E. coli Outbreak Linked to Chipotle Restaurants Expands

Customers leave a Chipotle restaurant with food in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015. Chipotle started reopening its restaurants in the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday after an E. coli outbreak sickened about 45 people, a high-profile example of foodborne illnesses that are more common than the public realizes, health experts say. Forty-three outposts of the Mexican food chain in Washington state and the Portland, Oregon, area were closed at the end of October because of the outbreak that hospitalized more than a dozen people. The first restaurants opened for lunch Wednesday. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)An outbreak of E. coli linked to Chipotle has expanded to nine states, with a total of 52 reported illnesses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday seven additional people were sickened, including in three more states: Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The most recent illness started on Nov. 13, it said.

The majority of the illnesses have been in Oregon and Washington, where cases were initially reported at the end of October. Additional cases were later reported in California, Minnesota, New York and Ohio.

Of the 52 people infected, the CDC says 47 reported eating at a Chipotle restaurant the week before the illness started. The agency hasn’t yet determined the ingredient that made people sick.

The CDC also said illnesses that started after Nov. 11 may not be reported yet.

People usually get sick from Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, the bacteria commonly associated with foodborne outbreaks, for two to eight days after swallowing the germ, according to the CDC. Most infected people get diarrhea and abdominal cramps.

Earlier Friday, Chipotle said it was tightening its food safety standards.

The Denver-based chain known for touting the quality of its ingredients said it hired IEH Laboratories in Seattle to help improve its procedures. It said it will implement testing of all produce before it is shipped to restaurants and enhance employee training for food safety and handling.

Chipotle hasn’t yet said how sales have been affected by the bad publicity from the outbreak, but plans to provide a financial update before a presentation for analysts and investors Tuesday. In October, the company had forecast sales at established locations would be up in the low- to mid-single digit percentages for 2015.

The company’s shares fell 2.7 percent to $550.25 in trading Friday afternoon.

Chipotle said it tested ingredients before, but that it is moving to testing smaller batches and a larger number of samples.

“In testing for pathogens, in many ways you’re looking for needles in haystacks. Through this high resolution testing program, we are making the haystacks smaller by working with smaller lots,” the company said.

It said that no ingredients that are likely to have been connected to the incident remain in its restaurants or supply system.

Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), said the company’s local produce suppliers may not all be able to meet the new standards. The company noted that its local produce program accounts for a “relatively small percentage” of the produce it uses, and only runs from around June through October in most parts of the country.

December Rate Hike Assured, Yellen Faces Future Battles

US-ECONOMY-FINANCE-CONGRESS-YELLENWASHINGTON and PHILADELPHIA — Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has the evidence of U.S. labor market health she wanted in order to raise benchmark interest rates for the first time in a decade this month, but she may have a tougher time selling further hikes.

Yellen’s arguments against potential dissenters at the Dec. 15-16 Fed policy meeting were strengthened by Labor Department data Friday that showedemployers hired 211,000 people in November while even greater numbers joined the workforce.

Federal funds futures contracts imply a 79-percent chance that the Fed will end seven years of near-zero interest rates at its December meeting and about even odds of a second rate rise by March.

Beyond that the outlook is more mixed. Interest rate futures maturing in the second half of next year are rising slightly, showing traders are wagering the Fed will manage no more than two further hikes before the end of next year.

You have an open debate between doves and hawks as to what the pace of increases should look like.

The differences among Fed policy makers were on display at a Philadelphia Federal Reserve conference Friday where Narayana Kocherlakota, in his last speech as president of the Minneapolis Fed, gave a sharp critique of a central bank that he said was too anxious to begin raising rates and thus would fail to create perhaps millions of jobs in a timely manner.

James Bullard, the more hawkish head of the St. Louis Fed, followed that presentation with one that argued it is time to raise rates and to begin shrinking the central bank’s $4.5 trillion balance sheet which was bulked up in recent years to boost the economy.

“You have an open debate between doves and hawks as to what the pace of increases should look like,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities in New York, referring to the divisions within the Fed over readiness to tighten monetary policy.

The Fed has appeared gun shy on tightening policy twice already this year, in June and September. Its key policy rate has been 0-0.25 percent since the depths of the financial crisis in late 2008.

Mixed Messages

Wall Street’s top banks said Friday in a Reuters poll that they expect the central bank to maintain a slow pace of rate hikes, with the median forecast for the fed funds rate for mid-2016 about 0.75 percent and 1.125 percent for the end of the year.

