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    Retire at 75? That'll Be the Norm for Today's College Grads

    By Landon Dowdy

    As if student-loan debt wasn't enough of a burden for new college graduates. A report predicts that young workers will need to work until they're 75 on average to save enough for retirement.

    Researchers at Nerdwallet, the financial site that published the report Wednesday, blamed rising rents and student debt levels. "Millennials are facing a unique challenge in ever-rising student debt that is really impacting their ability to save early in their careers," said NerdWallet investing manager Kyle Ramsay.

    Meanwhile, the cost of renting a home in the U.S. has risen to its least affordable levels ever, taking up a record proportion of income in most major cities, according to a study from property website Zillow (Z). Renters in the U.S. can now expect to pay around 30.2 percent of their monthly income for rent on average, even more in some high-cost areas like Los Angeles, New York and Miami.

    The NerdWallet calculations were made based on a 23-year-old saving 6 percent of his or her salary (the median savings rate for that age group) who graduated owing $35,051, the average student loan debt carried by 2015 graduates.

    But there are ways to tilt the balance in the other direction.

    You might be laughing now at your friends who moved back in with mom and dad after graduating from college, but they may get the last laugh.

    According to NerdWallet's calculations, if that same new graduate lives at home until age 25, he or she could retire five years earlier at 70. (That's still eight years later than the current average retirement age.)

    "It may not be the best course of action" to move out just because you can, said Deena Katz, a certified financial planner and associate professor at Texas Tech University. "Even if you contribute (while living at home), it will be less expensive than going out on your own."

    Ramsay agrees. "There are expenses you can't control and there are those that you can and the ability to save on something like rent by living at home is a great option," he said. If that's not an option, consider getting a roommate or two.

    Lowering your housing costs means you can also put more money toward paying off your student loan debt. There also are other steps you can take to speed up the pay-off process and lower your overall balance.

    First, consider all of your repayment options for federal student loans. The Department of Education's federal student aid website offers seven repayment plans, including some that allow you to tie loan payments to your income and even have some of your balance forgiven.

    For two plans -- income-based repayment and "pay as you earn" -- you'll generally make payments no higher than 10 to 15 percent of your discretionary income. Remaining balances on your federal loans will be forgiven after 20 to 25 years as long as you've made your payments on time. There's also a public service loan forgiveness program through which the remaining balance on your loans will be forgiven after you've made 120 qualifying monthly payments while working full-time for a qualifying employer in sectors like public safety, education or the military.

    Katz said such plans are "an excellent idea, particularly if you are prepared to go into certain [public service] programs."

    Another option for lowering your monthly payments is to refinance your loan through a private lender like SoFi, CommonBond or Earnest. If you have had time to build up your credit and still have a lot of debt to pay off, this might be a good option. Most private lenders require proof of steady employment and a minimum credit score of 640.

    Some employers are also willing to make a lump-sum payment toward the loan as part of the compensation package if you guarantee them you'll stay there a minimum number of years.

    If you are able to cut back on other expenses, that will also free up money to pay down your debt and start investing for your retirement. Even contributing $10 or $20 a week toward your retirement can make a difference. "You've got the wonderful, magical world of compounding, so whatever you save today is worth much more [in the future]," said Katz.

     

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    Senior man pouring prescription medication into hand, close-up
    Getty Images
    By Ellen Chang

    Prescription drug prices are expected to spike again, especially among some generic medications, following last year's swift increase.

    Even among generic medications, prices have risen several hundred percentage points, increasing the burden for consumers who are already saddled with higher health care costs and other debt. The rapid increase has been a surprise even to some pharmacists, prompting the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging to look into the issue last November. Hillary Clinton has even made the fight for cheaper drugs a significant campaign issue. While the price to produce drugs could have some effect, the fact that the number of competitors has lessened due to mergers and acquisitions could be a larger contributor.

    "Competition is the most important factor in driving prices down," said Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, a New York-based health care non-profit organization. "The rise in the price in generics is an unfortunate play by insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies to increase profits at the expense of consumers. The continued contraction of the generic industry is not good for consumers, especially when it comes to certain drugs."

    The rise in the cost of generic drugs is alarming, because they entail 80 percent of all prescriptions, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

    A May report by the AARP Public Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit consumer advocacy organization, found that while 73 percent of generic medications declined in price in 2013, 27 percent of them rose. The costs skyrocketed among some commonly used drugs such as doxycycline hyclate, an antibiotic, which rose steeply from $20 for 500 100-milligram capsules in October 2013 to an astounding $1,849 in April 2014. A cholesterol medication, Pravastatin sodium, climbed sharply from $27 to $196 for a one-year supply of 10-milligram tablets.

    A recent survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Menlo Park, California-based non-profit organization focusing on national health issues, found that 54 percent of Americans are taking a prescription drug currently with 24 percent who said paying for these medications is difficult. The survey also found that 72 percent of people said the cost of prescription drugs is unreasonable.

    We expect this trend to continue for consumers who rely on prescription medications.

    After jumping 11 percent during 2014, prescription drug prices have been climbing again over the past year, especially branded drugs which rose by 15.7 percent and specialty drugs which increased 9.43 percent, said Stephany Verstraete, general manager at Truveris, a New York-based drug pricing and benefits analytics company.

    "We expect this trend to continue for consumers who rely on prescription medications," she said.

    Shopping around is essential, because prices can vary widely among pharmacies even in the same ZIP code, said Michael Rea, CEO of Rx Savings Solutions, an Overland Park, Kansas, health care software company used by companies to help their employees find lower cost alternatives to the drugs and cheaper pharmacies. Depending on where you go, a month's supply of a generic medication used to lower cholesterol can vary from $17 to $150, he said.

    Don't hesitate to check with your pharmacist, doctor or an online tool which can compare prices before you head out the door.

    "In every facet of life, Americans are savvy shoppers with the exception being health care," Rea said. "If you're simply looking up a price for a medication in your ZIP code, check out www.medfisher.com."

    Another strategy is to get a second opinion and see if there are other existing therapies which can treat your condition, he said. Companies are overspending money on prescriptions by 22 percent.

    Universal Increases

    "In 2014, prescription drug prices saw the largest price increase across all of the segments of health care," Rea said. "This year is expected to lead the way with the increased use of specialty medications as well as the price spikes seen on many common generic medications that have been around for decades."

    Another smart tactic to employ: bypass the national pharmacy chains and shop at independent community pharmacies to find cheaper alternatives, because those locations are "often able to negotiate lower prices and are price competitive," said Kevin Schweers, spokesman of the National Community Pharmacists Association, the Alexandria, Virginia-based organization which represents independent pharmacies.

    Local pharmacists can recommend generic or alternative medications or inform patients of manufacturer coupons and discounts, he added.

    Check your health insurance plan to determine what type of coverage it provides for certain medications or if it is even covered, said Anthony Lopez, senior manager small business at eHealth.com, an online health insurance exchange based in Mountain View, California.

    "If the drug is not covered or only covered at a high price, ask if there are alternative drugs available that might cost you less out of pocket," he said. "Some mental health drugs like Abilify can run $900 a month, so it's worth asking if less costly options are available."

    Saving Money

    Choosing a plan with a lower deductible can sometimes help consumers save money, because the coverage for prescription drugs might be more comprehensive, requiring them to shell out less money for out of pocket expenses.

    "The first time when people buy coverage on their own, they tend to look only at the monthly premium and overlook copayments and deductibles," Lopez said. "If you use prescription drugs, copayments and deductibles should matter a lot to you."

    Supplemental forms of coverage such as critical illness insurance can be helpful if you have a family history of cancer or other serious medical diagnoses. The payout from a critical illness plan can cover your deductible and other personal costs during an illness or treatment, he said.

    Certain medication types are also worth keeping an eye on to avoid eye-opening price tags.

    "Cancer drugs are notorious for being costly and can put you on the line for your full deductible in no time," Lopez said.

    The outlook for drug prices isn't promising because reductions in prices aren't likely to occur in the near term, said Verstraete.

    "Consumers will find they need to do the leg work themselves to contain the cost of expensive drugs in the current environment," she said.


