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    young couple exchanging christmas gifts (series)
    Getty ImagesSo you bought your father-in-law a tie and found out he hates ties? At least you have a little extra time to take it back.


    You likely already know how to spot a good Black Friday deal (electronics are almost certainly on your list) and how to plan your shopping schedule so you hit all the best sales (cutting short your Thanksgiving dinner is practically a must).

    But do you know how to return a deal that turns out to be less than what you expected?
    Here are some Black Friday return policy dates and details you should know before bargain hunting at some of the biggest stores.

    Best Buy

    Before you scoop up discounted video games or reduced-price cellphones, know your return options. At Best Buy (BBY), purchases made between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 have an extended return period that lasts through Jan. 15. Some things are excluded from this extension, including cellphones and devices with a carrier contract, as well as AppleCare and Geek Squad Protection plans returned without a product.

    Additionally, some products are final sale, which means they're nonreturnable. These include digital content, prepaid cards and opened consumable items including batteries, ink and 3-D printer filament, among others. Check the specifics for an item before you buy.

    Best Buy purchases can be returned in-store (regardless of whether you purchased them online or in-store). Just remember to bring along your receipt, the credit card you used or your photo ID. Returns can also be made my mail, but you'll have to pay for postage.

    Target

    At Target (TGT), most unopened items in new condition can be returned within 90 days for a refund or exchange. Exceptions include open music; movies; video games; and software, which can't be returned, but can be exchanged in-store for an identical title on the same or a different platform.
    Electronics and entertainment items have a 30-day return period. But the return period for electronics and entertainment products purchased between Nov. 1 and Dec. 25 won't start until Dec. 26.

    Amazon

    Typically Amazon (and most sellers on Amazon) allows customers to return items within 30 days of receipt of shipment. But that period has been lengthened just for the holidays. Purchases shipped by Amazon.com (AMZN) between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31 can be returned all the way through Jan. 31 for a full refund.

    But there are a few things for shoppers to keep in mind: Marketplace sellers are subject to this same holiday window as Amazon unless otherwise noted. View a seller's specific return policy to see if the dates differ or not.

    Amazon also has specific return guidelines depending on the type of purchase you make and which product category it falls in. Fine art purchases with a value of $75 or more, for instance, must be returned with trackable shipping. Gift cards can't be returned, except as required by law. Groceries and wine can't be returned to Amazon, but may be refunded. Consult the website's full return policy before buying.

    Staples

    Staples (SPLS) customers can return their purchases for any reason, and the return policy period for electronics has been extended.

    Electronic and furniture items can usually only be returned within 14 days, but for purchases made between Nov. 22 and Dec. 24, that period lasts until Jan. 16 (or as regular policy allows, whichever is later).

    There are exceptions, though. Gift cards and phone cards are neither returnable nor refundable. Opened software packages can only be exchanged for the exact same title. Downloadable software can't be returned or exchanged.

    Sears

    Select items purchased at Sears (SHLD) between Nov. 8 and Dec. 24 will carry extended return periods. Under this special holiday offering, products that would normally have a 30-day return period can instead be returned all the way through Jan. 24.

    But shoppers should be cognizant of what they choose as a gift this year, as not everything you buy on Black Friday will fall under this extended window. For instance, Christmas items like trees and decorations can't be returned after Dec. 25. And certain other products (including vacuum cleaners and major home appliances) as well as purchases that typically carry a return period of less than 30 days won't be covered by the extended seasonal policy.

    Read Between the Lines

    Black Friday shopping is all fun and deals until you get stuck with a gift you don't want. Check out the full return policies of the stores above or any other store you plan on shopping at this season. Most policies are clearly articulated on the "return" page of a retailer's website.

    Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, which saves consumers cash and compares everything from shopping deals to credit cards.

     

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    businessman hold a blackboard...
    Shutterstock
    By Cameron Huddleston

    When it comes to personal finance advice, there's no shortage of it. In fact, you could spend countless hours reading the tips and strategies of experts to learn how to better manage your money. It can be overwhelming. So, wouldn't it be nice if you could simply get the best advice from the best experts?

    GOBankingRates asked some of the most well-known personal finance experts and entrepreneurs to share their top money tip for 2016 as part of our annual "Best Money Expert" competition in collaboration with Ally Bank. Here are the top tips these 12 finance experts offered to help you take control of your finances next year.

    1. Be proactive with your money. As a best-selling author and host of his own popular radio show -- with more than 8 million listeners -- Dave Ramsey is one of the most well-known names in personal finance. His get-out-of-debt message has helped many eliminate debt and achieve financial success.

    For 2016, Ramsey said you should "tell your money what to do instead of wondering where it went. People know what they need to do with their money, but they just don't do it. Be proactive with your money -- do a budget, get rid of debt and save."

    2. Find a job you're satisfied with. Clark Howard, host of the nationally syndicated radio show "The Clark Howard Show" and author of 10 books, has been helping people save more and spend less for decades. To get ahead in 2016, Howard suggested making sure you're happy with your current job.

    "My No. 1 tip for Americans as we approach 2016 is if you are in a job you aren't completely satisfied with, shop the market," said Howard. "If your employer is being cheap about giving raises, there are tons of companies out there that are offering great opportunities right now -- so shop yourself in the market, and find a better job that's better for you and your family."

    3. Make saving for retirement a priority. Nationally syndicated personal finance columnist Liz Weston said that people need to make saving for retirement a priority in 2016. "It's going to come sooner and cost more than you think," said Weston, who is the author of numerous books and has won several awards for her writing.

    "The good news: The younger you start, the better shot you'll have at financial independence," she said. "Even if you got a late start, though, every dollar you save will help your future self have a better life."

    4. Create an ideal investment portfolio. Tony Robbins is known for his ability to distill practical and digestible lessons from complex financial concepts. The author, adviser and successful businessman said that investors need to adhere to four core principles as they head into 2016. These core principles include not losing money, finding investments with asymmetric risk and reward, creating a tax-efficient portfolio and diversifying your assets.

    "Ultimately, you want to make sure that your portfolio aligns with these Core Four principles so that you're protected no matter what," said Robbins.

    5. Always make a plan. Chris Hogan has made it his mission to help people successfully manage their finances in their personal lives and businesses. The former national champion and all-American football player now helps people plan for the future. He said the best thing you can do for your finances in 2016 is create a plan.

    "Think about what your financial goals are and create a plan to reach those goals," Hogan said. "The necessity of a plan sounds simple, but it is the one thing that many people overlook when it comes to their money. And a dream without a plan is simply a wish."

    6. Ask for better rates. Nicole Lapin claims to be the "only finance expert you don't need a dictionary to understand." So her best money tip for 2016 is simple: Learn to negotiate. "I'm a big advocate of negotiating," said Lapin, author of "Rich Bitch." "All it takes is a little guts."

    Lapin said you should always ask for a better rate on everything from your phone or cable plan to medical bills. "You have nothing to lose but a little time. The worst thing they can say is no. And they usually won't," she said. "So before the New Year is underway, call all of your providers and ask for a better rate. It's the best way to start a financially fabulous New Year."

    7. Get financially educated. Robert Kiyosaki is known for his unconventional perspectives on money that he advocated in his "No. 1 personal finance book of all time," "Rich Dad Poor Dad." So this personal finance expert who likes to challenge the status quo advised you take responsibility to get ahead next year.

    "Don't wait for the government, a financial adviser or your boss to take care of you," Kiyosaki said. "You must take control of your finances. You must get financially educated. Take responsibility for your life and your future -- don't give that right away."

    8. Create the lifestyle you want. The winner of GOBankingRates' 2014 "Best Personal Finance Expert" competition, Josh Felber has made it his mission to help people make more money and enjoy a lifestyle of their own design. To that end, he has two money tips for 2016.

    "To create real wealth, you must quit spending your future wealth on goods and services that you want today, but deprive you of wealth long term," said Felber, who was featured in Steve Forbes' "SuccessOnomics."

    His second tip is that "2016 is the year to break free from mediocrity and society's norms. Now is time to quit your 9-to-5 job and become an entrepreneur. Start becoming the true you and creating the lifestyle you are destined for."

    9. Think about how to bring in more money. Kyle Taylor helps the 5 million readers of his blog, ThePennyHoarder.com, put more money into their pockets. Although he's a pro at cutting costs, his No. 1 money tip for 2016 is centered on earning more rather than saving more.