The Fed’s policymakers hold very different views of where the central bank’s benchmark rate will end next year, ranging from less than zero to 3 percent, according to projections released in September that were based on their views of appropriate policy. The median outlook was for four quarter-point rises next year, while their views of the long-term normal level range from between 3 percent and 4 percent.

Worryingly for a consensus-seeking Yellen, it isn’t just traditional “doves” such as Gov. Lael Brainard who are questioning the pace of rate rises. Even some of the hawks, who would typically worry more about inflation risks than weak economic growth, are weighing a possibility that they may face a long spell of below normal economic growth and low inflation.

Bullard noted that rates have remained low in most advanced economies. If that persists it “may be leading us to an outcome with low nominal interest rates and low inflation that can last for a very long time,” he said, adding the Fed needs to be willing to pause and also to speed up its pace of tightening.

Earlier this week, Yellen said the process of rate increases could be gradual but she has yet to spell out what gradual means.

One driver for the pace of rate rises will be whether inflation picks up next year, and Friday’s data suggested workers might not be getting big enough raises for businesses to raise prices much.

Average hourly earnings rose 2.3 percent in November from a year earlier, down from 2.5 percent in October. Without more inflationary pressures, policymakers likely want to raise rates more gradually.

Friday’s jobs report also highlighted Brainard’s argument that weakness in the global economy could constrain U.S. growth more than policymakers currently expect. Manufacturing jobs, which are among the most exposed to the global economy, actually fell by 1,000 in November, the third drop in the last four months.

“While this report can help justify a rate hike in December, it can’t justify anything more than a very gradual path of rate hikes,” said Brian Jacobsen, a portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

5 Ways to Make a Better Plan for Your Money in 2016

financial growth plan for 2016...From professional football player to speaker and financial coach, Chris Hogan has been a staple among personal finance experts. The money guru once worked as vice president of a mortgage company and later turned to helping people successfully manage their money. As a finalist in the 2015 GOBankingRates “Best Money Expert” competition held in collaboration with Ally Bank, Chris Hogan offers this money tip for 2016:

The best thing you can do for your finances is to create a plan. Think about what your financial goals are and create a plan to reach those goals. 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.

Follow these five steps to apply Hogan’s 2016 money tip to your life. From identifying key financial goals to paying down low balance debts, you can get your finances on track.

1. Identify your financial goals. Hogan said it best: Without a plan, your goals are a pipe dream. In 2016, consider what you would like to do for the next few years, and how you can manage your finances to make your dreams come true. Whether you’re saving for a house or car, as soon as you start mapping out what’s in store for the new year, you’ll see how much money you’ll need to save and what other steps you’ll need to take to reach those goals.

Hogan suggested you set deadlines, allowing you to see upcoming milestones. Just make sure the budget you have laid out allows you to succeed.

2. Set up a budget. Budgeting is one of the most essential parts of any money plan, yet about two-thirds of Americans don’t have one in place, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. One essential step to developing a budget is to write out your monthly income and expenses, like rent, mortgage, car insurance and groceries, and compare them. Knowing how much you’re spending in each category will help you identify where you’re overspending.

Cutting costs in certain categories, Hogan said in an ABC interview, is like getting a raise: “When you begin to give spending limits, it’s like you’ve given yourself a raise. You’ve now given yourself some money you can begin to save or attack debt [with].”

3. Tackle small debts first. As an associate of Dave Ramsey, Hogan is well versed in helping people reduce their debt. He suggested attacking low-level debt first: “The little $200 Home Depot store credit card? Knock that thing out, pay it off and get it out of your life, and then move to the next card.”

By paying off low-balance debts, you free up money you can put toward an emergency fund or other debts. By tackling debts with high interest, you also save yourself the money you would have otherwise put toward interest. Just be careful that as you free up more money every month you don’t start increasing spending.

4. Build up an emergency fund. One of the biggest elements of making a better money plan for 2016 is making room for an emergency fund. Hogan suggested opening a money market account, which can help your savings grow. “Once you get out of debt,” he said, “you need three to six months of money, however much it takes you to run your household, tucked away in a money market account for that rainy day.” If you’re struggling to make ends meet, set up a jar in the kitchen or bedroom and dump your change in it at the end of each day. Over time that money can help you curb the cost of an unexpected repair or other emergency.

5. Save for retirement even when you’re behind. Thirty-six percent of American workers have less than $1,000 in savings and investments, not including their primary residence or defined benefits like pensions, according to a survey conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Sixty percent have less than $25,000 saved for retirement. J.P. Morgan, however, advises you have at least $55,000 saved for retirement by age 40 if you make $50,000 a year. By 50, you should have $115,000 saved.

