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50 FINANCIAL MOVEMENT YOU SHOULD KNOW

1. Don’t get burned by hidden airline fees

Don’t get burned by hidden airline fees, New rules will hinder hidden travel charges

Flying may not be getting any cheaper, said Karen Jacobs in Reuters.com, but at least you’ll know what you’re paying for. The Department of Transportation proposed new rules last week that will require U.S. airlines to “disclose fees for checked baggage, carry-on items, and other services to make it easier for travelers to discern the true cost of a ticket.” Travel search sites, such as Expedia, Kayak, and Google, will also have to provide more information on fees to customers. The move comes in response to proposed legislation, supported by the airline industry, that would allow airlines to promote base fares in advertising “but disclose taxes and fees separately.” The DOT is pushing back, calling on airlines and travel agents to list additional charges on website itinerary displays, respond more quickly to complaints, and “offer the option of holding reservations at quoted fares without payment for 24 hours.”

This could be a nice change of pace for customers, said Jack Nicas in The Wall Street Journal. While airlines must already list their ancillary fees “somewhere on their websites,” they “don’t have to alert customers to those fees before booking.” Most major airlines oppose the new rules, saying they could lead to higher costs, higher fares, and reduced service, but the new policy could benefit carriers like JetBlue, which already allows one free checked bag on domestic flights. On the other hand, it could be bad news for discount carrier Spirit Airlines, whose high fees for baggage and seat selection  “could scare away some browsing travelers.”

In the meantime, there are some things to look out for when trying to make sense of confusing travel fees, said Scott Mayerowitz in the Associated Press. “Most airlines offer early boarding, priority security screening, and extra legroom for a fee,” while others “charge for any advance seat assignment.” Some carriers even “charge to place a bag in the overhead bin” and for drinks like soda and water. To “avoid these fees, save money, and still have a comfortable flight,” smart travelers should have a few tools  in their arsenal, said Suba Iyer in FoxBusiness .com. If your goal is to get the lowest fare, look to book with an airline “that has everything included in the price.” If you’re trying to avoid a bag fee, pack smart and consider shipping some baggage to your destination in advance. And booking with a co-branded airline rewards card can result in some perks, “such as elite status, free checked bags, and priority boarding.” Cards can also provide redeemable frequent-flier miles, which can be used for upgrades that often include “early boarding, higher carry-on luggage limits, and many other perks.”



2. Federal aid for community college

Federal aid for community college, Access to loans can help students graduate

Nearly 1 million community college students don’t have access to federal student loans, said Nick Anderson in The Washington Post. They attend a growing number of public two-year colleges that choose not to participate in the federal loan program. Though community colleges are relatively cheap and only 17 percent of their students take out loans, experts say access to federal funds can be the difference between students’ dropping out and completing their degree. But some community colleges have shied from the federal loan program “because they worry that if too many student borrowers default, the schools will be cut out of federal student aid” altogether, including the federal Pell grants that cover most of their needy students’ expenses.

That’s a valid concern, said Ann Carrns in The New York Times. “But simply blocking access to federal student loans does students a disservice, and may force them to use riskier, more expensive types of debt, like credit cards and private student loans.” These private loans “generally don’t come with consumer protections” such as deferments or income-linked repayment plans, and they tend to carry higher interest rates. Prospective students should take care to find out whether a community college they plan to attend offers federal loans, either by checking the school’s website or calling its financial aid office.

Community college students typically borrow far less than students attending fouryear schools, said Ryan Lane in USNews.com. But the consequences of default, “like wage garnishment and severe credit damage,” hurt no matter the loan balance. To avoid falling into that trap, community college students should “balance their education goals” with other financial obligations in their lives. And no matter what, they should try to stay in school. “Taking out student debt without going on to complete your program of study can lead to big repayment problems.” If you can’t stay enrolled full time, “be sure you enroll at least half time,” so your loans don’t enter repayment prematurely.

Colleges need to recognize that access to federal loans is more important than ever, said Hadley Malcolm in USA Today. “More than 60 percent of community college students are enrolled part time,” largely because they have to work to make ends meet. Students in “rural areas and small towns” are also at a disadvantage, because they are more than twice as likely to lack access to federal loans than students in urban areas. By allowing access to federal loans, colleges will increase the likelihood that their students complete two-year degrees, transfer to four-year colleges, and have the tools they need to succeed.

3. Sail through airport security

Sail through airport security, ‘Trusted travelers’ can avoid long check-in lines

For travelers who are sick of security lines, the Transportation Security Administration has a new solution, said Scott McCartney in The Wall Street Journal. Technically, the TSA’s “PreCheck” program, which allows travelers to go through an expedited security process at airports, has been around since 2011, but the agency is now aggressively trying to get more people to sign up, by expanding the program and opening enrollment to everyone. “But the effort has run into traveler confusion and aggravation,” even though it allows “trusted travelers” to avoid the process of removing shoes and jackets and pulling liquids and laptops out of their bags. Members can also “walk through metal detectors rather than standing spread-eagle for full-body scanners.”

But PreCheck might not pay off for everyone, said Esme Murphy in CBSLocal.com. It was initially available by invitation only, but “the most common way to get PreCheck status” now  “is to apply online, pay $85, get fingerprinted, and make an appointment to get a criminal background check.” And while the service works fine now, just wait till the “crush of inexperienced summer vacationers,” said Christopher Elliott in The Washington Post. As the TSA works to expand PreCheck to its goal of 117 airports, “passengers are discovering that the new lines are sometimes a freefor-all, with travelers randomly selected for preferred treatment.” And since TSA agents “have a lot of discretion when it comes to triaging incoming travelers,” things could get messy with the influx of airport traffic during busy traveling seasons. In the end, “the TSA might have to choose which group to disappoint: the frequent travelers who shelled out $85 to be prescreened or the summer travelers who just want to get to the gate faster.” Either way, “PreCheck offers no guarantees.”

Still, “compared to the regular line,” said Jessica Plautz in Mashable .com, “PreCheck can still be a time-saver.” And frequent fliers who are members of certain airlines’ loyalty programs—including the ones run by JetBlue, Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, Southwest, United, US Airways, and Virgin America—may be eligible for PreCheck through their carrier. And while “being approved for the program doesn’t guarantee that you’ll skip the line every time you go to the airport,” you can increase your odds by signing up through one of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s more secure “trusted traveler” programs: Global Entry, NEXUS, and SENTRI.

4. The benefits of tax-free health spending

The benefits of tax-free health spending, The ‘use it or lose it’ rule has been relaxed

Flexible spending accounts just got a lot more flexible, said Ann Carrns in The New York Times. FSAs have long been an option for workers to save money on medical costs by using pretax dollars to pay for health-care expenses that aren’t covered by their insurance plans, such as dental work or fertility treatments. But while almost 85 percent of big companies offer FSAs, fewer than one in four workers takes advantage of them. That might be because FSAs operated until recently under a “use it or lose it” rule. “If you set aside part of your salary in an FSA but didn’t spend it, you would forfeit it at the end of the year.” That changed last October, when a new Treasury Department policy gave employers the option of allowing workers to carry over FSA balances up to $500 into the next year. “Adoption was limited” at the time because open enrollment was already underway at many companies when the change was announced, but “more employers are expected to adopt the carryover for 2015.”

That could translate into big health savings for workers, said Ashlea Ebeling in Forbes.com. Since FSAs allow a maximum annual contribution of $2,500, an employee who pays a combined 40 percent in taxes can save $1,000 in health-care expenses on things like braces, contact lenses, prescription glasses, chiropractic services, contraception, and prescription drugs. Some drawbacks to consider are that FSAs still require you to guess your upcoming year’s expenses, which can be easy to underestimate. And if your employer adopts the rollover model, “it replaces the old grace period that let employees spend down unused money in the two-and-ahalf-month period following the end of a plan year. So if you have more than $500 left unspent at the end of the year,” you lose the difference.

If that worries you, consider a health savings account instead, said Elisabeth Leamy in ABCNews.com. Unlike FSAs, HSAs can roll over each year, follow you to new jobs, earn interest, and be cashed in after you turn 65. The catch, however, is that you must be enrolled in a high-deductible health-insurance plan (at least $1,250 for individuals and $2,500 for families). Still, the benefits can be significant. You are allowed retroactive contributions for the year “as long as you get your HSA by Dec. 1,” and “many employers contribute to HSAs, either giving you starter money just for signing up or by matching your own ongoing contributions.” And if a big medical expense comes your way, you can roll money from an IRA into your HSA “one time only” without triggering taxes or penalties to pay those bills.

5. Making the most of a mixed market

Making the most of a mixed market, Sales are sluggish, but rentals remain hot

Homeowners looking to make a move should pay attention, said E. Scott Reckard in the Los Angeles Times. After a slight uptick in recent months, Freddie Mac announced that the average rate for 30-year fixed home loans fell to 4.32 percent last week, while the average rate for 15-year loans fell to 3.32 percent, edging them closer to the historic lows of 2008. In other housing news, a study from the credit bureau TransUnion found that U.S. borrowers are prioritizing their mortgage payments over credit card bills, reversing “a trend dating to September 2008, when the mortgage crisis drove consumer preferences toward paying credit cards first.” The change in outlook suggests that consumers’ “attitude toward housing debt is returning to historical norms,” which bodes well for the overall housing recovery.

Not so fast, said Kathy Orton in The Washington Post. Last week’s announcement from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen that the central bank “has begun to lay the groundwork  or increasing interest rates” means that the current lows in the home mortgage market aren’t likely to last long. Plus, the National Association of Realtors reported last week that existing home sales slipped in February for the sixth time in seven months, as harsh “winter weather, rising prices, and a tight supply of homes,” continued to discourage would-be buyers, said the Associated Press. That jibes with other numbers from the Mortgage Bankers  Association, which show that fewer people applied for mortgages over a similar period.