    "From 'skip the lattes' to 'cut the cord,' there's plenty of great advice on how to save money," Taylor said. "But I believe there's something missing from most of the discussion: You should spend just as much time thinking about how to bring in extra money as you do thinking of ways to save what you already have. There are only so many things you can cut from your budget."

    10. Automate your savings. Jeanette Pavini has had a long career as an author, investigative reporter and spokesperson with a mission to save people money. In her role as spokesperson for Coupons.com, she has shared her money-saving expertise on hundreds of national and local television programs and publications. So, it's no surprise that her top money tip for 2016 is about saving.

    "Automate your savings out of every paycheck, rather than putting lump sums in when you get around to it," Pavini said. "You want your money to earn as soon as you earn it. If you already have automatic savings, up it by 1 percent. It's small enough you won't notice, but big enough to make a difference."

    11. Wealth includes more than money. Tim Ferriss is many things: angel investor, public speaker and author of several books -- including the bestseller "The 4-Hour Workweek." His business podcast, "The Tim Ferriss Show," is routinely ranked as a top podcast on iTunes and offers listeners advice on how to improve their lives.

    For 2016, Ferriss offered this money mantra: "The lifestyle value of each dollar you have is determined by your control of two other currencies: time and mobility."

    12. Never lose money. Warren Buffett is one of the richest men in the world. He is also a successful and brilliant investor.

    Perhaps this mantra of his explains, in part, how he came to be one of the most successful investors of our time: "Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1."

    Whose personal finance advice do you think is the best? Vote for your favorite expert in the GOBankingRates' "Best Money Expert" competition.

    This story, 12 Influential Experts Give Their Top Money Tips for 2016, originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Force Friday: May The Force Be With Shopping District In Seoul
    Chung Sung-Jun/Getty ImagesThe Star Wars credit card offers a meet-and-greet with Darth Vader as one of its perks.


    As fans all over the world eagerly await the December release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," we are continuously reminded that the global Star Wars phenomenon isn't just about movies.

    Sure, it all starts with the movies, which have earned billions of dollars at the box office. However, it extends far beyond the movie theater. There are novels, comic books, video games, lunchboxes, clothing of all shapes and sizes, breakfast cereals, action figures, bobbleheads and even a Darth Vader refrigerator -- all of which you can buy with a Star Wars Visa credit card. But is this card something that Star Wars fans should add to their collection or something they should avoid like a confrontation with Darth Vader? Let's break it down ...

    The card is part of Chase's Disney Visa card program and is available in three different Star Wars-themed designs: one featuring Darth Vader, another with Yoda and another with R2-D2 and C-3PO. It also comes with rewards aimed toward fans of the films, including:
    • 10 percent off purchases $50 or more when you use the card at the Disney Store or DisneyStore.com. (Reminder: In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm, the company that created the Star Wars franchise under founder George Lucas.)
    • 10 percent off select Star Wars merchandise purchases $50 or more at select locations at Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California.
    • An "Imperial Meet 'N' Greet" at Disneyland or Disney World with Darth Vader himself. (Just make sure you don't make him mad while you're there.)
    Some details with the card vary based on which version you get. You can get the Star Wars designs on either the Disney Rewards Visa card or the Disney Premier Visa card. Some of the differences between the two include:
    • The premier card comes with a $100 statement credit after you spend $500 in the first three months. The rewards card offers a $50 statement after your first purchase.
    • The premier card has a $49 annual fee, while the rewards card has no fee.
    The APR -- 15.99 percent -- is the same on both versions of the card, as is the introductory offer of zero percent interest on purchases for six months.

    But is it worth applying for?

    The Verdict

    No credit card is a great fit for everyone. It's all about finding a card that matches your lifestyle, and the Star Wars card is no different.

    If you're a huge Star Wars fan, and you've got a trip to Disney World or Disneyland in your immediate future, the card might work for you. It'd be fun to have the Dark Lord of the Sith on your card. The APR is reasonable. The discounts can help you save when you're buying your new Kylo Ren lightsaber or your Lego Millennium Falcon. Plus, an Imperial Meet 'N' Greet sounds like good geeky fun. However, I would suggest getting the rewards card rather than the premier card. Even though the sign-up bonus is bigger with the premier card, the $49 annual fee makes that bonus a little less powerful.

    For everyone else, I'd say you'd be better off shopping around. Today's credit card marketplace is so crazy competitive that -- if you have good credit -- you should be able to find cards that can give you more bang for your buck. Here are some that I'd recommend:
    • Discover it: Discover will double all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year. That means if you've earned $200, they'll double it to $400. They also offer 5 percent cash back on purchases in rotating categories (including Amazon.com through the end of the year) and 1 percent cash back on everything else. Unlike the Star Wars card, there's no annual fee. In addition, there are no late fees for your first late payment, and they promise that paying late won't raise your APR. Other perks of the card include free monthly FICO scores and zero percent APR on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months. The card's standard APR is 10.99 to 22.99, depending on your credit score.
    • Chase Freedom: From the same bank that brought you the Star Wars card comes this cash back card. It offers a $150 bonus after you spend $500 in purchases in the first three months and doesn't come with an annual fee. As with the Discover it card, you earn 5 percent cash back on purchases in rotating categories (including Amazon.com through the end of the year) and 1 percent cash back on everything else. Plus, you pay zero percent interest on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months. Once that introductory period is over, APRs range from 13.99 to 22.99, depending on creditworthiness.
    • Citi Double Cash: This card gives you 1 percent cash back when you buy and 1 percent cash back when you pay -- meaning you're basically getting 2 percent cash back on every purchase. That's one of the higher rates on the market and can help compensate for the fact that there's no sign-up bonus with the card. However, there's also no annual fee, no categories to opt-in for and no caps. Its APR range (12.99 to 22.99) is comparable to the Chase Freedom card, and its 15-month zero percent offer is identical to that card.
    In short, there are better options out there than the Star Wars Visa card. Even though the card isn't exactly from the Dark Side, you'd still be better off shopping around.

    Matt Schulz is the senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com, a site dedicated to helping people make smart decisions about obtaining and using credit. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewschulz.

     

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    2015 Los Angeles Times
    Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty ImagesA Black Friday shopper in Costa Mesa, Calif.


    December is a month when most people can't avoid shopping. You may have skipped Black Friday, but the holiday season is a different beast altogether, with gifts from loved ones, friends and people you barely know coming at you from all angles.

    Maintain lots of holiday cheer by shopping wisely with our December buying guide. We've pored over the extensive DealNews archives from years past to guide you in your quest for the most savvy purchases in December.

    And while you're at it, consider subscribing to the DealNews Select Newsletter to get a daily recap of all our deals. You can also download the DealNews app for mobile savings.

    Shop for Toys During the Mid-Month Sweet Spot

    Black Friday and Cyber Monday were extremely good for toy deals this year, but the sales won't end there. We typically see a high number of toy sales during the middle two weeks of December. Moreover, the ratio of deals that feature Editors' Choice prices increases significantly during this time as well. The first week of December last year featured 27 percent Editors' Choice deals, while the following week had 42 percent.

    For 2015, we recommend shopping Dec. 7 through Dec. 20. Whatever you do though, don't wait until the week of Christmas. The number of discounts drops off significantly and many of the offers are of lesser quality.

    Keep an Eye Out for Gift Card Freebies

    A popular promotion throughout the month of December -- especially amongst restaurants -- is to offer a free gift card to shoppers who purchase one as a gift. For example, last year California Pizza Kitchen offered a $20 gift card to anyone who purchased $100 or more in gift cards. Retailers, on the other hand, are more likely to offer a gift card with purchases that reach a certain order threshold, such as L.L.Bean, which currently offers a free $10 gift card to any customer that spends $50 or more.

    Or Shop for Cheaper iTunes Gift Cards

    December is by far the best month to find discounts on iTunes gift cards, averaging about three deals per week. You're most likely to score a $50 card for $40 or other increments at 20 percent off. Buy some as easy gifts for the holidays, or stock up for yourself and effectively save 20 percent on everything you download in the coming year. To see all our tips on how you can save money on these cards, read our guide.

    Tools and Hardware Deals for Dad

    Does Dad want a new drill for Christmas this year? Perfect! December is an excellent time for tool and hardware deals. Typically the number of sales on tools is about a third higher than average and the total Editors' Choice-caliber promos will double. Look for significant discounts on drills, wrenches, general tool sets and more.