Don’t worry if you’ve fallen behind in retirement savings. Even if you can’t hit retirement savings checkpoints laid out by wealth advisers, the more money you save now will help reduce your reliance on Social Security when you’re older. “There’s still time on the clock,” Hogan said in a YouTube video. “We just have to get focused.” He advised you look to build additional income streams.

Whether you tutor on the side or sell a unique skill you have, generating additional income specifically for retirement is a great way to catch up when you’ve fallen behind. As part of your money plan for 2016, look to eliminate small debts holding down your budget, establish spending goals and a small emergency fund, and start contributing to your retirement.

5 Apps to Organize Your Financial Life

close up of woman hands with tablet pc and moneyLOS ANGELES — Earlier this year a tax pro mentioned the FileThis organizing app to me. Within seconds of installing it, I wondered, “Where has this been all my life?”

I have tried an absurd number of software programs that promised to simplify, streamline and de-clutter our family’s financial life. Most fell short, offering too little benefit, steep learning curves or both. A few insanely useful ones, though, made it to the mobile Hall of Fame, otherwise known as my home screen.

If you are trying to get a grip on your money, you may find these to be helpful:

1. FileThis. The app does what I frequently forget to do since going paperless several years ago — download account statements.

It also gives you an overview of your accounts and gives you bill due-date reminders.

I use FileThis’ free version to automatically fetch statements from up to six “connections” or links to financial institutions.

I have multiple accounts at each institution, so I am able to track far more than just six accounts. The free version offers 500 megabytes of cloud storage.

To get more connections and storage, you can pay $2 a month for up to 12 connections and 1 gigabyte of storage or $5 for up to 30 connections and 10 gigabytes of storage. Users also can opt to have documents downloaded to a number of other storage sites, including Dropbox and Evernote, or to their computers.

2. ItsDeductible. We donate a ton of clothes, toys, books and household goods to local charities, but I always put off attaching values to the donations until our taxes were due and it became a big, unpleasant chore.

The free ItsDeductible app from Intuit (INTU) allows me to record contributions as we make them and offers values for common items. I print out an annual report for our tax pro, although TurboTax users can download the information directly into their returns.

3. DropBox. Accessing files from any device or location is essential for my work, but cloud-based storage also helps when we travel and in preparing for natural disasters. So I regularly upload travel documents, insurance policies, appraisal reports, home inventories, scans of old tax returns and other important paperwork.

I used the free service for years but recently approached the 2 gigabyte storage limit and upgraded to 1 terabyte of storage for $99 a year.

4. Mobile banking. I dismissed mobile check deposit as a fad until I actually tried it. Now I agree with financial planner Michael Kitces, who calls it “a crucial aspect” of his financial life.

“The only time my wife or I have set foot in a physical bank branch for the past two years was to get a legal document notarized. It’s glorious,” said Kitces, research director at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Maryland.

All the other stuff my bank app does — transfer money, pay bills, send alerts, find fee-free ATMs — makes this one of my most-used mobile money tools.

5. Mint. Intuit’s free personal finance aggregator allows its 2.5 million monthly users to track their spending, monitor their credit scores and spot potential fraud by automatically downloading transactions from bank, credit card and investment accounts.

It is also a favorite among financial advisers.

“Mint allows you to combine all of your finances into one location so that you can take a high level view,” said David Almonte, a certified public accountant in Providence, Rhode Island.

If you are an active investor, you might prefer Personal Capital, which has a better free portfolio manager. I liked Personal Capital’s elegant, ad-free dashboard. I didn’t like, however, being emailed and called about signing up for its fee-based investment advisory service, which is the site’s raison d’etre.

While some worry about security with aggregator sites where you have to hand over your account login credentials, I am comfortable with these sites’ privacy and security policies.

As the victim of several database breaches, including those at Anthem (ANTM) and Sony (SNY), I know that staying offline is no guarantee of safety. Too much of our private information is stored in insecure databases over which we have no control. With these sites, at least, I have some choice over what I share.

Whom Not to Tip for the Holidays

Cash Payment TipsWith the New Year rapidly approaching, it’s a good time to reflect on the past year and think about all the people who have helped you get through it — and how best to show them your appreciation. “The root of the word gratuity is gratitude,” says Daniel Post Senning, great-great-grandson of etiquette empress Emily Post and coauthor of the 18th edition of “Emily Post’s Etiquette.” “An annual or holiday tip is an opportunity to really think about the people who are oftentimes the most important people in our lives.”

