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    Plumbers working on pipes under sink
    Getty Images
    By Geoff Williams

    Sometimes all the safeguards the real estate industry has put in place to help prevent buyer's remorse after purchasing a house still don't work.

    The process takes time for a reason, and you aren't getting a home inspection for the fun of it. It can happen. You can buy a plot of disappointment.

    It's never easy to bounce back from purchasing a house you quickly wish you hadn't bought. You've moved in. You may have nowhere else to go. You've not only spent a lot of money, but a lot of time and energy. And the law isn't necessarily on your side. Still, if you're determined to get your money back, or at least some satisfaction, you'll want to remember the following.

    Know your rights. Here's the good news. You are (probably) within your rights to sue someone who knowingly sells you a house with serious problems.

    "Most U.S. states have a home seller disclosure law that requires a seller to disclose defects in the home that they are aware of. Such defects include foundation and structural issues, roofing, HVAC, fireplace, basement, plumbing, electrical, siding, floors, walls, windows and even appliances," says Lance Luke, owner of Construction Management Inspection, in Honolulu, Hawaii.

    Maybe most importantly, he adds: "The seller disclosure case law actually mandates that the seller disclose not only what they know, but what they should have known."

    It's another story in the Lone Star State, says Matthew Young, owner of Autus Properties, a custom home builder in Plano, Texas.

    "Generally, Texas is buyer beware when buying a home," Young says. "The real estate promulgated form gives buyers time periods to make inspections of anything and everything they feel is relevant."

    Moreover, Young says, "for Texas, generally once an issue is fixed, a homeowner no longer has to disclose it."

    If you buy a house from someone who had a roof leak, and it was fixed, you're under no obligation to know that because the seller doesn't have to disclose it, Young says.

    The burden of proof is on you. And here is the bad news (or worse news, since the good news wasn't great): It's hard to prove anyone knowingly sold you a dump.

    That's why real estate experts urge homeowners to hire a qualified and competent home inspector or perhaps purchase a home warranty that covers unknown defects. If you're going to get a court to side with you, generally, you have to prove that the seller actually knew about the defects when they sold you the house, says Peter Boscas, owner of Red Cedar Real Estate in Columbia, Maryland.

    And that isn't easy.

    Every once in a while, you may get lucky. "I had a client come across proof of deception once completely by accident," Boscas says. "They had called a local plumber randomly out of the phone book to come repair a sewage issue in the basement that had come up a few weeks after settlement. When the plumber arrived, he made a comment to the new homeowners that he had been to the house already four or five times in the last couple of months for the same exact issue."

    If the new homeowners hadn't happened to call the same plumber, who noted he'd given the old homeowners estimates of what it would have cost to repair the water issues, though they took no action, there would have been no proof that they had been knowingly sold a problematic home.

    As it turns out, Boscas says the new homeowners confronted the sellers about the plumbing, "and to avoid litigation, the sellers agreed to cover half the cost of the repair."

    Which should be encouraging. If you really have a case, just threatening to sue may work.

    Don't rush to your lawyer. Yes, you're angry. Yes, something needs to be done. Yes, you may have the right to sue. But Ron Rovtar, a real estate broker with Cherry Creek Properties in Boulder, Colorado, says that he would recommend you first go to your agent.

    For one, he says, "court cases are expensive." Moreover, he adds: "It has been my experience that often a more direct approach is the best first option for solving a post-closing problem."

    He advises you at least talk things out and see if you can come up with a decent resolution with the seller before you call your attorney. If you can't do that, or you're convinced that you have to go to court, he strongly suggests, "Do not drop this bomb until you have indeed talked to an attorney."

    There are two reasons for that, Rovtar says, explaining: "You may find that you really do not have a case, or that the payoff will probably be too small. The law and the way courts interpret it can be confusing to us non-lawyers."

    Besides, Rovtar points out that you'll likely be asked for the name and phone number of your attorney; all the more reason to have actually spoken to one. "In this business, legal threats are made all the time. No one will take you seriously if you have not at the least talked to a lawyer," he says.

    Prevention is, well, you know. Nobody wants to hear this if they're in a jam. But if you were worried about this sort of thing, and you, say, brought in a real estate attorney, he or she probably gave you an escape clause, like adding a rider to a standard purchase and sale agreement, says Robert Pellegrini, president of PK Boston, a real estate law firm.

    "Without affirmations in writing, the buyers will have a difficult time defeating the well-established principal of caveat emptor, buyer beware," Pellegrini says.

    But all is not lost if you don't have the rider, Pellegrini says.

    "You should look for any evidence that the sellers may have known about the condition," he says, adding that if you can prove the seller took steps to hide the defects, you may be able to seek damages.

    Of course, attorneys don't come cheap, and if you have the money to go to court to try and force the seller to make repairs or amends in some other way, you probably have the income to fix your house. When you don't have the money for either the attorney or repairs, that's when you may have to learn to love your house, even the parts of it you hate.

    Geoff Williams is a regular contributor to U.S. News. He is also the author of several books, including "Washed Away," about the great flood of 1913, "C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race," about the infamous Bunion Derby of 1928 and "Living Well with Bad Credit." You can follow him on Twitter@geoffw.

     

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    Female hands using mobile banking
    Getty Images


    The money question is blunt: should you pay -- will you pay -- to make deposits with your smartphone by clicking a picture? Know this: Some banks charge for mobile deposit, typically at 50 cents a deposited item, sometimes more.

    It may be free at your bank. Most in fact offer it as a gratis perk, said Bob Meara, who tracks banking for research firm Celent. "The vast majority of banks offer the option with no charge," he says.

    For instance, at Amplify, Karen Pollack, a vice president at the Austin-based credit union, said, "I don't want to charge the member -- we don't want to put fees on our members back." At that institution, photo deposit is free.

    But there are some institutions that are imposing fees and the question has to be asked -- in the fee-happy banking universe of today, will more banks follow?

    This matters, because mobile deposit is one of the hottest features in mobile banking. So-called mobile remote deposit capture (abbreviated MRDC in the trade) has proven to be a hit with consumers. And why not? You could get in your car and drive five miles to the nearest bank branch and wait in line to deposit the $5 birthday check from Aunt Tillie (that's $2.50 in expense, calculated at 50 cents a mile) or you could slap the check on your dining table, call up a mobile app and, inside a minute, sned the image of the check to your bank or credit union.

    By federal law (the 2004 Check 21 Act), that image is as good as the real, paper product.

    Financial institutions, too, reap savings when you use MRDC. Some experts claim that the cost to a bank of a teller line deposit is $4. The same deposit made via MRDC costs maybe 40 cents.

    So why do some banks charge? Among those that do are U.S. Bank in Minneapolis, a top-10 bank. Also known to charge is Regions, based in Birmingham, Alabama, and KeyBank, based in Ohio -- both large regional institutions. Many small banks are also said to charge for MRDC.

    At Regions, customers are presented with a menu of fees for mobile deposit. Want the funds in the deposit immediately? That will cost you 1 to 3 percent of the check, depending on the type and amount, with a $5 minimum. Want the item processed that night, so it is available for items processed that same day? That costs $3. You'll settle for standard availability? That will nick you 50 cents. "Deposits made before 8 p.m. Central time will typically be available in two business days," Regions said. "Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays are not business days."

    At KeyBank, a mobile deposit costs 50 cents with many accounts. (Some get free MRDC.)

    At U.S. Bank, there is a fee of up to 50 cents an item.

    As for the rationale behind the fees, Leon Majors of Phoenix Marketing International's Payments System Practice said that some banks want to recoup their costs of offering the service. That's despite the money saved compared to the costs of using a teller.

    What should you do if your bank charges fees? If the fee is for a basic, straightforward MRDC transaction, think about changing banks. Said Majors: "Personally, I would look for a [bank] that offered the service for free (mine does), compare that to the cost (some people write almost no checks now) and then compare that to the hassle factor of changing financial institutions."

    But maybe not all fees are evil. Meara is a fan of the service -- as offered by Regions, for instance -- that will make funds deposited via MRDC available immediately for a fee. He explained: "We do think some banks have a good idea in charging consumers for accelerated funds availability as an option. This has been a big hit among small businesses, for example, that might get paid by check at the end of a job and need the funds immediately to pay workers."

    It might even be a good idea for some consumers. If your rent check will bounce unless that $500 loan from your brother -- paid via personal check -- is immediately credited to your account, paying $10 or $15 for fast access might be economically wise.

    The lesson: not all MRDC fees are entirely anti consumer. But if the fees rub you the wrong way, know that at the biggest banks -- Chase is a case in point -- and at most credit unions there currently are no fees for using mobile deposit. It's your choice.