    It's a Jolly Time to Buy Christmas Decorations ... After Christmas

    At this point, it's common knowledge that holiday decorations see their greatest discounts after the holiday in question has passed and this is no different for Christmas. If you wait until Dec. 26, you'll see discounts of 40 to 75 percent off seasonal goods. However, if you absolutely must buy a fake Christmas tree before the 25th, look to Target, Sears and Home Depot for inexpensive options. Also, keep in mind that any seller with fresh-cut trees is likely going to start discounting them around Dec. 20.

    Stock Up on Kitchen Items for More Holiday Cooking

    Although November saw a great number of excellent cookware and kitchen deals, our data shows that they should continue into December. About one in four kitchen deals in December will be of Editors' Choice caliber, including cutlery sets, cookware and bakeware, small appliances and more. Amazon will lead the charge with these deals, offering about a third of the total sales for the month.

    For Some Electronics, Wait Until 2016 Models Debut

    At this point, if you're interested in tech that typically gets updated around the time of the Consumer Electronics Show -- high-end laptops and fancy TVs, for example, tend to get unveiled at the show -- then you might be better served waiting until the 2016 models are announced. This way, 2015 models will start to hit record low prices. (Of course, not everything follows this cycle; smartphones tend to be announced in late spring, while Apple products keep their own individual annual schedule.)

    There Will Be Fewer Sales on Eggs

    While it's true that egg prices have dropped slightly in recent weeks, they hit a record high in September due to an outbreak of avian flu over the summer. According to Bloomberg Business, the epidemic wiped out 32 million egg-laying chickens. While prices are rebounding incrementally, analysts believe there will be fewer supermarket promotions on eggs this month than there were this time last year. That means shoppers will be stuck paying full-price more often than not. Read about other foods that might experience fluctuating prices.

    Snag a Car Deal on New Year's Eve

    The end of the calendar year is generally a good time period to buy a car, as dealerships are eager to clear out old inventory. But TrueCar.com found that Dec. 31 specifically tends to see the strongest average discounts of the year. In 2013, New Year's Eve saw an average discount of 8.8 percent off. There are other ways to maximize your savings too, including tips for effective negotiation.

    Ready to put this information to use? Sign up for the DealNews Select Newsletter or download the DealNews app in order to keep abreast of any and all of these best buys in December.

     

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    How to Fight High Medical Bills

    By Stacy Johnson

    This week's question is from a reader who's ticked off at a doctor. Literally.

    On April 29, I went to a walk-in clinic to have a tick removed from my head (I could not remove it because I could not see it) and on Friday, May 31, I received a bill for $750 to be paid by May 28. Is this normal, and is there anyone who can help me? Am I to blame for not asking the cost of this before they helped me? I am in my 60s, and this has been so stressful. -Sara

    If this story had been about any business other than health care, I would have thought this reader was pulling my leg, because the price is so out of line with the service received. But because it concerns medical costs, I find it not only believable, but likely.

    Exactly What Are These Services Worth?

    A couple of years ago I had a high fever and couldn't immediately get in to see my doctor. I was in such misery, I drove myself to a nearby hospital emergency room. After a few hours, a few tests and a shot of antibiotics, I was on my way.

    Several days later I got the bill: $2,400.

    My first call was to the hospital, and my first question was if they'd sent their bill through my health insurance company. They said no, their records reflected I was uninsured. I explained that I was insured and provided my health insurance information.

    Distressed Senior Woman with Bills
    Getty Images
    A few weeks later, I got a new bill: $600.

    Despite having insurance, I had to pay the $600, because my deductible was $6,000. But where else in America does a vendor charge one customer $600 and another $2,400 for the exact same service? Imagine how you'd feel if you paid $50,000 for a new car, then found out I'd bought the same car from the same dealer on the same day for $12,500.

    The services the hospital supplied were presumably profitable at $600; otherwise they wouldn't have agreed to that rate with my insurance company. Yet they had no problem charging an uninsured person 300 percent more. And if that person was unwilling or unable to pay this inflated bill? The account would go to collections, the collection agency would sue and get a judgment and that person's credit would be ruined.

    Time magazine reporter Steven Brill made the talk show circuit in 2013 after writing a comprehensive story about this exact issue: hyper-inflated medical bills ostensibly created out of thin air and in no way related to the cost of the services provided. While Brill did a great job on his story, the subject is nothing new. We covered it in 2009: See Killer Hospital Bills.

    Sara asks, "Am I to blame for not asking the cost of this before they helped me?" Answer: We should all ask the price of anything before agreeing to it.

    When it comes to health care, however, that's often easier said than done. Sure, Sara could have asked the cost for tick removal and, after being beaten up this way, it's likely she'll do so in the future. But how could I get an advance quote on fixing my fever when the services needed to be performed before the cause was known? Even if I hadn't been practically delirious, there was no way for me to comparison shop.

    What Should Sara Do?

    The first thing Sara should do is what every consumer should do when confronted with any bill that feels unfair. Contact the person responsible, calmly explain the situation and, in the friendliest possible way, ask to have the bill reduced. Whether it's a plumber, a restaurant or a doctor, you have every right to question a bill and ask for an adjustment if the cost is unreasonable in relation to the services provided.

    When Sara calls and asks for a break, she'll probably get results. In a story called Confessions of a Serial Haggler, I quoted a Consumer Reports survey revealing how often people were successful when attempting to negotiate various expenses. The results:
    • Furniture: 94 percent of those who asked got a better deal at least once.
    • Medical bills: 93 percent of people who tried negotiating a lower bill were successful at least once.
    • Home electronics: 92 percent were successful at least once.
    • Appliances: 92 percent were successful at least once.
    • Floor models/demos: 91 percent were successful at least once.
    • Credit card/bank fees: 87 percent were successful at least once.
    • Jewelry: 86 percent were successful at least once.
    • Cellphone plans: 80 percent were successful at least once.
    • Collectibles: 78 percent were successful at least once.
    So Sara's odds are good, and that's something I can verify through my own experience. I've personally asked for, and received, discounts from doctors.

    What Sara Shouldn't Do

    What many people do when confronted with bills they can't pay or find unreasonable is decide they're unfair, then do nothing. Result? The provider of the service rightfully decides the customer is a deadbeat and should be treated like one. So they send the bill to collections, ruin the customer's credit, and do everything within their power to coerce payment.

    Doing nothing is unfair to the service provider. They deserve to know the reason they're not getting paid. More important, unless you're indigent, doing nothing won't work anyway.

    If you don't like the bill, don't ignore it, contest it. If after stating your case you're still not happy, take it up a notch. For example, Sara could talk to a medical billing advocate -- a professional representing consumers with health care bills. She can find one by visiting Medical Billing Advocates of America. She could also talk to a consumer attorney.

    But I'd be willing to bet that a simple phone call is going to leave Sara feeling a lot less bugged.

    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.

    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!

     

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    Unemployment Benefits
    Lynne Sladky/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani and Dan Burns

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. private employers boosted hiring in November and wage growth appeared to pick up in the third quarter, signs of labor market strength that could support the first Federal Reserve interest rate increase in nearly a decade later this month.

    The reports released Wednesday overshadowed data on slumping manufacturing activity and underscored the economy's solid fundamentals.

    The data indicate a steady improvement in the labor market that should support the Fed's confidence that now is the right time to hike rates.

    "The data indicate a steady improvement in the labor market that should support the Fed's confidence that now is the right time to hike rates," said Thomas Costerg, senior U.S. economist at Standard Chartered Bank in New York.

    Private payrolls increased 217,000 last month on top of the 196,000 jobs added in October, the ADP National Employment Report showed. Employment gains were fairly healthy across the board, with manufacturing rebounding from two straight months of shedding jobs. The sector added 6,000 positions in November.

    The ADP report, jointly developed with Moody's Analytics, was released ahead of Friday's Labor Department's more comprehensive employment report.

    Though the ADP report isn't considered a reliable predictor of nonfarm payrolls, economists said it was broadly in line with their expectations for solid job gains in November. According to a Reuters survey, nonfarm payrolls increased 200,000 in November after surging 271,000 in October. Job growth is more than enough to keep up with population growth.

    The Federal Reserve has signaled its intention to lift its benchmark overnight interest rate from near zero at its Dec. 15-16 meeting. Fed Chair Janet Yellen told the Economic Club of Washington that she was "looking forward" to a rate hike as that would be seen as "a testament ... to how far our economy has come."

    The Fed last raised rates in June 2006. Market-based measures of Fed policy expectations assign a probability of 75 percent to the central bank's raising interest rates this month, according to the CME Group's FedWatch site.

    The dollar rose against a basket of currencies, while U.S. stocks and government bond prices fell.