Your hair stylist, babysitter and trash collectors, for example, have helped care for you, your kids and your home, respectively.It’d be nice of you to thank them.

Emphasis on “it’d be nice.” You shouldn’t feel required to tip for the holidays at all. “It’s not an obligation,” says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas. “It depends on your budget. You really just want to tip the people that you really feel from the heart that you want to give to.”

And whether you want to or not, there are plenty of people you shouldn’t even consider tipping for the holidays. As helpful as they might have been throughout the year, you shouldn’t hand out cash or valuable gifts to:

  • doctors
  • lawyers
  • accountants
  • financial advisers

Basically, no tips for financial pros of any kind — not even your favorite personal finance writer (but I appreciate your appreciation!).

These types of professionals typically earn a nice living without relying on or expecting any gratuities. They may even be insulted by such a gesture. “You’re not going to give cash to these people; it would just not be appropriate,” says Gottsman. “If you want to show them consideration for the holidays, certainly you can send, let’s say, a tray of treats to the office.”

You also want to skip tipping your children’s teachers. As much as they do for your kids, offering them cash may be misconstrued as some kind of bribe –perhaps to boost your kids’ grades or gain them more personal attention. The same might be said of tips for the school principal or coaches. “It’s hard to say don’t tip them because they oftentimes seem the most deserving,” says Post Senning. “But it can create a potentially awkward situation if some kids in class are giving their teachers expensive gifts and other kids aren’t.”

Instead, Post Senning recommends giving deserving teachers a personal card, gift or treat — even better if it’s something your child helped make. “It’s a great way to teach kids the value and importance of thanking people without putting the teacher in an uncomfortable position.”

And at your office, don’t even think about tipping the boss. “You don’t want to send any expensive gifts up the food chain,” says Post Senning. In this situation, as well as for teachers, find out if you can get in on any group gifts.

If you’re a supervisor, don’t give cash to your staff, no matter how much you want to acknowledge their work. A deserved bonus from the company, of course, would be great and happily accepted, I’m sure. But a little extra straight from a supervisor would be awkward at best. Again, a small gift or sincere note would be a better move.

In general, be sure to check company policies before giving a tip or gift toanyone. Some organizations don’t permit their workers to accept cash or extravagant presents. For example, the U.S. postal service prohibits employees from accepting money and limits gifts to a value of $20. “You don’t want your giving to make somebody feel uncomfortable,” says Gottsman. “When somebody says ‘I really can’t,’ you have to accept that.”

6 Money Strategies for the Sandwich Generation

Three generations portrait of three women
When her father was diagnosed with a respiratory disease about seven years ago, Joy Frank-Collins juggled her work schedule and parenting demands to maximize the time she spent by his side. Frank-Collins, a 41-year-old who heads her own communications firm in Marietta, Ohio, also coordinated with her siblings to pay for expenses that weren’t covered by insurance. “If you know your parents will need your help, you have to think, ‘What can I set aside to provide the necessary support for my parents?'” she says. After a long fight with his illness, her father died at age 75 in January.

As a member of the sandwich generation — adults who simultaneous care for children and aging parents — Frank-Collins had to navigate what is becoming an increasingly familiar challenge. “Individuals who find themselves in the sandwich generation are forced with contemplating taking care of things today in a way that may negatively impact their future,” says Rebekah Barsch, vice president of financial planning for Northwestern Mutual. Family members might cut back on their work hours or sacrifice savings in order to care for aging parents, she adds. “The pressure, both financial and emotional, weighs on people,” she says.

Those pressures are one reason that 37 percent of Gen X, who are between ages 35 and 49, don’t feel financially secure, according to the 2015 Northwestern Mutual Planning & Progress Study of 5,474 adults. About 1 in 4 said they are “not at all confident” they will achieve their financial goals, and 2 in 10 said they believe they will never retire, largely because they won’t have enough retirement savings.

“The number of people who find themselves sandwiched between generations continues to grow as the baby boom generation gets older and is expected to live longer than ever before — longer than they’re capable of caring for themselves,” says Phillip Rumrill, ​a professor of rehabilitation counseling at Kent State University and co-author of “The Sandwich Generation’s Guide to Eldercare: Concrete Advice to Simultaneously Care for Your Kids and Your Parents.”