    This article is commentary by an independent contributor.

     

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    a woman with unpaid bills has...
    Shutterstock
    By Stacy Johnson

    I get a lot of questions about the best way to get out of debt, but few about the morality of different choices. Here's a reader email that addresses the issue.

    My name is Jodi. I currently owe about $20,000 in credit card debt. I was told by a lawyer that I should file for bankruptcy. I don't feel right about bankruptcy because it's my bill and I feel I should at least make an effort with the companies to see if they could lower the amount so that I can consolidate the bills. Can you please educate me as to what would be a better deal for me? Your newsletters are very helpful.

    While dealing with debt is pretty cut-and-dried, dealing with the moral obligation to repay a debt is a bit slippery. The type of person you are, your resources and the type of debt you owe all play a part. Over the years I've met many people who agonized over the moral dilemma of filing bankruptcy and many others who never gave it a thought. Before becoming a consumer advocate, I believed that if you borrow money, you should pay it back, period. My opinion is different today. Now I believe, providing you've done your best, you should be more concerned about what best serves your financial interests and less about moral imperatives. This is especially true when it comes to debts like credit cards.

    When should you file bankruptcy? Something a bankruptcy lawyer told me in the course of an interview years ago stuck with me: Consider bankruptcy when your minimum payments exceed your ability to meet them.

    In Jodi's case, a lawyer has advised her to file. Granted, this lawyer isn't necessarily objective since he stands to profit from Jodi's case. But if the advice rings true to Jodi, she should probably follow it. If not, she should get a second opinion, perhaps from a credit counseling agency or another lawyer.

    Important: When you're reasonably certain you're ultimately going to have to file bankruptcy, do it as soon as possible. It makes sense financially: If you're going to have your credit card debt discharged in court, making monthly payments is just throwing good money after bad. It also makes sense emotionally, because the sooner you file, the sooner you can stop staring at the ceiling all night.

    What about negotiating with the creditors? Jodi is wondering if it's worth a try to call her creditors and see if she can negotiate lower amounts so she can pay her debts. The answer: Sure, why not? But while she can do it herself, I'd suggest she get a professional to help.

    A credit counseling organization can step between you and your creditors, set up a repayment plan and probably get some of your rates reduced and fees waived. Read more about that option here.

    A lawyer, like a bankruptcy lawyer, can help you negotiate a lump-sum payment with the creditor. In Jodi's case, for example, she could offer $10,000 today as payment in full for her $20,000 debt. The obvious problem is she'll need $10,000.

    There are also companies that offer to settle debts. They do this by instructing you to stop paying your creditors and send them the payments instead. When you've saved the necessary lump sum, they negotiate the settlement for you. The problem? Many are shady and charge high fees. Read more about that option here.

    What about your moral obligation? As I've already said, years ago, to me the answer to the question of "Should I pay my debts?" was simple: Of course.

    This is the way I was raised, Jodi was raised and if you had typical parents, you were raised: A person of honor meets his or her obligations. Your word is your bond. A person who reneges on his debts isn't to be trusted.

    But after nearly 25 years as a consumer reporter, this is no longer black and white. One reason: Many lenders expect you to have morals, but exercise few themselves.

    I can point to many examples: Credit card companies that double interest rates when you're a day late with a payment. Banks charging multiple $35 bounced-check fees if you overdraw your account by $2. Tax preparation companies charging triple-digit rates so you can have your tax refund a week early. Mortgage lenders lying on loan paperwork to get unqualified borrowers approved. Payday lenders, rent-to-own furniture stores and pawn shops that target the poorest and least educated in our society.

    Giant corporate lenders wouldn't hesitate to use bankruptcy to eliminate any obligation they have to you. In fact, some of America's biggest companies routinely use bankruptcy to get out of union contracts, retiree health care and other obligations.

    In short, the playing field isn't level. Because, while most people feel guilt when they fail to meet an obligation, corporations aren't people. They don't feel anything.

    None of this, of course, relieves you of your moral obligation to act responsibly and do your best. But when your best isn't good enough, there's no shame in taking advantage of a system that exists entirely to give those who deserve it a second chance. More than a million Americans use it every year.

    The Bottom Line

    If your debt problem arose from something beyond your control, like illness, injury or a job loss, there was absolutely nothing you could do to prevent it, so you have nothing to feel guilty about. Even if your problems arose solely from irresponsible behavior, if you have any sense at all, you'll hopefully learn not to repeat your mistakes.

    Either way, Jodi, you have more than an obligation to your credit card company. You have the obligation to protect your sanity, your future and your family by using the lawful system you support with your tax dollars. If it's your best path, don't hesitate to take it.

    And remember, should you feel guilty when you file bankruptcy, there's no law prohibiting you from repaying a lender on down the road. Bankruptcy only relieves you of the obligation to repay debts, not the ability.

    Got a Question You'd Like Answered?

    A great way to get answers to just about any money-related question is to head to our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth and, most important, post questions and get answers. It's also where I often look for questions to answer in this weekly column. You can also ask questions by replying to our daily emails. If you're not getting them, fix that right now by subscribing now.

    About Me

    I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I've earned a CPA (currently inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.

    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!
    Need Help With Debt? Here's Where to Find It Free

     

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    FILE - In this March 13, 2015, file photo, a worker inspects a new 2015 aluminum-alloy body Ford F-150 truck at the company's Kansas City Assembly Plant, in Claycomo, Mo. The Commerce Department releases its October report on orders for durable goods, items expected to last at least three years, on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
    Charlie Riedel/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- Consumer spending barely rose in October as households took advantage of rising incomes to boost savings to their highest level in nearly three years, pointing to moderate economic growth in the fourth quarter.

    Anemic consumer spending did little do change expectations that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates next month as other data released Wednesday showed a surge in business spending plans in October and a drop in new applications for unemployment benefits last week.

    As far as fourth-quarter GDP goes, that is likely to keep estimates close to 2 percent. That's enough to justify a rate hike as long as next Friday's employment report is not a disaster.

    "As far as fourth-quarter GDP goes, that is likely to keep estimates close to 2 percent. That's enough to justify a rate hike as long as next Friday's employment report is not a disaster," said Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York.

    The Commerce Department said consumer spending edged up 0.1 percent after a similar increase in September. That suggests consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, has slowed from the third quarter's brisk 3 percent annual pace.

    The tepid rise in consumer spending could combine with an anticipated drag from an ongoing inventory reduction to hold the economy to around a 2 percent growth rate in the fourth quarter.

    But the economy, which expanded at a 2.1 percent pace in the third quarter, could get support from business spending.

    In a second report, the Commerce Department said non-defense capital goods orders excluding aircraft, a closely watched proxy for business spending plans, jumped 1.3 percent last month after rising 0.4 percent in September.

    Coming on the heels of data this month showing a solid increase in manufacturing output in October, it suggested the worst of the drag from a strong dollar and deep spending cuts by energy firms was over.

    Fed officials had held off raising rates at their last two meetings as they assessed the degree to which dollar strength and a slowing in economies overseas would weigh on the United States.

    "The surge in core capital goods orders could be a crucial signal that this important sector of the economy may be at a turning point, further bolstering the Fed's confidence in the sustainability of the economic recovery," said Millan Mulraine, deputy chief U.S. economist at TD Securities in New York.

    Manufacturing, which accounts for 12 percent of the economy, has been slammed by the buoyant dollar and energy sector spending cuts. The greenback has gained 18.1 percent against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners since June 2014.

    The pace of appreciation, however, is gradually slowing. Economists also believe that the bulk of spending cuts by oil field firms such as Schlumberger (SLM) in response to lower crude prices have already been implemented.

    U.S. Treasury debt prices rose modestly, while the dollar hit an eight-month high against a basket of currencies. U.S. stocks were flat.

    Wages Rising

    Economists say rising rents and medical costs are diverting money from discretionary spending. While consumer sentiment increased in November from October, households continued to fret over their financial prospects, another report showed.

    But as the labor market continues to tighten, there is optimism that wage growth will pick up and encourage consumers to loosen their purse strings and boost spending.

    A fourth report from the Labor Department showed first-time applications for state unemployment benefits declined 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 260,000 for the week ended Nov. 21.

    Claims have now held below the 300,000 threshold for 38 consecutive weeks, the longest stretch in years, and are near levels last seen in 1973.

    Strengthening labor market conditions are gradually lifting income. The Commerce Department said personal income increased 0.4 percent last month after rising 0.2 percent in September. Wages and salaries shot up 0.6 percent, the largest gain since May.