All this could be good news for recent refinancers, said Lisa Prevost in The New York Times. A new survey by RedFin, a Seattlebased real estate firm, found that many current homeowners who are planning to buy may keep and rent their existing homes instead of selling. The trend is being driven by the historically low refinance rates they were able to secure combined with the ongoing boom in the rental market. “Of course, most borrowers can’t afford to buy another home without using equity from their first for a down payment,” but well-off homebuyers—those with “good credit and stable, above-average incomes”—might be able to capitalize. But managing a rental property isn’t easy, and there is always a “financial risk of owning two homes in the same market” if home prices tank. Recent refinancers who don’t have enough cash on hand to make a down payment may find themselves “locked into” their current homes. “As interest rates rise, even buying another home at the same price will result in a higher mortgage payment.” With mortgage rates likely to start rising soon, the clock may already be ticking.

6. Making the most of the M&A boom

Making the most of the M&A boom, Mergers can be ‘a menace for shareholders.’

Merger mania is upon us, said Jesse Solomon in CNN.com. So far this year, there have been $786 billion worth of mergers and acquisitions in the U.S.—a big jump from the past few years and not far behind the total seen in the last “big spender year” of 2007. With “historically low interest rates” and “strong corporate balance sheets,” it’s no wonder companies are so eager to make deals. But while the recent M&A frenzy might get investors excited, experts say the current merger landscape “is looking a bit frothy,” meaning that “overpaying for companies is inevitable.”

That might prove “a menace for shareholders,” said Jeff Sommer in The New York Times. While big corporate deals mean big bucks for lawyers and bankers, whether or not they are good for shareholders is a trickier question. “If a prospective acquirer swoops in and bids up the price of a company in your portfolio, you can take a quick profit, and that may be all you care about.” But according to Ohio State University finance professor René M. Stulz, too much M&A action can result in serious “wealth destruction” in the long term. Analyzing the tech-bubble-fueled buying boom of the late 1990s, Stulz found that “shareholders of public companies overall lost huge sums of money”—almost $240 billion. While stock owners in acquired companies made off with some profit, the bidding companies’ stock prices inevitably dipped, making the net effect on the market negative, since “the companies being acquired are typically smaller than those doing the buying.”

Consider it a red flag, said Mark Hulbert in The Wall Street Journal. While shareholders of acquired companies rarely complain, experts say surging merger activity could foretell “a significant stock-market decline.” But does that mean it’s time to sell? Not necessarily. “The volume of M&A activity isn’t an exact market-timing tool,” and the frenzy could still have some legs. In the meantime, the best way to benefit from the increased activity is to engage in so-called risk arbitrage. The strategy “is more the province of hedge funds than individual investors,” but if you are accredited to invest in a risk-arbitrage fund, it could allow you to exploit the gap that typically exists between the acquired company’s stock value when the deal is first announced and its eventual takeover price. For non-accredited investors, the “opportunities are probably limited to several mutual funds that focus on risk arbitrage.” More aggressive stock market players can opt for a riskier strategy by investing in highly profitable or growing companies that “will eventually be taken over” but are still selling at a discount.

7. New relief for student borrowers

New relief for student borrowers, Spare a loan payment

Two lenders are making repaying private student loans a little easier, said AnnaMaria Andriotis in WSJ.com. Wells Fargo announced last week it is lowering interest rates to as little as 1 percent to those who have fallen behind on payments because of a job loss, pay cut, or medical issue. Discover, meanwhile, will allow some borrowers to make interest-only payments and is considering changes for next year that could include interest-rate reductions and partial loan forgiveness. Borrow ers “shouldn’t wait for the companies to come to them,” though. Instead, “they should contact the lenders, particularly if they’re approaching a possible default situation,” to verify their eligibility.

These moves will prove popular, said Libby Nelson in Vox.com. One recent poll found that a whopping 82 percent of Americans want Congress to lower the cost of student loans and allow more time to pay them off. But while making loans cheaper sounds great, “it doesn’t make much sense as policy.” Even if loan interest rates—which are already at near-historic lows—were cut to, say, 3 percent, it would save the average college graduate only about $25 per month. “Student debt in the U.S. isn’t high because it’s expensive to take out a student loan. It’s because tuition in the U.S. is expensive.”

That’s one reason college students should think hard about their major before racking up a ton of debt, said David Leonhardt in NYTimes.com. A new interactive calculator from the Brookings Institution allows borrowers to look up typical student debt loads by field of study. Unsurprisingly, “debt burdens vary a lot across majors.” By year 6 of repayments, for instance, drama, religion, and anthropology majors are still devoting more than 10 percent of their earnings to their loans, while engineering, economics, and nursing majors are paying 6 percent or less. But the calculator also shows “some of the discussion about student debt has the wrong focus.” It’s not so much how big a borrower’s debt load is—the average debt is a manageable $26,500—but “when they must repay their loans: early in their careers, when they’re making the least.”

Don’t get too wrapped up in the numbers, said Jordan Weissmann in Slate.com. “Salary data can be tricky to interpret in a useful way,” and while it might help guide your decision about what to study, it’s not the best way to choose a college. Figuring out which school offers the best value is tough and means looking at several factors—including “the mix of majors,” the “socioeconomic background of the students,” tuition costs, and typical debt load—not just the postgraduation paycheck.

8. How inversions can hurt investors

How inversions can hurt investors, The benefits of inversion flow only one way

Tax “inversions” may be good for corporate coffers, but could they backfire for individual investors? asked Becky Yerak and Ellen Jean Hirst in the Chicago Tribune. So-called tax inversions, in which corporations merge with or acquire a foreign company in order to relocate their headquarters overseas, are the hottest strategy for big firms looking to reduce their U.S. tax bills. Such moves can pay off big-time for companies, since “the United States is one of only a few countries that charge taxes on income gained overseas,” meaning that relocating one’s corporate headquarters “can often prevent a double-tax situation.” Though the businesses would still have to pay 35 percent of U.S.-earned income to the federal government, any profits earned overseas would be beyond Uncle Sam’s reach. The practice is perfectly legal, but lawmakers and the public don’t seem too keen on it. Now there’s another group—shareholders—that may have even more reason to oppose inversions.

That’s because stockholders might end up footing the tax bill themselves, said Daisy Maxey in The Wall Street Journal. While executives love “these tax-advantaged corporate relocations,” they can wreak havoc on an investor’s portfolio. For starters, when companies merge, they are often required to issue new shares, typically at a higher price. That means stockholders will have to pay capital gains taxes on the difference between what they “originally paid for the shares and their price at the time of the merger.” That could translate into hefty bills for some investors. Depending on their overall income level, shareholders “could end up paying 20 percent in federal taxes and a 3.8 percent Medicare surcharge on the gains,” and that doesn’t even count state taxes.

There’s more bad news, said Roberton Williams in Forbes.com. After an inversion, stockholders “are deemed to have sold their shares in the U.S. firms in exchange for shares in the new foreign-based entity.” But “they get no cash, just a stake in the new company.” Unfortunately, said Kevin Drawbaugh in Reuters.com, those new shares often don’t do so well. In the past 30 years, only 19 of 52 inverted companies ended up outperforming the Standard & Poor’s 500 index. Just as many underperformed the S&P, while the remaining 14 were either taken over by rivals, went out of business, or reincorporated back in the U.S. “Companies that do these deals typically promise shareholders will benefit,” because the corporate tax savings translate to a bigger bottom line. But in the end, these inversions offer “no guarantee of superior returns for investors.”

9. Are emerging markets too risky?

Are emerging markets too risky, Hampered by ‘entrenched interests’

Emerging markets may be “heading for trouble,” said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. “International economic fads are always suspect, up or down,” but the data these days may be a red flag for investors looking to make money in places like Brazil, Russia, India, and China—the so-called BRIC countries. The International Monetary Fund predicted last week that economic growth will slow this year and next in China, and stock indexes for emerging markets have begun to drop. Even the economist who coined the term “emerging markets” has issued “several blistering assessments recently about the former rising superstars.” The bellwether here is China, with its “unbalanced growth; its demographic decline, with fewer young workers resulting in higher labor costs; its potentially deadly pollution problems; and its financial weaknesses.” On the plus side, “as global competitors stumble, the United States has been picking up speed.” Those are all reasons why investors looking to enter the next emerging market might want to stay close to home instead.

Or look to Europe, said Robert Frank in CNBC.com. According to a new study from the Spectrem Group, the Old World is where “the rich are more likely to invest” this year. Most millionaires say they “are generally cautious about investing abroad” at all, however, with 58 percent saying they won’t invest outside the U.S. Nor are they taking risks with their domestic investments. That’s a wise approach, said Kenneth Rapoza in Forbes.com. “Broad strokes in emerging markets will no longer be prudent.” India and several countries in Southeast Asia face upcoming elections, which “will likely increase uncertainty and market volatility.”

This pullback was bound to happen eventually, said Michael Schuman in Time.com. The tapering of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s bond-buying program is scaring investors away from risky plays, but much blame can fairly be directed at the BRIC countries themselves. “In New Delhi, political bickering tanked efforts to further the liberalization that had set the economy free and sparked rapid development.” Brazil is losing ground because of its creaky bureaucracy and burdensome taxes. And China’s leadership “will have to take on China’s entrenched interests—state-owned enterprises, a powerful bureaucracy—to implement the bold reforms” needed for strong growth. By now the emerging world should know the truth: that “even those economies with the brightest prospects and biggest advantages can’t continue to grow without timely reform and bold political action.”