    Tackling Drug Pricing Reform

     

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    mcdonalds earnings sales fast food breakfast burgers
    Gene J. Puskar/AP
    NEW YORK -- McDonald's (MCD) sales edged up at established U.S. locations during the third quarter, snapping a streak of about two years of quarterly declines.

    The world's largest burger chain also said sales rose 4 percent on a global basis at established locations. In the U.S., the figure rose 0.9 percent. The last time the figure rose in the U.S. was for the third quarter of 2013.

    Shares appeared to be heading for an all-time high shortly before the opening bell Thursday.

    McDonald's is trying to spark a turnaround under CEO Steve Easterbrook, who took over in March. Earlier this month, the chain introduced "all-day breakfast," which lets people order items like the Egg McMuffin whenever they want.

    The chain has also said it is looking to replace its Dollar Menu. McDonald's has moved away from the popular feature, which was introduced in 2002, as costs for ingredients like beef and cheese have climbed and made it difficult for franchisees to make money.

    The company needs to make up lost ground. In the year ago period, sales declined 3.3 percent at established U.S. locations as customer visits dropped. McDonald's has acknowledged that it failed to keep up with changing tastes and that service suffered as its menu mushroomed over the years.

    To win back customers, McDonald's is also making other nips and tucks, like toasting its buns longer and searing burgers to lock in flavor. Easterbrook has said he wants to transform McDonald's into a "modern, progressive burger company."

    Easterbrook expects comparable sales to be positive for the fourth quarter in all segments. In the U.S., the fourth quarter would reflect the beginnings of the all-day breakfast rollout.

    The company, based in Oak Brook, Illinois, has more than 36,000 locations around the world.

    For the three months ended Sept. 30, the company said Australia and the United Kingdom delivered a strong performance. In China, where it was hit with supplier problems, McDonald's said its sales performance was "very strong."

    For the quarter, McDonald's earned $1.31 billion, or $1.40 per share, topping the $1.27 per share analysts expected.

    Revenue was $6.62 billion, also above the $6.41 Wall Street expected, according to FactSet.

    Shares jumped nearly 7 percent to $109.40.

     

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    A Mazda logo hangs on a sign outside the Ed Morse Mazda deal
    D. Kevin Elliott/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    DETROIT -- Mazda says it is recalling 1.2 million older cars and minivans in the U.S. because ignition switches could overheat and catch fire.

    The recall covers the 1990-1996 323 and Protege, the 1993-1998 626, the 1993-1995 929, the 1993-1997 MX-6, the 1989 to 1998 MPV and the 1992-1993 MX-3.

    Mazda says it put too much grease on electrical contact points in the switches when the cars were manufactured. The grease can carbonize and reduce electrical insulation. The company says continuous use can cause electricity to flow between the points and make the switches overheat. That can cause smoke and possible fire.

    Mazda says the problem doesn't affect the cars' operation or safety devices. It says there haven't been any crashes or injuries.

    The recall will start in December.

     

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    national association of realtors september home sales
    Lynne Sladky/AP
    By JOSH BOAK

    WASHINGTON -- Americans snapped up more homes in September, suggesting that the U.S. housing sector remains insulated from global economic turmoil.

    The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that sales of existing homes jumped 4.7 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.55 million. Buying activity rebounded after slipping in August, indicating that demand for housing continues despite a series of recent economic hits: stock market declines, falling factory orders, a slowdown in China, struggles in emerging nations such as Brazil and Turkey, and stagnation in Europe.

    The report adds to the evidence that home sales, and housing activity generally, are trending up.

    The real estate market appears to have reached a stable plateau in recent months, aided by mortgage rates near historic lows and steady job gains that have reduced the unemployment rate to a healthy 5.1 percent. Yet first-time buyers remain scarce and relatively few properties are being listed for sale, capping the potential growth of the sector.

    "The report adds to the evidence that home sales, and housing activity generally, are trending up," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics. "The strength in housing has been offsetting weakness in manufacturing."

    But any further acceleration in sales will depend on more properties coming up for sale.

    Sales have advanced 8.8 percent over the past 12 months, while the number of listings has declined 3.1 percent. The housing market contains 4.8 months' supply of homes, significantly lower than the 6 months associated with a strong market.

    Tight inventories have fueled rising home values. The median home sales price was $221,900 in September, a 6.1 percent annual increase.

    The rising prices have created affordability pressures that could cap sales growth. Prices have increased at nearly three times the annual 2.2 percent increase in hourly average earnings.

    All four geographic regions -- Northeast, Midwest, South and West -- experienced higher sales last month on a seasonally adjusted basis.

    Yet first-time buyers are largely missing from the market.

    Only 29 percent of sales last month went to first-time buyers, a percentage that continues to be significantly lower than the historical share of 40 percent. The younger millennial generation, ages 18 to 34, suffers from a shortage of down payment savings as they cope with lower starting salaries and high student debt loads.

    A recent survey shows that 20 percent of millennials say they need financial help from their parents to buy a home, compared to just 8 percent of the older baby boomer generation who needed parental assistance, according to the finance company Credit Karma.

    Buyers have benefited from low mortgage rates, offsetting some of the cost pressures.

    The 30-year, fixed rate mortgage averaged 3.79 percent this week, substantially below the long-term average of 6 percent, the mortgage firm Freddie Mac said Thursday.

     

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    Amazon Expands Grocery Delivery Service To Los Angeles Area
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
    Having fresh groceries delivered to your door by Amazon.com (AMZN) is going to cost you a bit more now. The leading online retailer announced that most customers receiving AmazonFresh deliveries will have to pay $299 a year for a new PrimeFresh plan.

    We're not talking about folks placing an order for an 18-count box of Pringles or any of the other non-refrigerated edibles available through Amazon's traditional storefront and delivery methods. AmazonFresh is a platform that the dot-com darling originally launched in Seattle a few years ago, offering home delivery of refrigerated, frozen and dry groceries. The groceries are delivered in totes with insulated coolers and frozen gel packs. AmazonFresh has expanded into New York City, Philadelphia and major California markets. Deliveries have been free for orders of $50 or more, but that's now changing.

    Amazon's been testing tiered pricing in California, but AmazonFresh customers in Seattle, New York City, and Philly are now being told that they will need to pay $299 a year to continue to receive groceries at home. That's a lot, but that also includes the traditional Amazon Prime subscription that costs $99 a year. In other words, AmazonFresh is effectively $200 a year for existing Prime shoppers. That's still high, but it's not so bad when you consider the time that you may be wasting at your local supermarket.

    Checking Out

    There is naturally some bellyaching from customers. No one likes to pay more for something. However, this is Amazon. It's the company that sells its own Kindle Fire-branded tablets for as little as $50, and even non-Prime customers can get free shipping on some orders. Amazon prides itself on keeping prices low, and passing those savings on to its customers. If Amazon is rolling out a new $299 annual cover charge, it's probably because it's the most cost-effective way to make the offering financially viable.

    It's not easy to run a grocery delivery service. This isn't a new niche. The sudsy dot-com bubble days had traders buying in and out of Webvan, Peapod and traditional supermarket operators that dreamed of a fleet of refrigerated trucks and distribution centers. It didn't end nicely for many of the pioneers.

    One can always argue that Amazon could just build the costs of doing business into the model. It can raise prices of the merchandise. It can go with a high delivery price per order. The tiered pricing in California that it's testing does include both an annual subscription and a per-delivery charge without an annual subscription.

    However, Amazon can also point to the success of its popular Amazon Prime program. It rolled that out a decade ago, and it has had no problem attracting tens of millions of customers -- even after bumping its annual subscription price from $79 to $99 last year. Just as Amazon Prime customers come to rely on the online giant for more of their merchandise needs after signing up, it's safe to assume that someone paying $299 for PrimeFresh will do more than just place a random order whenever a trip to the supermarket isn't convenient.