At the same time, he adds, children are living at home for longer, which means people in middle age are often caring for, and financially supporting, both generations at once. “We estimate that 1 in 8 Americans between the ages of 40 and 60 are caring for both children and parents or grandparents at once,” he says. That caregiving often coincides with intense years of career demands as well as the need to save for retirement.

If you’re a member of the sandwich generation, here are six financial strategiesto help your family get through the challenge:

Pick your priorities. “Maybe we start saving for college tuition later, or we save less now with the idea of ramping it up later, when our incomes are back at full stride,” Barsch says. She recommends making it a priority to continue saving for retirement, but to scale back in other areas, such as spending on luxuries such as vacation and cars.

Stick to a revised budget. Taking on responsibility for parents can make it especially important to hone your budget​, says ​Stacy Newton​, North and South Carolina division executive for SunTrust Bank. “Because they have so much on their plates, making a plan is critical. We encourage people to set limits on spending, shopping sales and to stay within their means,” she says. When it comes to vacation or holidays, for example, Newton suggests focusing on shared family experiences rather than dollars spent. She also urges people to use their banks’ spending alerts to stay within budget.

Give yourself an annual checkup. “It’s like going to the doctor,” Newton says. “Take a few minutes off work and sit down with a financial adviser to review current financial priorities, and make sure everything is aligned.” A recent SunTrust survey of 519 adults with incomes $75,000 and up found that amongthose in middle age (ages 45 to 54), just 37 percent say they are saving enough to live comfortably in retirement, compared to ​57 percent in other age groups. An annual check up can help determine where you stand and what adjustments need to be made.​

Plan for eldercare. While parents often anticipate the costs that come with children, they are less likely to budget for the expense of caring for their parents, Rumrill says. Those costs can include paid caregivers, a nursing facility or medical expenses, he adds. Budgeting in advance, as well as checking for any available benefits through the federal government, particularly Social Security or veterans’ benefits, can help ease some of that pressure, he says.

Make use of new technology. Kyle Hill ​co-founded HomeHero.org, a website that helps families find and hire in-home care for seniors in California and has plans to expand to other states in 2016. Users can browse caregivers and also use the site to make payments. For Hill, the need is personal: He watched his father struggle to care for his 98-year-old mother from a different state. “There was no easy way to manage her care from far away,” he says, particularly to oversee caregiver shifts and activities. Automating the process through a website makes it easier and more affordable for family members to find high-quality, paid caregivers, he says.

Coordinate with siblings. Lan Jewel​, 45, a communications professional in New York, worked out a plan with her four siblings about 15 years ago, before any of them had the additional financial pressure of children. Her parents had limited savings, so the siblings all chipped in to purchase long-term care insurance, and some also send money to them once a month. ​”It has definitely put a strain on our relationships since the financial burden has increased,” she says, and the stress from the Great Recession didn’t help. “But this is an obligation that I feel I have to juggle, even as the expenses of rearing two​ children in New York City increase as my kids get older. My parents sacrificed so much for ​us kids,” she says.

Frank-Collins also suggests working through any tensions with siblings and other family members before a health crisis hits, because coordination becomes essential. “We would almost tag each other out at the hospital,” she recalls, referring to the frequent bedside visits when her father was sick. “You have to sit down and have these conversations that you never thought you would have. Because you’re the person in the middle, you have to prepare.”

You’re Running Out of Time for Your 2015 Tax Planning

Person filling tax returns before deadlineA few months ago, we suggested getting your tax strategy together before it was time to panic.

Well, it’s time to panic.

We’re less than a month to the end of 2015 and any plans you have to lessen your tax hit by the end of the year should probably be implemented now. Rebecca Pavese, a certified public accountant, financial planner and portfolio manager with Palisades Hudson Financial Group’s office in Atlanta says that, at the very least, you should be calculating your income, tax payments and deductions to date, and estimating your totals for 2015.

“You need this baseline information before making any moves,” she says.

Once you’ve done that, the easiest way to save is by reducing your taxable income. Bankrate’s (RATE) Kay Bell notes that boosting your retirement savings can be particularly helpful. If you haven’t made your maximum $18,000 contribution 401(k) ($24,000 for people age 50 or older) or $5,500 contribution for an IRA ($6,500 for people age 50-plus), now is the time.

“If your employer permits you to make extra contributions to your 401(k), put in as much as you can afford.

“If your employer permits you to make extra contributions to your 401(k), put in as much as you can afford,” says Bill Ringham, vice president and senior wealth strategist at RBC Wealth Management. “You typically contribute pretax dollars, so the more you invest, the lower your taxable income. Your earnings also grow on a tax-deferred basis.”