10. Trimming the match on 401(k)s

Trimming the match on 401(k)s

"Beware the end-oF-year 401(k) match," said Ron Lieber in The New York Times. AOL sowed outrage this month when its chief executive announced thac the company would stop marching employees' retirement contributions every pay period, and instead payout one annual lump sum at the end of the year. While the company eventually reversed the change, "everyone who saves in a 401(k} or similar plan needs to take a close look at what AOL was trying to do." So-called last-day rules are not uncommon among banks, where "employees tend not to walk out under their own power uncil they've gotten their year-end bonus." Bur now switching to year-end contributions is "011 the menu of cost-saving changes that many employers consider each year." That's bad news for most workers, for whom such a change could shortchange retirement savings by more than $40,000 over 40 years of employment.

Companies are "squeezing their workers' retirement savings" in other ways, roo, said Carol Hymowitz and Margaret Collins in Bloomberg.com. Some "have been scaling back company matches and sening lower limits for the maximum annual payment they'll make to a 401 (k) account." Even small changes can have big impacts: ,.A difference of three percentage points on a match can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars lost for employees over the course of their careers." Companies such as Hewlen~Packard, Whole Foods, and JPMorgan blame "bonom-line considerations and marketplace competition" when they cm their matches, and say they offer other benefits-such as bener health-care plans, vacation policies,  bonuses, and stock options-to make up for paltry retirement contributions. But retirement cutbacks "are adding to employees' financial anxieties at a time when incomes are stagnant and even those earning low-six-figure incomes aren't accumulating enough retirement savings."

Thankfully, the perfidious year-end match is not "a growing trend," said Ken Sweet in the Associated Press. According to a 2013 survey by AON Hewin, only eight out of every 100 large U.S. companies do it, and "that level hasn't changed" since IBM announced its adoption of annual matches in late 2012. Experts worried that its switch would cause employers to adopt year-end matches en masse, but "so far, the predictions haven't come true." Now, thanks to AOL's debacle, "any cutback is going to face resistance." Companies that might have been tempted are realizing that the change would "come at a loss to worker productivity, morale, and damage to recruiting."

11. Apple Pay’s shopping revolution
“I suspect my wallet is about to start spending a lot more time in my purse,” said Molly Wood in The New York Times. Apple’s long-awaited mobile-payment system, Apple Pay, went live last week, giving iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus users the power to make purchases with their phones. In stores, the process is “convenient, problem free, and even fun”: You hold your iPhone close to the payment terminal, which prompts the Apple Pay interface to open. A quick scan of your fingerprint on the phone’s reader, and voilà—your default debit or credit card is charged. Shopping via apps on a smartphone or tablet is “far more problematic,” since only a handful of retailers have incorporated the new payment option into their apps without introducing software bugs. But on the whole, Pay is “already the most promising digital-payment option on the market.”

There are a handful of big obstacles, said Hayley Tsukayama in WashingtonPost.com. The technology isn’t accepted at many stores, and at those where it is, I encountered a few confused cashiers; one “asked sheepishly if she could pull out her training sheet.” And Pay “won’t work with every card.” Of the plastic in my wallet, only a Visa debit card was compatible. Many branded cards, like those affiliated with airlines and department stores, “aren’t yet supported.” Still, the “convenience may surprise you.” On a whim, I tapped my phone against a vending machine at the mall. “Three seconds later, I walked away with a cold Coke and a certain feeling of giddy satisfaction.”

But is it safe? asked Rex Santus in Mashable .com. Experts say yes, and that Apple Pay “actually adds significant security to your payment transactions, even more than traditional credit cards.” That’s because the system relies on fingerprint authentication and “token payments,” which disguise your credit card number for each transaction. And sensitive data like your device’s unique account number and your fingerprint are stored on “a segregated portion of your phone,” so they’re less vulnerable to hacking.

Apple Pay may be “secure and brilliantly designed,” said David Pogue in Yahoo.com, but “it has a tough slog ahead.” Only about 220,000 merchants out of the 8 million U.S. businesses that accept credit cards currently have the card readers to accept Apple Pay. What’s more, competition is on the horizon: A consortium of chains that includes Walmart, 7-Eleven, and Sam’s Club is developing its own phone-payment system called CurrentC to rival Apple Pay. It’s “less secure” but would work with any smartphone. So until the mobile-payment landscape is a little clearer, “don’t leave your credit cards at home just yet.”

12. Walmart’s surprise CEO switch
Walmart is shaking up its C-suite, said Megan McArdle in BloombergView.com. The retail giant appointed a new CEO to run its U.S. operations last week, after the abrupt departure of Bill Simon, who had held the post since 2010. “It’s an unusual time for a retailer to do a management shake-up, what with back-to-school right around the corner and Christmas just a few doors further down.” That makes you wonder what has prompted such an ill-timed change. To be sure, “Walmart faces a tough retail environment,” and same-store sales have declined in each of the past five quarters. The chain managed to weather the early recession, thanks to a spike in affluent customers looking for good deals in tough times. But those shoppers’ wallets have largely recovered, and its core demographic “runs poor and strapped, so extended unemployment and a generally slack labor market haven’t done it any favors.” Making matters worse, the big-box store is facing “stiff competition from dollar stores,” putting more pressure on the company’s profits. “Unless the incoming CEO has a way to boost low-wage incomes nationwide or legislate dollar stores out of existence, it’s hard to see what sort of magic he’s going to work to restore them.”

So who is the new CEO, anyway? asked Alison Griswold in Slate.com. That would be Greg Foran, who briefly served as president and CEO of Walmart’s Asia division and previously headed up Walmart China, “where he was credited with improving store operations and making strategic investments in the supply chain.” Walmart undoubtedly hopes Foran can work his brand of magic back home, too. With just weeks to go before the company reports its second-quarter earnings, the retailer is quickly running out of excuses for its declining sales. “For the first quarter, Walmart followed the lead of every other business and blamed its poor results on ‘unseasonably cold and disruptive weather.’” Before that, it was cash-strapped customers, squeezed by higher taxes and vanishing government benefits. And the quarter before that, it was the global economy and volatile currency exchange rates. If the outgoing Simon “is supposed to be the last in this string of excuses, Foran will presumably be under a lot of pressure to turn Walmart’s U.S. operation around.”

He “faces a daunting challenge,” said Claire Zillman in Fortune.com, not least because of growing competition from online retailers like Amazon and “evolving shopping patterns among Americans—who are now making more frequent trips” to local drugstores. Part of Walmart’s strategy to combat these trends includes opening smaller stores like Walmart Express and “further embracing e-commerce.” But that might not be enough. Part of the company’s poor performance could be chalked up to “self-sabotage,” including “its decision to cut worker hours and its well-publicized refusal to significantly raise workers’ wages,” two major reasons its stores “are increasingly sloppy and sparsely stocked.” Such missteps would never have happened on Sam Walton’s watch, said Walter Loeb in Forbes.com. Tightening inventory and slashing costs was likely an effort to please Wall Street analysts, but it “may have cost the company more than just lost sales; it may have affected customer loyalty.” We’ll see whether Foran can earn it back.

13. Auto-defaults can wreck your credit
There’s a nasty surprise in store for some student borrowers, said Shahien Nasiripour in Huffington Post.com. In a new advisory, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warned about the dangers of auto-defaults, an industrywide practice whereby lenders place student loans into default “because the borrower’s co-signer—often a parent or grandparent—has died or declared bankruptcy.” While the practice has been around since at least 2012, “the lengthening list of consumer complaints prompted regulators to warn consumers about its risks and offer sample letters they could send to lenders to stave off financial ruin.” Auto-defaults can be disastrous for many young borrowers, who often take on co-signers because they don’t have the credit profile or collateral to qualify for loans on their own. Because any defaults, regardless of cause, are quickly reported to credit bureaus, defaults can ruin credit scores, making it more difficult to rent and buy homes, secure credit, or even get jobs.

But younger borrowers have some options, said Richard Pérez-Peña in The New York Times. For example, students “can have their loans released from the co-signer requirement if they have a few years of earnings and credit history, or have the loans transferred to a new co-signer.” But that’s easier said than done, said Danielle Douglas in The Washington Post. “Some lenders and loan servicers—the middlemen who accept and apply payments to the debt—have borrowers jump through additional hoops to get such a release,” requiring things like “proof of graduation, transcripts, employment, or salary,” and even additional credit checks.

When in doubt, check the contract, said Herb Weisbaum in CNBC.com. “You need to read the promissory note to check to see if it has an autodefault clause. If it does and you’ve been making all of your payments on time, ask the lender to release your co-signer.” Experts say the best way to do that is by proving you can repay the debt alone, which means showing a habit of making on-time payments. “Should your request for that release be denied, your only option is to refinance the loan,” ideally “to get one without a default clause.” The CFPB didn’t name names, but the nation’s largest student lender, Sallie Mae, has said that while its promissory notes include an auto-default clause, it does not “report the loan to the credit bureaus as defaulted unless and until it reaches 211 days of delinquency.” And Wells Fargo, the second-largest student lender, says it doesn’t “accelerate debt repayment on the student customer when the  co-signer dies or files bankruptcy.” But as with any contract, what it says is generally what it means, so when it comes to auto-default clauses, borrowers should beware.

14. The ‘Bond King’ says goodbye to Pimco
Bill Gross has “abandoned his throne” as Wall Street’s “Bond King,” said Alison Griswold in Slate.com. After months of mounting tension with the leadership at Pacific Investment Management Co. (Pimco), the bond firm Gross cofounded in 1971, the legendary investor quit last week, taking a job with the much smaller, Denver-based Janus Capital Group. Under Gross, Pimco became an investment powerhouse, with more than $2 trillion in total assets; his flagship Total Return fund became the world’s biggest mutual fund, consistently beating rivals’ returns. But in recent years, Gross’s bond-picking skills and his fabled returns have stumbled, and investors have pulled out nearly $70 billion over the last 16 months.

