee 401(k) management and wealth management to individuals across America -- from millennials to retirees. You can follow him on Twitter at @gostro01 or connect on LinkedIn
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    Can Robots Close the Retirement Savings Gap?

     

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    Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III
    Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images
    From the country's largest operator of regional amusement parks posting quarterly results to the company formerly known as Google stepping up with its first financial update since its name change, here are some of the things that will help shape the week that lies ahead on Wall Street.

    Monday -- You Must Be This Tall to Invest

    We're heading into the belly of earnings season in the week ahead. Hundreds of companies will be reporting fresh quarterly results this week, and one of them will be amusement park operator Six Flags (SIX), which reports after markets close Monday.

    Running the country's largest chain of regional amusement parks has its seasonal lumpiness, but this report covers the summer months of July, August, and September. It will be Six Flags' most lucrative quarter. Analysts see modest top-line growth but dramatic earnings improvement. A good report combined with the stock's juicy 4.3 percent dividend yield may smoke out more investors looking to hop on the ride.

    Tuesday -- We're Getting the Band Together

    It's been five years since Activision Blizzard (ATVI) put out a "Guitar Hero" game, making Tuesday's release of "Guitar Hero Live" a pretty big deal. It's not just a matter of slapping new songs into the old platform, where gamers try to play plastic guitars in time to the music.

    From the new six-button layout on the guitar controller to a new in-game layout that uses full-motion video to simulate the concert experience, Activision Blizzard is hoping to reintroduce a classic to new music-loving gamers.

    Wednesday -- McFly Like an Eagle

    Die-hard "Back to the Future" fans know the significance of Oct. 21, 2015. That's the day when Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly arrived to the future at the end of the first film. We've come a long way in the 30 years since the movie came out. We don't have the flying cars or hoverboards depicted in the movie, but the prediction that the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series remains a possibility, with the Cubbies advancing to the National League Championship Series.

    You don't have to wax nostalgic alone. Several movie chains will be screening the "Back to the Future" movies Wednesday. It's a smart call: Wednesday is typically dead at the local multiplex. Check your neighborhood theater for available show times.

    Thursday -- Alphabet Soup

    We'll be checking out Google's first quarterly report since changing its name to Alphabet (GOOG, GOOGL) this summer. The name change was done to emphasize Big G's realm beyond its flagship search engine, but we all know that online advertising remains Alphabet's bread and butter.

    Alphabet -- like many dot-com giants that rely on advertising -- has been coping with the challenge to monetize usage on mobile devices. Are advertisers reluctant to pay as much as they used to in generating leads? Are consumers clicking on mobile ads with the same fervor that they did ads on their desktops and laptops? We'll get a glimpse Thursday into those trends.

    Friday -- Rated PG

    Procter & Gamble (PG) wraps up a busy week of earnings reports with its own updated financials. This is the company behind many of the leading brands you will come across as you stroll through the supermarket aisles. We're talking about Pampers diapers, Charmin toilet paper and Crest toothpaste.

    Analysts see Procter & Gamble earning 95 cents a share for the quarter, just shy of the 99 cents a share it served up during the same quarter last year. That's not good -- and it could get worse, since Procter & Gamble has fallen short of Wall Street profit targets every single quarter over the past year.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Activision Blizzard and Alphabet (A and C shares). The Motley Fool recommends Procter & Gamble. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days and check out our free report for one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    ShutterstockHistorically, the S&P 500 index has gained 7.1 percent from November through April versus 1.4 percent from May through October.
    By Kira Brecht

    If you've been avoiding opening your latest 401(k) statement, it's time to pay attention. History says the U.S. stock market is set to break out of the starting gate for its best six months of the year.

    Just like summer changes to autumn and then to winter, the stock market has its own seasons, too. From November through April each year, the U.S. stock market has consistently produced outsized returns over the period from May to October.

    You may have heard the market adage, "sell in May and go away," but the flip side of that is "buy in October," says Jeffrey A. Hirsch, editor at the Stock Trader's Almanac in Nyack, New York. The publication is credited with first recognizing the seasonal phenomenon in 1987.

    Since 1950, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) has gained 7.1 percent, on average, from November through April versus 1.4 percent from May through October, Hirsch says. "Our historical market research revealed that most of the market's gains have been made from November to April, while stocks tend to go sideways and are more prone to downdrafts -- as we have experienced this year -- during the worst six months, May to October," Hirsch says.

    What's drives stocks higher November through April? First, there is so-called mutual fund "window dressing," in which portfolio managers essentially clean house before third-quarter statements are sent to shareholders.

    "Nobody wants to be holding onto a stock that is not doing well. If a company by the third quarter does not appear it will be able to turn around, fund managers move them out," says Sam Stovall, managing director at New York-based S&P Capital IQ.

    The aggressive selling of stock losers generally "sets up the market for a yearly low in the October time period," Stovall says. Historically, he has found that "October has a greater percentage of correction and bear-market bottoms than any other month."

    New money also tends to flow into the stock market at the beginning of each year as pension funds add to their holdings at that time, Stovall says. Also, investors scramble to fund their individual retirement accounts before the April 15 tax deadline, injecting capital into the equity market.

    And some workers have a little extra money to invest at the end of the year. "Year-end bonuses tend to go right into the stock market, which increases cash inflows, stock buying and drives the market higher in the fourth quarter and first quarter," Hirsch says.

    While Wall Street is expecting earnings per share to decline 5.1 percent in the third quarter this year, improvement is around the corner. Analysts are expecting quarterly year-over-year advances of 0.2 percent, 5.5 percent, 7.2 percent, 14.5 percent and 13.9 percent through the fourth quarter of 2016, according to S&P Capital IQ.

    "I do expect fourth-quarter gains this year and a year-end rally. We are currently adding long positions to our portfolio," Hirsch says.

    How do investors capitalize on the seasonal trend? "Investors should start looking to get back into stocks or be more aggressive in October, especially after a sell-off like we had this year. October, though feared from all the crashes and massacres, is the best month to buy stocks," Hirsch says.

    The Stock Trader's Almanac has devised a "Best Six Months' Switching Strategy" that can be employed with exchange-traded funds. "Around September or October, the investor can buy the major market index ETFs: SPDR Dow Jones industrial average ETF (DIA), SPDR S&P 500 (SPY), PowerShares QQQ (QQQ) and iShares Russell 2000 (IWM). And then sell them around the April to May time frame, especially after a nice run-up," Hirsch says.

    During the November through April period, Stovall has found that cyclical sectors, including consumer discretionary, industrials, technology and materials, tend to do well. Sector-specific ETFs include the Consumer Discretionary Select SPDR Fund (XLY), the Industrial Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLI), the Technology Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLK) and the Materials Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLB).

    Aggressive investors could consider the S&P High Beta ETF (SPHB), which includes the 100 stocks that have the highest trailing 12-month standard deviation or more simply "the greatest wiggle over the last year," Stovall says. For investors who may be more comfortable riding a potential roller coaster, the S&P High Beta index has outperformed the S&P 500 since November 1990, with an average gain of 12.3 percent from November through April versus an average gain of 8.1 percent in the S&P 500.

    When it comes to investing in the stock market, there are no guarantees, but putting seasonal trends on your side can help boost your odds.

    "I think it's extremely important to pay attention to seasonal patterns and market cycles," Hirsch says. "It can give you an edge in making portfolio decisions. But it is not the only factor I consider, by far. I believe you increase your probability for maximum returns using fundamental and technical analysis in conjunction with seasonal and cyclical patterns and economic readings."

    Kira Brecht is a financial journalist who writes extensively on stock, commodity and foreign exchange markets, investing strategies, the economy and the Fed. She was managing editor at SFO (Stock, Futures & Options) Magazine for 10 years, creating digital magazine, newsletter and online content aimed at the individual investor. She began her career on the floor of the Chicago futures exchanges covering commodity markets for a financial newswire service. Follow her on Twitter @KiraBrecht.


    Recent Market Plunge, Good Time to Invest?

     

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    Make me sick if I think about money problems
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    By Allison Martin

    At some point, we've all been given financial advice that later left us scratching our heads in disappointment or confusion.

    Unfortunately, it's tough to weed out all the bad information that can be found in books or on the Internet, especially because so many self-proclaimed financial experts abound.

    But there is help to figure this out. For instance, CreditCards.com says bad financial advice usually has at least one of the following qualities:
    • Confusing.
    • Comes from someone with a vested interest.
    • Unsolicited.
    • One size fits all.
    • Framed as the only option.
    • Promises quick and easy results.
    Here are six common tidbits of financial advice you may want to ignore:

    1. Credit cards are evil. Credit cards do not have any inherent qualities, good or bad. It is human behavior that determines whether they are beneficial or problematic.

    If you are unable to resist swiping the magic plastic for an extended period of time or if you use it to fund outrageous shopping sprees, your issues go way deeper than a credit card.

    Used responsibly, credit cards offer great rewards and eliminate the need to have a wad of cash in tow. They also provide buyer protections. You just need to be disciplined enough to pay off the balance each month.