    Amazon may as well test this price point now before it continues to expand AmazonFresh throughout the country. If Amazon Prime's success is any indication, there may be some initial resistance to paying in advance for a year of subsidized deliveries, but retention of those who do buy in should be pretty healthy.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon.com. 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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    Company Signs
    Getty Images
    By ANNE D'INNOCENZIO

    NEW YORK -- Best Buy (BBY), the nation's largest consumer electronic chain, will drop all restrictions for free shipping for the holiday season, underscoring big changes in what customers have come to expect when they shop.

    The Minneapolis company typically requires customers to spend at least $35 in order to receive free shipping. Starting Sunday, however, that restriction has been removed as Best Buy aims to compete aggressively with online leader Amazon.com as well as other players like Walmart (WMT) and Target (TGT).

    About 47 percent of consumers polled said that free shipping or shipping promotions are important factors in their decision on where they shop, according to a survey of 7,276 consumers conducted earlier this month for the National Retail Federation.

    Amazon (AMZN) set the standard with its two-day delivery for members of its Prime loyal program, who pay $99 a year.

    Best Buy's free-shipping program runs through Jan. 2.

    The last time Best Buy dropped the shipping fee for all customers was 2012.

    The retailer is also offering a special holiday sales event at 400 of its stores on Nov. 7 that will feature "Black Friday-like deals." Last year's event was limited to Best Buy's Elite and Elite Plus loyalty customers.

    Best Buy has momentum heading into the holiday season as a turnaround spearheaded by CEO Hubert Joly has gains traction. The company is also benefiting from a shift in consumer spending toward big ticket items for the home as home prices rise. An explosion of new gadgets like Apple watch, which is being sold in all Best Buy stores, has also helped.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street Congress Benghazi
    Richard Drew/APHillary Rodham Clinton's testimony before a congressional committee Thursday appears on a television on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- The S&P 500 closed at its highest in two months Thursday as stronger-than-expected earnings from several top companies, including McDonald's, relieved investors' concerns about the profit outlook.

    Adding to the day's optimism, ECB President Mario Draghi said the bank could extend its stimulus program beyond 2016 to boost eurozone growth and boost inflation closer to 2 percent.

    McDonald's (MCD) shares jumped 8.1 percent to $110.87, giving the Dow its biggest boost, after its quarterly results beat estimates as demand recovered in China. EBay (EBAY) rose 13.9 percent to $27.58 after it reported better-than-expected results late on Wednesday.

    Corporate earnings certainly helped because the season started off sort of sluggish and you had some nice surprises today.

    Dow Chemical (DOW) rose 5.1 percent to $49.92 after its results, while the S&P materials index jumped 2.8 percent and led the S&P sector gains along with the industrials, also up 2.8 percent.

    In another sign of diminished concerns, the CBOE Volatility Index -- the market's favored barometer of volatility -- closed at a 2-month low.

    "Corporate earnings certainly helped because the season started off sort of sluggish and you had some nice surprises today," said Eric Kuby, chief investment officer at North Star Investment Management in Chicago.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 320.55 points, or 1.9 percent, to 17,489.16, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 33.57 points, or 1.7 percent, to 2,052.51 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 79.93 points, or 1.7 percent, to 4,920.05.

    Data released Thursday showed new claims for U.S. unemployment benefits rose by 3,000 to 259,000 last week, below the 265,000 expected, while existing home sales increased more than expected to an annual rate of 5.55 million units in September.

    The Federal Reserve, which kept U.S. interest rates unchanged near zero in September, has said it will wait for signs of global economic resilience before pulling the trigger on its first rate hike in nearly a decade.

    Nine of the 10 major S&P sectors were higher. Only health care appeared immune to the upbeat mood, declining about 0.5 percent.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2,312 to 791, for a 2.92-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,777 issues rose and 1,001 fell for a 1.78-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The S&P 500 posted 41 new 52-week highs and 9 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 82 new highs and 91 new lows.

    What to watch Friday:

    Earnings Season

    These selected companies are scheduled to report quarterly financial results:
    • American Airlines (AAL)
    • Procter & Gamble (PG)
    • Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL)
    • Whirlpool (WHR)

     

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    Surprised woman with tablet on couch
    Getty Images
    By Cameron Huddleston

    Anyone can be a victim of identity theft. I know because both my husband and I had our identities stolen this year by thieves who used our personal information to file fraudulent tax returns -- likely in hopes of getting refunds.

    The signs that we were victims were obvious. We received a letter from the IRS stating that it had received our 2014 tax return but needed more information to process it. However, we hadn't filed a return yet. Not long after that, we received a similar letter from the state of Michigan -- only we don't live in Michigan. So it was clear someone else had tried to file a return in our names.

    Identity theft can range from the unauthorized misuse of an existing account, to the misuse of personal information to open new accounts or other fraud, such as the false tax returns that were filed in our name. In 2014 alone, there were an estimated 17.6 million identity theft victims, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

    People typically become aware of identity theft when they're trying to do something such as apply for a loan or rental housing, but are unable to, because their credit has been tarnished by others. "Those are the signs that come up and hit you in the face," said Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that provides free victim assistance.

    Here are five signs that you might be a victim of identity theft and what you can do to limit the damage.

    1. Your Credit Card Rate Rises

    You shouldn't ignore an increase in your credit card's interest rate, Velasquez said. It could be something as benign as the expiration of a low introductory rate you got when you signed up for the card. But it could be a sign that your credit score has tumbled because something in your credit report is making you look like an increased risk and, therefore, you card issuer has hike your rate, she said.

    You can get one free credit report a year from each of the three credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- at Annualcreditreport.com. Check your report for accounts that you didn't open, and for what are called "hard inquiries," which occur when lenders run your credit when you apply for a loan, mortgage or credit card. If you discover hard inquiries on your credit report from companies you haven't authorized to check your credit, that's a sign that someone else is using your name on credit applications, said Paige Hanson, senior manager of educational programs at identity theft protection service LifeLock.

    2. You're Getting Statements for Accounts You Didn't Open

    If you're getting letters about accounts or services that you didn't sign up for, don't assume that there's been a mistake and simply toss them in the trash. This is a red flag that someone could be using your personal information, Hanson said.

    Contact the companies that mailed you the statements and close the accounts immediately. If money is owed, do not offer to pay what is due, Hanson said. If you do so, "you're saying that those charges are mine," and it will be difficult to contest them, she added.

    3. You're Getting Calls From Debt Collectors

    This is one of the more obvious signs of identity theft, but it doesn't always send up a red flag for people, said Robert Siciliano, a security expert with BestIDTheftCompanys.com, which rates identity theft protection services. "You would be amazed at how many people ignore those calls."

    You might assume that calls from people claiming to be bill collectors are actually scams aimed at getting you to divulge your personal information -- and oftentimes they are, Hanson said. For that reason, you should never give information such as your birth date or Social Security number over the phone.

    However, if you are getting calls from collection agencies, Hanson said, you should find out the name of the lender or service you supposedly owe money to, the date the account was open, and the account balance. Then do an Internet search for that company. If it is a scam, you'll likely see reports of it in your search results. If not, call the lender or service directly to find out if it has an account in your name.

    4. Your Auto Insurance Rates Go Up Unexpectedly

    If your auto insurer raises your premium and you can't figure out why, it might be a sign that someone has used your identity to get a driver's license and has racked up traffic violations in your name, Velasquez said. "Take the time to check it out before it becomes a horrible problem," by calling your insurer, she said.

    The signs that someone else is using a driver's license with your name could be much more obvious. For example, local law enforcement might appear at your door with an arrest warrant if an identity thief living as you is pulled over for a traffic violation and doesn't show up for court, Siciliano said. Or you might get mailings from attorneys seeking to represent you for crimes you didn't commit -- but someone posing as you did, Velasquez said.

    5. You Get Ads in the Mail for a Health Condition You Don't Have

    You might be on mailing lists to receive information about medical equipment or treatments depending on what sort of information you've allowed your medical provider to disclose to third parties, Velasquez said. But a large number of mailings with ads to manage a particular health condition that you don't have, is a red flag that someone could be using your personal information to get medical treatment, she said.