Gross jumped ship “to avoid being pushed,” said The Economist, with reports indicating Pimco was preparing to fire him on account of his “abrasive management style” and “increasingly peculiar” behavior. Gross has always been quirky—his colorful letters to investors over the years featured “long digressions on topics such as his late cat”—but some recent antics, including a speech in June in which he likened himself to pop star Justin Bieber, “struck many as unbecoming of a man to whom savers had entrusted nearly half a trillion dollars.” All might have been forgiven “had Gross’s charmed streak as an investor continued.” Yet the missteps haven’t completely sullied Gross’s reputation: Janus’s shares soared on news of his hiring, “suggesting that many investors still have faith in him.” The same can’t be said of Pimco, said Kirsten Grind in The Wall Street Journal. The firm suffered roughly $10 billion in withdrawals in the aftermath of Gross’s departure and is bracing to lose up to $100 billion. The flight of that much money—“more assets than many mutual funds hold”—could roil the bond markets for some time to come.

What does all this mean for the average investor? asked Jonnelle Marte in WashingtonPost .com. “There’s a good chance you have exposure to Pimco” through its Total Return fund, still the most popular bond fund in the 401(k) marketplace. That means “there’s a good chance investors could see some short-term volatility in their retirement accounts” in the wake of Gross’s departure. But that doesn’t mean you should panic, said Megan McArdle in BloombergView.com. “Right after these sorts of announcements is the worst time to flee a market.” There’s a big risk premium attached to “not knowing what the heck is going to happen,” and if you head for the exits now, “you’re going to be the one paying” the biggest premiums. But in the meantime, “expect a bit of a bumpy ride as the markets sort through the chaos.”

15. Why women don’t ask for raises
Turns out the old adage is true: If you don’t ask, you don’t get, said Jennifer Ludden in NPR.org. New research by economists at Carnegie Mellon University found that “in the face of a persistent gender pay gap,” one reason men still outearn women is because “women simply don’t ask for more money.” According to economics professor Linda Babcock, men are four times more likely than women to ask for a raise. That “failure to negotiate higher pay is crucial,” says Babcock, because it can have a “snowball effect” resulting in smaller raises and bonuses over the course of a woman’s career. And that doesn’t even account for “company retirement contributions, which are also based on a share of salary.” The problem can also “carry over to a new employer, who is almost certain to ask, ‘What was your last salary?’” Part of the reason women don’t negotiate is that they “often just don’t think about asking for more pay,” and “if they do, they find the very notion of haggling intimidating.”

With good reason, said Tara Siegel Bernard in The New York Times. Experts say that when women “advocate for themselves” and “act in ways that aren’t considered sufficiently feminine,” bosses may “find it unseemly, if only on a subconscious level.” Negotiation gurus say women should “take a more calibrated approach” when asking for a raise or a new job title. And while “some women may bridle” at the notion of conforming to stereotypes, “we might as well use them to move forward.”

In that case, “consider these tactics,” said Aine Creedon in NonprofitQuarterly .org. If you’re angling for a raise, be prepared. “Females tend to not ask for raises when there isn’t a clear standard on how much to ask for,” so do your research. Recruiters can give you an idea of what you’re worth, and networking with male colleagues and other employees in your workplace or at peer organizations “can be very informative.” And “bringing up outside offers” can help make your bosses realize your value. Sadly, this tactic may still be “seen as aggressive for females” and can backfire. “Approaching the matter in a passive tone” might be more effective. In fact, “the way you choose to present yourself and the language you use can make or break your chances.” Negotiate in person, not by email, which can “come off as impersonal and cold.” It also helps to time your request to a performance review or recent accomplishment, and focus on using words like “we” and “us” that show “how this move will benefit the whole organization.”

16. Is the student debt crisis real?
The student debt crisis is overblown, said David Leonhardt in NYTimes.com. While anecdotes about art majors and underemployed baristas drowning in debt “have created the impression that high levels of student debt are typical,” a new study from the Brookings Institution suggests these cases “are outliers” that distract from “bigger economic problems.” The study found that only 7 percent of young-adult households have $50,000 or more in student loans, while most have less than $10,000. Moreover, the share of income that a typical student debtor has to devote to loan payments is only marginally higher than it was in the early 1990s. “Student debt is indeed a problem for some young people today,” but the reality doesn’t fit the scare stories that fill the news.

Not so fast, said Choire Sicha in TheAwl.com. The study admits that over the past 20 years, the percentage of households with college loans has doubled, while the median amount of debt they carry has more than doubled. That doesn’t exactly undermine the “supposedly fake narrative” that student debt is snowballing. The researchers also looked only at households led by adults between the ages of 20 and 40, meaning their figures don’t include “people living in households headed by, say, their parents, or other adults.” That’s a big omission, since we know that, “in 2012, 36 percent of Americans aged 18 to 31 were not their head of household, because they were living with their families.” The study is “not actually a pack of lies.” But it hardly suggests that student debt is overhyped.

In truth, “excessively high student debt loads are relatively rare,” said Matt Phillips in Qz.com. Elites just hate to hear it. I suspect that’s because so much of the media is dominated by “a vocal, college-educated group” for whom “student debt is the most formidable of first-world problems.” Society’s real student debt problem “comes in the relatively modest amounts of borrowing done by low-income, firstgeneration collegegoers, who are four times more likely to leave school after the first year.” They get the debt, but not the degree nor “the wage gains associated with graduation.”

So what’s the solution?, asked Christopher Ingraham in WashingtonPost.com. A good first step would be to start steering more kids at risk of dropping out “toward other paths.” Students and their parents should also “stop thinking about choosing college as if it were the same thing as choosing a romantic partner” and start being more clear-eyed about affordability. That “won’t solve the student loan crisis, but it would be a good start.”

17. A guide to charitable donations
If you missed “Giving Tuesday,” it’s not too late to donate to charity this month, said Eleanor Mueller in USA Today. Nonprofits say they’re on track for “an especially profitable holiday season,” thanks to an increase in charitable giving this fall and “an increasingly prosperous economy.” Charitable giving in the U.S. could actually hit a record this year, seven years after peaking at $350 billion, said David Gelles in The New York Times. Social media campaigns have been particularly helpful; the ALS Foundation raised $115 million as a result of its Ice Bucket Challenge this summer. It increasingly looks as though “the American people and the business community have largely shrugged off the financial crisis and resumed their charitable ways.”

One easy method for people to donate this season is through “checkout charity,” said Chris Taylor in Reuters.com. Many stores have an option that allows you to make donations by adding a few dollars to your in-store purchases. On the plus side, it’s quick and simple. But it also “requires a snap decision, which doesn’t give you any time at all to properly evaluate the charity or how the funds are going to be used.” A better approach is to “view your philanthropy as if it were social investing,” said the Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Times Leader in an editorial. “Just as you don’t plunk money into every stock,” don’t feel obligated “to pass bills to every extended hand.” Instead, think about what issues are most important to you and target your money “where it will do the most good.” Then do your homework and give accordingly.

There are plenty of resources to help you get organized about your giving, said Anya Kamenetz in the Chicago Tribune. Sites like Guidestar or Charity Navigator “offer ratings of the financial health, accountability, and transparency of thousands of organizations.” Since the effectiveness of a charity can change over time, consider spreading your money between a mix of organizations, including “local direct service groups, big international aid organizations, and advocacy-based nonprofits.” And while you are at it, why limit your giving to cash? said Jessica Anderson in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. Stocks, bonds, funds, and other assets also make excellent donations, and often have tax benefits. Giving appreciated stock directly to a charity, for instance, gives you a dual tax benefit. “You avoid paying taxes on the capital gains, and you can write off the full value as a donation when you itemize your taxes if you have owned the asset for more than one year.”

18. Why we celebrate Labor Day
Labor Day has lost its luster, said Chad Broughton in TheAtlantic.com. “Today, the holiday stands for little more than the end of summer and the start of school, weekend-long sales, and maybe a barbecue or parade.” But Labor Day used to mean so much more. When it first became a holiday, in the 1880s, Labor Day was meant to honor workers—and “what workers accomplish together through activism and organizing.” But you won’t find many mentions of the labor movement when politicians and commentators talk about Labor Day now. That’s a shame, because we owe a lot to unions. They scored victories that many workers take for granted today, such as fairer wages, decent working conditions, the eight-hour workday, and restrictions on child labor. Some of the largest unions still have political clout, but labor’s influence “has declined enormously over the past half century,” said Rich Yeselson in NewRepublic.com. Much of that is owing to a decline in membership: Nearly 35 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union in 1954, but today, that figure is just 11.3 percent. Among private employers, the share is even smaller: 6.7 percent.

Is it any wonder why? asked Rick Berman in the DailyCaller.com. “There was a time when unions played an important role in securing safe workplaces and better benefits,” but rather than scoring new victories, unions seem content to “trade on wins they secured nearly a century ago.” Part of the reason their popularity has waned “is that they’ve changed from associations for the good of working people into left-wing political vehicles.” Congress should respond to this hijacking by passing “common-sense reforms” to limit the use of union dues for political purposes. That might reinvigorate unions’ appeal, bringing labor issues “back to the forefront” instead of leaving workers asking, “What have you done for me lately?”

To which unions would have to reply: Not much, said Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post. Just look at wages. While unemployment has fallen and the economic recovery gains steam, paychecks have remained flat. That’s because the recession shifted all the “bargaining power to employers,” which control costs “through layoffs, skimpy wage increases, and greater reliance” on freelancers. If unions had been stronger,  they might have been able to fight back against all those staff cuts, salary freezes, and outsourced jobs in the first place. Hopefully, the “worker supply and demand” gap will close soon, improving employees’ bargaining power and forcing companies to pay more to retain workers. But on this Labor Day, “workers are at the mercy of markets.”