    Besides, you will want to keep one around for travel arrangements and online purchases. For both, they are a better choice than using a debit card, because they offer more protections.

    For more on the advantages of plastic, see "10 Hidden Benefits of Credit Cards."

    2. Following a militant spending plan will set you free. Well, not really. What happens to avid dieters who have cravings but continue to suppress the urges until they can't take it anymore? They give up and resort to comfort foods. Lots of them.

    Incorporating mad money into your spending plan is OK. On the other hand, deprivation is not a good idea and will usually backfire.

    If you are trying to curb purchases, be realistic. Take small steps and modestly reward yourself from time to time. Also, begin with the end in mind and incorporate plenty of visual reminders so you will focus on the financial goal you are working toward.

    Need help getting started? Check out "How to Develop an Effortless Budget You'll Stick To."

    3. Sign up for life insurance -- or else. If you are 25 with no dependents and minimal assets, how much life insurance do you really need? The answer: none.

    Money Talks News finance expert Stacy Johnson says:

    You need life insurance if those depending on your income would suffer financially from your death. The most obvious example is when you have kids, debt and a one-earner household, because the death of the breadwinner would be financially tragic.

    When you've paid off the house, the kids are gone, the savings account is topped off, and your death is just an excuse for your remaining friends to get together and have a drink, your need for life insurance is over.

    When it is time to buy, do your wallet a favor and go for a term policy.

    4. 10 percent is the sweet spot for retirement contributions. Saving 10 percent of your income used to be the standard advice, but not anymore -- particularly if you didn't start setting aside money early in your working years.

    If you didn't get an early start, you will need to save a higher percentage of your income to reach retirement goals.

    For example, people in their 40s who have not saved much for their golden years likely will find that 10 percent is not nearly enough.

    How much will you need? Figure out what you will spend on health care, food, shelter and other necessities. Now consider what you will get from Social Security and other sources. Filling in the gap will be your responsibility.

    5. You should buy a house because it is a good investment. Were you around for the last housing crisis? Being a homeowner for several years, I can definitely attest to the fact that homes do lose value and do not always appreciate as rapidly as you would like them to.

    That doesn't mean buying a home is a bad idea. One of the beauties of owning a home is that a fixed-rate mortgage locks you into a set cost each month. You will make the same monthly payment for years while the price of rent goes up.

    Eventually you will own that home free and clear. That is an investment in your future financial security.

    But remember that buying a home is not a surefire path to riches. Take it from me, being underwater -- where your outstanding mortgage exceeds the value of your house -- is not a pleasant place to be.

    6. Home equity loans are a great way to get out of a hole. Under a mountain of credit card debt and looking for a way out? Home equity loans may seem like the perfect solution because of the competitive interest rate.

    But if you fall on hard times and default on the loan, everything goes downhill from there. In a worst-case scenario, an inability to pay back the loan could end up with you losing your home.

    Have you received other questionable advice that I didn't mention here? Sound off in our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth, and post questions and get answers.

    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!


    The Best Ways to Ensure You'll Have Enough to Retire

     

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    Shutterstock
    By Karla Bowsher

    About 1 in 3 Americans gets an annual physical exam.

    But a growing number of doctors now believe the practice is at best wasteful, and at worst potentially harmful, Time reports. Studies show little connection between the practice and disease prevention.

    Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, argues in today's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that physicals should be restructured. He also writes that insurance companies should stop covering physicals because that gives doctors an incentive to continue the practice:

    Though on a per-visit basis, the annual physical is not costly, it is the single most common reason that U.S. patients seek care, and cumulatively these visits cost more than $10 billion per year -- similar to the annual costs of all lung-cancer care in the United States.

    Not only do physicals waste money, they waste time. About 10 percent of all visits with primary-care physicians are for physicals, and Mehrotra says the time doctors spend on those visits "might be crowding out visits for more urgent health issues."

    In addition to being wasteful, Dr. Christine Laine, senior vice president of the American College of Physicians, tells Time that annual physicals can be potentially harmful.

    Routine screenings can lead to abnormal findings, but not all such results are indications of health problems. Sometimes abnormal findings are one-off readings or false positives. Laine says:

    "There is more evidence of harm than benefit, especially for executive physicals in which people come in once a year and get a zillion tests whether or not they need them. What usually happens is that they find things that they didn't need to find, and that generates more tests, which generates costs and side effects and worry and all of those things. There's good evidence that those types of exams don't make any sense and are of low value."

    Do you get an annual physical? Sound off in our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth, and post questions and get answers.

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


    How to Fight High Medical Bills

     

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    Expensive Education
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    By Andrew Josuweit

    NEW YORK -- When you're fresh out of college and bringing home your very first substantial paycheck, it's sometimes hard to remember that some of that money needs to be used responsibly.

    Years later when people are moving to the more "balanced" stage of their lives, their 30s, loan repayments still aren't always top of mind. When you have a robust social life, savings goals, vacation plans, rent payments and a bad Seamless or Uber habit, it's easy to forget that student loan payments should remain a financial priority.

    As someone who has learned the hard way but managed to turn it around, below are five tips to help you stay on track when paying back your college debt.

    1. Research the Best 401(k) Option for You

    Upon landing your first job, there are a lot financial decisions to be made, including signing up for medical insurance through your employer and joining your company's 401(k) program. Depending on your situation -- your total loan balance, monthly payment, and overall income and expenses -- it may make sense to hold off contributing to your 401(k). This choice isn't for everyone as it depends on a variety of factors. For example, it depends on your tax bracket. If you invest in your 401(k), you can often lower your tax bracket. In addition, if your employer offers a matching contribution, it may make sense to invest in your 401(k), otherwise you're throwing away free money.

    Alternatively, you may want to ask your employer if they are willing to contribute to your student loan payments in replacement of a 401(k) contribution. It's important to evaluate whether your investments earn more than your debt. However, if you're really strapped for cash, putting that money towards your monthly student loan payment can help provide a bit of financial wiggle room and help pay off that debt quicker.

    Whatever your situation, it's important to consult your financial advisor before making this decision.

    2. Don't Fear the 'B-Word'

    A lot of recent college graduates flinch when they hear the word "budget," but creating a budget to help you manage your finances is the opposite of scary.

    It's easy to push important financial obligations to the back of your head when you're first out of school. According to research from Student Loan Hero (where I am CEO), a quarter of Americans would prefer to pay for Netflix than student loans, and 23 percent would prioritize social activities.

    Outlining a budget that not only accounts for your bills and loan payments, but social activities such as movies, concerts, and going out to eat with friends, can help make sure you're still paying down your debt each month. With great free services such as Moven, Mint and Digit out there that help you to do this automatically by tracking spending, creating a budget has never been easier.

    3. Focus on Making the Right Decisions on 'The Big Stuff'

    There are many large expenses that are often on the horizon as you move through your 20s and beyond. From marriage, to real estate, to starting a family, these are all big financial undertakings. In order to really make these big financial decisions a priority, try to cut out the small, frivolous purchases and focus on the big-ticket items. Saving for a down payment on a home is obviously more financially important than spending $6 a day at Starbucks.

    Typical housing expenses (rent, utilities, etc.) should never account for more than 35 percent of your monthly income, according to financial expert Jean Chatzky. If you're paying more than this, you may want to consider making a change. If you live alone, consider getting a roommate to cut your rent in half or even Airbnb your room when you are out of town. Though it may be easier said than done, it may also be worth thinking about moving, whether it is to a smaller apartment, or even another city.

    If you're living in an expensive area, like New York City, for example, think about how your expenses may decrease if you change locations. I personally did this and left New York for Austin so I could focus more on my student loan repayments. This, of course, is all dependent on work and your personal flexibility. It could, however, be a huge factor in helping to prioritize your student loan repayments.In addition, it makes sense not to get in over your head.

    If you are saving for a down payment on a home it makes more sense to purchase one that is in your price range rather than purchasing a home that has a mortgage payment that will cause you to drown financially. This means, don't buy the most expensive home or product. If you're looking for a new car, it's best to purchase a used vehicle instead of that new BMW. Prioritizing the most important financial decisions is a key to staying on track with your budget and loan repayments.

    4. Keep Saving

    It's tempting to take extra money you may have each month and put it towards something else -- whether it's for something fun like a weekend away or something more responsible, like continuing to paying down your loan balance. However, it's important not to forget to contribute to your savings account or emergency fund.

    Most Americans can't even afford a $400 emergency fund. According to Dave Ramsey -- the first step toward paying off consumer debt is building a $1000 safety net. Other experts recommend saving 5 to 10 percent of your net income.

    Next, focus on paying off any consumer debt -- credit cards and student loans. Following that, save a few months of expenses up, just in case. There are even tools that can help you do this. For example, Acorns, an app that takes pennies off your purchases and rolls them into an investment account that's easily liquidated. Having these emergency pockets of money set up can ultimately ensure you don't miss a loan payment due to an unexpected emergency.