    Signs of medical identity theft also can show up in your insurance statements -- those letters you get from your insurer that you likely toss because they say, "This is not a bill," Hanson said. You need to read these statements carefully to make sure that you actually received the services or treatments that medical providers are reporting to your insurer. If you see a claim or the name of a doctor or hospital you don't recognize, contact your insurer immediately, Hanson said.

    What to Do if You're a Victim

    Start by reporting that you're a victim of identity theft to local law enforcement. The police likely won't be able to identify and catch the person who stole your identity, but they will give you an incident report that you'll need to dispute unauthorized accounts, charges or activities in your name, Siciliano said. "Having that report on hand shows lenders that you have government agency that believes you're a victim."

    Contact lenders, companies and service providers to cancel any unauthorized accounts or dispute unauthorized charges. Siciliano recommends placing a security freeze on your credit report, which will prevent the credit reporting agencies from releasing your credit report without your consent. You'll have to place a freeze through each of the three credit bureaus, and may have to pay a small fee, depending on the state where you live. But this fee should be waived if you have a police report showing that you're a victim of ID theft, Hanson said.

    This freeze will stop identity thieves from taking out credit from traditional sources in your name. But they might still be able to get loans in your name from sources that don't require a credit check, such as payday lenders. And the freeze won't stop thieves from using other personal information such as your health insurance policy number or Social Security number.

    This story, 5 Signs You're the Victim of Identity Theft, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Young woman shocked by online fees
    Getty Images
    By Louis DeNicola

    Even when fees are disclosed, there is something about them that is both irritating and frustrating. Why not show the total price upfront, with the fees clearly identified? When consumers don't notice the buried charges until right before payment, or when fees are kept out of sight for months on end, the sense of being ripped off is palpable. Here are 10 fees consumers may not see coming -- or pay without knowing it.

    Unauthorized phone charges. Even legitimate phone fees can be confusing and annoying, but some service providers have tried adding unauthorized fees as well -- a practice called "cramming." Look for and investigate fees listed with vague descriptions such as "calling plan," "membership," or "voicemail." If they don't check out, the Federal Communications Commission has advice on how consumers can protect themselves and file a complaint.

    Modem or router rental. The modems or routers rented out by Internet service providers may be necessary, but the recurring monthly rental fee is easy to forget and may go on long past the value of the device. Spend a little upfront to buy the hardware and avoid the extra monthly charge. The purchase can often pay for itself in less than a year.

    Closing costs. First-time homebuyers agree on a price but can be caught unaware by all the expenses required to finalize the purchase. Property appraisals and inspections, homeowners insurance (often mandatory to obtain a mortgage), and attorney fees are all common for a home sale. They can't be avoided, but some can be decreased by shopping around, and sellers can sometimes be convinced to pay closing costs. Don't forget to leave enough money after fees for moving.

    Overdraft protection. Many people sign up for overdraft protection with their bank because it seems like, well, protection from overdrawing an account. It is true that instead of paying an overdraft charge -- often more than $30 -- funds are transferred from a linked savings account or credit line to avoid bouncing a payment. The transfer, though, usually costs about $10. Instead, investigate whether a bank offers apps or text-message services that let customers transfer money on their own. (Automatic payments, such as subscriptions, may go through despite insufficient funds and can result in an overdrawn account.) Alternatively, opt out of overdraft protection and make sure the bank doesn't charge the service to your account; in that case, a purchase you can't pay for will be declined.

    Investment fees. Investing can be so complicated that many people do not realize the fees they are paying. For example, a financial adviser might take 1 percent each year of the money being managed. And some of the investments may charge fees on top of that: A mutual fund could charge a fee at the initial investment or when the investment is sold. Look out for 12b-1 fees, which pay for marketing but get wrapped up in the total expense ratio (what money managers get paid annually) and try to choose funds without them. Retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s or IRAs, may also impose management fees or make investments with all sorts of expenses. Use the free service FeeX to check current fees and test potential investments.

    Foreign transaction fees. Merchants around the world are happy to take credit cards, but making a purchase in a foreign currency can come with an extra charge. Many credit cards add 1 percent to 3 percent on top of the purchase as a foreign transaction fee. Avoid this by paying with cash, or use a credit card that waives foreign transaction fees.

    Hotel resort fees. Hotels in popular tourist destinations often charge resort fees ranging from $10 to more than $30 a night -- sometimes neither clearly disclosed nor included in the price shown on third-party booking sites. Ask upfront about fees to avoid the expensive surprise of learning about them upon check-in. Resort fees are sometimes charged even for rooms booked with points or free-stay vouchers.

    Rental car surcharges. Rental cars may cost more coming from airport locations. A quick cab ride can save money: Often there are lots -- even some from the same company -- close to the airport but not considered part of it, where daily and weekly rates are lower and the price includes fewer fees.

    In-room hotel services. Some hotels charge a fee for use of an in-room safe or delivery of a morning paper -- even for guests who don't need or request these services. Some minibars have sensors that detect weight changes, and moving items in the fridge or using it for your own drinks or leftovers can trigger a minibar fee. A call to the front desk should clear this up, but check the bill closely before signing. Even better, be wary of fees before checking in. That's the time to ask about potential charges and request that superfluous fees be waived.

    Prepaid card fees. Consumers who don't want, or can't get, a bank account may turn to a prepaid debit card as an alternative. Prepaid cards are like gift cards, but many are tied to a credit card network such as Visa or MasterCard. They are accepted in the same places and can be reloaded with money. Some charge users to activate the card, reload it, and check balances, and there may be monthly maintenance fees, as well as fees every time a card is swiped. The best prepaid cards have low fees and offer ways to avoid other fees, such as setting up direct deposit to have the monthly charge waived. The Simple Dollar recommends six cards and provides tips on how to avoid fees.

     

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    By Bonnie Gayle, as told to Marianne Hayes

    In our Money Mic series, we hand over the podium to people with controversial views about money. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.

    Today, Bonnie Gayle shares how her decision not to have kids allowed her to reach career and financial success -- and why she has no regrets about it.

    Right now, most 50-somethings are cashing out their savings to send their kids to college.

    And a great deal more are paying for their kids' weddings, embracing grandkids, or supporting Millennial children who are returning to the nest.

    Me? Let's just say my life doesn't exactly fit into the typical mold.

    Many years ago, I decided to opt out of having kids so that I could devote myself to building my career and growing my income. The choice, which seems unusual to some, has brought me happiness -- and financial success.

    At 51, my bookkeeping business is netting me six figures a year, and I have all the time in the world to explore my passions and live what I think is my best life.

    Had I been on the hook for everything from diapers to tuition, there's no way I'd be enjoying my current life.

    Many women feel a natural calling to motherhood. I think that's wonderful -- the world needs as many nurturing, devoted mothers as it can get.

    I simply don't fall into that camp.

    Why I Always Knew Motherhood Wasn't for Me

    When I was about 9 years old -- and testing my mother's patience -- she uttered something most moms find themselves saying to their kids at one time or another: "I hope you have kids just like you when you grow up," she said with a laugh.

    And I remember thinking even then that I didn't want to be a mommy when I grew up.

    When I voiced this response to my own mother, she assured me that I'd change my mind when I was older.

    But I didn't.

    By the time I hit my 20s, I felt certain motherhood simply wasn't in the cards for me.

    The shorthand reason was that I just didn't feel a maternal longing to have children. What's more, my desire for independence and self-discovery seemed to outweigh the allure of having kids. I was also skittish when it came to the enormous responsibility of actually raising children.

    But I'd be lying if I said that finances didn't also play a huge role in my decision. I was brought up in a stable, middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley -- and my work ethic took shape very early on.

    As a teenager, if I wanted to hit the mall more often or have extra fun money, it meant babysitting and taking after-school jobs to pay for it. And so I started working -- and spending my earnings. And I loved it.

    As the '80s came to a close, I graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising with a degree in fashion merchandising/marketing, then spent the bulk of my 20s trying to figure out exactly what I wanted from my career.

    A gig as a personal assistant made me realize I had a knack for bookkeeping, so I started taking on my own clients. At 28, I launched my own business.