    Labor strength, corroborated by a separate report from the Fed, should help ease concerns about the economy after a report on Tuesday showed manufacturing contracted in November for the first time in three years.

    The Fed's Beige Book of anecdotal information on business activity collected from contacts nationwide showed the labor market continued to tighten modestly between early-October and mid-November. It said several districts reported difficulty finding skilled craftsmen and general laborers in the construction industry.

    Wages Accelerating

    A separate report from the Labor Department suggested wage growth, which has been frustratingly slow even as labor market conditions tighten, could be finally accelerating.

    Compensation per hour in the third quarter rose at a 4 percent annual rate, and not the 3 percent pace the department had reported last month. Compensation was up a solid 3.6 percent from the third quarter of 2014.

    Unit labor costs, the price of labor per single unit of output, were also revised higher to show them increasing at a 1.8 percent rate in the third quarter, instead of the previously reported 1.4 percent pace.

    "The figures in today's report support the idea that wage inflation has picked up lately," said Daniel Silver, an economist at J.P. Morgan in New York.

    While productivity growth, which measures hourly output per worker, was revised up to a 2.2 percent rate in the third quarter, the trend remained weak. Productivity was previously reported to have expanded at a 1.6 percent pace.

    It increased only 0.6 percent from the third quarter of 2014, the smallest in nearly a year.

    Economists blame softer productivity on lack of investment, which they say has led to an unprecedented decline in capital intensity.

     

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    Cheap Money Driving Auto Sales?

    By Phil LeBeau

    Auto loans stretching six or seven years are often criticized as a poor choice because they leave borrowers underwater for years before they finally get to a point where the vehicle is no longer in negative equity.

    Still, the latest snapshot of America's booming auto market shows these longer auto loans are quickly becoming a popular choice for car and truck buyers.

    Experian, which tracks America's auto finance market, says loans with terms of six to seven years are showing the fastest growth.

    In the third quarter of this year, the proportion of auto loans of 73 to 82 months jumped 17.1 percent compared with the same period a year ago, with more than a quarter of all auto loans now stretching out more than six years.

    "[Those] loans are becoming more popular because so many consumers are now looking to keep their monthly payment under $500," said Melinda Zabritski, Experian's senior director of automotive finance. Zabritski says the average monthly payment last quarter was $482.While more buyers are paying for their new vehicle over 6½ or seven years, the most popular term length for auto loans remains 61 to 72 months. In the third quarter, more than 40 percent of new vehicle loans had terms of 5½ to six years, according to Experian. The average length of an auto loan is currently 67 months.

    The appeal of longer loans is obvious, but veterans of the auto industry say it's become a bad habit for lenders and consumers.

    "Eighty-month paper to me is a dangerous thing because the customer spends a lot of their time being in negative equity." said Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors.

    Six- and seven-year auto loans are becoming the primary length for financing new vehicle purchases partially because automakers and dealers are increasingly advertising their latest promotions with 72-month loans. In some ways, those ads have conditioned consumers to believe that it's OK to stretch monthly auto payments over longer terms.

    In many dealerships, it's all about keeping a monthly payment under $500.

     

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    Chatter Swirls Around Yahoo

    By Anya George Tharakan and Liana B. Baker

    Plans by Yahoo's board to consider selling its struggling Internet business sent the company's shares up more than 5 percent Wednesday, as investors cheered a potential new way to separate Yahoo's traditional services from its valuable investment in Chinese Web merchant Alibaba.

    Yahoo's board will weigh a sale of the Internet business at a three-day board meeting starting on Wednesday, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Tuesday.

    Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer's attempts to revive the traditional business have born little fruit, and almost all of Yahoo's market capitalization of about $34 billion is ascribed to its stakes in Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Holding Group (BABA) and Yahoo Japan Corp.

    A separate Alibaba stake would be expected to be more highly valued by the market, but investors want to avoid a massive tax bill in the process. Selling the traditional business is seen as one way possibly to achieve that.

    The big question is whether anyone would actually show up with a meaningful bid.

    Broken out as a separate company, Yahoo's email, Yahoo and Tumblr web sites and mobile services could fetch between $2 billion and $8 billion, analysts and bankers said, many seeing $4 billion as the likely price.

    If Yahoo sells off its traditional web business all that would be left, essentially, is the Alibaba and Yahoo Japan stakes.

    "Realizing value is far from assured, however," Pivotal analyst Brian Wieser wrote in a note. "The big question is whether anyone would actually show up with a meaningful bid."

    Interested bidders could range from private equity companies aiming to refocus Yahoo to technology companies eager for Yahoo's mobile and Web content, following the model of Verizon Communications (VZ) buying AOL.

    The Wall Street Journal said potential bidders could include Verizon and IAC/InterActiveCorp. A source familiar with Verizon's thinking said currently there were no talks between the companies. IAC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

    The Journal, which first reported that Yahoo might sell its Internet business, also reported Tuesday that the board meeting would discuss how to proceed with the spinoff of the company's 15 percent stake in Alibaba, worth more than $30 billion if held separately.

    Yahoo's Internet business has been struggling to boost revenue from ad sales in the face of stiff competition from Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOGL) Google and Facebook (FB).

    According to a person familiar with the matter, activist investor Starboard Value is also disappointed in Yahoo's performance under Mayer and has lost confidence in the CEO. Starboard attributes the relatively low price of the Internet business to poor management of the division by Mayer and the Yahoo management team.

    The company's emerging businesses, which Mayer calls Mavens -- mobile, video, native and social advertising -- have been the bright spot for the company.

    "To me that would be most valuable to sell," said Ivan Feinseth, an analyst at Tigress Financial Partners.

    "I think private equity would be interested in the Mavens businesses," he said.

    Starboard asked Yahoo in November to drop plans to spin off its stake in Alibaba due to the tax concerns, and urged the company to sell its core search and display advertising businesses instead.

    Yahoo (YHOO) shares were up 5.8 percent at $35.66 in afternoon trading on Nasdaq.

    -Supantha Mukherjee contributed reporting.

     

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    Federal Reserve Yellen
    Richard Drew/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's speech Wednesday to the Economic Club of Washington appears on a television screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
    By Jason Lange and Howard Schneider

    WASHINGTON -- Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said Wednesday she was "looking forward" to a U.S. interest rate rise that will be seen as a testament to the economy's recovery from recession.

    Fed policymakers are widely seen raising interest rates for the first time in almost a decade at their next meeting on Dec. 15-16, but they continue to parse data and trends carefully given the uneven nature of the U.S. recovery.

    In her remarks to the Economic Club of Washington, Yellen expressed confidence in the U.S. economy, saying job growth through October suggested the labor market was healing even if not yet at full strength.

    Yellen also reaffirmed her view that the drag on U.S. economic growth and inflation from weakness in the global economy and falling commodity prices would moderate next year. U.S. consumer spending was "particularly solid," she noted.

    "When the Committee begins to normalize the stance of policy, doing so will be a testament ... to how far our economy has come," she said, referring to the Fed's policy-setting committee. "In that sense, it is a day that I expect we all are looking forward to."

    Investors are already betting the Fed will lift its benchmark federal funds rate this month from the zero to 0.25 percent range where it has been held since 2008. Economists also see a strong chance of a December rate rise.

    The U.S. dollar strengthened Wednesday and stocks fell on Wall Street, after Yellen's comments.

    "I was a little surprised she sounded as hawkish as she did given we're two days away from the non-farm payrolls report and a couple of weeks away from the Fed FOMC meeting," said Michael O'Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading in Greenwich, Connecticut.

    Yellen also is due to testify on the economic outlook before a joint Congressional committee on Thursday.

    "Yellen gave a fairly positive assessment of the economy that would be consistent with the Fed raising rates at their December meeting," said Vassili Serebriakov, currency strategist at BNP Paribas in New York.

    As in previous speeches and public appearances, Yellen said the timing of the first U.S. rate increase in nearly a decade was not as important as the path of subsequent rises which policymakers expect will be gradual. Waiting too long to raise rates could deal an accidental blow to the economy, she warned.

    "An abrupt tightening would risk disrupting financial markets and perhaps even inadvertently push the economy into recession," she said.

    Responding to a question after her speech, she said the Fed would weigh incoming data to set the pace of hikes and that policymakers do not expect a mechanical path of rate moves. The Fed schedules policy reviews eight times a year and in the past it has often raised rates at successive meetings.

    "This may turn out to be a very different cycle than past cycles," she said.