    5. Pick a Student Loan Repayment Plan

    In order to prioritize paying down your student debt, payments must remain a top priority. Utilizing strategies such as the "debt avalanche" strategy -- where borrowers pay off their most high interest loan first, allowing them to potentially save thousands of dollars on interest -- or the "debt snowball" strategy that is known as the most psychologically rewarding strategy by paying off the smallest principle loans first. Whichever plan is right for you, pick one and stick with it.

    You'll feel a sense of gratification as you continue to see your total loan balance decrease. Beyond that, it may be worth considering refinancing or consolidating your student loans. Companies such as Common Bond, SoFi and Earnest all have options to help refinance, if it is the right decision for you.

    This article is commentary by an independent contributor.


    Best Ways to Save On Your Student Loan Payments This Year

     

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    By JOSEPH PISANI

    NEW YORK -- Oprah Winfrey, who has publicly struggled with her weight for decades, is going on a diet again. But this time she stands to gain a lot of money from her efforts.

    Weight Watchers said Monday that it signed a five-year deal with the former talk show host. Winfrey, a co-owner of OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, is paying about $43.2 million for a 10 percent stake in the weight loss company.

    The deal is already paying off: Weight Watchers (WTW) shares more than doubled after the partnership was announced, earning Winfrey about $45 million on paper.

    Winfrey will use the Weight Watchers mobile app and work with a personal coach, the company said. She has also agreed to let Weight Watchers use her name, image and likeness for its products and services. Additionally, she will make appearances on the company's behalf.

    Weight Watchers has given me the tools to begin to make the lasting shift that I and so many of us who are struggling with weight have longed for.

    "Weight Watchers has given me the tools to begin to make the lasting shift that I and so many of us who are struggling with weight have longed for," Winfrey said in a statement. "I believe in the program so much I decided to invest in the company and partner in its evolution."

    Weight Watchers is no stranger to celebrities. It has paid singers Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Hudson to promote its plan. But the deal with Winfrey is a shift to focus on overall health and wellness, rather than just dropping pounds.

    "We are expanding our purpose from focusing on weight loss alone to more broadly helping people lead a healthier, happier life," said Weight Watchers President and CEO Jim Chambers said in a statement.

    The company has been hurt by the popularity of fitness trackers and other health apps. MyFitnessPal lets users track steps, workouts and the amount of calories they eat for free on its app. Buying a FitBit tracker unlocks similar free online tools. Weight Watchers charges for its online food tracking, and weekly meetings and weigh ins have been a hallmark of its plan. Its shares were down 73 percent for the year through Friday. The company's earnings have fallen every year since 2011. To boost its earnings, the company announced $100 million in cost cuts earlier this year.

    Diet Struggles

    Winfrey's weight has yo-yoed over the years, and she's been very open publicly about her struggles with dieting.

    In fact, weight was a frequent subject of her talk show, which ended nearly five years ago after 25 years on the air. In 1988, a thin Winfrey famously walked out on stage wheeling 67 pounds of fat in a wagon, representing the weight she lost. But her weight has fluctuated over time.

    Her weight was still an issue as "The Oprah Winfrey Show" came to an end. She told the TV interviewer Barbara Walters that one of her goals was to "make peace with the whole weight thing."

    Since then, Winfrey has talked about being uncomfortable with being the subject on the cover of her magazine because of her weight gain.

    Winfrey can now trade weight loss tips with her best friend, Gayle King. The host of TV news program "CBS This Morning" told her Instagram followers five weeks ago that she joined Weight Watchers. Last week, King indicated in an Instagram post that she had lost more than seven pounds on the plan.

    Representatives for Winfrey and King did not respond to requests for an interview.

    Meanwhile, Weight Watchers is hoping to tap into Winfrey's ability to turn ordinary products into the latest trend.

    Stamp of Approval

    A stamp of approval from Winfrey during her talk show was powerful. Books she recommended skyrocketed up best seller lists and products shown on her holiday gift guide episodes would sometimes sell out.

    But it might be harder to get her message across now. "She has less contact with people on a daily basis," said Craig Garthwaite, an assistant professor of strategy at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. In 2012, for example, Winfrey relaunched her book club, but it doesn't hold the same power. "Most people don't know that it exists," said Garthwaite.

    Besides the OWN network, Winfrey reaches fans through O, The Oprah Magazine and Oprah.com. She also has a strong social media following with more than 29 million followers on Twitter, 11 million on Facebook and 4 million on Instagram.

    The Weight Watchers endorsement is a departure for Winfrey. Throughout her talk show reign, Winfrey did not make money off endorsements, Garthwaite said. Since leaving the talk show, she has also lent her name to Starbucks Corp., which sells Oprah-branded tea drinks.

    Winfrey is buying about 6.4 million shares of Weight Watchers at $6.79 per share. She will also receive options to buy an additional 5 percent of the company's fully diluted shares. She is also joining the company's board.

    Shares of New York-based Weight Watchers International Inc. soared $7.13, or 105 percent, to close at $13.92 Monday.

    -Associated Press writer Michelle Chapman in New York also contributed to this report.

     

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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.

    Oil-Dri (ODC) -- Up 26 percent last week

    There's apparently big money to be made in selling kitty litter. Oil-Dri shareholders purred in delight after the company posted a record quarterly profit of 71 cents a share. Things aren't perfect. Sales fell slightly since a year earlier. One-time items helped deflate its effective tax rate. However, it's still an impressive showing for Oil-Dri.

    TripAdvisor (TRIP) -- Up 22 percent last week

    Shares of the travel reviews website operator took off after it struck a deal with Priceline (PCLN) to be a partner for its Instant Booking platform. TripAdvisor rolled out a "Buy Now" button last summer, allowing site visitors to book hotel, flight, and car rentals right from its reviews-rich listings.

    Both sites will benefit from the partnership, but TripAdvisor shares were the ones that took flight on the news. Priceline's partnership validates the platform, and it will help TripAdvisor generate more commissions without having to worry about fulfillment or following through with customer service.

    Pure Storage (PSTG) -- Up 13 percent last week

    Some IPOs don't get hot right away. Pure Storage went public at $17 two weeks ago and investors didn't want it. The stock closed at $16.01 on its first day of trading, moving even lower the next day.

    It was a different story last week. Dell's big deal to acquire EMC (EMC) lit a fire under other providers of data storage solutions. If the now privately held Dell is on a shopping spree, it may inspire its PC rivals to make big bets on other players in data storage.

    BofI Holding (BOFI) -- Down 29 percent last week

    Online banking is a neat way to shave overhead costs, but last week it was an online banker that was shaved down. BofI -- the parent company of Bank of Internet -- took a hit after a pair of former auditors offered up problematic assessments.

    An internal auditor kicked things off by filing a complaint, alleging that BofI was hiding information from regulators. Another auditor went on to claim that he left the dot-com banker after raising similar concerns.

    Spirit Airlines (SAVE) -- Down 17 percent last week

    There was some choppy turbulence for Spirit investors after the bargain carrier reaffirmed its guidance, but cutthroat competition is keeping fares low through the year ahead. The ho-hum outlook led Morgan Stanley to downgrade the stock.

    Spirit is a controversial name in the industry. It advertises low fares, but then slaps on a wide array of fees. Sometimes a carry-on bag will cost more than the passenger. The airline industry has been on an upswing in recent years as sector consolidation has lowered costs and increased pricing power, but that doesn't mean that everybody's a winner.

    Conn's (CONN) -- Down 13 percent last week

    Finally, we have a meandering consumer electronics retailer continuing to cope with deadbeat customers. In a regulatory filing, Conn's conceded that 11.9 percent of its securitized portfolio has been delinquent for more than 60 days. That's a concern, naturally, and Zacks downgraded the retailer's stock to a "strong sell" rating following the fiscal update.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends BofI Holding, Priceline Group and TripAdvisor. The Motley Fool recommends Spirit Airlines. 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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    kiev  ukraine   september 02 ...
    Shutterstock
    By MICHAEL LIEDTKE

    SAN FRANCISCO -- Google is escalating an attack on Microsoft's lucrative Office software in an attempt to hit its longtime rival where it will hurt the most.

    The assault is targeting companies and government agencies paying for Microsoft's suite of word processing, email, calendar, spreadsheet and other Office programs. If they dump Microsoft, Google will give them free use of a package of its competing software that normally costs $5 or $10 for each user each month.

    The price for the "Google for Work" software will be waived for the duration of the defecting customers' existing contracts with Microsoft or any other supplier. The offer is open for the next six months in the U.S. and will eventually be extended to other countries.

    Google is limiting the free usage to 3,000 people for each defecting customer. Even with that restriction, Google will be foregoing $180,000 to $360,000 in annual revenue if a company with 3,000 people signs up for the offer. As an additional incentive, Google will pay up to $75,000 to each company switching to its software to cover the costs of making the change.

    Google, now owned by a newly formed company called Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL), declined to say how much it has budgeted for its latest assault on Microsoft (MSFT). Google says more than 600 companies have at least 10,000 employees using Work software.