19. How to land a jumbo loan
If you’re buying a home but don’t qualify for a traditional mortgage, now may be the time to consider a jumbo loan, said Lisa Prevost in The New York Times. These days, “underwriting guidelines remain rigid” on government-backed loans, where borrowers must meet strict rules concerning income and credit scores. But lately, lenders have begun approving more loans for so-called jumbo borrowers, who don’t meet the usual criteria for standard mortgages but “can compensate for these shortfalls in other ways.” But jumbos are typically issued only “to the most creditworthy borrowers and require higher down payments,” and usually apply only to mortgages of $417,000 or more.

Which is why jumbo loans are useful, at least for wealthy borrowers, said Daniel J. Goldstein in The Wall Street Journal. But there is another piece of good news: Smaller lenders have been quick to embrace jumbo mortgages that feature “relatively low interest rates,” which can help independent lenders compete with big institutions for customers. And many small banks are eager to lend, since a high-income jumbo borrower “typically is a well-heeled customer who can be offered other products,” such as investment vehicles and small-business services. Of course, looking good on paper still helps: Experts say the best jumbo loan candidates have “a minimum credit score of 720 for a $1 million–plus loan, six months of reserves, a debt-to-income ratio of 43 percent or less, and no interest-only loans.” And for borrowers who don’t meet those standards, there’s still hope, said Claire Moses in TheRealDeal.com. Lenders are increasingly “willing to count capital gains from stock as income, if borrowers show a consistent pattern of cashing them in.”

Having more cash in your bank account helps, too, said Alexis Leondis in Bloomberg.com, as “lenders are allowing assets in accounts to serve as collateral in lieu of down payments.” And while securing a mortgage might be easier and more personal with a smaller lender, even the big banks are opening up to the jumbo market. JPMorgan, for example, now considers a client’s total holdings at the bank when deciding whether to make a jumbo loan, “after seeing that customers who had long-term relationships with JPMorgan were less likely to default on their loans.” And at Bank of America, jumbo borrowers seeking less than $1 million can now commit just 15 percent, instead of the customary 20 percent, for a down payment, and some customers are eligible to “receive discounts on their mortgages based on their level of business with the bank.”

20. Introducing the MyRA
Savers will soon have a new option, said Damian Paletta and Anne Tergesen in The Wall Street Journal. Durin g his State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama announced the creation of a retirement savings account called a MyRA, which he said “guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in.” The accounts would be structured much like Roth IRAs, but “the investments would be backed by the federal government.” MyRAs aren’t entirely new; “the proposal is similar to an idea Treasury officials have studied for several years.” But unlike many other proposals to bolster Americans’ retirement funds, this plan would be launched “through an executive action, meaning it wouldn’t need congressional approval.”

MyRAs could help millions, said Melanie Hicken in CNN.com. Though all workers with household income below $191,000 and direct-deposited paychecks will be able sign up, “the accounts are targeted at the millions of low- and middle-income Americans who don’t have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans.” Savers will invest after-tax dollars and be able to withdraw the money in retirement tax-free, but “the accounts will solely invest in government savings bonds,” which are insured by the federal government. Savers can withdraw their MyRA contributions at any time without penalty, and MyRAs will be “free of any fees.” But once the balance hits $15,000 or has been open for 30 years, MyRA accounts have to be rolled over into a Roth IRA.

This idea doesn’t “go far enough” to fix our broken retirement system, said John Wasik in Forbes.com. It’s no secret that Americans aren’t saving enough for retirement. Pensions “have become a rarity,” 401(k)s aren’t  cutting it, and this new option doesn’t really help. “The problem isn’t that Americans don’t have enough ways to save for retirement—they have too many.” A better solution would be to “consolidate them and make the tax breaks uniform through credits.” Design a plan that everyone can opt in to, “regardless of where they work.”

Or just switch to direct payments, said Hamilton Nolan in Gawker.com. Obama’s MyRA plan “is a way to get people to start saving, even if they can only save a little.” But it does nothing for workers who are living hand-to-mouth. “How are people supposed to save when they don’t make enough to live?” Why not simply increase government payments to the low-income retirees who need them the most? Encouraging workers to save by “expanding the pool of IRAs” is all very nice. “But the overwhelming problem is that many people are too poor to provide for themselves in retirement” in the first place.

21. Tips for tax season
If you’re expecting a tax refund, said Allison Linn in CNBC.com, will you save it or spend it? “Many Americans say they plan to do something virtuous with the money they get back from Uncle Sam,” but when the check actually arrives, they often don’t follow through. People who receive refunds usually use at least part of the money to save or pay off debts. But “having a little extra money in the checking account also often leads to a splurge or two, like a new pair of shoes or a nice dinner out.” If you’re serious about saving your tax refund for a rainy day, “the best thing to do is to put it in a place where it’s hard to get to, like a mutual fund account or a retirement plan.” When you park your cash in a checking or savings account, “it’s too easy to dip in, even unintentionally, for nonessential expenses.”

To maximize your refund—or minimize your bill—pay attention to your deductions, said Jennifer Calonia in USNews.com. “Tax filers have the option to accept the pre-established  federal standard deduction on their return or choose to itemize each allowable expense that can be deducted from the 2013 year.” Taking the standard deduction may make “the already-grueling tax preparation process much simpler,” saving you time if you’re too busy to sort through stacks of receipts and paperwork But it’s not “a viable option for everybody and might not be the most rewarding option for your bank account.” Itemizing your allowable expenses might add up to a larger deduction, but “you’ll have to brush up on your arithmetic.” And the more you earn, the more likely you are to face limitations on deductions and expenses, particularly on things like charitable giving, paid taxes and interest, and business expenses.

If you end up owing taxes, don’t get ripped off, said Jason Steele in Credit.com. The IRS makes it easy for filers to pay their tax bill “by authorizing select companies to process credit and debit cards on its behalf.” But that convenience comes at a cost, since the companies charge taxpayers a processing fee, which ranges from 1.87 to 2.35 percent of the taxes due. Two sites—ValueTaxPayment.com and payUSAtax.com—charge the lowest rate: 1.87 percent. If you’re paying your tax bill online, using a card on one of these sites may be a good idea, especially if you use a rewards card. Just make sure your card’s benefits will offset the card transaction fee. Cash-back rewards are best, but if the card offers airline miles or points, do some math to check their value. When the rewards are worth less than the fee, paying your tax bill with a card may still make sense if you’re on the brink of earning a large rewards bonus.

22. Understanding estate taxes and gift rules
The Internal Revenue Service has tweaked the rules for estate taxes, said Laura Saunders in WSJ.com. Thanks to an inflation adjustment, the IRS said last week it would raise the amount that can be passed on to heirs tax free by $90,000, from $5.34 million per individual to $5.43 million. Widows and widowers can still carry over unused exemptions from their spouses, enabling couples to transfer nearly $11 million tax free. A decade ago, the individual exemption was just $1.5 million, but repeated increases by Congress have left fewer Amer i cans affected by the tax. This year, just 3,700 estates, or 0.12 percent of the total, are expected to owe federal estate tax. As a result, the federal estate tax “is no longer the biggest concern for most affluent Americans who want to avoid taxes on wealth they leave to heirs.” Instead, the affluent’s estate-planning focus has “shifted to minimizing capital-gains taxes and state death duties.”

The IRS left the annual gift tax exclusion untouched at $14,000 per person, said Ashlea Ebeling in Forbes.com. These gifts don’t count toward the $5.43 million lifetime gift exemption, and because the federal threshold has risen so dramatically, most people don’t need to use yearly gifts “ to whittle down their estates. But it’s a tool you can use if you live in one of 19 states plus the District of Columbia that impose separate state death tax levies.”

Some states are currently rethinking their death tax thresholds to lure wealthy retirees, said Sandra Block in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. In 2015, four states will increase the amount they consider exempt from state estate taxes. Tennessee’s estate tax exemption will jump to $5 million from $2 million, Maryland’s exemption will increase to $1.5 million from $1 million, and Minnesota’s exemption will rise to $1.4 million from $1.2 million. In April, New York’s estate tax exemption will increase to $3.125 million from just over $2 million. Because taxes are one of the most common reasons retirees relocate to another state, these four locales are trying to send the message that they are more than just great places for retirees to live. “They’re also great places to die.”

Still, if you live in a state with a death tax, consider setting up a trust, said Barry Glassman in CNBC.com. That can help shield some of your assets from taxes when you die, which is especially important for those in states where the estate tax threshold is relatively low, like Maryland (currently $1 million) or New Jersey ($675,000). More state rule changes are likely on the way. “Don’t ignore them, because the potential mistakes or advantages can be significant.”

23. The spread of paid sick leave
Paid sick leave “is picking up momentum,” said Jennifer Liberto in CNN.com. In April, New York City began requiring businesses with at least five employees to offer up to five days of paid sick leave a year, joining cities including San Francisco; Seattle; Jersey City, N.J.; and Washington, D.C. Similar efforts are also underway in San Diego and Eugene, Ore., and Massachusetts has a statewide sick-pay referendum on its November ballot. The recent legislation chips away at the number of Americans who don’t have paid sick leave—40 million, or almost 40 percent of private-sector workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Two thirds of those not covered are in the bottom 25 percent of the pay scale,  including many in service and retail jobs. But persuading employers in those industries to support sick pay will be an uphill battle. They say “it forces companies to embrace absenteeism” and incur higher costs, and their efforts “have led 10 states to pass bans preventing cities from approving paid sick leave.”