Ringham also notes that 529 plan contributions are tax deductible in several states, so contributing to your kid’s college fund will allow your earnings grow tax-free, provided they are used for qualified higher education expenses. Just make sure it’s going toward college, however, as distributions not used for qualified expenses may be subject to income tax and a 10 percent penalty. Meanwhile, it’s also time to take inventory of your other investments in 2015 … and root for the losers.”Tax-loss selling can minimize or eliminate capital gains on one asset by realizing a loss to offset it,” Pavese says. “There’s dollar-to-dollar offset. If for instance you’ve had $5,000 of capital gains, you can offset them completely with $5,000 of capital losses.”

The best part is that you can carry those tax losses forward indefinitely. If you don’t need those losses to offset capital gains right away, you can use the excess loss to offset gains in a future year. That’s particularly helpful since net capital losses (capital losses minus capital gains) can only be deducted up to a maximum of $3,000 in a given tax year. Any losses beyond $3,000 must be carried over, which also makes it worth your while to consider putting off selling some of your “winners” until next year.”

“Capital gains can increase your adjusted gross income — and, consequently, your tax bill,” Ringham says. “So if you are considering selling an asset that has increased in value, such as a stock, you may want to wait until January so the gain will be realized next year.”

If you’re in a really desperate situation, there’s also a chance you can just give some of those investments away. Highly appreciated stocks or mutual funds you’ve owned for more than one year can go directly to a charity, so if you’ve purchased shares for $1,000 and they are now worth $10,000, giving those share to a qualified charity would give someone in the 28 percent tax bracket a $2,800 tax deduction, based on the current market value of the donated shares.

“You benefit three ways,” Pavese says. “First, you’re doing good. Second, you won’t pay the capital gains tax you’d owe if you sold the security instead. And third, you’ll get a deduction if you itemize.”

Once all of that is complete, you’ll want to consider doing some housekeeping.

Bankrate’s Bell suggests homeowners submit January mortgage payment and property taxes by Dec. 31 so they can deduct the interest for 2015. Also, if you haven’t taken advantage of your flexible spending account for health care, now is a great time to schedule doctor’s appointments or buy eligible supplies ranging from glasses to knee braces to cold medicine. Pavese, meanwhile, suggests filing a new W-4 form with your employer and adjusting your December tax withholding just to keep from running afoul of penalties and interest. However, just about anything you can do to lower your adjusted gross income is helpful.

“Lowering your income has many potential benefits,” she says. “If you can lower your taxable income to below $74,900 for a married couple filing jointly or $37,450 for a single filer, you will pay zero percent federal tax on sales of assets you’ve held longer than one year and zero percent on dividends. Even if you can’t get your taxable income quite so low, you may be able to lower it enough to step down to the next lowest capital gains tax rate.”

Lowering income can also lower deduction hurdles that are calculated as a percentage of that income. For example, unreimbursed medical expenses can only be deducted if they exceed 10 percent of adjusted gross income, and investment expenses must exceed 2 percent. However, if you can’t adjust to a desirable level for 2015, now is the time to start banking deductions for 2016. Pavese suggests that, instead of paying your estimated quarterly state income tax by Dec. 31 and deducting it on your 2015 return, you can pay it Jan. 1-15 and get a 2016 deduction. Also, if an additional deduction would trigger alternative minimum tax, pay your fourth-quarter state income tax and real estate tax installment in January.

“If your bracket will go up next year, consider deferring certain deductions, such as state taxes and real estate taxes, so you can claim them on your 2016 return,” Pavese says. “The higher your bracket, the more the same deduction can save you.”

Americans Pay Up to 10 Times Too Much for Medications

Female hands with prescription drugs on white background
Just 17 percent of people comparison shop for their prescriptions to find better deals, a new survey shows.

That means 83 percent are potentially paying hundreds of dollars more than necessary each time they fill a prescription, according to Consumer Reports.

The nonprofit found that medications can cost as much as 10 times more at one retailer compared with the cost at another.

Lisa Gill, prescription drug editor at Consumer Reports, tells “CBS This Morning”:

“[We] discovered enormous price variations around the country, but also within the same zip code. Most people would not think, ‘Hey, I’m going to pick up the phone and call around,’ but you can save a bundle of money if you do.”