    Savings increased to $761.9 billion, the highest level since December 2012, from $722.9 billion in September. Higher savings could over time buoy consumer spending.

    There was still no sign of inflation, which has persistently run below the Federal Reserve's 2 percent target.

    A price index for consumer spending rose 0.2 percent in the 12 months through October after a similar rise in September. Excluding food and energy, the personal consumption expenditures price index was up 1.3 percent for the 10th straight month.

    In another report, the Commerce Department said new homes sales jumped 10.7 percent in October, which could allay concerns of a significant slowdown in housing.

     

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    A motorist fuels his vehicle Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, in Gilbert, Ariz. With Thanksgiving gas prices at its cheapest since 2008, the number of travelers is expected to rise. (AP Photo/Matt York)
    Matt York/APA motorist fuels his vehicle Tuesday in Gilbert, Ariz. With Thanksgiving gas prices at its cheapest since 2008, the number of travelers is expected to rise.
    By JUSTIN PRITCHARD

    LOS ANGELES -- An expanded version of America's annual Thanksgiving travel saga was under way Wednesday with gas prices low and terrorism fears high.

    An estimated 46.9 million Americans are expected to take a car, plane, bus or train at least 50 miles from home over the long holiday weekend, according to the motoring organization AAA. That would be an increase of more than 300,000 people over last year, and the most travelers since 2007.

    Among the reasons given for the increase: an improving economy and the cheapest gasoline for this time of year since 2008.

    On Tuesday, some travelers were gearing up for an early exit.

    Fanni Farago, 26, of Tempe, Arizona, sat in the Albuquerque airport with her sister Flora Farago, 30, while waiting for their parents to arrive from Dallas. The family was planning on driving to the mountain resort of Red River, New Mexico to revive a family Thanksgiving tradition.

    "My parents warned us about the travel warning so we decide to get started early," Fanni Farago. "And since it's so cheap to drive, we are going to rent a car to go up to Red River."

    Americans prefer auto travel because it provides more control over expense, trip distance and duration, said Susan Hiltz, AAA spokeswoman in Michigan.

    "Auto travel volume tends to be evenly spread out over the five-day holiday, but airports are especially busy on Wednesday and Sunday," she said.

    Anyone trekking to a major airport should factor in 50 extra minutes on the road, according to the traffic data company INRIX -- and that's just getting to the airport, never mind getting through security.

    Though there have been no changes to the nation's terror alert status, the recent attacks in Paris, West Africa and elsewhere prompted the State Department to warn American travelers about the risks overseas.

    On Tuesday, the head of the Transportation Security Administration, Peter Neffenger, boasted that the U.S. has the world's best aviation security and assured the public that TSA is "taking every measure to protect the millions of air travelers in the coming weeks."

    At the Phoenix airport, Teri Robert said the notion of flying from Arizona to West Virginia to see family gave her pause, but in the end she decided she had to go.

    "I'm not going to let the terror alerts and things stop me, because then they win," she said.

    Airfares have increased just 69 cents on average since last year, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp., which processes ticket transactions for airlines and travel agencies.

    -Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, Corey Williams in Detroit, Brian Skoloff in Phoenix and Russell Contreras in Albuquerque contributed.

     

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    In this Sept. 29, 2015, photo, the Marvel Avengers Remote Control Hulk Smash XPV from Jakks Pacific is displayed at the TTPM Holiday Showcase in New York. The U.S. toy industry is expected to have its strongest year in over a decade, with anything robotic expected to help drive holiday sales. The growth is being fueled by the increasing popularity of toys based on Hollywood blockbuster films and better technology that allows toys to do things like talk back to children. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
    Mark Lennihan/APMarvel Avengers Remote Control Hulk Smash XPV from Jakks Pacific
    NEW YORK -- Which toys will warm the hearts of parents and kids for the holiday 2015 shopping season?

    Holiday toys hit the shelves in recent weeks. And so far, just as in the past few years, there's no single hot toy emerging. But anything "Star Wars," lifelike robotic pets and remote controlled toys should drive sales.

    As the holiday shopping season kickoff starts over Thanksgiving weekend, toy sales will heat up.

    The Associated Press has compiled a list of some of this year's expected hot toys and trends for 2015:

    'Star Wars'
    • The Black Series Kylo Ren Force FX Lightsaber by Hasbro: toy weapon makes light and sound effects. $199.99.
    • BladeBuilders Jedi Master Lightsaber set from Hasbro: system allows kids to customize weapons. $49.99.
    • The Force Awaken's BB-8 Droid by Sphero: remote-controlled robot that connects to an app. It changes expression and even perks up when given voice commands. $149.99.
    • Star Wars Millennium Falcon RC Quad by Spin Master: remote-controlled version of the iconic ship. $140
    Robotic Pets
    • Little Live Pets CleverKeet from Moose Toys: interactive, singing and talking bird. He responds to voice. $59.99.
    • Imaginext Ultra T-Rex from Mattel's Fisher-Price: robotic dinosaur that has sound effects, walks, stands and fires projectiles. $99.99.
    • FurReal Friends StarLily My Magical Unicorn from Hasbro: robotic unicorn with a horn that lights up. Also can spread and flutter her wings. It connects to an app. $119.99.
    • Smart Toy Bear from Mattel's Fisher-Price: plush bear that connects to an app and customizes based on the child's preferences. $99.99.
    • Bright Beats Dance & Move BeatBo: Press BeatBo's tummy or any of the buttons on his feet to activate fun songs. Parents or the baby can record a phrase that can be remixed into a song for language and communication skills. $39.99.
    Other
    • Kidizoom Smartwatch DX from VTech: smartwatch for kids that can take pictures and videos. $64.99
    Fast and Furious:
    • Nerf Rival from Hasbro: latest blaster under Nerf that has a trigger lock and high-impact rounds. $49.99 (1200 blaster) $24.99 (700 blaster).
    • Marvel Avengers XPV Remote Control Hulk Smash Vehicle from Jakks-Pacific: remote-controlled Hulk that smashes, flips and does wheelies. $69.99.
    • Anki Overdrive robotic car set: radio-controlled car set that works with an android or iPhone device. $149.99.
    • Paw Patroller from Spin Master: toy truck inspired from Nickelodeon's animated series "Paw Patrol" features a working elevator, a functional Command Center inside and sound effects. $59.99.
    • Pie Face from Hasbro: Kids put whipped cream or a wet sponge on the "hand" of the game and start turning the handle. It could go off any minute -- and splat. $19.99.

     

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    APTOPIX Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/APNew York Stock Exchange executive Douglas Foley and his daughter meet Santa Claus from the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade on the trading floor before Wednesday's opening bell.
    By Sinead Carew

    NEW YORK -- The major U.S. indexes were virtually unchanged Wednesday at the close of a quiet trading day with gains in health care and consumer stocks after data showed U.S. modest economic growth.

    Trading volume was low as many market participants were away in the last session before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. Markets will be closed Thursday and most of Friday afternoon.

    The news this morning was a little better than worse, so the market went up.

    "The news this morning was a little better than worse, so the market went up," said Peter Costa, president of Empire Executions, citing mixed economic data.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 1.2 points, or 0.01 percent, to 17,813.39, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 0.27 points, or 0.01 percent, to 2,088.87 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 13.34 points, or 0.3 percent, to 5,116.14.

    Data showed claims for jobless benefits fell more than expected to 260,000 last week, while durable goods orders for October, excluding aircraft, increased 1.3 percent, far more than the 0.4 percent expected.

    However, other reports suggested consumers weren't in a spending mood, with consumer spending increasing just 0.1 percent in October compared with the 0.3 percent expected.

    The University of Michigan's final index of consumer sentiment for November also fell short of estimates.

    While investors cited good conditions for consumers, they were cautious about global security issues and the impact from the first U.S. interest rate hike since 2006, which is widely expected to happen in December.

    "With market valuations where they're at right now, there's potential downside if the next data point or global political event is negative," said Jeff Morris, head of U.S. equities at Standard Life Investments in Boston.

    'Swing Factor'

    Traders turned their focus to the crucial U.S. holiday shopping season, which starts around Thanksgiving.

    "That's going to be the key, the swing factor for the next couple of weeks -- how holiday sales shape up," said Michael Baele, senior portfolio manager at U.S. Bank Private Client Reserve in Portland, Oregon.

    "When you consider the job market, low energy costs [and] low interest rates, the consumer's in pretty good shape."

    Four of the 10 major S&P sectors were higher, with gains in the health care and consumer discretionary sectors leading the way, while the energy and utilities sectors were lower.

    HP Inc. (HPQ), the new company that houses the former Hewlett-Packard's printer and PC businesses, dropped 13.7 percent after its profit forecast missed estimates.

    Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE), HP's corporate hardware and services businesses, rose 3 percent after it maintained its full-year profit forecast.

    NYSE advancing issues outnumbered decliners 1,852 to 1,185, for a 1.56-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,853 issues rose and 947 fell for a 1.96-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The S&P 500 posted 17 new 52-week highs and no new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 91 new highs and 42 new lows. Just under 5.2 million shares changed hands Wednesday on U.S. exchanges, well below the 7.19 billion average for the last 20 sessions.

    -Abhiram Nandakumar contributed reporting from Bangalore, India.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • U.S. financial markets are closed for Thanksgiving.

     

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    Never Skip This Home Winterizing Task
    Cleaning your gutters twice a year, can stop your money from going down the drain. Here's how.

    Clogged gutter systems overflow with rainwater and can damage the foundation of your home, costing you thousands in repairs. So how do you get them clean?

    It's easy. One clever trick is to use a leaf-blower attachment to blast the debris away. If you don't have a leaf blower, the next best method is using a garden cultivator to rake the debris away.

    Or, finally, you can do it the old fashioned way. Simply put on a pair of gloves, climb a ladder, and use your hands.

    This winter just remember: keeping your gutter clean can make your wallet overflow with savings.

    View Poll


     

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    Happy Thanksgiving greeting card
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    As Thanksgiving approaches, we think about all of the people and things in our lives that we are thankful for -- but how often do we think about being thankful for our economic good fortune? The 24-hour news cycle can make it seem like we are in a constant state of economic crisis. However, with some holiday perspective, we can see some of the more positive aspects of the US economy.

    Do you need some help getting into the optimistic mode? We are here to help. Consider the following bits of good economic news to put you in a thankful frame of mind.
    • Shrinking deficit -- We may still be increasing our debt, but at least we are headed in the right direction by decreasing our deficits. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the budget deficit for fiscal 2015 was $435 billion. That is down from $483 billion in 2014, and well below the trillion-dollar deficits of 2009-2012. As much as the sequestration was ridiculed, it can take some credit for the decreasing deficit via throttling back government spending.
    • Job growth -- According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States has reported a greater number of jobs every month since early 2010 -- 68 straight months of job growth in the private sector. Unemployment has reached 5 percent, the lowest it has been since February of 2008. It may be slow growth, but it is still growth, and that is certainly something to be thankful for if you have been unemployed at any time over the last few years.
    • Low gas prices -- The oversupply of crude oil has sent gas prices plunging to levels not seen in years. As of this writing, the national average price for a gallon of gas is $2.20 and is predicted to dip all the way to $2.03 in December before rising slightly. Compare that to the average national gas price of $3.68 per gallon in 2012. Even better, prices are expected to stay relatively low at least through 2016 with a $2.38 per gallon average.
    • Healthy stock market -- Stocks took a mid-year plunge resulting in a correction (a 10 percent loss in value), but the market has rebounded since then. It is back to the values at the beginning of the year with the Dow Jones Industrials near 18,000. For perspective, think back to Black Monday on October 19, 1987, when the Dow plunged 22.6 percent to reach a low mark of 1,738.70. Since then, the Dow has grown tenfold in value. You would have to go back almost four decades to find another tenfold increase in stock value.
    • Low inflation -- Low oil prices played a large role in 2015's near-zero inflation rate, but the rate has been relatively low for a long time -- averaging close to 2.8 percent over the last 30 years. For a contrast, consider 1970-1982 when inflation averaged 7.7 percent and hit a peak of 14.8 percent in March 1980. Inflation eats away at your purchasing power over time, and forces you to earn even greater returns on your investments to meet your goals for savings and retirement.
    History tells us that all of these positive conditions will change at some point, so enjoy these economic upsides while we have them. It is easy to be a cynic and a pessimist about the overall economy, but why dwell on the downside? Join the glass-half-full club and you will find plenty of things to be thankful for, whether the subject is economic factors or other life situations. We at MoneyTips wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving.

     

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    Woman Adjusting Bow on Gift
    Getty ImagesSpend Black Friday making a list of thoughtful gifts - instead of grabbing discounted items your friends probably don't want.


    Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving -- has become associated with a huge rush of shopping for many Americans. Stores offer a variety of sales, and people run to get discounted items to check off their holiday gift list or to get something new for themselves.

    For some, however, Black Friday has become an experience to avoid. The crowded stores, the sales on items they don't really need, the spending of money on unthoughtful gifts -- it adds up to an event that many people want to skip.

    Still, if you have Friday off from work, why not use it to prepare for the holidays in other ways? Here are five great ways to spend Black Friday without rushing to the stores and opening your wallets wide.

    Make homemade gifts. One great gift-giving strategy for the holidays is to make your own gifts. It's not too difficult to make batches of homemade soap, jams, custom stationery or even homemade beer.

    The real trick with homemade gifts is that they take time more than anything else, and that's exactly what Black Friday gives to many of us -- particularly when we're not shopping. Pick up your supplies just before Thanksgiving, then settle in with a good movie or some holiday music and spend the Friday after Thanksgiving making gifts for your friends and family.

    Write thoughtful holiday cards. One of the best ways to show your friends, professional contacts and family members that you truly care is a handwritten card during the holiday season. A simple, tasteful card with a thoughtful note on the inside that says something about the connection that you share is a spectacular way to maintain a relationship and show someone that he or she really matters to you.

    Settle in a nice workspace including a few pens, a stack of cards and envelopes, some stamps and your address book, and write a few dozen thoughtful cards for people on this Black Friday. Drop them in the mail, and they'll find their way to the important people in your life, giving them something to smile about when they check their mail.

    Make a truly thoughtful gift list. Many shoppers simply make a list of people who they need to buy gifts for and brainstorm ideas as quickly as possible, often grabbing thoughtless items at the last minute or giving generic gifts that don't match the recipient's interests at all. Nothing tells people that they were a footnote like giving them a thoughtless gift they wouldn't want or use.

    Spend Black Friday doing some thinking and research into the people you care about. Visit their Facebook pages, and see if you can figure out things that interest and excite them. What do they post about? What do they have listed as interests? Those will often lead you right to a great gift idea that matches the person well.

    Decorate your home tastefully and frugally. A festive home adds a special flavor and joy to the holiday season, but it often feels like an incredible chore to get out all those decorations and fill the house with them. It can also be a big expense.

    Take a different approach this Friday. Spend some time in a park gathering pinecones or other materials for handmade natural decorations. String popcorn or dried berries together. Teach your children how to make handmade paper snowflakes, and use them for decor. These inexpensive decorations can give your home a festive and natural look for the holiday season.

    Make a plan so you're not panicked before the big holiday. What are your plans for the holiday season? Are you going to have guests over? Are people going to stay at your house? Are you traveling? What kinds of meals are you going to be expected to prepare?

    Get a jump on these things now, and spend Friday figuring out exactly what you need to do. Then, come up with a plan for the month of December that allows you to get all these things done one step at a time. Give yourself some tasks for the first week, some for the second week, and then a few daily tasks after that, so that if you follow the plan, the holidays go off without any unexpected hitches or big expenses.

    You don't have to go out shopping on Black Friday to fill yourself with the holiday spirit. A day spent doing other things, like making homemade gifts or writing holiday cards for friends and family, can put you in the holiday mood without spending a lot of money on stuff you don't need and your family likely doesn't want.

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

     

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    How Warehouse Stores Get You to Spend More

    By Donna Freedman

    Everything is larger than life at Costco (COST), Sam's Club (WMT) and BJ's Wholesale Club: product sizes, shelves, even the shopping carts.

    Whether you're a family stocking the pantry on a budget or a soccer coach looking for post-game snacks in bulk, you can trundle some killer deals out the door.

    Yet we also have to remember that like any other retailer, warehouse stores stay in business because they know how to part us from our dollars.

    Following are six tips to avoid being trapped by warehouse stores' tricks of the trade.

    1. Ignore 'warehouse' decor. The floors are concrete. The beams are exposed. Stuff is stacked on plain metal shelving or on pallets.

    Here's what that spartan appearance says to us consumers: "They don't waste money on décor and carpeting and Muzak, so we're bound to get unbelievable deals."

    Generally, that's true. Just make sure that fear of missing a great price doesn't keep you from doing the math. Remember, too, that low prices might tempt us to buy stuff we don't strictly need.

    2. Remember that you are paying extra. Part of the reason we pay less is that we pay each year for the privilege of walking through the door. The annual fee offsets some of our savings.