    The offer underscores Google's confidence in the quality of its software and its resolve to undercut one of Microsoft's most valuable franchises, said Aragon Research analyst Jim Lundy said. He estimated Microsoft's current customers are paying $12 to $20 for each user under contracts that typically run for several years.

    Microsoft's Office division generated $23.5 billion, or roughly one-quarter of the software maker's revenue during its last fiscal year ending in June. The revenue includes sales of Office to consumers, too.

    Digital advertising still accounts for nearly all of Google's revenue, which totaled $66 billion last year. But the Mountain View, California, company has diverting some of the money it makes from advertising to chip away at Microsoft's dominance in office software since it introduced a suite of competing programs nearly a decade ago.

    At that time, Google was trying a different approach by requiring an Internet connection to use its software instead of installing the programs on the hard drives of individual programs. Now, Microsoft and most other software makers sell subscriptions that allow online access to their programs so they can be opened on personal computers, tablets and smartphones.

    Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Washington, also has been trying to chip away at Google's dominance in Internet search and advertising for the past decade, with little success.

    Google's new business software offer "represents a continuing saga in the battle with Microsoft for control of the desktop and mobile devices," Lundy said.

     

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    Hamptons-Building Backlash
    Frank Eltman/AP
    By ALEX VEIGA

    U.S. homebuilders are feeling more optimistic about the housing market, lifting their confidence this month to the highest level in 10 years.

    The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index released Monday rose this month to 64, up from 61 in September. The last time the reading was higher was October 2005 at 68.

    Readings above 50 indicate more builders view sales conditions as good rather than poor. The index has been consistently above 50 since July last year.

    Builders' improved optimism bodes well for a pickup in new home construction, which could help give the U.S. economy a boost. The supply of new homes has been scarce, so greater construction could result in more sales.

    "With firm job creation, economic growth and the release of pent-up demand, we expect housing to keep moving forward as we start to close out 2015.

    The latest builder index reflects a gradual, but consistent strengthening in the market for new homes, said David Crowe, the NAHB's chief economist.

    "With firm job creation, economic growth and the release of pent-up demand, we expect housing to keep moving forward as we start to close out 2015," he said.

    Builders' view of current sales conditions and their outlook for sales over the next six months surged. A measure of traffic by prospective buyers held steady.

    Healthy hiring and smaller price increases for new homes have begun pushing up sales, which were hammered during the Great Recession and recovered slowly even after the downturn ended in 2009. New-home sales have soared nearly 22 percent in the past year. They hit a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 552,000 homes in August, the strongest pace since February 2008. September's sales data are due out next week.

    This month's builder index was based on 384 respondents.

    Builders' view of current sales conditions for single-family homes rose three points to 70, the highest reading since October 2005. Builders' outlook for sales over the next six months surged seven points to 75. That's the highest reading since August 2005. A measure of traffic by prospective buyers held steady at 47.

    Though new homes represent only a fraction of the housing market, they have an outsize impact on the economy. Each home built creates an average of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in tax revenue, according to NAHB data.

     

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    Health Overhaul Signups
    Andrew Harnik/AP
    By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR

    WASHINGTON -- The math is harsh: The federal penalty for having no health insurance is set to jump to $695, and the Obama administration is being urged to highlight that cold fact in its new pitch for health law sign-ups.

    That means the 2016 sign-up season starting Nov. 1 could see penalties become a bigger focus for millions of people who have remained eligible for coverage, but uninsured. They're said to be squeezed for money, and skeptical about spending what they have on health insurance.

    Until now, health overhaul supporters have stressed the benefits: taxpayer subsidies that pay roughly 70 percent of the monthly premium, financial protection against sudden illness or an accident, and access to regular preventive and follow-up medical care.

    But in 2016, the penalty for being uninsured will rise to the greater of either $695 or 2.5 percent of taxable income. That's for someone without coverage for a full 12 months. This year the comparable numbers are $325 or 2 percent of income.

    Marketing usually involves stressing the positive. Rising penalties meet no one's definition of good news. Still, that may create a new pitch:

    Given that the penalty is larger, it does make sense to bring it up more frequently.

    The math is pretty clear. A consumer would be able to get six months or more of coverage for $695, instead of owing that amount to the IRS as a tax penalty. (That example is based on subsidized customers now putting in an average of about $100 a month of their own money.)

    Backers of the law are urging the administration to drive the math lesson home.

    "Given that the penalty is larger, it does make sense to bring it up more frequently," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal advocacy group. "It's an increasing factor in people's decisions about whether or not to get enrolled."

    "More and more, people are mentioning the sticks as well as the carrots," said Katherine Hempstead, director of health insurance coverage for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that has helped facilitate the insurance expansion under Obama's law.

    Administration officials are looking for a balance.

    "We need to be make sure that we are very clear and explicit about that $695 penalty so people understand the choice they are making," said spokeswoman Lori Lodes. But she said the main emphasis will stay on the benefits of having health insurance and how the law's subsidies can dramatically lower the cost of monthly premiums.

    Unpopular Mandate

    The requirement that individuals get health insurance or face fines remains the most unpopular part of President Barack Obama's health care law, a prime target of Republican repeal efforts. It started at $95 or 1 percent of income in 2014. The fact that it's gone up so much may take consumers by surprise.

    But many experts consider the mandate essential to Obama's overall approach, as does the insurance industry. The law forbids insurers from turning away people with health problems, and the coverage requirement forces healthy people into the insurance pool, helping to keep premiums in check. After 2016, the fines will rise with inflation.

    This year was the first time the IRS collected the penalties, deducting them from taxpayers' refunds for the 2014 tax year in most cases. Some 7.5 million households paid penalties totaling $1.5 billion, an average of $200 apiece, according to preliminary IRS data. Separately, another 12 million households claimed exemptions from the mandate because of financial hardships or other reasons.

    Although Obama's law is five years old and has survived two Supreme Court challenges, administration officials say the upcoming open enrollment season won't be easy. It may be a struggle to just keep about the same number of people covered.

    The administration has set a goal of 10 million customers enrolled and paying their premiums by the end of 2016 on HealthCare.gov and state insurance markets. That's roughly the number covered now, well below what congressional budget analysts had estimated for 2016. The administration expects most will be returning customers, but 3 million to 4 million will be people who are currently uninsured.

    Among the difficulties for next year: Premiums are expected to go up more than they did this year, even if subsidies cushion the cost. The most eager customers have already signed up. And many of those remaining may have other financial priorities for their tight budgets, like car repairs or putting money in savings accounts.

    Sign-up season starts Nov. 1 and runs through Jan. 31. As a result of the law, the share of people in the United States lacking health insurance is at a historic low of about 9 percent, and the White House wants to keep that trend going during Obama's last full year in office.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks ended with slight gains Monday as investors were cautious at the start of a heavy week of earnings, but advances in top tech names gave some support.

    The Dow and S&P 500 pared losses late in the session while the Nasdaq added to gains. Nike, up 2.1 percent, helped the Dow.

    The energy index fell 1.9 percent as U.S. crude oil fell 2.9 percent. Copper fell after data showed a slowdown in China's economic growth.

    Exxon (XOM) fell 1.8 percent to $80.99 and Chevron (CVX) fell 1.4 percent to $90.03, the biggest drags on the S&P 500 and the Dow.

    After such a significant rally, we're back at a level where we anticipated we'd see a little pressure.

    "Energy and oil prices were down today, the industrials and materials sectors, so that took a little bit off the enthusiasm for equities," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia.

    "After such a significant rally, we're back at a level where we anticipated we'd see a little pressure."

    Morgan Stanley (MS) shares fell 4.8 percent to $32.32. The bank's profit fell for the second straight quarter, capping mostly downbeat quarterly results from major U.S. banks.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 14.57 points, or 0.1 percent, to 17,230.54, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 0.55 points, or 0.03 percent, to 2,033.66 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 18.78 points, or 0.4 percent, to 4,905.47.

    Corporate Earnings

    Several Dow components are posting quarterly results this week, including Caterpillar (CAT), Boeing (BA) and Coca-Cola (KO). S&P 500 earnings are expected to have declined about 4 percent in the third quarter from a year ago, according to Thomson Reuters data.

    China's economic growth slowed to 6.9 percent between July and September, still ahead of the 6.8 percent forecast.

    U.S. homebuilder sentiment improved in October, with the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market index rising more than expected. An index of housing stocks was up 0.3 percent.

    Weight Watchers (WTW) more than doubled in value to $13.92 after it said Oprah Winfrey will buy a 10 percent stake in the company and join its board.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 1,655 to 1,421, for a 1.16-to-1 ratio on the downside; on the Nasdaq, 1,382 issues rose and 1,381 fell for a 1.00-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The S&P 500 posted 22 new 52-week highs and 3 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 53 new highs and 40 new lows.