For its survey, Consumer Reports had secret shoppers call the pharmacies of more than 200 stores in six metros across the country to price five common generic prescription drugs. Their findings included:

Those with the highest prices were:

  • In Raleigh, North Carolina, the price for one month’s supply of generic Cymbalta, an antidepressant that’s also used to treat pain, ranged from $43 (at Costco) to $249 (Walgreens).
  • In Dallas, the price for generic Plavix, a blood thinner, ranged from $23 (independent Preston Village Pharmacy) to $150 (CVS).
  • In Denver, the price for generic Actos, for Type 2 diabetes, ranged from $15 (Cherry Creek Pharmacy) to $330 (grocery store Albertson’s Save-On).

Overall, the retailers with the lowest prices were:

  • HealthWarehouse.com
  • Costco
  • Independent pharmacies

Those with the highest prices were:

  • Walgreens
  • Rite Aid
  • CVS

Medication prices vary more for consumers who are paying out of pocket rather than with insurance. Consumer Reports found, however, that even consumers paying a flat insurance copay can sometimes save money by shopping around:

Sometimes the price you’d pay out of pocket (what those without insurance are charged) might be less than your copay — a fact pharmacists may neglect to mention. Case in point: Metformin — used to treat type 2 diabetes — sells for just $4 for a month’s supply, or $10 for a three-month supply, at stores such as Target and Walmart, while a copay for a month’s worth averages about $11.

8 Things That Are Cheaper at Target

Target Store exteriorThere’s no arguing that Target has a loyal following among many shoppers. While the retail giant may not always have the lowest prices, it certainly attracts consumers happily willing to pay a little extra to avoid the crowded aisles of some other discounters.

But there are certain items which are almost always cheaper at Target (TGT) compared to other retailers. Here are eight such items that’ll save you money on your next Target shopping trip.

1. ‘Green’ Cleaning Products

Not only has Target led the natural cleaning trend over the past few years, but they often do it at a price lower than the competition. For example, Target sells the 28-ounce bottle of Method All-Surface Cleaner for an affordable $2.99, while Walmart sells the same product for $5.49 and Amazon sells it for $8.
Another great example is Green Works laundry detergent in the 90-ounce size; at Target you’ll pay $11.99, while you’ll pay $23.27 at Walmart and $19.21 at Amazon. You’ll also find similar savings at Target on other popular natural cleaning brands, including J.R. Watkins, Honest and Seventh Generation.

2. Kids’ Bedding and Decor

When buying bedding for your child’s room, your wallet will likely benefit greatly from shopping at Target. You’ll find steep savings on sheet and comforter sets, throw blankets and even decorative pillows. This is especially true when buying “character” bedding from Star Wars, Disney and Sesame Street. For example, you can purchase the popular Star Wars Classic Twin Sheet Set from Target for $19.79, while you’ll have to pay $26.07 on Amazon. If you’re shopping for a girl, you’ll also save at Target, as you can buy the four-piece Disney Frozen bed set for $31.49 where you’ll have to pay $36.97 at Walmart.

3. Photo Frames

When compared to the competition, Target is a great place to shop for picture frames and save money. While they easily beat the price at specialty stores like Michaels and Jo-Ann Fabric, they surprisingly also undercut the likes of Walmart and Amazon. For example, at Target you can buy 8×10 inch frames (set of two for $13.99, while you’ll have to pay $19.97 at Walmart and $18.99 at Amazon.

The savings you’ll find at Target aren’t limited to the popular 8×10 size — it’s seen across all picture frame sizes and designs. Plus, they often have coupons available via their Cartwheel app on home items and decor that will bring the price down even further.

4. Beauty Items

Target is where you’ll get the most bang for your buck when buying cosmetics and makeup. While prices are generally better at Target when compared to Amazon, Walmart and Macy’s, the real savings comes in the gift card deals they offer. A current example is a free $5 Target gift card when you buy three L’Oreal products. When the gift card is factored into the price, Target easily beats the competition.

Other examples include a free $5 Target gift card with the purchase of three Aveeno items and buy one, get one for 50 percent off with all fragrances. Also, be sure to always check for printable Target coupons before you visit to ensure you get the lowest price on beauty items.

5. Name-Brand Baby Gear

Brands like Graco, Britax and Evenflo are often cheapest at Target. For example, Target currently sells the Graco Pack ‘N Play Playardfor $59.99 (color: Pasadena), while the cheapest color currently on Amazon is $69.97. The same can be said for the Evenflo High-Back Booster seat; you’ll find it for $33.99 at Target and have to pay $39.98 at Amazon,$35.98 at Walmart and $39.99 at Babies R Us. It’s always a smart idea to check pricing at Target before buying baby products, as you’ll often find the lowest price.