    Since then, my company has grown by leaps and bounds, requiring tons of late nights and personal sacrifices, like giving up weekends and holidays to build the business. I threw myself into it headfirst, taking on new clients, hiring and training staff, and sharpening my skills.

    Even if I'd wanted kids during this time, the logistics would have been insane.

    I also enjoyed spending time with my friends without worrying about having to get home for the kids. I could see they got so much from their families, but it was clear to me that I wouldn't get the same out of being a parent.

    All this is not to say that my decision to be kid-free didn't come with some very real personal costs.

    While I did come close to marriage a few times, I never actually pulled the trigger. I was always upfront about not wanting to have kids early on in relationships -- but the handful of serious boyfriends I had thought I'd change my mind once I fell in love, leading to heartbreak on more than one occasion.

    And although my parents don't understand my decision to not have kids, it's my being single that they're most perplexed by. My mother continues to push for me to "lower my standards" so I can find a husband.

    The truth is that I've always been open to the idea of marriage -- I just haven't found the right person.

    Why I Honestly Have Zero Regrets

    Just as I had hoped, my decision to opt out of motherhood has come with tremendous financial freedom.

    In addition to charging full steam ahead with my bookkeeping business, I've been able to invest heavily in a side project that I'm incredibly passionate about -- helping women navigate midlife hormonal changes.

    If it sounds like I didn't think much about having children, that's not the case. It wasn't a decision I made lightly. It was something that took a lot of soul searching.

    At this point, it's still a passion project that isn't yet turning a profit, but it's an investment I consider to be well worth it. If I had children to support, there's no way I could have spent that kind of money on a side business.

    Being childless has also allowed me to invest in myself on a deeper level -- things that make me happy. I love going on regular spa visits with my friends, and enjoy attending women's retreats and personal-growth seminars, which have helped me with my side business.

    As I move into my 50s, retirement is obviously something that's on my mind. One smart money move I made in 2005 was to buy a three-bedroom house in Austin. It's an investment property located in an up-and-coming area that I currently rent out to bring in extra income.

    At this point, I've set aside about $125,000 for retirement. My plan is to continue investing in my businesses for the next two years or so, at which point I'll begin funneling more money into the retirement bucket.

    In the meantime, I have very little debt (less than $1,000 on credit cards) and $10,000 in my emergency savings. And if I had to make an estimate, I'd say that my accounting business is worth between $500,000 and $750,000.

    If it sounds like I didn't think much about having children, that's not the case. It wasn't a decision I made lightly. On the contrary, it was something that took a lot of soul searching on my part.

    When I was 40, I was in a serious relationship that I thought might lead to marriage -- but he really wanted a child. So I asked myself if maybe I was being too rigid about the whole baby thing. In the end, I just couldn't justify bringing a person into this world if I wasn't all in, and the relationship ended.

    It's not that I don't like kids -- I've been blessed with wonderful children in my life. My niece and nephew are such joys, and I love spending time with them and watching them grow.

    In the end, not having children turned out to be a wise personal and financial decision that just felt right to me. I followed my heart and listened to my intuition, and I really like the person I've grown into.

    Instead of investing in a family, I've invested in myself -- and the return on that investment has been well worth it.

     

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    By Kimberly Lankford

    Q. I read the Big Price Hikes for Medicare Premiums in 2016 article that said some people may have to pay a 52 percent increase for Medicare Part B premiums in 2016. Who has to pay this extra amount, and is there any way I can avoid the higher premiums?

    A. Only about 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries would be on the hook for higher premiums of $159.30 a month for Part B. This includes people who don't have their Medicare premiums deducted from their Social Security benefits (because they aren't collecting Social Security benefits yet) and people who enroll in Medicare in 2016.

    However, if your Medicare premiums are withheld from your Social Security benefits and Social Security does not have a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, for 2016 because of low inflation, you will continue to pay $104.90 a month for Part B. That's because the "hold harmless" provision prohibits Social Security benefits from being reduced because of an increase in Medicare premiums. Medicare cost increases are generally covered by the Social Security COLA.

    Individuals with annual incomes over $85,000, or $170,000 for joint filers, who are not protected by the hold-harmless provision, will pay the higher base amount plus a high-income surcharge. Total monthly premiums for them could range from $223.00 to $509.80 a month, depending on the size of their income. (People who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid would not be protected by the hold-harmless provision, either, but their state Medicaid program would pay the extra premium.)

    Medicare premiums are designed to cover 25 percent of total Part B costs each year. The premium would be $120.70 in 2016 if everyone were able to pay the increase, according to the Medicare trustees' report. But if premiums are frozen for 70 percent of Medicare beneficiaries, the remaining beneficiaries would have to pay $159.30 a month. The final numbers haven't been announced yet, and about 70 Medicare, health care and retiree advocacy groups are lobbying Congress to try to get the increase reduced. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should announce the official premiums within the next few weeks.

    If you end up having to pay the higher amount, the following strategies may help you reduce your premiums.
    • If your income has dropped since 2014 because of certain life-changing events, such as divorce, death of a spouse or retirement, you may be able to ask the Social Security Administration to use your more-recent income to determine your Medicare premiums and have the high-income surcharge reduced. Otherwise, your most recent tax return on file (for 2014) will be used to set your 2016 premiums. If that brings your income below $85,000 for single filers or $170,000 for joint filers, you may be able to continue to pay $104.90 a month, assuming your Medicare premiums are deducted from your Social Security benefits. See Medicare Premiums: Rules for Higher-Income Beneficiaries for more information about contesting the high-income surcharge.
    • If you get health insurance from a current employer with 20 or more employees, you can drop Part B or delay signing up for it while you're still working. You must sign up for Medicare within eight months of leaving your job to avoid a lifetime late-enrollment penalty. If your employer has fewer than 20 employees, this may not be an option; most small employers count Medicare as primary coverage and employer insurance as secondary, which could leave you with big coverage gaps if you don't sign up for Medicare. See When to Sign Up for Medicare for more information about the rules.
    • If you sign up for Social Security before Oct. 31 and have your Medicare premiums withheld from your checks, you will pay the lower premium, says Timothy Steffen, director of financial planning for R.W. Baird & Co., a wealth-management firm. Your Medicare premiums would be withheld from your November payment, which is received in December, and you'd be eligible for the hold-harmless provision, he says.
    Don't sign up for Social Security before you're eligible for full retirement benefits (currently age 66) just to save money on Medicare premiums for one year. The early sign-up will reduce your annual benefits for the rest of your life. But if you are at least full retirement age, you could apply for benefits in 2015 and make sure your Medicare premiums are withheld from your Social Security payments, then suspend Social Security benefits after you qualify for the hold-harmless provision, Steffen says. After you suspend the benefits, you start to earn an 8 percent delayed retirement credit for every year you wait before claiming Social Security benefits between full retirement age and age 70. You would lose a portion of the delayed retirement credit for the months you were receiving your Social Security payment. See The Power of Filing and Suspending for more on this strategy.

    For more information about Social Security rules, see Best Strategies to Boost Your Social Security Benefits. For more information about Medicare, see our Guide to Getting the Most Out of Medicare, 2015.

     

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    businesswoman with glasses and team on the back
    Getty ImagesDeveloping a budget early in your career can help you take charge of your financial future.
    By Jamie Ohl

    As you start your first job, retirement can seem very far away. You may have 30 or more years in the working world ahead of you, but if you are financially able, now is the time to start saving. Establishing good financial habits now will benefit you throughout your career and into your retirement.

    There's a lot for young savers to be optimistic about. According to a recent MOOD of America survey commissioned on behalf of Lincoln Financial Group, 78 percent of millennials say they feel in control of their financial future, and 85 percent say planning for their financial future is empowering. However, 79 percent say understanding their options for retirement planning can be overwhelming.

    One of the most important things you can do is to start saving now. By committing to saving from the very beginning of your career, you can take advantage of the power of compounding interest -- which ultimately amounts to earning interest, on interest.

    Saving is personal, and every person has different financial pressures, whether it's student loan debt, car payments or rent and living expenses. But developing a budget and starting to save now can help you take charge of your financial future.

    Here are some key tips to keep in mind as you kick off your career and your retirement savings.