That’s a shame, said Catherine Rampell in The Washington Post. Even if “we don’t show much interest in the lives of the working poor,” we “presumably care about our immune systems.” By giving workers the right to call in sick, we customers “can finally rest assured that the baristas who serve us our morning lattes, the day care aides who change our babies’ diapers, the nurses who draw our blood at our physicals, the eatery workers who slather mayo on our turkey subs, and the custodians who clean our office bathrooms” don’t have to stick around, “sneezing and coughing all over our food, bodies, kids, and work spaces” for fear of losing their paychecks or jobs. Of course, it’s no surprise that employers don’t support paid sick leave. After all, “customers who contract the flu from an ailing sandwich maker probably won’t be able to trace the bug back to the establishment where they caught it.” That’s why federal lawmakers should take a page out of the Big Apple’s playbook and mandate paid sick leave across the country.

If they want a success story, they should look to Connecticut, said J.B. Wogan in Governing.com. Two years ago, the state became the first in the country to require paid sick time for all employees, including part-time workers. Employers warned that workers would abuse the law and that the costs of complying would result in lower wages and fewer jobs. But “those dire predictions didn’t come true.” In a recent survey, nearly two thirds of Connecticut employers reported “small or no increases in cost,” and three quarters of businesses say they now support the law.

24. Will employers drop health benefits
“The days of Americans getting health insurance through their employers may be  numbered,’’ said Neil Irwin in The New York Times. A new report by financial research firm S&P Capital IQ predicts that about 90 percent of American workers who currently receive health insurance through their jobs will shift to buying coverage from government exchanges by 2020. S&P’s prediction that the exchanges will eventually replace employers as the source of insurance is not “outlandish,” though the “scope and speed” of the shift they foresee would be surprising. In the new system, employers would give workers a fixed amount of money with which they could shop for private insurance on the exchanges. Employers would save billions, and employees would get more control over what kind of coverage they receive.

It’s a bold prediction, but “don’t bet on it,” said David McCann in CFO.com. Many of the kinks in the Affordable Care Act are still getting worked out, and it’s still unclear whether employers will “happily wash their hands of the sorry health-benefits mess.” If “demand for employer-sponsored health care remains strong,” which is likely, some companies will continue to offer benefits to lure better hires. When Massachusetts passed its own health-care-reform law in 2006, the number of people covered by employer-sponsored insurance actually went up. But when change does come, expect taxpayers to foot the bill, said Brianna Ehley in TheFiscalTimes .com. While experts say the shift from employer-based plans won’t be “a significant burden on the federal government,” it will mean more workers—especially those with lower incomes—will qualify for health-insurance subsidies. Higher earners, though, could see as much as a 50 percent increase in their yearly health-insurance costs.

While “there’s sure to be an uproar” if employers stop offering coverage directly, the change ultimately could be good for everyone, said Rick Newman in Yahoo.com. “American firms often face cost disadvantages because they must bear health-care expenses that foreign competitors don’t,” and while many workers consider health coverage a crucial benefit, “it is at least partly responsible for stagnant pay.” Health care accounted for just 5.9 percent of average compensation in 2000 but now accounts for 8.5 percent, while wages and salaries have fallen from 72.6 percent to 69 percent of total compensation. By “removing health insurance from compensation packages,” companies could have the freedom “to offer more generous raises—and give workers a rationale to ask for them.” The switch could also free workers from getting locked into jobs by “making their coverage portable.” It would also give them “more flexibility to find work that suits them.’’

25. Money resolutions for 2014
Start the new year off with a fresh commitment to sound financial habits, said Gloria McDonough-Taub in CNBC.com. “Getting your financial matters in order” doesn’t need to take over your life. By “cutting up the big issues into bite-size, manageable tasks,” you can get a lot done just by setting aside a minute each day. “In one minute you can review your bank balances, pay a bill or two, even contact your bank, your credit card company, or a lender for a quick check on an issue that may keep you up at night.” Making that checkup a regular habit will allow you to better “face up to your financial fears.”

New Year’s resolutions these days tend more than ever to center on finances, said Melanie Hicken in CNN.com. Over half of respondents to a recent survey by Fidelity Investments said they’d considered making financial resolutions—up from 35 percent in 2009. The most popular goal is to save more, followed by paying off debt and curbing spending. But beyond those basics, there are “some money resolutions that are especially important for 2014.” Since 2013 was “a fantastic year for the stock market,” chances are that “your nest egg is invested more heavily in stocks than it was at the beginning of the year.” So before 2014 gets too far underway, take a moment to rebalance your portfolio to “make sure that you have a proper allocation of stocks and bonds for  your age and risk tolerance.” Take a fresh look at your debt, too. If you’re “hoping to buy a home or lower your monthly debt payments,” take advantage of low interest rates before they rise any further.

Boomers, in particular, should closely scrutinize their finances, said Casey Dowd in FoxBusiness.com. Anyone planning to retire in the coming years should link dayto-day financial habits “to a larger savings goal.” Cut down on unnecessary expenses each month and funnel that extra cash into a retirement account for your twilight years. “A wise plan of action is to meet with a financial professional during this time and discuss any changes and/or latestage opportunities,” including making catch-up contributions to your retirement savings plans. As Social Security benefits and tax rules on retirement accounts become a larger part of your financial picture, it becomes more important than ever to “be engaged in your finances.”

26. Should vacation be unlimited
Virgin founder Richard Branson is an “entrepreneurial guru and a leadership rock star,” said Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson in Time.com. When he makes business  announcements, people tend to take notice. So when he revealed recently  that he is granting his workers in the U.S. and U.K. unlimited vacation time, the move “stirred up a lot of gushing for its boldness and the trust it expresses for employees.” Why not focus on what employees get done, Branson said, rather than how many hours they work? Effective immediately, Branson’s personal employees don’t need to ask whether they can take a day or a month off, on the condition, as Branson put it, “they are only going to do it when they feel 100 percent comfortable [that] their absence will not in any way damage the business—or, for that matter, their careers!”

Policies like this just make sense in a “post-clock-punch economy,” said Michael Howard in Esquire.com. When bosses show that they believe “employees are responsible enough to do their work without being monitored,” they’re rewarded with happier, more productive, and more loyal workers. If a few bad apples abuse the policy and skip out on meetings or assignments, fire them. Unlimited vacations have worked well for us at The Motley Fool, said Laurie Street and Sara Klieger in Fool.com. At our financial-services company and investment website, we understand that people crave autonomy at work, and we trust that employees “know when their deadlines are, when their meetings take place, and what projects they have coming up.” Our numbers speak for themselves: “Employee turnover is extremely low,” and we’ve been “nationally recognized as a great place to work.”

But read Branson’s announcement again, and tell me it doesn’t sound “like a thinly veiled threat,” said Leonid Bershidsky in BloombergView.com. He says workers should take off whenever they want, but in practice, they may well end up taking no vacation at all “if they want to keep their jobs.” Americans already don’t use the vacation time offered to them; U.S. employees on average use only 51 percent of their allotted time off. Asked why, most people say they’re afraid of falling behind or being fired. And in an era of job insecurity and “flexible employment,” who wants to admit he or she won’t be missed for a week or more? asked Anne Perkins in The Guardian (U.K.). If the first condition for taking time off is deciding it won’t hurt your career, it sounds “scarily like an invitation to the boss” to put you on permanent holiday. “That should be enough to keep most workers chained to their desks forever.”

27. Are reverse mortgages right for you
Meet the “kinder, gentler reverse mortgage,” said Tom Lauricella in The Wall Street Journal. These days, securing a reverse mortgage—loans in which homeowners 62 and older can “sell” the equity in their house to a bank—is getting tougher. But “most financial advisers say that’s a good thing.” Reverse mortgages can help older homeowners stay in their homes, since the loan doesn’t need to be paid back unless the borrower moves out or dies, but they do come with some pitfalls. Luckily, new federal guidelines “should make it harder for borrowers to dig themselves into a hole.” Last year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development put limits on how much reverse mortgage holders could borrow, capping first-year loan payments at 60 percent of the available home equity. Homeowners then have to wait until subsequent years to “tap the remainder of the equity.” And HUD is considering another rule change, requiring borrowers “to set aside money up front to pay property taxes and insurance” if the lender determines the homeowner is at risk of failing to meet those obligations.

But there are other traps to be wary of, said Mitchell D. Weiss in Credit.com. While “reverse mortgages are a legitimate financial alternative” for elderly homeowners in need of cash,  borrowing against one’s home is not always the wisest move. As lenders get more conservative, borrowers might not recoup as much as they’d like. And since “cash has a way of getting spent,” homeowners will have “little left to tap” if they face financial trouble. Then there are the fees, said Hal Bundrick in USNews.com. Reverse mortgages are often more expensive than other home loans, and the new rules could make them “even pricier.” In addition to lender fees, borrowers must also pay closing costs and mortgage insurance that is effectively “an ongoing fee for the life of the loan.”

And reverse mortgages can even be a headache for your heirs, said Jessica Silver-Greenberg in The New York Times. When the last surviving borrower dies, heirs “are supposed to be offered the option to settle the loan” for 95 percent of the property’s current market value. But lenders don’t always play by the rules, leaving survivors to navigate a confusing maze of regulations and foreclosure threats. As always, experts say you should know your rights. Under federal rules, lenders must also “offer heirs up to 30 days from when the loan becomes due to determine what they want to do with the property, and up to six months to arrange financing.”