6. Men’s Deodorant

Target is a great place to save money on deodorant and anti-perspirant for men. For example, Target sells the two-pack of men’s Old Spice High Endurance Deodorant for $3.97, while Walmart sells the same product for $5.97. Also, you can find a two-pack of Axe Phoenix Anti-Perspirant at Target for $6.29, compared to $7.37 at Walmart. I found similar savings on other popular brands like Gillette, Degree and Dove Men’s Care as well.

For whatever reason, women’s deodorant is cheaper across the board at Walmart and Amazon. But if you’re a guy, or buying for one, purchase from Target and take advantage of the lower prices.

7. Tall Kitchen Bags

This one might seem a bit random, but kitchen trash bags — the tall variety — are 25 percent cheaper at Target compared to Walmart. Specifically, I’m talking about the store brand at each store. At Target, you can get the Up & Up brand in a 110 count box for $9.99, while you’ll pay $12.52 for a box of only 100 bags of the Walmart brand. Both bags received strong customer reviews, making the Target brand a solid buy.

8. Wedding Registry Gifts

Because of the exclusive discounts they offer, wedding registry gifts are simply cheaper at Target. If the wedding couple registered at several stores and Target is one of them, always choose to shop with them and you’ll save. For example, they currently have a discount code (WEDDING20) that is good for 20 percent off your $100 or more regular-priced wedding registry gift. So if you’re buying the couple the KitchenAid Mixer they registered for, you’ll only pay $200 instead of $250 — a price that beats all of the major competition.

By the way, having been married for 15 years, I can honestly say that this mixer is the only gift we received that we still use today. It clearly falls under the category of quality items worth the price.

By knowing the items at Target that provide the most savings, you can plan your next trip accordingly and save money. Also, it’s worth noting that most of the products listed above provide the same savings in-store as they do online. Happy savings.

Home Improvement Projects That Can Hurt Your Property Value

Young woman holding hammer, looking through hole in wall, smilingAre you considering converting your home’s garage into a man cave? Before you permanently ditch parking and storage space in exchange for a testosterone-friendly getaway, you may want to consider this: your garage man cave project could hurt your home’s value and make it harder to sell.

Turning your garage into a living space is one of four home improvement projects highlighted by MarketWatch that could end up sucking the value out of your home.

Homeowners need to think carefully before they get rid of their garage and turn it into a man cave, family room or extra bedroom, because it could make their home less attractive to many people, New York real estate agent Brendon DeSimone, author of the book “Next Generation Real Estate,” told MarketWatch.

A recent survey by real estate investment and operating firm Crescent Communities found that 74 percent of homebuyers said having a garage is extremely or very important. If you still want to proceed with your garage project, consider leaving the garage doors on the outside so if you do sell your house, a buyer has the option to easily turn the space back into a garage, Michele Silverman Bedell, of New York-based Silversons Realty, told Marketwatch.

Here are three other home renovation projects that could dent the value of your home:

  • Removing one bedroom to make another bedroom (or room) bigger: Reducing the number of bedrooms in your house is a big no-no from a real estate standpoint. “When you start eliminating bedroom space, you’ve completely changed the comparable value of your home in the neighborhood,” David Pekel, president of Pekel Construction and Remodeling, in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, told MarketWatch. By reducing the number of bedrooms in your house, you’ve also reduced the number of potential homebuyers who would be interested in your home, despite how big another bedroom or living space is.
  • Removing closets: People want, and typically need, closets. Bedell said she had a client who removed the closet from their master bedroom and built a big master bath in the space. The result? The home was much harder to sell.
  • Wallpaper: Sure, wallpaper can really spruce up a room, but many people don’t like it. Plus removing it can be difficult. I can attest to that. Every single room in my house had wallpaper circa 1979 — think orange and avocado green flowers, silver trees and flocked brown and gold geometric patterns. My husband and I made the mistake of thinking it would be easy to remove. Every room we worked on was awful and time-consuming, and I will never purchase another house with wallpaper. Bedell said overdoing wallpaper or any other finish can deter potential homebuyers and hurt your home’s resale value.
Of course, you shouldn’t shy away from a home renovation project you really want just because it may hurt your home’s value if you sell it. It’s just something to be aware of. If you do decide to move forward with a potentially home-devaluing home improvement project, DeSimone recommends that you “do it in a way that you can put it back when you go to sell.”

On the other end of the spectrum, check out these 8 Home Improvement Projects That Pay Off Big.