    Beige Book Sees Ongoing Expansion

    In its Beige Book report of anecdotal information on business activity collected from contacts nationwide, published on Wednesday, the Fed said U.S. economic activity continued to expand at a modest pace in most regions from early-October through mid-November.

    The Fed said consumer spending increased in nearly all districts. Manufacturing activity remained mixed, the Fed added, with exports continuing to fall as a result of the strong U.S. dollar, low commodity prices and weak global demand.

    Lockhart and Williams Agree

    Earlier Wednesday, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said U.S. economic data would have to "drastically" alter the nation's outlook over the next two weeks to change the "compelling" case for an initial hike in interest rates when the Federal Reserve next meets on Dec. 15-16.

    The Labor Department's monthly jobs report Friday will be a key data point, with economists expecting that as many as 200,000 additional jobs were created in November.

    In a speech Wednesday in California, San Francisco Fed President John Williams agreed that the Federal Reserve should leave near-zero interest rates behind "sooner than later."

    A Reuters poll of over 80 economists taken after the October jobs data were published found a median 70 percent probability the Fed will raise rates on Dec 16. That is up from 55 percent in a poll taken the month before, although Reuters polls have been consistently predicting a December rate rise since the Fed took a pass in September

    -Ann Saphir in San Francisco and Samuel Forgione in New York contributed reporting.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- Stocks closed sharply lower Wednesday after hawkish comments from Janet Yellen boosted expectations of an interest rate hike, and oil fell below $40 a barrel.

    Investors also attributed late-day selling to news coverage of a shooting in southern California.

    The S&P 500 energy index fell 3.1 percent, leading declines in the S&P 500 as U.S. crude oil futures finished the session down 4.6 percent at $39.94. The utility index, which tends to underperform in a higher-rate environment, dropped 2.2 percent. It was the day's second-worst performing sector, although all 10 S&P sectors ended lower.

    This last down leg is related to the fact that every TV station in America is showing people getting carted off on stretchers, and no one knows why.

    Record intraday highs in Alphabet, Amazon and Netflix failed to keep the Nasdaq in positive territory.

    The Fed chair said she was "looking forward" to a rate hike that will be seen as a testament to the economy's recovery from recession. The Fed's next policy meeting is Dec 15-16.

    Yellen also expressed confidence in the U.S. economy. Earlier in the day, data showed U.S. private employers boosted hiring in November. The U.S. government monthly jobs report is due Friday.

    "I was a little surprised she sounded as hawkish as she did given we're two days away from the non-farm payrolls report and a couple of weeks away from the Fed FOMC meeting," said Michael O'Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading in Greenwich, Connecticut.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI)​ fell 158.67 points, or 0.9 percent, to 17,729.68, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC)​ lost 23.12 points, or 1.1 percent, to 2,079.51 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 33.08 points, or 0.6 percent, to 5,123.22.

    Losses accelerated late in the session as news of a shooting in California emerged. Police searched for up to three suspects in the shooting of as many as 20 people, some of them fatally, at a social services agency in San Bernardino.

    "This last down leg is related to the fact that every TV station in America is showing people getting carted off on stretchers, and no one knows why," said Eric Kuby, chief investment officer of North Star Investment Management in Chicago.

    Movers and Shakers

    Yahoo (YHOO) jumped 5.8 percent to $35.65 after reports the company could sell its core Internet business.

    Shares of Amazon.com (AMZN) touched a record high of $684.82 before ending down 0.4 percent at $676.01. Netflix (NFLX) rose to a high of $131.35 and ended at $128.93, up 2.8 percent. Alphabet (GOOGL) rose to $793.04, but ended down 0.8 percent at $777.85.

    Airline shares rose after Delta Air Lines (DAL) said it earned more per mile in November than a year ago. Delta was up 1.4 percent at $48.33, while an index of airlines was up 1.1 percent.

    Yellen is due to testify Thursday on the economic outlook before a joint congressional committee.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,434 to 649, while on the Nasdaq, 1,884 issues fell and 936 advanced. The S&P 500 posted 21 new 52-week highs and 13 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 88 new highs and 65 new lows.

    About 7.4 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 6.8 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • The Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • At 10 a.m., the Institute for Supply Management releases its service sector index for November; the Commerce Department releases factory orders; and Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates.

     

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    2015 Los Angeles Times
    Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
    By Brian O'Connell

    For Andrew Bernstein, holiday gift returns are a pain in the neck -- unless you're dealing with a company that goes the extra mile for customers looking for a return.

    "I had an issue once with a Motorola Moto 360," says Bernstein. "It was around three or four months after buying it at Best Buy. The screen stopped working, and it wouldn't power on. I called Motorola to process a return, and they refused."

    Motorola told Bernstein if he didn't have the serial number (he threw away the box the device came in), the company wouldn't honor his request for a return. "After hearing that, I went to Best Buy with the printed out receipt and they processed a replacement," he said. "I have had amazing experiences with Best Buy, and Amazon has been good about returns, too."

    Bernstein's return saga should resonate with shoppers this holiday season.

    According to GOBankingRates.com, 69 percent of Americans say they returned at least some of their holiday gifts last year.

    Retailers that do a good job of expediting gift and product returns include Nordstrom (JWN), L.L. Bean, Costco (COST) and Bed Bath & Beyond (BBY), GOBankingRates says in a survey. "Each offers much more flexible return policies that other stores," the company states.

    For consumers, finding a store or retail outlet with a flexible purchase return policy is the Holy Grail of post-holiday shopping. "Return policies should be a big consideration for holiday shoppers -- two-thirds of people return at least one holiday gift," says Elyssa Kirkham, lead reporter on the GOBankingRates study. "Shopping at stores that are return-friendly can make life a lot easier if you have to make adjustments to your shopping list later on. It'll also allow you to give guilt-free knowing your recipient won't face a lot of hassle if they decide to return it."

    In addition to the perennial return favorites listed above, J.C. Penney (JCP), Staples (SPLS), Zappos, REI, Macy's (M) and Kohl's (KSS) all made GOBankingRate's "Top 10" list for good product return experiences. On the down side, Forever 21, Kmart, Barnes & Noble (BKS), GameStop (GME) and Sears (SHLD) made its "worst" return policies list.

    What makes a good and flexible purchase return policy? The study says "generous return windows" count highly among retail analysts. 80 percent of the best return policies place no time limits on returns, and the other 20 percent give customers a generous 365 days to make returns, the survey notes.

    Accepting returns without receipts is also huge. 90 percent of stores surveyed will do so, but many only offer store credit in return.

    Retailers fall off the beam in other purchase return areas, too. That's especially so in not fully explaining their return policies and in not making it easy and clear for customers to locate return lines in stores, according to a separate study on the topic by StellaService, a New York City-based customer service performance analytical firm.

    The trick for holiday shoppers is to take some pre-return steps to ensure a good experience. For instance, apply for the store's credit card program where you buy your gifts. That way they will have records of what you bought if you don't have a receipt, says Howard Schaffer, vice president of merchandising for Offers.com.

    "Also, take pictures of your receipts and when possible have the store email the receipt to you so you also can find it on your phone when you go to return the items," Schaffer advises. "And, when returning items online it's important to be aware of the store's guarantee. Oftentimes online items can only be returned up to 30-days from the purchase date."

    Schaffer also advises shopping at stores like Kohl's, that will take back any product, at any time, for any reason. "Do keep in mind that without a receipt you may receive a lower refund than what you paid due to fluctuation in product pricing," he says. Above all, stay calm, Schaffer emphasizes. "We understand that returning a product can be stressful but often times it is just as stressful for the sales associate trying to assist you," he notes. "A stressed associate is more likely to help a calm and considerate customer than a rude one."

    On that note, here's hoping for any happy returns for you this holiday season -- just try to remember that receipt.

     

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    Happy couple smiling on beach
    Getty ImagesRetirement travel requires a bigger nest egg than staying home.
    By Tom Sightings

    Only 1 in 3 Americans in their 50s has ever tried to plan for retirement, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study. And a third of those who try to plan admit that they either gave up or failed miserably. The result: Barely 20 percent of pre-retirees have a useful plan for retirement.

    But making a plan isn't all that difficult. Remember, it's not written in stone, so you don't need to get bogged down in details, and you don't have to worry about getting everything right. It's like making an outline for an essay. The outline gives you a rough idea of where you're going. But you don't actually write the essay until you start living your way through retirement. Here are five items to include in your retirement outline.