    What to watch Tuesday:
    • The Commerce Department releases housing starts for September at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Labor Department reports on state unemployment for September at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to report quarterly financial results:
    • Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG)
    • Discover Financial Services (DFS)
    • Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB)
    • Harley Davidson (HOG)
    • Lockheed Martin (LMT)
    • United Technologies (UTX)
    • Verizon Communications (V)
    • Yahoo (YHOO)

     

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    General Views Of Chain Stores Ahead Of Sales Figures
    Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Terence Loose

    Begun by Sam Walton in 1983 with one store aimed at helping other small-business owners get deals by buying in bulk, Sam's Club has grown into a popular warehouse store. Today, its 650-plus locations are aimed at helping anyone find bargains on everything from toilet paper to TVs.

    But not everything in Sam's Club is a good deal. Some of Sam's offers should be, well, left to Sam. GOBankingRates asked a group of top savings experts to sniff out the best deals at Sam's Club -- and the worst. Click through to find out how to get the most bang for your buck.

    10 Best Sam's Club Deals

    Do you want to know what Sam's Club deals probably live up to Sam's standards? Here are 10 of the best Sam's Club deals.

    1. Batteries. Energy is expensive -- especially when it comes in the small, portable form. But Sam's Club can help, said Regina Conway, consumer expert for Slickdeals.net. "You'll pay as much as $1 less per battery than if you purchased them full price at the grocery store," she said. And, this is one item where it pays to stock up. "Check expiration dates, but these should be several years out, so it makes sense to buy in bulk," said Conway.

    2. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs. While she suggests always comparison shopping for medications, Conway said Sam's Club should be on the list -- whether you're a member or not. "Because of drug regulations, the stores cannot require you to be a member to buy prescription medications," she said. That can pay off. "Some medicine carried there can cost as much as 50 percent less than local pharmacies," said Conway.

    3. Christmas trees. Apparently, Sam's Club is a great place to get into the holiday spirit, thanks to deals on that most important Christmas decoration. Sam's Club, along with other warehouse stores, stock up on trees, making it easy for them to give great prices, said Conway. "Bear in mind, however, that negotiating opportunities will be thin at warehouse stores," she warned. "[Also] check out the faux tree deals at the warehouse stores. They'll get you through several seasons, saving you more each year."

    4. Eggs, butter and cheese. You can find good deals on eggs, butter and cheese at Sam's Club, said Teri Gault, CEO of TheGroceryGame.com. "Eggs, butter and cheese are almost always the best possible price any time of year," she said. "Expect to save 30 to 50 percent compared to supermarkets. This is due to the fact that these are staples that don't often have high-value coupons, and the most competitive sales at supermarkets are usually only on certain holiday sales events."

    5. Brand-name tires. Pushing your tires until they're as bald as an eagle isn't smart, and thanks to Sam's Club, you won't have to, said Jeanette Pavini, savings expert with Coupons.com. "Aside from attractive prices, Sam's Club's $15 per tire installation package includes services like 24-hour emergency roadside services for three years and lifetime tire balance, rotation and flat repair," said Pavini.

    6. Movie tickets. Going to a dinner and a movie isn't as cheap as it used to be. So, Pavini suggested cutting the cost by picking up movie tickets (and maybe snacks?) at Sam's Club. "We found two adult tickets for $16.98," she said. "Since you're typically buying a voucher you can exchange for a ticket, make sure you use it at a peak time. For example, use it on an early-bird matinee and you may lose money. But use it on an evening show, and you'll come out ahead."

    7. Televisions. If need a new TV, you'll want to do careful comparison shopping. But, you'll also want to include Sam's Club in the mix, said Lindsay Sakraida, director of content marketing at DealNews.com. "Sam's Club occasionally features TVs at competitive prices, making them a major player to consider when perusing for a big-screen set," she said. "However, most of the deals apply to lesser-known brands, like Vizio."

    8. Health screenings. We all know that health care is expensive, which is why a free health screening could be the best deal at Sam's Club. "Periodically throughout the year, Sam's Club will offer free health screenings for men and women that check for blood pressure, body fat percentage, total cholesterol, glucose/HDL cholesterol and vision," said Sakraida.

    9. Gift cards. Hardly anything is better than free money to spend on your favorite meal or song, which is why you should take advantage of discounted gift cards at Sam's Club. "Many people don't realize that they can score deals on gift cards, but Sam's Club will offer price cuts on cards for the likes of Applebee's, Fandango, Outback Steakhouse and iTunes," said Sakraida. For example, a $100 worth of P.F. Chang's gift cards sold for $79.98 on the Sam's Club website.

    10. Party food. When it's time to party, count Sam in. "Most food items sold in large quantities are not only a great deal but will keep you stocked for large family or work gatherings," said Conway. "From frozen appetizers and finger foods to desserts and gift baskets, you'll save 30 percent over local supermarket deals." Her one warning is not to buy more than you need. Waste is a bargain hunter's worst enemy.

    10 Worst Sam's Club Deals

    Avoiding bad deals is just as important as jumping at good ones. So, here are 10 Sam's Club deals you might want to skip.

    1. Meat. Grab the eggs, butter and cheese, but leave the meat, said Gault. "The one or two featured meat sales at supermarkets will beat warehouse club stores by a lot," she said. She suggests bulking up on supermarket meat sales. "Invest for your freezer. There's always one or two sales a week that are 50 to 67 percent off, and lower than warehouse club stores," Gault added.

    2. Some produce. Warehouse stores like Sam's Club don't offer seasonal sales on produce, so often you'll find much better deals at your supermarket when it features a seasonal sale, said Gault. "I always say bring the sales circular, or look it up on your smartphone before you pay 50 percent more or even twice as much," she said.

    3. Toilet paper and paper towels. Paper products tend to be a pretty flimsy deal at Sam's Club and other warehouse stores, said Conway. Per sheet, toilet paper ends up being roughly the same price at the grocery store and Sam's Club. However, with a sale or coupon, you can easily find a better deal at the grocery store, she said. "Papers towels cost 50 percent less at merchants such as Target or the grocery store when on sale," added Conway.

    4. Luggage. The good news: Sam's Club has high-quality suitcases, said Conway. The bad news: They're more expensive than using an online coupon code. "Macy's, for example, has a two-piece Samsonite luggage set comparable to that at the warehouse clubs for a lower price," she said. "Coupled with a coupon code for 15 to 20 percent off available at Slickdeals.net, the savings are even greater."

    5. Coffee. This is another good news, bad news scenario, according to Pavini. "You can get really great deals on coffee when you shop at warehouse stores, but here's the catch: Coffee is only at its peak for a limited amount of time," she said. "So while you'll certainly save buying the 2-pound bag of coffee, it may not be optimum quality by the time you reach the bottom of the bag."

    Pavini suggested grabbing a coupon and hitting the grocer instead. "Recently, I found around a dozen coffee-related offers in the beverage section at Coupons.com," she said.

    6. Soda. Soda, the young guns' coffee. But don't look to Sam to give you the bargain basement price. Grocery stores often have great sales on soda around popular holidays and sports events, said Conway. "Typically, during these sales cycles, you can expect to pay about 17 cents per can at the grocery store versus the normal low price at a warehouse club for 25 cents per can," she said.

    Pavini recommends doing your soda bulk shopping at a grocery store instead of Sam's Club. "If you're planning to buy in bulk anyways, you can often find good deals at grocery stores, like buy two 12-packs and get three free."

    7. Cereal. Yes, you can buy jumbo boxes of cereal for a seemingly good price at Sam's Club, but often you can do a lot better if you wait for sales at the grocery store and use a coupon, said Pavini. "Since cereal coupons are one of the most popular coupon categories, there are always deals to be had," she said. "Plus, while unopened cereal will last for months in your pantry, once opened the big boxes may get stale before you get to the bottom."

    8. Condiments. Sure, that gallon of mayonnaise might be a fantastic price, but do you really want or need that much? Pavini said that considering the possibility of waste, it might be more penny-wise to wait for the fridge-sized condiments to go on sale at the supermarket. "Keep in mind that fatty-based products, like mayonnaise and olive oil, have a shorter shelf life once opened," she added. "Make sure you're able to finish it before it goes bad, or it's wasted money -- no matter how good the deal."

    9. Pantry items. Packaged foods -- canned foods, pancake mix, salad dressing and almost anything in the center of the supermarket aisles-- are cheaper when on sale at supermarkets than at Sam's Club, said Gault. "The sale price is usually 20 to 40 percent less," she explained. "Adding a coupon makes the regular-size boxes on sale often half the cost per unit or cost per ounce than the huge bulk packages at warehouse club stores."

    10. Membership fee. If you haven't joined yet but are thinking of spending $45 or $100 for a Sam's Club membership, Conway said you should hold out for a deal. "LivingSocial and Groupon feature deals approximately every three months or so for Sam's Club discounted membership rates, plus store gift cards," she said. With the store incentives, it's practically a free membership.

    "If you're shopping for a membership, set a 'Deal Alert' on Slickdeals.net," advised Conway. "You'll receive an email notification when a deal matching your criteria becomes available."