    See the big picture. It's easy to spend every dollar you earn at first, without putting any money away. The good news is that, according to the MOOD survey, 83 percent of millennials report saving some money from every paycheck, even if it isn't a lot. As you save, look at your overall financial picture and create a budget that includes not only your immediate needs like rent, living expenses and student loans, but also short-term and retirement savings. Taking a holistic view will help you create a realistic budget and savings plan that you can stick to.

    Leverage retirement savings plans. You may have the opportunity to enroll in your employer's 401(k) or 403(b) retirement savings plan. They may also match a portion of the savings that you put into the plan, as an incentive for you to save. If you don't take full advantage of the match, you are turning down free money. If you are able, try to contribute at least up to the amount that the company will match. By utilizing your employer-sponsored plan, you are also reducing your taxable income, so you'll owe less on April 15. If your company doesn't offer an employer-sponsored retirement plan, consider putting your savings into an individual retirement account.

    Seek education and expert advice. Your employer may work with a retirement provider that offers financial education, through one-on-one meetings with a retirement consultant, or have educational materials available online or in print. These tools can help you understand your investment options. Some plans offer automatic enrollment, deferral and contribution increases, as a way to enhance retirement outcomes for savers.

    A financial professional can help you understand the different investment options available to you, and help you understand any fees that may be associated with the offerings. Consider scheduling an initial meeting with a financial adviser to get you started. Then try to commit to at least one annual checkup to assess the health of your savings and make sure you're on the right track. The MOOD survey shows that 71 percent of millennials feel empowered when they talk to a financial professional about planning for the future.

    Think of your future first. When a big expense comes up, whether it's a down payment on a house, a new car or something else, it's tempting to borrow from your retirement savings, withdraw funds or stop saving altogether. By borrowing from your plan you could incur taxes and penalties related to not paying the loan back, and also lose out on market gains. At times like these, stay focused on your long-term goals and put your future first. Starting to save early is one of the best things you can do to improve your retirement readiness. Steady savings can help you feel confident that you can live the life you envision, through your career and into retirement.

    Results for the 2015 MOOD (Measuring Optimism, Outlook and Direction) of America poll are based on a national survey conducted by Whitman Insight Strategies on behalf of Lincoln Financial Group from March 31 to April 9, 2015 among 2,273 adults 18 years and older across the United States. The sample was weighted to reflect the proportion of adults 18 years of age or older by gender, age, region, race and Hispanic ethnicity based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.9 percent at the 95 percent confidence interval for the entire sample.

    Jamie Ohl is president of Retirement Plan Services for Lincoln Financial Group. She is responsible for the overall strategy, growth and profitability of Lincoln's Retirement Plans Services business, which is committed to partnering with intermediaries and plan sponsors to provide solutions, services and education to help plan participants retire successfully.

     

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    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with the world's leading premium video platform growing its reach into three European countries and a Japanese maker of air bags expanding a recall after tragic events.

    Best Buy (BBY) -- Winner

    It's going to be a competitive holiday shopping season and Best Buy has thrown down the first gauntlet. The consumer electronics retailer announced Thursday that it will offer free shipping on all orders placed starting Sunday through early next year. Best Buy's online shipping strategy has been to offer complimentary delivery only on orders of $35 or more, but now everything's eligible.

    It's not the only initiative that Best Buy is launching this weekend. The superstore chain will offer free Geek Squad setup on many of its more popular tech gifts, and it's even offering up a gift card for an hour of in-home tech setup. Its mobile app also offers the ability to have a live chat with a Best Buy employee.

    Takata Air Bags -- Loser

    It was a bad week for automakers. There were a couple of recalls as everything from a defective window switch at Toyota (TM) and a flawed ignition switch at Mazda led car giants to scramble in reclaiming their older vehicles to fix the problems.

    However, the most problematic of the recalls has to be Takata's air bags. Exploding air bags are supposedly at the root of incidents that have killed at least eight people -- and injured at least 98 -- according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

    Netflix (NFLX) -- Winner

    The leading premium video service earned a few new passport stamps this week. Netflix rolled out its online platform in Spain on Tuesday, Portugal on Wednesday and Italy on Thursday.

    International expansion is a big part of the Netflix growth story. It has added more international subscribers than domestic members for six consecutive quarters, and its forecast for the current quarter calls for a record quarter in terms of international net additions.

    Apollo Education Group (APOL) -- Loser

    Online educators keep getting schooled. University of Phoenix parent Apollo Education Group saw its stock take another dive after posting a horrendous quarterly report. Apollo fell short of Wall Street expectations, and it's hosing down its guidance.

    Enrollment continues to decline at University of Phoenix. Apollo has come under fire in the past for its marketing practices, and the effectiveness of the genre itself has been called into question.

    Sirius XM Radio (SIRI) -- Winner

    Things are going well for the lone provider of satellite radio. Sirius XM posted strong quarterly results this week. There are now 29 million total subscribers, and the strong performance finds the media giant boosting its full-year guidance for subscribers, revenue and other metrics.

    Sirius XM has been able to grow its reach over the years. Three out of every four cars rolling into showrooms these days have either a Sirius or XM receiver.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Cracking the Egg
    Eric Risberg/APCEO Josh Tetrick holds a species of yellow pea used to make Just Mayo, a plant-based mayonnaise, at Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco.
    By CANDICE CHOI

    NEW YORK -- The CEO of the American Egg Board has stepped down earlier than planned, following the release of emails indicating she tried to stop the sale of a vegan mayonnaise at Whole Foods Market (WFM).

    Joanne Ivy retired at the end of September. Before the release of the emails, the egg board said Ivy would retire Dec. 31.

    Ivy and representatives of the egg board, which promotes the industry and is responsible for the "Incredible, Edible Egg" slogan, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the board, confirmed Ivy's retirement but declined to comment on the reason.

    The early departure comes as the USDA investigates the egg board regarding its actions related to Hampton Creek, a San Francisco startup that makes the eggless mayonnaise alternative Just Mayo. On Sept. 2, The Associated Press reported on emails in which Ivy told a consultant that she would "like to accept your offer to make that phone call to keep Just Mayo off Whole Foods shelves."

    The request, made in 2013, wasn't successful, as Just Mayo is still sold at Whole Foods.

    'Checkoff' Programs

    The communication nevertheless raised regulatory questions because the egg board is one of about 20 "checkoff" programs overseen by the USDA, making them quasi-governmental bodies. The programs, which include the National Pork Board and the Mushroom Council, are funded by producers and supposed to be promotional.

    In a statement regarding its investigation, the USDA said it is "committed to establishing a level playing field that protects and promotes all appropriate agricultural endeavors." It said it did not "condone any efforts to limit competing products in commerce" and that its administrative review would take "some time" to complete.

    Other emails by egg board executives illustrated the alarm over the media attention being showered on Hampton Creek, which makes plant-based alternatives to eggs it says are better for the environment. Publicly, egg board executives have sought to play down the company and avoided referring to it by name. Internally, however, the board was getting advice from public relations agency Edelman on how to respond to Hampton Creek.

    In one exchange, an Edelman employee alerted the board that Hampton Creek had just challenged it to a bakeoff on Twitter. The employee advised the board not to respond.

    Insufficient Oversight

    It's not the first time checkoff programs have come under scrutiny. In 2012, the USDA's inspector general issued a report saying departmental oversight should be improved.

    The emails by egg board executives were obtained through a public records request by Ryan Noah Shapiro, a Freedom of Information Act expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his attorney, Jeffrey Light, who specializes in FOIA matters. Shapiro knows Hampton Creek co-founder Josh Balk and provided the documents to the company, which provided them to the AP.

    In the meantime, Hampton Creek is dealing with a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration saying its name violates the federal standard of identity for mayonnaise. The agency said that "mayo" is often understood to be mayonnaise, which is defined as having eggs.

    A representative for the FDA said Friday there was no update on the matter.

    Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick said the company is scheduled to speak with FDA on the matter in coming weeks, and that he hopes to "find some common ground" with the agency.