    1. Manage your expectations. One rule of thumb says you'll need 70 percent of your pre-retirement income to live comfortably in retirement. But that's just a general rule. If you want to travel, join a golf club or help send your grandchildren to college, you might need more. But many people live on less, especially if they move to a less expensive area of the country and follow a simpler lifestyle.

    2. Account for your changing expenses. Housing expenses tend to go down as we age, as our mortgage gets paid off and maybe we downsize to a less expensive home. Most other expenses also decrease, including costs for food, clothes, recreation and insurance. But medical care is one expense that goes up. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, a retired married couple spends up to $260,000 over their lifetimes for out-of-pocket health expenses, including long-term care. And don't forget to factor in inflation, which has recently been running near zero, but will more likely average 3 to 4 percent over the course of your retirement.

    3. Don't shortchange your life expectancy. Surveys show that over half of pre-retirees underestimate how long they're going to live. Women underestimate more than men. According to the Social Security Administration, the average 65-year-old male can expect to live to age 84, and the average female will make it to 87. But you really need to plan for more than that. One out of five 65-year-old males and one out of three females will live to age 90. Your savings may run out, but Social Security won't. That's one reason to delay taking benefits as long as you can, up to age 70, so they accumulate for a larger payout later in life. But it's not just the money. You may have more time than you think. So sitting around and relaxing may not be all you want to do in retirement. You likely have time to start a business, travel the world, develop a new skill and find a new hobby.

    4. Be ready for a reality readjustment. You may have a plan, but sometimes things don't work out the way you expect. For example, there is a considerable gap between when people think they're going to retire, and when they actually retire. The median expected retirement age is 65, according to a Gallup poll. But the actual retirement age is 61, because layoffs and health issues cut many careers short. The Gallup poll also found that 70 percent of American workers think they will continue to work in some capacity after they retire, but it turns out that many people can't find a suitable job. Only about 25 percent of retirees work in retirement. So whether your plans involve working or something else, do a little advance homework to see if your retirement dreams match up with reality.

    5. Don't be too proud to get help. First of all, you should find a lawyer to draft your will as well as any health directives you may need. Then, whatever your ideas about retirement, start discussing them with your spouse or significant other. You might want to buy a boat and sail around the world, while your partner may want to settle down and babysit grandchildren. A plan is just a pipe dream until you start talking and heading in the same direction. Talk over your plans with your children and friends so they know what you're thinking. They may have some ideas or advice for you. And finally, if the world of finance seems too complicated, don't hesitate to consult an accountant or financial adviser to help turn your retirement dreams into retirement reality.

    Tom Sightings is the author of "You Only Retire Once" and blogs at Sightings at 60.

     

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    Do You Want to Be Filthy Rich?

    By Kenneth Kiesnoski

    It's a fact: Most people don't have to face the "problems" that come from getting too rich too young. Which begs the question of when and how to start some financial planning -- and possibly becoming wealthy a little later in life.

    The easiest and best answer is start now, said certified financial planner Geri Eisenman Pell, CEO of Pell Wealth Partners.

    "You're never really to young to start or too late to start figuring out when you want to be financially independent and when to create that road map to retirement," she said, adding that everyone needs a financial plan and a financial planner to help craft it."You need to figure out what your goals are, how you're going to achieve your goals, and what you're going to do on a daily, monthly [and] annual basis," Pell said.

    Key components to consider include a Roth individual retirement account, 401(k) plan, cash reserves and education savings, which Pell called the "foundation blocks" of a financial plan.

    Some retirement vehicles can be considered "gifts," thanks to "fabulous" financial perks, said Pell.

    "If you put money in a Roth IRA, you don't get a tax deduction right now, but all of the money grows completely tax-free and then you take it out tax-free," she said. Another gift? The matching contribution -- sometimes dollar for dollar, up to a certain percentage of savings -- that some companies offer employees participating in their 401(k) plans. That's what Pell calls "free money.

    "Keep in mind that "doing something is always better than doing nothing," she said. "Even putting away small amounts of money will start to build the psychological habit of getting excited about saving and investing."

    Still have doubts? Don't feel ready or able to save?

    "You need to ask yourself the question: In five years, are you going to wish that you started [a financial plan]?" said Pell, She explained that she used to have two file cabinets in her office -- one labeled "rich" and the other "filthy rich." "I used to ask clients: 'In the future, which one do you want me to put you in?' "

     

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    Should You Apply For a Credit Card to Get a Store Discount?



    At checkout registers in department stores across the country, you can expect to receive a smile and a sales pitch. Well, at least a sales pitch. Store credit cards are moneymakers for businesses, and you can expect clerks to dangle a nice discount in front of you in the hope you'll apply.

    The discount on store merchandise and other rewards are often tempting -- and many of us take the bait -- but are store credit cards a good deal?

    Pros of store credit cards

    Store credit cards aren't all bad. In fact, they can come with some nice benefits. As we see it, there are four major pros for getting a store credit card.
    • Discounts: Not only do you get an initial 10 percent to 20 percent discount when you sign up, you may also be in line to receive extra discounts all year long. Store credit card holders may be the first to receive special coupons or gain access to exclusive sales events as a reward for their loyalty.
    • Flexibility: Some, but not all, store credit cards are affiliated with one of the major credit card companies. That means your department store card can also be used for purchases elsewhere as a regular Visa, MasterCard or American Express card. As a bonus, depending on the retailer's program, you may even earn rewards points to be redeemed as future discounts at the store.
    • Credit benefits: If your credit score could use some polishing, a store credit card may be able to help. Consistently using and paying off the card will help establish a pattern of good credit habits that can, in turn, boost your score.
    • Financing options: Finally, some store credit cards can be used to obtain zero percent financing offers. Stores may give you 18 months or more interest-free to pay off a major purchase made with their credit card.
    Cons of Store Credit Cards

    While there are definitely some nice perks attached to store credit cards, all is not rosy. Here's a look at some of the negatives attached to these accounts.
    • High interest: By far, the biggest negative associated with store credit cards is their interest rate. A recent CreditCards.com survey showed the average APR on America's biggest retail-branded credit cards had increased to 23.43 percent, far higher than the average for all credit cards (15 percent). Some have APRs climbing to almost 30 percent. And remember that zero percent financing we discussed? If you don't pay off your purchase within the allotted time, many store cards go back and apply the interest retroactively. So let's say you had 18 months to pay off a $2,000 purchase, but you still had a $200 balance at the end of the financing period. The store will then tack on 18 months' worth of interest to your balance. Yikes!
    • Limited use: Some store cards may offer the same flexibility as a regular credit card, but others can only be used at that particular retailer. In addition, you may have a very low spending limit. Both make it questionable whether the cards are a good deal, particularly when you consider the ding to your credit score that we're going to talk about next.
    • Credit damage: Your credit score gets dinged slightly every time you have it pulled for a card application, and your score will also suffer if your card balances are too high. The damage can be felt in other ways. When reviewing loan applications, creditors not only consider how much debt you have but also how much existing credit is available to you. If you already have enough credit to go on a $20,000 spending bender, lenders might be hesitant to give you access to more cash.
    • Temptation to spend: Another negative we see with store cards is the temptation to buy more. Stores aren't giving out cards and coupons to be nice; it's a strategic business decision. They hope that by giving you a few perks, you'll come to their store and blow your budget once you see all the great things they have for sale.
    • Better deals elsewhere: As Stacy mentioned in the video, there are credit cards offering sign-up bonuses good for a free plane ticket, a reward that could be a better deal than 15 percent off one day's purchases. So when you're offering up your signature, be sure you're getting as much for it as possible. (Check out: How to Play the Credit Card Rewards Game, and Win.)
    The Bottom Line

    So back to the original question: Should you apply for a store credit card? In the past, we've told you the answer is no.

    However, if you there's a store you shop at regularly and a card gets you an extra discount, it may make sense. But be sure you follow these two rules:
    1. Buy only what you would purchase if you didn't have the card. No extra trips just because there is a "cardmember only" sale.
    2. Pay off your balance each month.
    Still, you might want to check out the other credit cards on the market to see if you can find one that offers better rewards with a lower interest rate. You can get all the details on some of the best deals in our credit card section.

    Do you have a store credit card? What made you apply and do you regret the decision? Tell us in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

    -Kari Huus contributed to this post.

    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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    Palm trees at a hotel bend in the fierce
    Stan Honda, AFP/Getty ImagesHurricanes can damage your finances along with your home.
    Extreme winter weather has already arrived in some parts of the country: Parts of California have seen snow and more is expected. Some meteorologists are calling for a cold, snowy winter from coast to coast, and that means it's time to get prepared.