    This story, 10 Best and Worst Deals at Sam's Club, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Doctor examining patient
    Getty ImagesReducing your medical bills starts with picking the right health plan for you.
    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    It doesn't matter how much you spend on health care; you probably wish you spent less.

    Fortunately for consumers today, there are a number of tools and resources available to reduce the cost of medical bills. It starts with picking the best health plan for your family and ends with committing to a healthy lifestyle.

    Here are seven ways to help you lower your health care spending and live a healthy life.

    Pick the Right Health Insurance Plan

    Your health insurance plan is critical when it comes to keeping your health care costs low. But with so many plans on the market, it can be difficult to find the right coverage for your family. When comparing policies, consider the following:
    • Premium: Often paid monthly, the premium is what you spend to buy the policy.
    • Deductible: The amount you pay out-of-pocket for care before your policy begins to pay for most medical costs.
    • Copayments: Usually a flat amount paid per visit or service.
    • Coinsurance: Represents your portion of the bill, typically assessed as a percentage of the billable amount.
    • Network: The health care providers and facilities that accept the insurance policy.
    • Coverage: The care covered by the policy. Some services must be covered by law but others, such as dental and vision, are optional.
    If your family expects to have high medical bills, then paying a higher premium in exchange for lower out-of-pocket costs may be a smart choice. If you're relatively healthy, a high-deductible plan with lower premiums could save you money.

    Use an HSA with Eligible High-Deductible Plans

    Consumers who decide to go with a high-deductible plan should check to see if they are eligible for a health savings account, known as an HSA. Ryan Tiernan, who is the founder of Access Point HSA and helps businesses set up HSAs for employees, says they can be a major source of tax savings.

    "They are triple tax-free," he says. "Money goes in tax-free, grows tax-free and comes out tax-free [when used for qualified medical expenses]."

    Even better, companies that offer HSAs as part of a benefits package often match deposits into an account. "[Many] employers are making some type of match," Tiernan says. "That's a huge win." A June 2014 report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that over half of HSAs have employer contributions.

    Money deposited into an HSA rolls over each year and can be used tax-free for medical expenses, even if your insurance changes.

    Make the Most of Wellness Programs

    As employers work to control their health care costs, many are offering wellness programs for their workers. While programs vary, they often give workers a discount on their health insurance premium for doing one or more of the following:
    • Participating in biometric screenings, such as checking blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
    • Completing a health risk assessment, usually in the form of a questionnaire.
    • Enrolling in a physical activity program.
    In 2015, employers are expected to dole out $693 an employee in wellness incentives, according to a survey of 121 companies by Fidelity and the National Business Group on Health.

    Let a Discount Card Fill the Gaps

    Unless you have Cadillac coverage, you'll probably find your health insurance won't cover some services. In that case, a health care discount card might be able to reduce your costs. Not to be confused with insurance, these cards offer reduced rates on services offered by participating providers.

    Anyone can get a discount card, and many charge a monthly or annual fee. Allen Erenbaum, president of Consumer Health Alliance, a trade association for discount health care programs, says the cost can be easily recouped through the savings. "You use it as often as you need it," he says.

    To get the most value, Erenbaum recommends using the following guidelines before paying for a card.
    • Check the list of participating providers to see who accepts the card. If a list is not available before buying, that could be a red flag.
    • Look for plans that allow you to try it for 30 days and get a refund within that period if you're not satisfied.
    • Review the list of included and excluded services. It should be clear what care is discounted.
    Discount cards can be purchased individually or obtained through employers or professional organizations.

    Shop Around for the Best Price

    Mitch Rothschild, chairman and founder of the health care ratings and reviews site Vitals.com, says consumers can save a significant amount of money simply by changing their health care provider or using a generic prescription.

    There ought to be an alarm bell that goes off in a patient's mind when you're doing anything other than routine care.

    He describes one self-insurer employer who gives employees a $500 rebate if they choose to have a certain procedure done at an outpatient facility rather than a hospital. While the hospital charges $10,000 for the service, the outpatient facility only bills $1,500. To encourage workers to choose the cheaper option, the company shares the savings.

    Even if you're not getting a rebate for selecting a less expensive facility, it can still save you money in the form of lower copayments and coinsurance. "There ought to be an alarm bell that goes off in a patient's mind when you're doing anything other than routine care," Rothschild says. That bell should indicate it's best to shop around before selecting where to have a service performed.

    Sam Ho, executive vice president and chief medical officer for insurer UnitedHealthcare, notes his company offers the UnitedHealth Premium designation program that evaluates the quality and cost-effectiveness of 250,000 physicians across 27 specialties. Other insurers offer similar information on their websites for members. "Health care quality and costs can vary significantly within a city so consumers should evaluate what resources are available through their health plan to identify high-quality, efficient health care providers," Ho says.

    Get Your Free Preventive Care

    It's often less expensive to treat minor problems than major medical issues. By taking advantage of your health plan's free preventive services, you may be able to identify potential areas of concern before they balloon into something bigger.

    Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, all health insurance plans must include a number of preventive services free of charge, without any deductible, copay or coinsurance requirements. These free services range from a number of cancer screenings and immunizations to well-woman and well-child visits.

    Other preventive care may not be free but still shouldn't be neglected. "Annual check-ups, dental cleanings and routine eye exams can help identify chronic conditions, as well as facilitate necessary follow-up treatments with primary care physicians and specialists," Ho says.

    Make Smart Lifestyle Choices

    Chronic disease is responsible for 86 percent of the country's health care costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of these conditions are attributable to unhealthy lifestyle choices.

    Besides costing money for disease management, chronic conditions can land you in the hospital, which is not the cheapest place to be. "Generally speaking, hospitals are big, inefficient, expensive places," Rothschild says.

    In 2012, the average cost for a surgical stay in a U.S. hospital was $21,200, according to the government Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Medical stays had an average price tag of $8,500, and maternal and neonatal stays averaged $4,300. However, some procedures can cost significantly more. Governing magazine analyzed government data and found that California hospitals charge an average of $150,000 for a major joint replacement.

    You can reduce your chances of developing a chronic condition or needing to be hospitalized by eating a balanced diet, staying active and avoiding risky behaviors.

    Health care costs can take a bite out of your budget, but you aren't helpless. Putting these strategies into action can help you lower costs and keep more money in your pocket.

    Maryalene LaPonsie is freelance writer who has been reporting on personal finance, retirement, higher education and insurance for more than seven years. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, circle her on Google Plus or check out her personal website at The Mighty Widow.

     

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    Getty ImagesBeware of actively managed funds that come with higher fees.
    By Steve Nicastro

    The 401(k) is a big chunk of America's retirement nest egg. Among Fidelity account holders, the average 401(k) balance was $91,100 at the end of the second quarter this year.

    It's favored for retirement saving for a few reasons: It allows for tax-deferred growth, it's funded by paycheck deferrals and many companies offer to match a percentage of employee contributions.

    But all 401(k) plans aren't created equal, and there are some universal downsides to these accounts. Here are five things you need to know about your 401(k).

    1. Administrative fees could be costing you big bucks. 401(k) plans are an expensive offering from the employer's perspective: There are costs associated with providing the plan, for everything from paperwork to accounting and legal fees.

    These administrative costs, combined with investment expenses, can total 1 percent or more and add up to nearly $140,000 over the lifetime of a worker whose salary starts around $30,000 at age 25, according to analysis by the Center for American Progress, a public policy research organization.

    Some employers swallow administrative costs on behalf of the employee, but others pass them along, either dividing those costs equally between plan participants or charging a percentage of assets (which means employees with larger account balances pay more).

    A 2013 study by NerdWallet found that 9 in 10 employees underestimate their 401(k) fees. To avoid that, here are a few tips to better understand your 401(k) plan fees.

    2. Your investment selection is puny. According to the nonprofit Plan Sponsor Council of America, 401(k)s offer an average of 19 fund choices, a small selection compared to what you'd be able to access in an individual account like an IRA.

    "Generally, what you find is more of these passive index funds that charge less, and then there are these little landmines -- actively managed higher-fee funds -- mixed in," says David Hunter, a certified financial planner with Horizons Wealth Management in the Carolinas.

    Actively managed funds are landmines because they can be more expensive for investors: They are managed by professionals, and investors in the fund pay for that service as part of the expense ratio, the annual fee charged by the fund. The asset-weighted expense ratio of active funds in 2014 was 0.79 percent, according to Morningstar (MORN), compared to 0.20 percent for passive funds.

    "Investors want to be aware of these fees and, to the extent they can, tilt [their] investment portfolio toward lower-cost funds," says Walter Updegrave, editor of the website Real Deal Retirement. "If investors choose those, that can make a big difference in how their nest egg grows over time."

    On $100,000 invested over 35 years at a 7 percent return, the difference between a 0.79 percent fee and a 0.20 percent fee could add up to more than $175,000.