28. New rules for offshore accounts
Hiding your money overseas just got a lot harder, said Alex Park in Mother Jones.com. While concealing cash from the tax man by stashing it “in a Swiss vault or in a sunny haven like the Cayman Islands” has “always been a pretty simple arrangement for America’s superrich,” Uncle Sam has had it. Last week, the U.S. government took its latest step to crack down on tax cheats, requiring “foreign banks to report their American clients’ assets or face 30 percent tax penalties on some offshore deposits.” The new rule, which is part of a 2010 law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), is being honored by more than 80 countries, including Russia and China.” But there’s a reason other nations are eager to comply: Approximately 22 percent of the more than $20 trillion kept offshore globally is in the United States, so many countries will comply with FATCA if only to get insights on their own citizens’ foreign assets.

And it’s not just dishonest 1 percenters who will be affected, said Laura Saunders in The Wall Street Journal. FATCA “will make life more complex and expensive for many U.S. taxpayers with financial ties abroad.” Almost 8 million U.S. citizens live overseas, “and millions of others have green cards that subject them to U.S. tax rules.” Those taxpayers could get swept up in FATCA, even though their only crime is ignorance of the new tax rules. Americans with foreign accounts also face challenges as overseas banks raise account minimums or even close accounts for U.S. taxpayers to offset or avoid new compliance costs.

For tax cheats looking to make amends, there are options, said Deborah L. Jacobs and Janet Novack in Forbes .com. The Internal Revenue Service has launched an “Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program,” which will provide amnesty from prosecution for past transgressions in exchange for back taxes, interest, and penalties. Taxpayers who find that program too burdensome can gamble “that an understaffed IRS won’t audit their old” returns and opt for a “quiet disclosure” simply by paying corrected back taxes. A third option is the IRS’s new “streamlined filing compliance” program, which allows cheats to pay back taxes plus a penalty, as long as the lapses were “non-willful.” But that term is vague, and since the streamlined program doesn’t offer protection from criminal charges, taxpayers who don’t want to take the risk may be better off hiring “a lawyer with offshore chops.”

29. An end-of-year financial checklist
“It’s tempting to put off financial decisions until the new year,” said Morgan Quinn in DallasNews.com, but you can “save some serious dough” if you do a little organizing before the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31. Everyone is entitled to one free credit report each year from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. If you haven’t gotten yours, now’s the time to request them and “check for errors or negative information.” Homeowners should also consider making an extra mortgage payment, since it can score them a bigger tax deduction for 2014. And if you’ve gotten married, had a baby, bought a house, or made any other major life changes this year, review your insurance policies, and make any necessary changes to your W-2 at work.

Speaking of work, said Kay Bell in Bankrate.com, now’s the time to use up your medical flexible spending account, or FSA. These employer-sponsored, tax-advantaged accounts allow you to spend on medical items or services that aren’t covered by your health insurance, but in many cases, you forfeit the money if you don’t spend it by the end of the year. Some companies now let you roll over up to $500 in FSA funds, so check with HR to confirm your plan’s deadline. If it’s Dec. 31, “start making doctor appointments and buying allowable medical items now.” “Don’t let December end” without also considering if a Roth IRA conversion makes sense for you this year, said Dan Caplinger in DailyFinance.com. With a Roth, you contribute money that’s already been taxed to a retirement account; savings then grow and are withdrawn tax free. But when you move money from a regular I RA to a Roth, you have to pay taxes that year on the amount you convert. So if you have lots of tax deductions or tax credits for the current tax year, or “if you expect your income to go up markedly in 2015,” timing your conversion for 2014 might be the right move.

Or consider making an additional contribution to your 401(k) plan, said Emily Brandon in USNews.com. Workers with 401(k)s have until the end of the month to max out their annual savings, “but it’s a good idea to avoid waiting until the last minute” because processing the added funds can take time. If you get a year-end bonus, you might be able to allocate part or all of it to your 401(k) “and avoid the extra tax bill on it.” The allowable 401(k) contribution for next year has also been increased to $18,000, so “consider setting your 401(k) direct deposits a little higher next year to get the biggest retirement savings tax break you can.”

30. When balance transfers backfire
A common credit card perk may come back to bite you, said Alan Zibel in The Wall Street Journal. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warned last week that consumers aren’t being properly informed of the dangers of zero-interest balance transfers, ordering card issuers to “do a better job of disclosing the fine print on such offers.” The problem is that consumers who take advantage of the transfers, which allow them to migrate credit card balances to a new card in exchange for a grace period of zero interest, often don’t understand that the move “can boost interest-rate charges for new purchases.” And in some cases, card owners who don’t pay off their entire balance by the end of the promotional period will be socked with interest rates higher than those they were trying to escape. “Credit card offers that lure in consumers and then hit them with surprise charges are against the law,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray.

For confused consumers, the CFPB has some straightforward tips, said Bob Sullivan in Credit.com. For starters, don’t make purchases with your new card until your transferred balance is fully paid off. Shop using cash, debit, or another credit card in the meantime. And endeavor to make payments on time. To take full advantage of zero-interest offers, consumers need to “pay off the entire balance before the end of the promotional period.” Late payments can jeopardize the terms of that deal and send you straight into a high-interest bracket. As always, read the fine print, said Anthony Giorgianni in Consumer Reports. If a balance transfer offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You should also avoid transferring to a card that already has a balance, since card issuers can legally apply your payments to the zero-interest balance first “instead of to the higherinterest balance you’re trying to pay off.” And if you’re buried under credit card debt, consider asking your current lender “to voluntarily lower your interest rate” instead of transferring your balance to another card. Your card issuer may say no, “but it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

Finally, don’t forget to check for fees, said Ann Carrns in The New York Times. “Cards usually charge a fee—typically 3 percent of the transferred amount—for balance transfers.” After factoring in that cost, a balance transfer may not be so attractive. And be sure to consider how the switch will affect your overall credit rating. “If you transfer a large balance and it uses up most of the available credit on the new card, that could hurt your score until you pay down the balance.”

31. Redefining your golden years
If you’re hoping to retire someday, it may be time to step up your saving, said Alain Sherter in CBSNews.com. According to a new survey, seven of 10 working Americans struggle to “save for retirement while also paying the bills and meeting their basic living expenses.” That includes a whopping 80 percent of workers making less than $50,000 a year and more than 60 percent of earners with annual salaries between $50,000 and $100,000. But how much do you really need to put away? asked Sharon Epperson in CNBC.com. For individuals who plan to retire at age 65 and want an income of $40,000 a year for 30 years, experts say they must sock away a minimum of $1 million by the time they retire. On the plus side, “this figure does not factor in other benefits, like pensions and Social Security, which can greatly boost your retirement income.” And while some retirees can do well with less, even $1 million may not cut it if you hope to “preserve that pre-retirement standard of living.”

“Retirement is about lifestyle,” said Neil Cavuto in FoxNews.com. The real question isn’t how much you save, it’s “how much you plan to spend.” While retiring on $40,000 a year might sound ideal to workers in their mid-20s earning $25,000, things change. In the course of a career, “there will be raises, and promotions, and simple cost-of-living adjustments that will boost that pay considerably.” If you’re used to living on a six-figure income by the time you retire, make sure you’ve stashed away enough to maintain it once you quit. The “popular rule of thumb is to plan on needing 70 percent of what you’re making” when you retire. The numbers can be “sobering,” but remember it’s a matter of choice. And that means making tough decisions about “the life you want to live, and the sacrifices you might—or might not—want to make.”

There’s always the “unretirement” option, said Chris Farrell in Time.com. These days, more people are making “a grassroots push to reinvent the last third of life.” So-called unretirement “starts with the insight that earning a paycheck well into the traditional retirement years will make a huge difference in our living standards.” For restless, aging Baby Boomers, keeping their careers going deep into retirement age might make sense. But “for many in their 50s and 60s, the transition to unretirement is much tougher—especially for those who are involuntarily unemployed.” Whether it’s with “an encore career, a part-time job, or contract work,” many older Americans are experimenting with redefining retirement—a change that will no doubt shape how future generations plan for their golden years.

32. The perils of debit cards
Leave your debit card at home, said Danielle Douglas in The Washington Post. If there’s one thing consumers can learn from Target’s recent data-breach debacle, it’s that not all plastic is created equal. “Credit cards are covered by the Truth in Lending Act, which places the maximum liability for fraudulent charges at $50” and “offers dispute protection and fair credit billing that allows you to stop payment on purchases,” but debit cards don’t get those protections. They are governed by the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, which protects you from liability only if you report the loss or theft of your card to your bank immediately—and before it’s been misused. If you drag your heels, your liability can jump to $500 after three days. “If 60 days pass and you say nothing, well, kiss all that money goodbye.”

And that’s not the only disadvantage of debit cards, said Yahoo.com. “Fraudulent charges on a credit card can be reversed in 24 hours or less, but it can take up to two weeks to have funds restored to a debit card account.” And since using a debit card requires you to enter a PIN, it can be riskier to use one, especially at “outdoor or freestanding ATMs and gas pumps,” where the terminals “are more susceptible to being outfitted with skimming devices, which are affixed to card slots and collect personal information when the card is used.” In restaurants, too, “employees have the opportunity to steal your info,” which is also vulnerable on poorly secured commerce websites. Check with your bank to understand its protection policies, and notify it—in writing—when you spot something fishy.

Just be smart about using your debit card, said Ron Lieber in The New York Times. Monitor your balances daily, and keep spare funds in an unlinked account to limit losses from “a big fraudulent charge.” As data breaches become more common, beware that “thieves who have both card numbers and email addresses may try to send messages pretending to be from the card company in an attempt to phish for additional information,” such as Social Security numbers. And if an email or website raises any red flags, call the company directly. Ultimately, “cards still offer more benefits than drawbacks for people who don’t get into debt.” And by taking the right precautions, “it’s easy enough for most people to drastically bolster their odds of avoiding the worst of the problems.”