    According to tale of the ant and the grasshopper from Aesop's Fables, the wise ant stored up food during the warmer months in preparation for winter, while the lazy grasshopper would only sing in the summer and found himself starving and begging for food come winter. Although the predictable change of seasons may not cause you personally to break the bank -- unless it's the holiday season -- unexpected and severe weather emergencies can quickly leave you in a financial rut. In addition to severe cold, other weather emergencies such as thunderstorms, lightning, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, extreme heat and drought can also pose major dangers to your health and bank account.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency stress the importance of preparing for severe weather before it strikes. As a frugal shopper, the same strategy applies. Since controlling the weather isn't possible, focus on what you can control: your preparation and finances.

    Here are some simple tips to help you save money:

    1. Look into tax-free incentives. Find out if your state has any tax-free holidays for emergency supplies and equipment.

    States such as Alabama, Louisiana and Virginia have severe weather, hurricane or emergency preparedness tax-free weekends. Visit your state's tax department website to see if there are any tax incentives offered in your area, as well as eligible items, which may include portable generators, batteries, cellphone batteries, fire extinguishers, flashlights, duct tape, first aid kits and more. Be aware that qualifying items vary by state and there may be price limits in place.

    2. Stockpile non-perishables. Be sure to stock up your pantry with non-perishables by taking advantage of coupons and store promotions. Make sure you buy enough extra items to avoid the need to buy that item at full price before the next sale comes around. Using this strategy can help you gradually grow your emergency stockpile.

    3. Save on water. Don't want to spend an arm and a leg on bottled water? Simply drink tap water. Studies have shown that tap water may actually have more health benefits than bottled water, contrary to public opinion. To store tap water in preparation for an emergency, use plastic juice containers after cleaning them.

    If you still prefer to buy bottled water at the store, wait for sales and promotions on the big name brands and use manufacturer coupons. A different strategy is to simply go for the generic, store-brand water, which can save you a bundle compared to the expensive name-brand at full price. Be sure to compare the unit price among the different water products and packaging. You'll typically save more by buying a gallon of water than a pack of bottled waters.

    4. Beat the mad dash to the store. Be sure to hit the grocery store before the masses. Once you catch wind about even the possibility of severe weather in the news, I recommend getting to the store quickly to grab any supplies that you direly need. You'll have more selection and a better chance of purchasing the least expensive option or brand before the shelves are bare. Do this as early as possible. If you find yourself without much lead time, only go out to the store if you have adequate time and there is not an immediate threat. In other words, don't drive out in the middle of a bad storm or leave your house during a tornado to grab a loaf of bread.

    5. Build an emergency kit. Instead of buying an expensive, pre-assembled emergency kit, create your own by shopping for supplies you'd need in the event of a disaster. At the top of your list is water, at least one gallon of water per person per day, for both drinking and sanitation, as well as a minimum three-day supply of non-perishable food, including canned goods and shelf stable foods.

    Make sure you have a flashlight, extra batteries, a first aid kit, moist towelettes, garbage bags, a battery-powered or hand-crank radio and other essential items your family will need in the case of an emergency. You can find a complete list of recommended supplies that should be included in a basic disaster supplies kit on ready.gov.

    As one of my friends likes to say, "Proper planning prevents poor performance." This applies so well to emergencies and severe weather. To summarize: Have a plan, be the "ant" that stores up for the winter and unexpected storms and save money along the way.

    Laura Harders is the founder of Beltway Bargain Mom, one of Washington, D.C.'s most popular sites for money-saving tips, finding the best deals and living a frugal lifestyle.

     

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    Sears Holdings Corp. Ahead of Earnings Figures
    Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Nathan Layne

    Sears Holdings (SHLD) reported a smaller quarterly loss Thursday as it slashed advertising and payroll costs, but the struggling retailer's sales continued to tumble, hurt by weak apparel demand.

    The owner of the Sears department store and Kmart discount store chains said its net loss attributable to shareholders narrowed to $454 million in the third quarter ended on Oct. 31 from $548 million a year earlier.

    Revenue at stores open more than a year fell 9.6 percent at Sears and 7.5 percent at Kmart. Apparel sales were sluggish at both chains, mirroring a trend at other retailers as unusually warm weather sapped demand for coats and sweaters.

    Sears said total revenue fell 20 percent to $5.75 billion, due in part to store closings and the loss of sales from Canada on its consolidated accounts after it sold most of its stake in that business.

    The company reported a cash level of $294 million, up slightly from a year ago but down from $1.8 billion in the previous quarter, when the sale of stores into a real estate investment trust boosted its coffers.

    The cash drop reflects $936 million spent to repurchase debt, a move Sears said would lower its interest expenses and free up room to borrow more if needed. The company said it had $1.3 billion in immediately available liquid assets, and the resources to meet its financial obligations.

    The adjusted loss before interest, tax, depreciation and special items narrowed to $280 million in the quarter from $296 million a year earlier. This was the company's fifth straight quarter of improvement.

    Sears said it cut expenses by $207 million, mainly by reducing outlays for payroll and advertising.

    But the slide in sales took a toll on gross margins, which decreased by 11 percent on a comparable basis.

    Margins also suffered because rent payments accounted for a higher percentage of revenue. Sears, which is now paying rent at stores sold to the REIT, said it expected that situation to improve as it brings in other retailers as tenants in some locations.

     

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    Shopaholic overspending
    Getty Images
    By Chris Taylor

    NEW YORK -- Financial planner Barry Eckstein has heard a lot of extravagant spending stories. But when clients were chatting with him about the holidays a couple of years ago, he couldn't believe his ears.

    The couple had bought a mink coat. Not just any mink coat, mind you -- a mink coat for the their precious little Yorkie.

    "It was custom-made, white and cost a couple thousand dollars," said Eckstein, of Wantagh, New York. "My initial reaction was: 'Oh boy.' "

    Canine couture might not be on everybody's shopping list for holiday gifts. But the Furry Furrier is just one end of a spectrum. For the rest of us, even when we know we shouldn't be spending so freely, we do it anyway. It is as if we turn our brains off in November, and then switch them back on in the New Year.

    Indeed, nearly 4 in 10 people say they spend more money than expected for holiday gifts, according to a new shopping survey by credit agency Experian. That makes for a whopping $806 a person this holiday season, up from $758 last year.

    To finance the spending flurry, 12 percent of people are planning to open up new credit cards for the holiday season -- and 9 percent predict that they will be paying off those charges late.

    "The majority don't even have a holiday spending budget in place -- and it makes it very hard to plan if you don't have a budget," said Rod Griffin, Experian's director of public education.

    The two biggest culprits for this holiday brain freeze, according to personal-finance expert Bruce Sellery, author of "Moolala: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things with Their Money": Tradition and guilt.

    "Tradition because people think, 'This is the way it's always been done, and there is no other way to do it,' " said Sellery. "And guilt because people feel they have to buy more and more things that nobody really needs."

    Avoid the Madness

    Since gift-giving is an exchange, you can help both sides avoid what Experian's Griffin calls "Dark January." Simply come to an agreement beforehand with the various friends and family members in your life about who will exchange gifts and a price threshold, and save everyone a ton of money in the process.

    Otherwise you could fall into holiday horror stories like Brooklyn-based author and comedian Sara Benincasa. She was once given membership to an "incredibly posh" gym which cost around $3,000, she estimates.

    "The person was not so subtly trying to tell me to lose weight," remembers Benincasa, author of the new book "DC Trip." "It felt like a pretty demeaning gift. Unsurprisingly I used the gym twice -- both times just to sit in the sauna."

    To avoid similar disasters, remember that you have a choice in how your holidays are designed. Bruce Sellery, for instance, arrived at an elegant solution with his many siblings and cousins: They stopped giving gifts. This was the suggestion of his sister, a stressed-out mom of three. "She just said one year, 'Can we stop doing this?' It's been so great for everyone's stress reduction," he said.

    Of course you do not have to go quite that far, and completely eliminate all gift-giving from your life. You can simply set an artificially low limit, and have a $5 gift-exchange among a group of friends or relatives, which are "hysterical," says Sellery. (His own contribution to his family's exchange one year: A collection of miniature soaps he acquired from luxury hotels.)

    You can also call off the Holiday Arms Race by setting a hard cap: Agree that every family member only gives one gift to one person, in a Secret Santa-type exchange. Or take what you would have blown on gifts and select a charity together -- sponsoring a child in poverty overseas, for instance, whose story and progress you could follow together as a family.