    Generally speaking, the membership fee will easily pay for itself, especially if you're purchasing basics like over-the-counter medications, gasoline, tires, meat, dairy products and pet food. (See "10 Best Buys at Warehouse Clubs" for more information.)

    At times you can get a better deal at regular stores, especially when combining sales and coupons. (Hint: Sites like CouponMom.com and regional coupon blogs will do all the legwork.)

    However, getting a pretty good price consistently at the warehouse likely beats getting super prices every so often and so-so deals the rest of the time at supermarkets and drugstores. If you're the kind of person who doesn't want to fuss with coupons, warehouse stores might be for you.

    3. Don't buy food you can't eat. Large quantities are the hallmark of warehouse stores. But even if you really like an item, be honest: Are you going to be able to consume that much bagged salad, cookies or whatever?

    Put another way: I love grape tomatoes. They make a wonderful snack and of course they're delicious in salads. But we probably couldn't finish several pounds of the things before they rotted.
    If you're throwing food away, you're not saving money.

    4. Beware the deadly FOMO and WWLT. "Fear of missing out" drives a lot of irrational buying. Knowing that the inventory changes constantly might cause you to pull the trigger on a purchase even if you're not sure you need/want it.

    Just as bad is WWLT: "Wouldn't (whoever) love that?" You see the camouflage-printed jammies or the hardback mystery novel that would be perfect for someone in your life. (Like, say, yourself.)

    Come clean: Have you ever gone to Costco for milk, oranges and canned goods and walked out with a trampoline? It happens.

    If it's something you don't need, or something you want but can't pay for right now, then it's no bargain.

    5. Put on your track shoes. As soon as you enter the store, run. Do not be distracted by the bright shiny big-screen televisions, smartphones and all those other pretty toys by the entrance.

    If you've been wavering about making a purchase like this, the discounted price tag might be enough to convince you. But if that new iWhatever isn't currently in your budget, you've just made another decision: to carry a credit card balance or to withdraw money from savings.

    Much better to wait until you've saved enough to pay with cash.

    6. Be an informed consumer. The same consumer tactics you use everywhere else also apply at warehouse stores: Make a list, compare unit prices, and carry cash vs. plastic.

    And once more, with feeling: Learn the difference between wants and needs. Sure, that next-generation smartphone or giant-screen TV might improve your life, but it shouldn't do so at the expense (so to speak) of your everyday budget.

    How do you keep from being snookered into buying more than you really need at a warehouse store? 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!

     

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    Kiplinger Which States Tax Social Security

    Build a sizable nest egg? Check. Purchase a new set of golf clubs? Check. Plan for taxes on your retirement income? Chhhh ... Wait a minute. Plan for what?

    Lots of retirees are surprised by the big bite that taxes can take out of their savings. And depending on where you live, the tax hit can be especially painful. In fact, some states even tax Social Security benefits, the most important source of income for many retirees.

    The 13 states that tax Social Security are:
    • Colorado
    • Connecticut
    • Kansas
    • Minnesota
    • Missouri
    • Montana
    • Nebraska
    • New Mexico
    • North Dakota
    • Rhode Island
    • Utah
    • Vermont
    • West Virginia
    But just because a state taxes Social Security doesn't mean it's a bad place to retire. Overall, Colorado and West Virginia are actually tax-friendly places to live in retirement despite the tax on Social Security. Weigh a state's entire tax picture -- from income tax to sales tax to property tax -- to better understand how your money will be taxed and how you can budget for those costs.

    Kiplinger's tax maps can help. Check out the most tax-friendly states for retirees and the least tax-friendly states for retirees to identify your best place for retirement.

     

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    Cool Hacks for Your Thanksgiving Leftovers

    By Parker Wallace

    Everyone looks forward to Thanksgiving and all the trimmings. And then, by Saturday, everybody is sick of Thanksgiving and all the trimmings. Gag me with a turkey sandwich, right?

    The key to leftovers is making them feel like a different meal with a new texture and flavor profile for each.

    Give leftover stuffing a crunchy panko crust -- inside these yummy croquettes is a tender piece of turkey! Turn butter into a whole new condiment by adding a few spoonfuls of leftover cranberry sauce. And transform those mashed potatoes into potato pancakes.

    Here is everything you need to know. Be sure to refer to the video to watch each one being made. None takes more than a few minutes.

    Turkey Croquettes

    Ingredients
    • Bite size pieces of turkey
    • Stuffing (If it's dry, add some melted butter to it.)
    • Canola oil
    • Flour for dredging
    • 3 eggs whisked for egg wash
    • Panko
    • Leftover gravy
    Directions
    • Heat canola oil -- about 2 inches in depth -- in a wide rimmed skillet or Dutch oven using medium-high heat.
    • Roll stuffing into golf-ball sized orbs.
    • Press a bite-sized piece of turkey into the middle of each stuffing ball.
    • Dredge balls in flour, then egg wash, then panko.
    • Put croquettes in the hot oil and brown on all sides.
    • Drain on paper towels.
    • Serve with hot gravy.
    Cheesy, Savory Potato Pancakes Ingredients
    • 3 cups leftover mashed potatoes
    • 1 beaten egg
    • 1 cup cheddar cheese
    • Handful of chives or scallions
    • 1 tablespoon butter
    • 1 tablespoon canola oil
    • Sour cream for garnish
    Directions
    • Fold egg, cheese and chives into the leftover mashed potatoes and mix to combine evenly.
    • Heat canola oil and butter in a skillet.
    • Form potato and cheese mixture into pancakes.
    • Put into the hot skillet and fry until browned on both sides.
    • Serve with sour cream.
    Cranberry Butter Ingredients
    • 1 stick softened butter
    • 2-3 tablespoons of leftover cranberry sauce
    Directions
    • Whip cranberry sauce into butter until smooth.
    Now it's time for you to share your favorite leftover recipes, either in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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

     

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    Red christmas baubles on tree
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    By Andrea Cannon

    Let's face it: The holidays can be expensive. Along with spending money on gifts, food and fun, you also need to worry about lights, decorations, wrapping essentials and other items. Fortunately, we've found some smart ways to help you save big on your holiday decorations!

    1. Set a Budget

    First, figure out how much you're willing to spend. Set this amount aside and don't go over-budget. It might be easier for you to set it aside in cash. That way you're protected from overspending and it's easier to keep track of how much is left.

    2. Follow the Sales

    There's no better time than the holidays to take advantage of things like price matching, coupons and promo codes. Many stores, like Walmart, offer to match or beat any local competitors' prices or will accept competitors' coupons, so you should know which stores near you offer these perks. Most large stores start offering discounts on outdoor decorations in early November, indoor decorations in mid-November and tree decorations in early December. Follow the sales.

    3. Buy Holiday Items Off-Season

    Right after the gift-giving season, holiday decorations, lights, wrapping and seasonal foods go on massive sale. You can save up to 75 percent on all of the holiday essentials. If your storage or garage has the extra space to store decorations for next year, this can save you big money.

    4. Make DIY Decorations

    Not only will you save money and get in touch with your creative side, but you can also get the kids involved for a fun family activity. There are thousands of free videos and tutorials online to help you create beautiful DIY decorations and ornaments for a fraction of the cost of new ones. (See also: 12 Ideas for Cheap, Festive, Fall Decor)

    5. Use the Outdoors as Inspiration

    Your yard might have some great natural pieces that you can use to decorate the interior and exterior of your home, like pinecones, dried leaves, twigs, branches, acorns and other foliage. You can use pinecones as centerpieces or you can even spray paint them gold or silver and add glitter for a DIY tree ornament.

    6. Give Your Old Decorations a Makeover

    Nearly anything looks better in a glass vase, so consider filling some with cranberries, old glass ornament or pinecones to create brand new, festive displays and centerpieces.

    7. Get More Out of Your Tree

    When purchasing your tree, remember that prices are usually lower during the week and higher on the weekends. You can also save big by buying your tree the week before Christmas, if you are okay with waiting. Save any bits that are lopped off your tree as it is being shaped. These pieces can be used to decorate the mantel or serve as a centerpiece.

    8. Get More From Old Wrapping Paper

    Keep small scraps of wrapping paper to make your own gift tags. Simply fold the scrap of wrapping paper in half, tape it to the gift and write the "To" and "From" inside. You can also do the same with old holiday cards.