    The company has retained The Glover Park Group, which describes itself as a strategic communications and government affairs firm. Glover Park says on its website that it helps clients "develop and execute legislative and regulatory strategies to advance their goals in Washington."

     

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    amazon fire $50 tablet review
    Eric Risberg/APAmazon's $50 Fire tablet
    By ANICK JESDANUN

    NEW YORK -- The thing to remember about Amazon's new $50 Fire tablet is that it's a $50 tablet.

    It's not as light or as thin as a tablet that costs five or six times more. The camera isn't as good, and the screen isn't as sharp. But it works well as a budget device for the basics -- reading, Facebook, video and, of course, shopping on Amazon.

    Over the years, Amazon.com (AMZN) has done a good job of making tablets affordable for the masses. The new Fire tablet is Amazon's cheapest yet, joining a fall lineup that maxes out at $230 ($15 more if you want Amazon to remove ads on the lock screen). By contrast, Apple's (AAPL) iPads start at $269, ad-free.

    Of course, you get less for $50.

    The Fire started shipping again Thursday after a limited run quickly sold out, despite these trade-offs:

    • The feel: The 7-inch tablet is bulky, about two-thirds as thick as a deck of cards. This runs counter to a trend of gadgets getting thinner and thinner. But this is reasonable for budget devices, as they use older, larger components to cut costs. At 11 ounces, the tablet also feels heavy for a device that size.
    • Lower resolution: The screen is just short of displaying video in full high definition, otherwise known as 1080p. As Amazon's HDX tablets and Apple's "Retina" iPads tout super-sharp displays, the screen on the new Fire feels retro.

      Photos and video display fine. Where the lower resolution is most noticeable is with small text. When reading, some of the vertical lines in d's and l's look fat. It feels like a typewriter with metal type that hasn't been cleaned of gunk, forming misshaped letters when some of that gunk hits the ink ribbon. (For our younger readers, typewriters are machines that produce letters on paper, rather than a screen. And paper is a sheet of writing material made from trees.)
    • Taking pictures: The main camera is just 2 megapixels, compared with 5 or 8 megapixels on higher-end Amazon tablets. Photos come out fuzzy, and low-light images have plenty of color distortion. The camera's lens also isn't able to capture as much as other gadgets from the same distance. It's as though the camera has a permanent zoom. That said, most people already have smartphones with decent cameras. There's no need to pay more to duplicate technology.
    • Wi-Fi: The Fire has an older, single-band form of Wi-Fi that doesn't support the highest available speeds, technically known as the 802.11ac standard. In practice, that means signal range and data speed might be lower. But in my limited testing, the new tablet downloaded a video file faster than last year's HDX 8.9 tablet from Amazon, which has dual-band Wi-Fi, so this is hardly cut-and-dried. Many other factors affect performance, even if you have top-of-the-line technology.
    In fact, the inexpensive Fire tablet surprised me in many ways. The display has in-plane switching technology, which means it can be viewed from an angle -- twice as wide as standard screens, according to Amazon. The tablet was also fast for Web surfing, email and other common tasks. It seemed to take an extra second or two to launch video on Hulu and Netflix (NFLX), but playback was smooth once it started.

    Unlike iPads, the Fire allows you to set up multiple profiles, including ones for kids, and to establish parental limits on apps and usage time. But the Amazon tablet doesn't have anti-glare technology found in the latest iPads, nor does it have a fingerprint reader to bypass passcodes.

    Promised battery life is seven hours, which is reasonable for $50.

    And as with other Amazon devices, the Fire tablet works nicely with other Amazon services, including Kindle e-books, Audible audiobooks, Prime video streaming and e-commerce. Just swipe right from the home screen to scroll through the various services. After signing in with my Amazon account, the shopping page reminded me what type of replacement vacuum bags I need. I also found a mini plunger to deal with that nagging clogged sink in my kitchen.

    A swipe to the left gets you recently accessed content and apps, plus recommendations. It's a good way to get to frequent tasks without spending a lot of time moving around icons on the home screen. Older Amazon devices will get this feature, too, with an upcoming software update.

    The app selection isn't as robust as what's available on iPads, Android and Windows devices. Amazon tablets run a custom version of Android, and many Android apps haven't been adapted. You get many of the major ones, but not all.

    The Fire is a good option for kids. They won't complain about what's missing, and if they lose the device, it's only $50 to replace. Amazon will even sell you six for the price of five, so each family member can have one.

    I'd be highly disappointed with the Fire if its price tag were $250 or more. But it's not -- not even close.

     

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    New health law premiums available online this weekend
    Andrew Harnik/AP
    By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR

    WASHINGTON -- Premiums are expected to rise in many parts of the country as a new sign-up season under President Barack Obama's health care law starts Nov. 1. But consumers have options if they shop around, and an upgraded government website will help them compare.

    Consumers can see their own premiums for 2016 starting this Sunday night on HealthCare.gov, officials said Friday. The federal website will serve 38 states this time. States running their own sites may have different timetables.

    Online health insurance markets are entering their third year, offering taxpayer-subsidized private coverage. That's helped cut the share of Americans who are uninsured to about 9 percent, a historical low. Still, the many moving parts of the Affordable Care Act don't always click smoothly, and Americans remain divided about "Obamacare."

    Here's a look at what's new for 2016:

    Average Premium? No Such Thing

    Independent experts are forecasting bigger premium increases in 2016 than last year, averaging from the high single digits to the teens. Next week the government will release a master file that researchers use to piece together national trends.

    Averages won't tell the story, because health care is local. Premiums can vary widely from state to state, and within a state.

    Most states won't be like Minnesota, where all five carriers selling individual policies on the insurance exchange have posted double-digit hikes, from 14 percent to 49 percent.

    They're not likely to be like southern California either, where officials forecast an average rise of 1.8 percent for consumers who stay with their current plan.

    For more than 8 in 10 customers, premium increases will be cushioned by taxpayer subsidies. That will absorb most of the cost, but it still may pay to shop around.

    New Help Figuring Out Costs

    Too many consumers look only at the monthly premium when picking a plan. They shouldn't. Other costs can be just as important. These include the deductible -- the amount individuals must pay each year before their plan kicks in -- and cost-sharing or copays for medical services.

    Trying to demystify the process, HealthCare.gov will feature a new calculator that estimates total costs based on a consumer's expected medical needs.

    Tip: Even if consumers use the calculator, the website will still rank options starting with the lowest premium plan. Look below that figure for total costs.

    Patients who need medical follow-up for ongoing health issues may come out ahead by paying a higher monthly premium for a plan that has lower out-of-pocket costs. Instead of picking a plan at the "bronze" coverage level, they might look at "silver," which also offers subsidies for cost sharing, based on the consumer's income.

    Smoother Renewals?

    As before, returning customers who don't want to make any changes will get automatically re-enrolled. That process will be smoother this year, insurers say, because the government has better information to update subsidies for customers who just want to keep the same plan.

    Tip: Returning customers must make sure to file a tax return. Those who got subsidies in 2014 could lose their financial assistance next year if they have not filed.

    Some New Features Still in Testing

    Consumer advocates have been clamoring for an upgrade that allows patients to easily search for insurance plans that their doctor participates in.

    That's coming, but it may not be ready by Nov. 1, the date when consumers can start signing up.

    Administration officials say the doctor look-up -- as well as a prescription drug finder -- are in final testing. They want to be sure the information is accurate before flipping the switch.

    Tip: Trust but verify. Call doctors and insurers to check doctor and hospital listings.

    Penalty Peril

    The tax penalty for people remaining uninsured in 2016 is no slap on the wrist. It's high enough to cover several weeks of groceries.

    The fine 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, whichever is greater.

    Several organizations, from TurboTax to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, will be offering online tax penalty calculators. That can put a dollar figure on the trade-offs for those who are on the fence about signing up.

    Website Upgrades

    Changes for HealthCare.gov include new privacy protections. A "privacy manager" will let consumers opt out of embedded connections to third-party websites. If customers have enabled the "Do Not Track" setting on their browsers, the government will automatically honor their preferences.

    In another improvement, consumers will get real-time reminders to enter Social Security numbers and key details from immigration documents. That can head off major problems later on by helping the government quickly verify a person's identity.