    A final tip, from planner Barry Eckstein: Set a budget and do all of your holiday saving for the set amount throughout the year, in a dedicated account. Then force yourself to stick to that amount. That will likely eliminate most big-ticket impulse purchases -- such as doggy mink coats.

    (The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

     

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    Inside The Sole Choice Shoelace Manufacturing Plant Ahead Of Factory Orders
    Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. service sector activity slowed in November but remained at levels consistent with a steady pace of economic growth for the fourth quarter, a business survey showed Thursday.

    Other data reported a small increase in first-time applications for unemployment benefits last week, but planned job cuts announced by companies in November were the fewest in 14 months.

    With the labor market showing resilience, economists say it is almost certain the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates at the Dec. 15-16 meeting for the first time in nearly a decade.

    It will take some pretty bad economic numbers for the Fed to pull back from the brink.

    "It will take some pretty bad economic numbers for the Fed to pull back from the brink," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.

    Fed Chair Janet Yellen told lawmakers Thursday that the central bank was close to lifting its key overnight interest rate from near zero. Yellen gave an upbeat view of the economy, saying "growth is likely to be sufficient over the next year or two to result in further improvement in the labor market."

    The Institute for Supply Management said Thursday its index of non-manufacturing activity fell to 55.9 last month from a reading of 59.1 in October. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the service sector.

    The new orders index dropped fell 4.5 points to 57.5 last month. There were also declines in measures of service sector employment, backlogs and export orders. Deliveries are slowing and inventories are still considered high which could constrain order growth in the months ahead.

    Twelve service industries, including real estate, retail, transportation and warehousing, finance and insurance and public administration reported growth last month. The six industries reporting contraction included wholesale trade, utilities and agriculture.

    The report came after news this week from ISM that the manufacturing sector contracted in November for the first time in three years. Still, economists said the soft service sector survey didn't signal a slowdown in gross domestic product growth from the third quarter's 2.1 percent annual rate.

    "Even after this drop off, the latest figure was still consistent with real GDP growth of around 2.25 percent," said Daniel Silver, an economist at J.P. Morgan in New York.

    There was little market reaction to the economic data, but the U.S. dollar dropped to a near one-month low against the euro after the European Central Bank unveiled a smaller interest rate cut and bond purchases than investors had anticipated. Stocks and Treasury debt prices were trading lower.

    Labor Market Resilience

    In second report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 269,000 in the week ended Nov. 28.

    It was the 39th straight week that claims held below 300,000, which is normally associated with a healthy labor market. Claims are near levels last seen in 1973 and there is little room for further declines as the labor market normalizes.

    The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it strips out week-to-week volatility, fell 1,750 to 269,250 last week.

    In a third report, global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas said U.S.-based companies announced 30,953 job cuts in November, the smallest amount since September 2014 and down 39 percent from October. There were 1,355 oil-related job cuts, the fewest since June.

    Last week's jobless claims have no bearing on Friday's Labor Department employment report for November as they fall outside the survey period. According to a Reuters survey of economists, nonfarm payrolls likely increased 200,000 last month after rising 271,000 in October. The unemployment rate is forecast unchanged at a 7½-year low of 5 percent.

    "The claims data suggest that the trend in employment growth remains more than strong enough to keep the unemployment rate trending down over time," said Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, New York.

    In a fourth report, the Commerce Department said new orders for manufactured goods increased 1.5 percent after two straight months of declines, on rising demand for transportation equipment and a range of other goods.

     

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    Day Two Of The Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum 2015
    Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images Alibaba Group Holding Chairman Jack Ma
    By Anya George Tharakan and Supantha Mukherjee

    Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding is unlikely to be interested in buying Yahoo's Internet business, The Wall Street Journal reported.

    Yahoo's board, in a three-day meeting that started Wednesday, is weighing a sale of the struggling business, Reuters reported Tuesday, citing a source.

    The business isn't attractive, "given the difficulties successive managers have had in turning it around," the Journal reported Thursday, citing a person familiar with the matter.

    There is almost certainly no buyer who would realistically retain the existing management.

    "There is almost certainly no buyer who would realistically retain the existing management," Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser said. He also said that U.S.-centric digital advertising had evidently not been Alibaba's focus.

    Yahoo's board, which includes co-founder David Filo, Walmart Stores (WMT) former Chief Executive Officer H. Lee Scott Jr. and Charles Schwab (SCHW) Chairman Charles R. Schwab, is also expected to discuss the planned spinoff of Yahoo's 15 percent stake in Alibaba.

    Alibaba will be interested in buying back its shares from Yahoo only at a steep discount, the Journal said, citing the person.

    Yahoo shareholders could end up paying billions in taxes if the U.S. Internal Revenue Service deems the spinoff taxable. The company had sought a private letter ruling from the IRS to confirm if the transaction would result in a tax obligation, but the IRS denied the request in September.

    Activist investor Starboard Value said Yahoo's board should "immediately abandon" the spinoff and begin a "competitive process to sell its valuable core business at the highest price possible."

    The board is "seriously considering" pausing on the spinoff until there is more clarity on the tax implications, Re/code reported, citing sources.

    Yahoo had earlier planned to complete the spinoff by the end of December, but the company said in October the transaction was now expected to close in January.

    Alibaba and Yahoo were yet to respond to requests for comment.

    Yahoo (YHOO) shares were down 1 percent at $35.25 in late morning trading. Alibaba (BABA) shares were down 1 percent at $84.07.

     

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    US-ECONOMY-FINANCE-CONGRESS-YELLEN
    Nicholas Kamm, AFP/Getty ImagesFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen
    By MARTIN CRUTSINGER

    WASHINGTON -- Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen told Congress Thursday that economic conditions appear to be improving enough for policymakers to raise interest rates when they meet in two weeks -- as long as there are no major shocks that undermine confidence.

    Yellen said that even after the first rate hike, the Fed expects future rate increases will be at a gradual pace that will keep borrowing costs low for consumers and businesses.

    In testimony before the Joint Economic Committee, Yellen warned that waiting an extended period of time to start raising rates would carry risks.

    "Were the FOMC to delay the start ... for too long," she said, "we would likely end up having to tighten policy relatively abruptly to keep the economy from overshooting" the Fed's goals for unemployment and inflation.

    "Such an abrupt tightening would risk disrupting financial markets and perhaps even inadvertently push the economy into a recession," Yellen said.

    She also cited concerns by Fed critics that keeping rates exceptionally low for too long "could also encourage excessive risk taking and thus undermine financial stability."

    Fed policymakers meet on Dec. 15-16. The Fed's key short-term rate has been at a record low near zero for the past seven years.

    Many private economists are forecasting the first rate hike by the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed's policy panel, will be a modest quarter-point move, followed by four more quarter-point moves over the next year.

    "Between today and the next FOMC meeting, we will receive additional data that bear on the economic outlook. These data include a range of indicators regarding the labor market, inflation and economic activity," Yellen told the JEC. "When my colleagues and I meet, we will assess all of the available data and their implications for the economic outlook in making our decision."

    The Labor Department will release its November employment report on Friday. Analysts believe the data will be key in determining whether the Fed boosts rates this month.

    Asked about the upcoming unemployment report, Yellen said the Fed will be watching for "a continued solid trend of job creation" that would indicate the economy has good momentum going forward.

    Yellen repeated past comments that she believed two key factors keeping inflation below the Fed's 2 percent target -- the rise in the value of the dollar and falling oil prices -- were likely to fade over time.

    Strong Signal

    Private economists said Yellen's remarks over the past two days sent a strong signal that the Fed is ready to start raising interest rates at its meeting this month.

    Gus Faucher, senior economist at PNC, said he was looking for a rate hike "barring much weaker data over the next couple of weeks."

    The Fed has left its target for the federal funds rate, the interest that banks charge on overnight loans, near zero since December 2008. It has used ultra-low borrowing costs as a way to stimulate economic activity and fight the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Fed has not raised the funds rate since June 2006.

    Yellen said that the Fed currently anticipates that even after further improvements in the labor market and inflation, economic conditions are likely to warrant lower rates than normal "for some time."

    She said that a Fed move to start raising rates will be a sign of "how far our economy has come in recovering from the effects of the financial crisis and the Great Recession. In that sense, it is a day that I expect we all are looking forward to."

    Yellen spoke shortly after the European Central Bank announced that it was cutting a key interest rate and extending its stimulus program to enhance efforts to bolster the 19 European countries that use the euro currency. This action disappointed investors, who had been looking for stronger moves.

     

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