    9. Focus on the Smells of the Holidays

    Cinnamon sticks, cloves, oranges, clementines, cranberries, pumpkin spice and vanilla are all staple holiday ingredients with discernible smells. Some other ways to focus on the scents of the holidays include:
    • Cook more with seasonal ingredients to naturally scent your home;
    • Buy holiday scented candles;
    • Make your own affordable holiday simmering potpourri, which is the perfect way to welcome someone into your home and also doubles as a great gift;
    • Use candy canes and seasonal fruits to make a unique scented table display;
    • Hang bunches of cinnamon sticks from the tree or mantle.
    10. Buy in Bulk

    Some of the best holiday items to buy in bulk include wrapping paper, ornaments, candles and serving dishes. If you buy too much, consider repurposing ornaments into DIY gifts or centerpieces.

    11. Visit Dollar Stores and Thrift Stores

    Dollar stores, discount stores and craft stores have some beautiful decorations for a fraction of the cost. Craft stores also have large selections of branches and wreaths that are both affordable and unique. Along with holiday decorations, you can stock up on essentials like glitter and tinsel to complete your holiday decorating kit.

    Don't forget about used! Many thrift stores also offer great deals on vintage decorations, holiday sets and ornaments. You might also be able to find some great holiday finds at nearby garage or moving sales, all at prices that can't be beat.

    12. Think Outside of the Box

    There are countless ways to upcycle your unwanted items and old holiday decorations into unique pieces. For example, try one of the following ideas this year:
    • Turn old brown paper grocery bags or comic strips into DIY wrapping paper;
    • Make garlands out of popcorn;
    • Download a fireplace screensaver to your laptop, tablet or mobile phone, which can light up the room with fake flames and even make the crackling sounds that we all associate with the holidays;
    • Purchase inexpensive plain tissue paper and decorate it yourself.
    13. Save on Holiday Cards

    You can usually find holiday cards for cheap at the dollar store or on sale at your local home goods store (they typically go on sale in December if you can wait). If you don't want to spend part of your budget on holiday cards, send a postcard, letter or even holiday email instead.

    14. Plan an Ornament Swap

    Before you start decorating for the holidays, take inventory of what you have and what you want to use this year. Whatever is left over can be traded at an ornament swap with your friends, family, neighbors and/or co-workers. Everyone will be able to clear out their holiday stash and you'll have some "new" ornaments, wrapping essentials or holiday decorations at the end. Bring some wine and holiday snacks to make a pre-holiday party out of the swap.

    How do you save money on holiday decorations and wrapping essentials? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

     

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    Inside A Costco Wholesale Co. Store Ahead of Earnings Figures
    Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with a struggling music app getting a boost from a record-breaking album and another cult fave experiencing an E. coli scare.

    Pandora (P) -- Winner

    Adele's "25" is a hit, and unlike streaming music rivals Spotify or Apple's (AAPL) new Apple Music, all of the tracks of the record-breaking album are available on Pandora. It's a big score for Pandora, and it can certainly use it. Its stock has shed two-thirds of its value since hitting an all-time high early last year.

    It's not a perfect situation. The reason that Adele's available on Pandora is because the app doesn't let listeners select the actual songs that they want to hear. It's a music-discovery site that delivers customized playlists. However, with Adele's album shattering the record for its first week of sales, it's not going to hurt to draw attention to Pandora's platform at a time when usage has stalled.

    GameStop (GME) -- Loser

    We're not playing video games the way we used to, and GameStop is feeling the pinch. The leading video game retailer took a hit after posting sales, earnings, and comparable-store sales that all fell in its latest quarter when pitted against the same pre-holiday quarter a year earlier.

    This wouldn't be such a big deal -- many retailers are struggling these days -- but GameStop was forecasting positive comps for the quarter just three months ago. New software and hardware sales continue to eat away at growth in the sale of collectible items and pre-owned games and gear.

    Disney (DIS) -- Winner

    Disney-Pixar's "The Good Dinosaur" hit theaters on Wednesday. Movie critics have given mixed reviews on the computer-rendered movie, something that doesn't happen often when Pixar is telling the story.

    However, there's no point in denying the property's fate. It will be a big box office winner. It has dinosaurs. It's Disney-Pixar. It came out on Thanksgiving Eve, likely making the most of the extended holiday break that drives a family to the corner multiplex.

    Costco (COST) -- Loser

    It's not just Chipotle (CMG) dealing with an E. coli scare. Costco came under fire on accusations that its chicken salad may have disseminated the bacteria that causes an unpleasant gastrointestinal disease.

    There aren't many cases that have been announced so far, but burned Chipotle investors over the past few weeks will be the first to tell Costco shareholders that it's not over until it's over.

    Holiday Travelers -- Winners

    Thanksgiving finds many people hitting the road to visit family members, and it should be cheaper than usual this year with less pain at the pump. Gasoline prices over the holidays haven't been this low on Thanksgiving since 2008, and that will come as a welcome surprise to the 42 million drivers that AAA sees on the road this holiday weekend.

    It's not just drivers that will be grateful. Jet fuel is also cheap, and that's factored into lower airfares than in previous holiday travel seasons.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Costco Wholesale, Pandora Media and Walt Disney. 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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    World Human Hands Holding Word Give
    Getty Images
    By Maria Baugh

    Are you generous with your time and money? If you're like most Americans, you probably are.

    According to a recent report by the Charities Aid Foundation, 61 percent of Americans said they volunteered or made financial contributions to a charity organization last year. Overall, that made the U.S. the second most generous nation in a global survey involving 145 countries (Myanmar came out on top with 66 percent of charitable residents).

    But with the holiday season in full swing, it can be tough to find the time to not only identify new charities but to actually organize your giving. To help you out, we've pulled together a list of organizations that support kids both across the ocean and in your own backyard. And some are even creating innovative ways for you to assist in their mission.

    Didn't think your foodie Instagrams could make a difference? Want your holiday shopping to do good? These groups make it possible to incorporate charitable giving at whatever level that works for you.

    Help At-Risk South African Kids Get Healthy Meals

    Source: Lunchbox Fund
    Charity: The Lunchbox Fund

    The Mission: To teach South African schoolchildren about healthy eating by providing a rotating menu of nutritionally fortified foods. The organization's secondary focus is female empowerment, and it employs previously out-of-work women from local communities to help prepare and serve the food.

    The Impact: Simply put, when kids are well fed, they have more energy and are better able to focus on other things -- including their schoolwork -- enabling them to create new lives for themselves.

    "We've seen children who rely on The Lunchbox Fund as their sole food supply experience major academic success," says Sophie Barnett, the organization's digital coordinator. "A recent program graduate completed high school with honors and matriculated to college on a full engineering scholarship."

    The Lunchbox Fund launched 10 years ago, and in 2015 it provided 2.6 million meals to children in early childhood development centers, primary and secondary schools, and after-school homework assistance programs in townships and rural areas across South Africa.

    "The program now feeds 13,000 children per day," Barnett says. "Our current goal is to reach 50,000 children by 2017."

    How You Can Help: Because meals are only 25 cents each with 100 percent of proceeds going toward the mission, each of your donated dollars provides four meals for a child in need.

    You can donate money through their site, and use social media to support the cause. Using the organization's app, Feedie, you can take a picture of your meal at a participating restaurant across the U.S., Europe, Asia and South Africa, and the eatery will donate a meal to a child via The Lunchbox Fund.

    Now that's a "foodstagram" you can feel good about.

    Help Find a Cure for Childhood Cancer

    Source: Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation
    Charity: Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation

    The Mission: To raise funds and awareness for childhood cancer research and empower people -- especially kids -- to make a difference.

    Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation began in 2000 when 4-year-old Alex Scott, a cancer patient, wanted to create a lemonade stand to raise money and help find a cure for all children with cancer. Although Scott died in 2004, the project grew and continues to help children nationwide today.

    The Impact: The organization raises money to help fuel cancer research and has given more than 500 research grants to over 100 organizations. One child who benefited directly from the organization is Zach Witt, who had an aggressive type of cancer that didn't respond to chemotherapy. After receiving treatment partially funded by an ALSF research project, doctors found the medication that helped Zach become cancer-free.

    "Within two days, he was up and running around the hospital," says Elizabeth Romaine, the foundation's director of communications and PR. "In the last several months, he's been able to return to a normal childhood -- he's even playing baseball."

    How You Can Help: The idea is simple: Support in any way you can.

    You can follow Alex's example and host a lemonade stand to raise money. Or, If you're athletically inclined, you can join Alex's Million Mile, where people walk, run or bike to help reach the goal of a million miles traveled in the name of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September.

    Want to think -- and raise money -- outside the box? Romaine encourages it.

    "There's an attorney in New Jersey who calls himself 'The Caveman' -- for one full calendar year, he won't shave or cut his hair," she says. "He started in January, and so far he's raised just under $5,000. He's creating a visual reason to have the conversation."