    3. Target-date funds can have a dark side. Many 401(k)s auto-enroll participants these days; that is, your investments are automatically chosen for you. If you don't make investment selections, the default option is typically a target-date fund, a kind of mutual fund that is tied to a retirement year and rebalances to take less risk as that year draws near. But many target-date funds are actively managed and carry higher expense ratios. Even if you're auto-enrolled in your plan, you want to take a look at your investment options.

    "If you're being auto-enrolled into a target-date fund, look at what the expense level is and whether you may be able to come up with a similar asset mix out of index funds and do better on expenses," Updegrave says.

    Keep in mind, however, that target-date funds do the work of rebalancing for you, which is part of the reason you may pay a premium. If you invest in index funds, you'll need to keep an eye on your allocation and rebalance as necessary.

    4. Employer contributions can vanish if you leave your job. An employer match is one of the biggest reasons to contribute to a 401(k): It's free money that makes potentially higher fees worth it. But that's only if you stay in your job long enough to keep it.

    The Plan Sponsor Council of America annual survey reports only about 39 percent of plans provide immediate vesting of employer contributions. In other companies, employer matching funds vest by a certain percentage each year, or as a whole after three, four or even five years. That means if you leave before you are vested, you may be giving up some or all of those matching dollars.

    5. Your auto-enrollment contribution isn't enough. Plans that auto-enroll participants generally do so at a contribution rate of 3 percent or 4 percent, which isn't enough to make for a financially secure retirement.

    "You want to save 10 percent, and ideally 15 percent," Updegrave says. "You can include an employer match in those figures, but 3 percent or 4 percent is not going to be nearly enough for most people's retirement needs."

    On a $50,000 salary, contributing 3 percent a year over 35 years will leave you with a retirement savings of only a little over $300,000 -- and that's with a 7 percent return and salary increases of 3 percent a year and no employer match.

    You should contribute at least enough to capture all matching dollars, but aim to inch up your contribution each year until you're saving 10 percent to 15 percent of your salary.

    -Arielle O'Shea of NerdWallet contributed to this article.

    Steve Nicastro is a financial writer for NerdWallet.com, where he covers topics such as investing, credit cards, mortgages and insurance. He previously was an editor at Patch.com and contributor to Seeking Alpha and GoBankingRates.com.

     

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    By Stacy Rapacon

    The season of giving can take a whole lot out of your wallet. In 2014, the National Retail Federation estimates that consumers spent an average $460 just on gifts for their families. Pile on top of that all of the food, decorations, clothing and other presents most people splurge on for the holidays, and your budget is sure to get bloated.

    Ideally, you'd have saved throughout the year in preparation for the pricey festivities. But even if holiday costs didn't creep into your budget until now, you still have time to tally up plenty of extra cash before Black Friday. With our suggested strategies, we figure that you can cobble together more than $1,000 in extra savings, based on average costs and listed retail prices. Of course, how much you can actually save depends on your specific situation and which moves you make. (Check out 30 Ways to Waste Your Money for even more ideas to trim your spending.) Still, our examples go to show that you can save a grand in just two months with a few simple budget adjustments -- whether you need the money for holiday spending or other financial goals.

    1. Reshop your auto insurance. The cost of car insurance can vary greatly for each driver, and you're likely paying more than necessary. Make sure you're getting the best deal possible by comparing plans from different insurers using tools from Insurance.com, InsWeb or Nerdwallet. Monthly rates in New Jersey for my 2004 Honda CR-V, for example, range from $65 to $235 on NerdWallet. You can also work with a local independent insurance agent who can shop for you; find one through TrustedChoice.com. (See 3 Simple Steps to Reshop Your Car Insurance.)

    You might also be able to save if you can prove you're a good driver. For example, Progressive and Allstate respectively offer trackers Snapshot and Drivewise that monitor your track record and help you save if you practice good driving habits. (Snapshot collects your driving data for 30 days before you start saving.) Progressive estimates that safe drivers can save up to 30% off their premiums. Given an average of $1,311 for car insurance costs, that can mean more than $390 in annual savings -- or about $33 each month.

    Two months of savings: $340 if you switch from the priciest policy to the lowest-cost alternative.

    2. Eat at home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, consumers spent an average of about $2,800 on dining out in 2014 -- or $233 each month. Brown-bag your lunch and trade restaurant dinner dates for romantic nights this fall to cut those meal costs by two-thirds or more.

    Planning and preparing your meals for the week ahead of time will help you resist the costly ease of eating out or ordering in. (See Money-Smart Ways to Eat Healthy and 10 Ways to Save Money on Groceries Without Coupons.)

    Two months of estimated savings: $310-plus.

    3. Drive less. Leave your car in the garage on workdays throughout the fall to cut daily costs on parking, gas, tolls and even the occasional ticket. If your daily commute is 10 miles round-trip and you spend $20 for daily parking (the average monthly parking rate in New York City, for example, is $445), we estimate that you can save $24.75 a day by biking instead of driving to work. Even if your savings are, say, a more modest $20 per day and if you only opt to cycle into work every other day, the savings can really add up. (Try our calculator to crunch the numbers for your own commute.) Carpooling and public transportation are other options, albeit with their own costs.

    Two months of estimated savings: $200-plus via 10 car-free commutes.

    4. Cut the cable cord. You don't need to pay for cable to enjoy watching television. Most of your favorite shows are likely available online or through streaming services for little to no cost. According to the Federal Communications Commission, the average price for expanded basic cable TV service is $66 a month.

    But many network sites share top shows for free the day after they air. Or you can subscribe to a streaming service, such as Amazon Prime, to get access to whole libraries of shows and movies for $8 to $9 a month. If you must watch live, you can access more than 20 channels -- including AMC, the Disney channel and ESPN -- and still save by using Sling TV for $20 a month.

    Two months of savings: $132.

    5. Trim your cellphone bill. Leaving your mainstream wireless carrier can save you a bundle. With Straight Talk Wireless, you can get a 30-day cell-phone plan for just $45 that includes unlimited talk, texts and data. By comparison, Verizon offers no such limitless plan, but does have a 12GB data option, which the company deems suitable for what it calls "big-time data users," for $80 a month that includes unlimited talk and text. (See Best Cellphone Plans for Every Type of User.)

    Two months of savings: $70.

    TOTAL POTENTIAL SAVINGS: $1,052-plus.

     

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    By Louis Ramirez

    Buying a new phone used to be easy. You paid your carrier $199 for a new smartphone, agreed to a 2-year contract, and were on your merry way. Today, however, buying a new mobile device and wireless plan is a nightmare.

    Carriers are moving away from the old subsidized model, in the hopes that consumers are willing to pay full price for their smartphones in exchange for slightly cheaper data plans. Moreover, some carriers now offer leasing options, and with manufacturers such as Apple and Google entering the picture, consumers are faced with dozens of choices.

    The good news is, if you can navigate this maze, you might actually get a plan that's cheaper in the long run than your old subsidized one. But, in many ways, it's incredibly confusing to make sense of it all. Below are a few smartphone-buying pitfalls to watch out for.

    Plans Aren't Transparent

    Cellphone plans were never designed to be consumer-friendly, but these days, they're less transparent than ever. From the industry's ever-changing definition of "unlimited" to the most recent installment and leasing options, if it looks too good to be true, read the fine print. Many unlimited plans involve throttling once you hit a data cap and many promotional prices are subject to change at the carrier's discretion.

    There Are Too Many Leasing Options

    The smartphone industry wants you to upgrade your smartphone every year, and mobile carriers are trying to ensure that this happens. From Sprint to AT&T, carriers are now encouraging their customers to "lease" their smartphones, rather than buy them. For the consumer, that means you get a new smartphone every year. For the carriers, that means you're constantly paying for a phone that will technically never be yours to keep and resell. Moreover, with so many leasing options, it's almost impossible to tell the plans apart.

    Cost of Data is in Flux

    There was a time when customers primarily paid for voice and text messaging. These days, carriers are practically giving that out for free. The cost of data, however, is in flux. While it's true that some carriers like Verizon have tried to make their data plans more transparent, there is still no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to data. And very few carriers let you pay just for the data that you use. Even grandfathered customers are seeing price increases on their unlimited data plans. That means chances are you'll overpay for data regardless of which plan you choose.

    Manufacturers Now Offer Their Own Purchase Plans

    Choices are good for the consumer, but too many choices can complicate matters. Earlier in the year Google launched Project Fi, a mobile virtual network operator that uses cellphone towers from Sprint and T-Mobile in conjunction with WiFi to provide seamless tower-to-WiFi phone coverage. The plan is perhaps the most transparent mobile plan on the market, but for now it only works on select Nexus devices. Google also just announced its own warranty plan called Nexus Protect, which could make some users second-guess their current warranty plan.

    Moreover, last month Apple announced it would offer an iPhone finance plan for customers who prefer to lease their iPhone direct from Apple. Although the plan includes AppleCare, it's one of the more expensive offerings on the market. Unlike the Google example, this is solely for purchasing your phone, and doesn't include wireless service.