    Officials say a maddening glitch that resulted in some consumers getting locked out of their accounts has been fixed. Call center operators can now help reset passwords for consumers who no longer have access to the email address they used to set up their HealthCare.gov accounts.

    Date Change

    For the third year in a row, the dates for HealthCare.gov's sign-up season have changed.

    This time, it's Nov. 1 through Jan. 31, 2016.

    Tip: For coverage to start Jan. 1, consumers must enroll by Dec. 15.

    Note: This version corrects when 2016 premiums become available to Sunday night, not Sunday morning.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK - A tech share rally drove U.S. stocks up sharply for a second day Friday as earnings from companies including Microsoft beat analyst expectations, while health care shares rebounded from recent losses.

    The gains left the S&P 500 in positive territory for the year and above its 200-day moving average for the first time since Aug. 19.

    An unexpected rate cut in China added to the positive tone for U.S. stocks, which also registered gains for the week.

    Microsoft (MSFT) shares rose 10.1 percent to $52.87, their highest in 15 years, after adjusted revenue beat expectations for the ninth quarter in a row.

    Microsoft gave the biggest boost to the three indexes, accounting for nearly a fifth of the Dow's gain and leading a strong rally in technology stocks. The S&P technology sector jumped 3 percent, leading gains among major sectors.

    Alphabet, Google's new holding company, and Amazon soared to record intraday highs after results beat expectations. Alphabet (GOOGL) ended up 5.6 percent at $719.33, while Amazon (AMZN) rose 6.2 percent to $599.03.

    Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) also jumped, with Facebook rising above $100 for the first time.

    "It's being driven by the good earnings" from a number of companies, said Giri Cherukuri, head trader at OakBrook Investments in Lisle, Illinois. That may change the view on earnings "as people sit back and evaluate."

    "Companies with big international exposure have a big drag due to forex, but looking past that, companies are doing well."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 157.54 points, or 0.9 percent, to 17,646.7, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 22.64 points, or 1.1 percent, to 2,075.15 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 111.81 points, or 2.3 percent, to 5,031.86.

    Big Weekly Gains

    For the week, the Dow rose 2.5 percent, the S&P 500 gained 2.1 percent and the Nasdaq jumped 3 percent.

    The S&P 500 is now up 0.8 percent for the year so far and up 7.1 percent for October.

    Analyst sentiment on overall third-quarter earnings has improved following the string of strong results from blue chips.

    S&P 500 earnings for the period are now expected to have declined a more modest 2.8 percent, compared with a decline of 4.9 percent forecast at the start of the reporting season, according to Thomson Reuters data.

    Among other gainers, Procter & Gamble (PG) rose 2.9 percent to $77.03 after its profit beat estimates.

    On the Downside

    Not all of the day's earnings news was upbeat, though.

    Shares of Whirlpool (WHR) dropped 8.7 percent to $145.90 after executives said currency would subtract $2.5 billion from the appliance-maker's annual revenue. Whirlpool lowered its 2015 expectations even as it posted higher-than-expected third-quarter earnings.

    Overseas, China's central bank cut interest rates for the sixth time since November in another attempt to jumpstart a slowing economy.

    NYSE advancers outnumbered decliners 1,806 to 1,252, for a 1.44-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,872 issues rose and 956 fell, for a 1.96-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The S&P 500 posted 54 new 52-week highs and 14 lows; the Nasdaq recorded 133 new highs and 65 lows.

    About 7.6 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 7.3 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    What to watch Monday:
    • The Commerce Department releases new home sales for September at 10 a.m. Eastern time
    • The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas releases its survey of manufacturing conditions in Texas for October at 10:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to report quarterly financial results:
    • Cheesecake Factory (CAKE)
    • Hartford Financial Services (HIG)
    • Xerox (XRX)


     

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    Scary Great Ways to Save on Halloween Candy
    Halloween's almost here, and that means trick-or-treaters and lots of candy, but how do you get all those sweets without taking a big bite out of your savings? We'll show you how with these scary great ways to save this Halloween.

    First, it's important to know when to buy your candy. When it comes to this holiday, it actually pays to procrastinate. A lot of the time, stores are in such a hurry to get Christmas merchandise on the shelves that they start discounting Halloween candy before the festivities even begin. So wait to buy your treats until a day or two before the holiday to get the best prices.

    Now that you know when to shop, let's take a look at where to shop. Stay away from dollar stores and supermarkets, because when it comes to candy, their sales are not all they're cracked up to be. Pharmacies actually have tons of candy sales leading up to Halloween at rock-bottom prices, so shop there first.

    Finally, with so many candy options, it can be hard to know what to actually buy. Halloween themed treats can cost more than less festive sweets so go to the regular candy aisle and compare prices. And if you really want to stretch your penny, skip chocolate. It will cost you more than hard candies.

    When you head to the store for Halloween treats, don't let the high prices get to you. You'll see that by shopping wisely, you can scare up some savings.

    View Poll

     

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    Uneasy woman doing her accounts
    Getty Images
    By Dan Rafter

    The due date for your mortgage loan payment slipped past without you sending a check to your lender. Or maybe you didn't have enough money in your checking account to send an on-time payment to your credit card provider.

    Don't panic. Your financial misstep might not hurt your credit score just yet.

    Missed payments are a sure way to send your three-digit credit score plummeting by as many as 100 points. This financial mistake will remain on your credit report for seven years.

    But late payments aren't immediately reported to the three national credit bureaus of Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Often, lenders and credit providers won't report missed payments until they are at least 30 days late. This means that even if you miss your initial due date, you can still avoid a hit to your credit score by paying before 30 days pass. But first consider these variables.

    Late Isn't Always 'Officially' Late

    Whitney Fite, president of Angel Oak Home Loans in Atlanta, said that most mortgage loans today come with a 15-day grace period. Your mortgage might be due on the first of the month, but lenders won't assess a late fee unless you fail to pay by the 15th of the month. This late fee will vary by the size of your loan, but could be about $100.

    Credit card companies will also charge late fees if you miss your payment. Those fees vary, but what might hurt more is when your card provider increases your interest rate to the penalty rate. Under rules spelled out in the Credit CARD Act of 2009, your card provider can impose a penalty interest rate if you become more than 60 days late on your payment. These penalty rates are a true punishment, often running as high as 29 percent.

    But as long as you pay your mortgage, auto loan, or credit card payment within 30 days of its due date, most lenders won't report a missed payment to the credit bureaus. This means that your credit score itself will not be harmed.

    Fite warns that you need to be careful when paying after the official due date on auto loans, mortgages, or credit card payments. If you wait too long to send in your check, you might be tempting fate and you might find yourself facing a late fee or credit hit after all.

    "It can be a dangerous game to squeeze out a few extra days with the grace period," Fite said. "Any delay by the mail carrier could result in the lender receiving the payment after the 15th and late fees being assessed."

    Actually Late Can Hurt, However

    If you can, be sure to send in that payment before the 30-day grace period ends. A single reported missed payment can lower your score by 100 points or more, especially if you had a relatively unblemished credit history before your missed payment.

    You don't want a low credit score. Lenders today rely on these three-digit scores to determine how much interest you'll pay on loans and credit cards. If your score is too low, you won't even qualify for loans or credit.

    Lenders consider a FICO credit score of 740 or higher to be a strong one. If your FICO score is under 640, you might struggle to qualify for loans or credit cards, and when you do qualify, you can expect to pay high interest rates on the money you borrow.

    Some missed payments are more damaging to your score than others.

    "Recent late payments on mortgages are more damaging than late payments on other consumer loans," Fite said.

    Unwanted Calls

    You might not have to be 30 days late to begin receiving unwanted collection calls, too. Fite said that some lenders will begin making collection calls shortly after the first of the month. He said that almost all mortgage lenders will begin calling about missed payments on the 10th or 12th of the month.

    So if you don't want to hear from collection agencies? Make those payments on or before your due date. And it goes without saying that paying your bills on time -- every time -- is always the best policy.

    How do you stay on top of your bills -- and on time?

     

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