    Help Kids, Parents and Teachers Use Technology to Succeed in School

    Source: PowerMyLearning
    Charity: PowerMyLearning

    The Mission: To enable students in grades K-12 to thrive by offering special websites, videos, games, mobile devices and laptops for academic exploration. The goal is to leverage tech to improve interactions between students, teachers and parents, and increase engagement and learning.

    The Impact: The nonprofit's free online platform, PowerMyLearning Connect, helps drive personalized instruction and self-directed learning, complete with fun games and activities.

    "We now have registered users from more than 40 percent of U.S. public schools, a figure that's tripled over the past two years," says CEO and co-founder Elisabeth Stock. "Teachers and parents continue to be the individuals who have the greatest impact on a child's academic success, and using technology to make them more effective is our secret sauce."

    How You Can Help: Financial gifts are always welcome, but you can also donate new or used laptops to the program.

    "We launched our #BelieveInFamilies campaign so more low-income families can support learning at home using the transformative power of technology," Stock explains. "We've already served more than 60,000 families in high-poverty communities, and we hope this campaign will help us bring in enough financial support to reach another 5,000 families in 2016."

    Give New Shoes to Kids Who Need Them

    Source: Shoes That Fit
    Charity: Shoes That Fit

    The Mission: To help children attend school in comfort -- and with dignity -- by giving them shoes to wear.

    The Impact: Since its humble beginnings in 1992, the organization has reached 1.4 million children around the country.

    "Last year we helped more than 90,000 kids in more than 2,000 schools and 46 states and D.C. -- all with one office in California and about six staff members," says Lee Kane, the charity's program manager.

    How You Can Help: Shoes That Fit recently kicked off its holiday campaign to provide 20,000 pairs of new athletic shoes to schoolchildren this winter. Through Dec. 24, supporters can purchase a $10 giving card from their local Nordstrom or Nordstrom Rack, which will go toward buying a pair of sneakers for a child in need.

    And if you want to go beyond a cash donation, Kane notes that supporters can replicate the program in their own community on a smaller scale. "We help match groups with nearby schools, and they go out and buy shoes directly for those students," Kane says.

    Feed America's Hungry Children

    Source: No Hungry Kid
    Charity: No Kid Hungry

    The Mission: To end childhood hunger across the country by making sure all kids get nutritious food.

    The Impact: One in five children in the U.S. struggles with hunger. Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry initiative, which began in 2006, is tackling that problem in many ways, like connecting kids with programs that provide breakfast at school and summer meals.

    "We want to make breakfast part of the school day," explains Clay Dunn, the program's interim chief communications and brand officer. "In the past, kids who wanted breakfast would have to arrive at school early, and there was a stigma attached -- the 'poor kids' were going to the cafeteria."

    Now breakfast is served directly in the classroom, and all the kids eat together.

    The Los Angeles Unified School District, which is the second largest in the country, recently finished its three-year rollout of the program, and breakfast is now available to every kid in the school system. The East Coast is up next.

    "Earlier this year we got a commitment from New York City to offer breakfast to every elementary school student over the course of next year," Dunn says.

    How You Can Help: You can donate online, and for every $1 you give, No Kid Hungry can offer as many as 10 meals to children.

    And if you're feeling political, you can take things to the next level. The organization is currently lobbying Congress to change the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which governs most child nutrition programs like school breakfast, lunch and summer meals. Their hope is to increase children's access to nutritious food even when school is not in session.

    Help Kids Whose Parents Are Deployed With the National Guard or Reserves

    Source: Our Military Kids
    Charity: Our Military Kids

    The Mission: To provide grants for sports, fine arts and tutoring to the children of deployed or severely injured National Guard and Military Reserve members.

    The Impact: While the organization has been helping military children for 11 years, this past one has been especially successful. "Through October we've been able to give out more than 3,000 grants and more than $1.2 million," says AnnaMaria Gallozzi, the charity's communications associate. "We've seen an increase in dance, martial arts and gymnastics grants allowing children to be active in their communities."

    Not only do the children get to participate in enriching activities, but the organization's annual survey found that 92 percent of families saw an improvement on the child's stress and anxiety.

    How You Can Help: With 93 percent of each donation going directly to help a child in need, a financial contribution made to Our Military Kids can go a long way.

    And if you're looking to do extra good while holiday shopping, sign up on Amazon Smile to donate a percentage of what you spend to Our Military Kids. You can also donate via eBay for Charity, which lets sellers donate a portion of their sales, and buyers support the organization by shopping.

    Bring Playgrounds and Activities to Kids Everywhere

    Carde Cornish
    Credit: Carde Cornish
    Charity: KaBOOM!

    The Mission: To make sure children can participate in active play wherever they are -- especially if they're in underserved areas. Best known for building playgrounds, KaBOOM! also focuses on creating opportunities for kids to "play along the way" -- like adding a hopscotch outline at a bus stop, for example.

    The Impact: Since its launch in 1996, KaBOOM! has built more than 2,700 playgrounds across the country, including three new playgrounds in Baltimore as part of its Play More B'More initiative this past October. "We want to help bring back hope and pride in communities there," explains Amy Levner, the program's vice president of communications and marketing.

    In 2015, with the help of thousands of volunteers and donors, they've created new play opportunities for more than 1 million kids.

    How You Can Help: Of course one easy way is to donate money to help support their efforts around the country. But to really up the ante, consider setting up a donation party, or ask that friends donate to the cause in lieu of getting a gift. "We also love to get community help and support on playground builds," Levner says.

     

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    By Lisa Gerstner

    As you pack for a trip or set foot in a mall over the holidays, take a close look at the benefits that come with your credit cards. Many issuers are shuffling the lineup of perks they offer to customers.

    Discover has dropped several travel-related benefits from its suite of perks for cardholders, including travel assistance, emergency roadside assistance, travel and baggage-delay insurance and lost-luggage insurance. Sears MasterCard removed the collision damage waiver for rental vehicles, insurance that many cards supply to cover bills for damage to a rental car. Travel assistance, roadside assistance and purchase assurance (insurance for damaged or stolen items bought with the card) also disappeared -- and Bank of America (BAC) is discontinuing the same three benefits on its MasterCard Better Balance Rewards cards.

    Many changes are in response to 2014 alterations to the core benefits that come with all standard, gold and platinum cards carrying the MasterCard logo, says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, a consumer-resource site. That means more cuts could be coming as banks evaluate their offerings. Watch for letters from your card issuer notifying you of revisions.
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    At the same time, card issuers are adding or refreshing other benefits that you may find more appealing. At a time when data breaches dominate headlines, Master­Card (MA) includes assistance for identity-theft victims among its core benefits, and Discover (DFS) provides the ability to freeze and unfreeze your account online or through an app, in case you lose your card. Several issuers, including Barclaycard, Citibank (C), Discover and Pentagon Federal Credit Union, provide free FICO credit scores to at least some cardholders. Wells Fargo offers up to $600 in coverage for cell-phone damage or theft if you pay your wireless bills with one of its cards.

    The tantalizing cash-back and miles offers that issuers dangle to attract customers in a competitive rewards-card market are replacing less-popular benefits, says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com. New customers who open a Discover It card by the end of 2015 get double cash back after a year.

    Regularly review the perks that come with your cards, even if it's just once a year. "You may find that you're using the wrong card for certain benefits or missing out on a valuable benefit you didn't realize you had," says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com. In a series of studies on card benefits among major issuers, credit card research site CardHub.com found that cards from Discover and Chase (JPM) had the strongest price-protection benefits (reimbursement for the difference if you find a lower price on a purchased item). American Express had the best extended-warranty policy, and American Express (AXP) and Visa (V) had superior car-rental insurance coverage. The Chase Sapphire Preferred card had the best general coverage for travel insurance.

    Make sure you understand the ins and outs of each benefit your card offers. Price protection is typically available up to 60 or 90 days after a purchase, for example. Rental-car insurance usually covers only fees that your personal auto insurance policy doesn't, and only if you decline the collision damage waiver that the rental-car agency offers you.

     

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    It turns out Santa Claus doesn't just deliver gifts under the Christmas tree. Traditionally, November and December are positive months for the U.S. stock market as well.

    Chalk it up to year-end catch-up buying or positive seasonal holiday cheer, but history shows that investors can expect stock market gains into year-end, particularly because of the trend known as the Santa Claus rally. But this year's wild card is the Federal Reserve, which is considering an interest rate hike in December. Let's take a look at what could lie ahead for Wall Street as well as opportunities for investors now.

    What is the Santa Claus rally? The Santa Claus rally phenomenon is a short but respectable upward move in stock prices over the last five trading days of the year and the first two days of the new year -- a trend identified and popularized by Stock Trader's Almanac publisher Yale Hirsch in 1972.