    You Can Still Buy Subsidized and Unsubsidized Phone Plans

    Although the industry is making a transition toward unsubsidized plans, certain carriers like AT&T and Verizon will still let customers purchase 2-year subsidized phone plans. For Verizon, you'll need to be grandfathered into your subsidized plan, meaning new customers can only purchase unsubsidized phones. AT&T, however, lets both new and old customers purchase subsidized phones. The catch is you must make your purchase at a brick-and-mortar AT&T store or direct via AT&T's website. You can no longer purchase subsidized AT&T phones via third-party merchants like Best Buy or Apple.

    Unlocked Smartphones Don't Always Work With Every Carrier

    Although pricier than their contract-ridden alternatives, unlocked smartphones have typically been preferred by most users because the latter handhelds give you the freedom to switch carriers whenever you want.

    The average consumer might not know all of the bands that their iPhone 6s supports, and wrongly think an unlocked iPhone can work on any network.

    However, as PC Mag notes, owning an unlocked phone doesn't always mean you can switch to whatever carrier you desire. Unlocked phones typically work only on GSM networks (AT&T and T-Mobile). While there are some models that will work on all of our main networks, finding these specific SKUs can be tricky since they're typically only sold via the manufacturer's website. As a result, the average consumer might not know all of the bands that their latest iPhone 6s supports, and wrongly think an unlocked iPhone can work on any network.

    Roaming Fees Are Still an Issue

    Using your smartphone outside of the United States can create a nightmare scenario for your wallet. That's because many carriers still charge steep roaming fees for the privilege of making calls or using your data plan while abroad. Verizon, for instance, offers a dizzying amount of travel plans, and carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile even offer special plans for cruise ships where, depending on your cruise liner, data can cost upwards of $15/MB. Google's Project Fi is hoping to kill roaming once and for all, but we've still got a long way to go before we can get there.

    Verizon is Already Pushing 5G

    Would you pay a premium for a new 5G smartphone knowing that coverage is still low? Verizon is hoping you will. The carrier recently announced that it would start field-testing its 5G network next year, which according to Verizon is 30 to 50 times faster than its current 4G network.

    However, as rival AT&T points out, the industry has yet to agree on standards for 5G networks, which makes any preliminary talk about 5G nothing but talk.

    Despite the migraine-inducing confusion, today's smartphone plans do have a massive advantage over the previous years' plans, and that's diversity. Consumers now have a wide range of phones and packages to choose from, and although the package that's best for you may not always be apparent, it's better than having little-to-no options whatsoever.

    Do you have more confusing phone industry quirks to add to our list? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

     

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    John Bazemore/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. housing starts rose solidly in September on soaring demand for rental apartments, a sign that the housing market continues to steadily improve even as economic growth has slowed.

    The Commerce Department said Tuesday groundbreaking increased 6.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 1.21 million units. It was the sixth straight month that starts were above 1 million units, pointing to a sustainable housing recovery.

    Economists polled by Reuters had forecast groundbreaking on new homes rising to a 1.15 million-unit pace last month.

    Housing is one of the few bright spots in the economy, which has been slammed by softening global demand and a strong dollar, which have undercut exports. Efforts by businesses to reduce an inventory bulge and weak capital spending in the energy sector have also been a drag.

    Economic activity has braked sharply, with third-quarter growth estimates running below a 1.5 percent annualized rate. The economy grew at a 3.9 percent rate in the second quarter.

    Although residential construction accounts for less than 3 percent of gross domestic product, housing has a broader impact on the economy, with rising home prices boosting household wealth and therefore supporting consumer spending.

    The dollar slipped against the euro, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt were little changed.

    Starts for multifamily projects surged 18.3 percent to a 466,000 unit pace, the highest level since June. Multifamily construction is being driven by demand for rentals, especially by millennials, who can't afford to buy their own homes because of higher prices and debt burdens.

    Groundbreaking for single-family homes, the largest segment of the market, rose 0.3 percent to a 740,000 unit pace. Economists say single-family building is being constrained by land and labor shortages.

    Starts in the South, where most of the home construction takes place, rose 0.6 percent to their highest level since October 2007. Groundbreaking on housing projects in the West was the highest since July 2007.

    Though building permits fell 5 percent to a 1.10 million-unit rate last month, a six-month low, the weakness is likely to be temporary amid strong confidence levels among homebuilders.

    A survey Monday showed builders' confidence rose to a near 10-year high in October, with builders upbeat about current sales conditions and expectations over the next six months.

    Single-family building permits slipped 0.3 percent last month. Multifamily building permits dropped 12.1 percent, with permits for buildings with five units or more falling to their lowest level since December 2014.

    Permits for single-family homes in the South rose to their highest level since January 2008.

     

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    Ted S. Warren/APA forklift operator moves a pallet of goods at an Amazon.com fulfillment center in DuPont, Wash.
    NEW YORK -- Amazon (AMZN) plans to hire 100,000 people for the holidays, a 25 percent jump from last year that reveals a shift in the way we shop.

    The online retailer said Tuesday that it will be hiring across the country for jobs in its fulfillment and sorting facilities. The Seattle company recently hired more than 25,000 people for regular, full-time positions. It hired 80,000 workers last year for the holidays.

    Amazon stands out among retailers, with holiday hiring expected to remain largely unchanged, according to a report from Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

    ...holiday hiring is shifting away from stores and into the warehouses.

    "It used to be that the bulk of holiday hires would be in customer-facing positions on the sales floor and behind the cash register, said CEO said John Challenger. "These extra workers would also help pick up the slack in the backroom, helping to receive and stock increased deliveries. Now, as more and more shopping is completed online, the holiday hiring is shifting away from stores and into the warehouses."

    A mixed hiring picture from retailers is emerging during a dicey period for the U.S.

    Labor Department reported earlier this month that a sharp slowdown in hiring occurred in September. Average hourly wages slipped by a penny and have risen a tepid 2.2 percent in the past year.

    Walmart (WMT) is hiring 60,000 holiday employees, Target (TGT) about 70,000 and Macy's (M) 85,000, which are all about flat compared with last year. Kohl's (KSS) his hiring about 2,000 additional workers. J.C. Penney (JCP) and Toys R Us are hiring fewer, while GameStop (GME) is hiring about 12 percent more workers.

    Amazon.com has more than 90,000 full-time employees at its more than 50 fulfillment centers and 20 sorting facilities in the U.S.

     

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    It seems as if television viewing keeps getting more expensive with every passing year. Cable and satellite television providers continue to pass along escalating programming costs and even folks who "cut the cord" to rely on streaming platforms are realizing that they're not immune to price hikes.

    Netflix (NFLX) has pushed through a pair of increases since the springtime of last year. Amazon.com (AMZN) bumped the annual rate for Amazon Prime -- its all-inclusive subscription service that offers a growing catalog of digital video -- 25 percent higher last year. Even Hulu recently rolled out a premium-priced platform of Hulu Plus that strips away commercial interruptions.

    You want video entertainment, but you probably don't want to pay as much as you are paying right now. That's understandable. Let's go over a few ways that you can save money without sacrificing too much of what you're already enjoying.

    1. Know When to Cancel Premium Movie Channels

    If you only subscribe to Showtime for "Homeland," what are you doing paying for it all year long? Why not just subscribe to the premium channel when the show you actually watch is airing new episodes? Better yet, wait until the final month of the season to subscribe, catching the earlier episodes on-demand along the way. Then just cancel with your service provider until you're ready to hop on again.

    This naturally won't work if you're watching several shows on the channel that are staggered across the calendar year, but if you're not making the most of your premium channel subscription all year long, there's no reason you can't just be a seasonal subscriber.

    2. Install an HD Antenna

    Buying an over-the-air antenna has been a popular investment for cord cutters. The most popular models cost as little as $30, and even hiring a tech-savvy handyman to set everything up shouldn't cost you more than $100 or so beyond that.

    The allure of the over-the-air antenna is that you should be able to receive the local VHF and UHF channels in high-def for free -- just like the old days. It's a popular move for millennials cutting their cable providers loose. They can then pair up Netflix or any other streaming service with access to local news and shows from the major network affiliates.

    However, even if you decide not to let your cable or satellite television lapse, an HD antenna could come in handy the next time you have a pay-TV or Internet outage.

    3. Sports Don't Have to Cost You an Arm and a Leg

    The most compelling reason to stay with a rising-cost cable or satellite TV plan is sports programming. Netflix has recently reminded the public that it has no intention to dive into the costly market of live sports that offers little in replay value.

    There's a reason that Disney's (DIS) ESPN is the most expensive channel -- by far -- in basic cable packages. ESPN was the exclusive domain of pay TV, but earlier this year it rolled out as a channel in Sling TV, the Web-based television service that for $20 a month includes several channels. ESPN is one of them.

    Local affiliates of major networks also offer plenty of sports programming, and that's another good reason to invest in an over-the-air high-def antenna.

    There's also a growing number of leagues offering streaming access for a modest price. There have never been so many ways to get into the game. Play accordingly.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Netflix and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon.com, Netflix, and Walt Disney. 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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