    Over this seven-day trading period since 1969, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) has averaged a 1.4 percent gain in the Santa Claus rally. One of the factors driving stocks higher is buying action by portfolio managers who are chasing stock winners and gains in an attempt to "window dress" their portfolios for year-end statements, says Jeffrey Hirsch, Yale Hirsch's son and the current editor at Stock Trader's Almanac.

    Significantly, the Santa Claus gains can be used as a warning signal for stock market action ahead. "The significance of the Santa Claus rally is really when it does not occur. If Santa Claus should fail to call, bears may come to Broad and Wall," Hirsch says, referring to the streets. Over the last 21 years, the Santa Claus rally has failed to emerge only four times, which preceded flat overall performance years in 1994 and 2005 and down markets in 2000 and 2008, he says.

    October's gains may keep Santa away. Looking at the bigger picture, there is a general seasonal tendency for positive stock market performance in November and December. "Over the last 10 years, on average, the S&P 500 has gained 0.38 percent in November and 1.29 percent in December," says John Canally, investment strategist and economist for Boston-based LPL Financial.

    However, Santa Claus and his reindeer may run into some trouble, as this year offers conflicting headwinds for the seasonal bullish performance period. "We had an extraordinarily strong October, and that likely ate into a little of the gains that we normally see in November and December," says Hank Smith, chief investment officer, at Philadelphia area-based Haverford Trust.

    Analysts point to the Federal Reserve as a potential spoiler for the traditional Santa Claus rally action. Smith highlighted the widespread uncertainty over how the stock market might react to a Federal Revere rate hike. "Assuming we get a rate hike in December, we might be looking at markets that trade relatively flat between now and year-end," Smith says.

    The Fed is widely expected to raise interest rates at its December meeting, which would mark the first increase since before the global financial crisis began in 2008. Analysts will be watching closely for clues on how far and how fast the central bank might raise rates in 2016, and this could be the key to the stock market's reaction, Canally says. "If the Fed raises rates in December and says we will only do three or four more hikes next year -- in that environment, we will get the Santa Claus rally," Canally says.

    For active investors looking to jump on seasonal trends, another well-documented phenomenon is the January effect, in which small-capitalization stocks tend to outperform large-cap stocks. But investors should take note: The January effect has been occurring earlier in recent years. "Nowadays, most of this so-called January effect takes place in the last two weeks of December. This is likely due to the anticipators trying to take advantage of this trend and getting in earlier," Hirsch says.

    "Small caps and beaten-down bargain stocks should be positioned to rally again this year in late December. If the market reacts positively to whatever the Fed does on Dec. 16, that would be a bullish sign for the small-cap effect and the Santa Claus rally," Hirsch says. There are several exchange-traded funds that track small-cap stocks, including iShares Russell 2000 (IWM).

    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.

     

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    By James Salter

    Failing to plan wisely for your own death or disability can create serious consequences for your loved ones.

    If you don't have a valid will in place, the state will decide how your possessions and assets are distributed. That could tie up your estate in a complicated process that leaves less in the end for your survivors. Or, if you are rendered mentally disabled, who will be responsible for your care? If you go into a coma, who would pay for your medical care? All these decisions will dictated by the court if you don't plan in advance. By failing to create a will, you are leaving the fate and financial security of your family at the mercy of strangers.

    Don't make the mistake of thinking that estate planning is only for the elderly and the rich. Nobody likes to think about the prospect of being old, disabled, incapacitated, or about dying, especially when you're still young and healthy. But this is actually the right time to pause and think about your finances, your possessions and your family. Regardless of your age or financial status, It is important to have an estate plan if you wish to protect your family against every adversity even when you aren't around. Don't make your busy schedule an excuse and put off the plan until you're richer or older, because this can create unintended consequences for your family.

    The biggest mistake millennials make is that they associate estate planning with the elderly and the affluent. They feel that they have enough time to plan such serious stuff. Millennials rarely know what an estate plan is and why it is necessary for families with children. This is why young professionals often don't have their financial affairs in order. An estate plan protects your spouse and children from financial difficulties and provides you with complete peace of mind. It plays a crucial role in deciding how your assets are distributed upon your death. It allows you to decide who will receive your property and financial assets if you die an unnatural death. If you think singles can escape the hassle of estate planning, you are mistaken! Everybody has assets and belongings that should be designated in advance.

    Drafting the will is important, but it's only half the battle. It is definitely a good start but not enough to safeguard your family. If you don't want to subject your family to potentially drawn-out probate court proceedings, you need to plan your estate. Probate can be financially draining and mentally taxing for your family. Once you have a will, you need to have it reviewed every year by a legal professional to ensure that it complies with the changing life situations and ever-evolving laws. Set up a consultation with an experienced and certified financial adviser and know what's best for you.

    People typically start planning with their first child, but the right time to start is as soon as you start earning. If you are single, you need to protect your earnings. If you are married, the financial security of your spouse is your responsibility. If you have children, you need to create an estate plan to protect their future in case you die an unexpected death. The rules governing inheritance are strict, and if you don't take them seriously, you could be inviting some serious trouble for your surviving family members.

    Now that you're convinced that estate planning is essential for every age, the next rational move you should be making is to schedule a consultation with a certified and credible financial planning professional or a lawyer who specializes in estate planning and probate, such as Blossom Wealth Management. (The author is the co-founder of this firm; it's one of many that can help.) Downloading a standard format from a legal site and drafting your own will will probably leave you with a document that doesn't fully address the complexity of your own situation. Laws vary by state and only an experienced lawyer can recommend the right course of action.

    Estate planning will ensure that your assets are inherited by your family and not handled by the court in the event of your death. Make an estate plan today and save your family from the costly and time-consuming court procedures, and give them the gift of a secure future.

    This article is commentary by an independent contributor.

     

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    If 2015 is like last year, 78 percent of workers can hope for some kind of year-end bonus from their employers. Few will get anything like the average $172,860 Wall Street bankers can expect in their stockings. But a holiday bonus is still an opportunity to reduce debt, pad savings and otherwise do the right financial thing.

    Alternatively, you could do the wrong thing.

    Making a mistake with a year-end bonus is just as easy as making a smart move, warns Joe Roseman, a financial planner in Charlotte, North Carolina. The first thing you shouldn't do with your bonuses is spend it all. "Don't blow it on Christmas," Roseman says.

    The second thing you shouldn't do is use it for a down payment on a new car. "You're still going to have the payments next year," Roseman points out.

    "Don't pay extra on your mortgage," he adds. "You are taking away your tax deduction." While paying down a mortgage will save future interest, at today's low mortgage interest rates that savings is modest, and the benefit is further reduced by the tax deduction.

    Finally, Roseman adds, "You shouldn't count on a bonus every year." By that, he means don't spend next year's year-end bonus on next year's summer vacation. Many employers pay bonuses when times are good and then cut back or eliminate them if business contracts. If you charge a vacation to a credit card thinking you'll pay it off with your bonus, you could find yourself in a high-interest hole next New Year's.

    So what should you do with it? A really smart move is to sink at least some of it into a retirement savings account, suggests Scott A. Stratton, a financial planner in Dallas. "If someone 25 years old took $5,000 of their bonus and invested it until they were 65 and earned 8 percent, they'd end up with $108,622," Stratton notes.

    The younger you are, the smarter it is. For instance, if a 35-year-old socked away the same $5,000 bonus until age 65, also earning 8 percent, the ending balance would total just $50,313, according to the Security Exchange Commission's calculator at Investor.gov. "You'd end up with half as much just by waiting 10 years," Stratton says.

    While getting started on retirement saving is important, it isn't only important financial use for a year-end bonus. Because the compounding effect of interest you are paying is just as powerful as interest you are earning, consider paying off all or part of any debts that charge steep interest rates.

    "If you're carrying a balance on any credit cards, that's got to be a high priority," Stratton says. "And a lot of people want to look at paying down their student loans, especially those that are higher interest."

    Next after that is an emergency fund. "You need six to nine months of living expenses set aside," Stratton specifies. If you have trouble getting traction on an emergency fund, a year-end bonus can help get you started.

    The final thing you should consider doing with your year-end bonus is spending part -- not all -- of it on something that isn't necessarily financially whip-smart. Say, a nice vacation, or a piece of jewelry. How much? Roseman suggests 25 percent, but it depends on the size of the bonus.

    But whatever you do or don't do with your year-end bonus, remember to treat yourself to a little extravagance. "Everybody, when they get a pile of money, deserves to spend it on something they've always wanted," Roseman says.

     

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