33. New rules for frequent fliers
“The friendly skies no longer seem as inviting,” said Krishnadev Calamur in NPR.org. Delta Air Lines announced last week that its SkyMiles loyalty program will start rewarding fliers based on how much they spend on tickets rather than how far they fly. The shift, which takes effect next year, is “part of a larger trend across the industry.” Virgin America, JetBlue Airways, and Southwest Airlines already reward customers based on how much they spend rather than on miles flown. But Delta’s decision makes it the largest carrier to adopt such rules.

The system is certainly ripe for change, said Christopher Elliott in USA Today. Many passengers believe that airline loyalty programs are too easily manipulated by “insiders who ‘hacked’ the system,” for instance by booking long, cheap flights just to rack up miles. Revenue-based rewards may feel “like a scam to a lot of the good people sitting in the back of the plane,” but they’re fairer than the status quo. And even if the game is rigged, there’s no reason not to “play if you can afford it.” Revenuebased rewards will still be a good deal for travelers who “book a lot of expensive tickets.” But fliers should focus on a single program or carrier. “Be ready to give one of the airlines most, if not all, of your business.”

“For those who want out, now’s not a bad time to bail,” said Ron Lieber in The New York Times. Most airline perks these days, such as boarding “early enough to get your wheelie in the overhead, are now for sale on an à la carte basis.” Why mess around with points? One industry journalist had it right when he described frequent-flier programs as “unregulated lotteries,” in which “we collect miles for years without knowing the odds of exchanging them for a free ticket for a reasonable number of miles.” Frequent travelers can score a better deal with hotel loyalty programs and credit cards that offer points or cash back rewards.

I wouldn’t jump ship just yet, said Damon Lavrinc in Wired.com. Who knows if Delta’s changes will catch on? “If there’s a significant backlash, Delta might rework the system.” The carrier says its new rules are designed to reward its best customers, but “even those premium travelers are already in an uproar.” Before they risk alienating fliers, you can bet that Delta’s larger rivals, United and American, will be “keeping an eye on how this new rewards scheme plays out.”

34. The rise of robo-advisers
Would you trust your retirement account to a robot? asked Hilary Johnson in Reuters.com. Startups that offer automated investment advice at a fraction of the cost of a traditional money manager are growing by leaps and bounds, a trend that “strikes fear into the hearts of many financial advisers.” These so-called roboadvisers, offered by firms like Wealthfront, Betterment, and FutureAdvisor, provide algorithm-based investment advice more quickly and inexpensively than flesh-andblood advisers do. And though the startups manage just $5 billion, a tiny fraction of the investment market, major firms are starting to take notice: Fidelity and Charles Schwab both recently announced they will offer low-cost or free automated financial advice to compete.

Robo-advisers are particularly attractive if you are “just starting out and have a tiny (or nonexistent) investment portfolio,” said Carolyn Bigda in the Chicago Tribune. There’s no account minimum, and the fees are far lower than the 1 percent or more of your assets demanded by a traditional financial adviser. Betterment charges just 0.15 to 0.35 percent of your invested money, while Wealthfront charges nothing on the first $10,000 invested, then 0.25 percent. In exchange, you get an impressive amount of personalization: On the basis of your age, investment time horizon, and risk tolerance, software will “automatically generate  a portfolio appropriate for you and help with tasks such as rebalancing or minimizing taxes.”

There’s still plenty to be said for the human touch, said Scott Spiker in The Wall Street Journal. The most important financial issue facing most American families today isn’t the need for a faster or cheaper way to invest their savings; it’s that “they do not save and invest in any meaningful way. That cannot be solved with automated planning tools.” Robots can’t offer coaching, for instance, on how to ignore “the lures of consumerism”—the new car, the big-screen TV, the daily latte. Until that happens, robo-advisers won’t be that helpful in improving financial security for many Americans.

But robots are getting smarter all the time, said Russ Alan Prince in Forbes.com. “More sophisticated and responsive” computerized advisers with far more processing power—think IBM’s Watson—should be available in the “relatively near future.” They will be able to “instantaneously sift through mountains of online data” about both the market and a client’s financial history to objectively recommend exactly how he or she should save and invest. For the time being, roboadvisers are probably best suited to those who already take a hands-off investment approach, said ConsumerReports.org. “If your needs are simple,” a robo-adviser could be more than adequate to help you build wealth. But if you have more complicated tax or estate-planning issues, “the additional half-percent per year for a human adviser may be money well spent.”

35. Changes coming to credit scores
Your credit score could be on the rise, said Tara Siegel Bernard in The New York Times. The company behind FICO, “one of the most widely used and influential credit scores,” said last week it will revise its scoring model to give less weight to medical debts, “which account for about half of all unpaid collections on consumers’ credit reports.” The new calculations will also exclude any bill collections that have been paid or settled. As a result, many people will see a jump in their FICO scores, which have become “consumers’ financial passport to just about everything from rental apartments to most loans.” After the changes take effect, “individuals with a median score of 711—and an otherwise clean credit history—may see their FICO score rise by 25 points.” That’ll mean they probably will “have an easier time getting a loan and could begin paying lower interest rates on their credit cards,” said Taylor Tepper in Time.com, potentially saving thousands of dollars.

You can thank Dodd-Frank for the extra cash in your pocket, said AnnaMaria Andriotis in The Wall Street Journal. FICO’s scoring changes come after “months of discussions with lenders and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” the consumer watchdog established by the 2010 financial reform law. The CFPB had publicly criticized the credit industry for unduly penalizing people with medical debt, which it suggested “is inherently different from other forms of debt” like home loans and credit cards. That’s because many health expenses are beyond a consumer’s control, and people are often confused by what costs are covered by insurance and what they owe to doctors. “Removing paid collection accounts from the formula” is another helpful change, said Christine DiGangi in Credit.com. Under the previous score algorithm, any late bill payments had the potential to reduce a consumer’s score, even after the bills had been paid in full. Now that the scoring system will ignore collections that have already been paid, consumers will actually be “rewarded for meeting their debt obligations.”

That said, the new system “will take a while to implement,” said Aimee Picchi in CBSNews.com. Much as with software upgrades, “lenders don’t all upgrade to the new FICO system at the same time,” so it could take up to a year for the changes to trickle down to consumers. But as long as people don’t use the bump in their scores as an excuse to take on “even more debt,” the changes should be very good news for tens of millions of Americans.

36. The true value of homeownership
Owning a home is a terrible investment, said Josh Barro in NYTimes.com. It simply doesn’t make sense for Americans to “bet their economic fortunes” on the notion that they will someday profit from the rise in a home’s value. And Washington is no help, perpetuating the ideal of homeownership as a cornerstone of the American dream and providing tax breaks and other subsidies that skew the market. Imagine if we “bought food the way we buy housing.” The same forces that distort housing costs—restricted supply, inflated prices, rampant speculation—would do the same to food, making it blatantly ridiculous to finance and purchase a lifetime supply of food up front. So why do we do it with shelter? It is truly baffling that Americans “financially fetishize homeownership,” said Catherine Rampell in The Washington Post. An April Gallup poll showed that most U.S. residents still consider their home to be a better investment than stocks or bonds. But over the past century, inflation-adjusted housing prices grew just 0.3 percent a year, compared with the S&P’s 6.5 percent annual growth. It’s one thing to “romanticize the idea of owning one’s own roof, walls, and fireplace.” It’s quite another to think you’ll “make money off ’em, too.”

But just because owning a home is not the “one-step solution to financial riches that people used to imagine,” said Megan McArdle in BloombergView.com, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea financially. Renting comes with its own costs, such as the lack of stability, the price of moving frequently, and the risk of escalating market rates. And like it or not, government policies do tip the scales in favor of owning, said Matthew Yglesias in Vox.com. Guaranteed low-interest loans and a raft of tax credits actually are enough to make owner-occupied real estate “an attractive investment for many families.” Just because you won’t get rich, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad investment.

Focusing solely on finances misses the bigger picture, said Dan McLaughlin in TheFederalist.com. “There is also a powerful social and political aspect to homeownership” as the ultimate symbol of “having made it.” And it’s not as if Americans’ desire to own a house was initially driven by tax incentives and government subsidies; those programs came into being because the market demanded them. What’s more, a house is not just an asset; it’s a place to raise a family. As any parent can tell you, the stability of ownership—including the savings associated with not being forced to move or change schools—only adds to its value. That doesn’t mean homeownership is the right financial move for everyone, but for many Americans, owning a house makes it a home. And that makes it priceless.

37. Is college still worth it
College degrees have become a waste of money for too many people, said Glenn Harlan Reynolds in The Wall Street Journal. Easy student credit has turned higher-education costs into a dangerous bubble and “left legions of students deep in debt without improving their job prospects.” Students today graduate with an average debt of around $30,000, and many alumni of private and out-of-state colleges “end up owing much more.” Yet four out of 10 graduates still end up in jobs that don’t even require a college degree. “This unsustainable arrangement” is backfiring for  institutions, too, which now face falling enrollment and downgraded credit ratings “over doubts about the viability of their high tuition/high overhead business models.” Families should wise up and carefully consider their higher-education choices. That includes picking practical fields of study, checking a college’s price tag, “or skipping college altogether to learn a trade.”

Skipping college is not good advice for everyone, said Ricardo Azziz in HuffingtonPost.com. According to a recent poll, “those who see the greatest value in higher education are those who already have a college degree and those who perceive they have the most socioeconomic advantages to gain,” particularly women and minorities. In general, they’re right in seeing it as a worthwhile investment: An adult with a bachelor’s degree earns an average of $650,000 more in a lifetime than one with just a high school degree. And while college graduates are definitely still struggling to find jobs today, “declines in employment and wages were considerably more severe for those with less education.”

Besides, it’s not all about the money, said Jim Picht in The Washington Times. “A purely financial return on investment isn’t everything.” Many students choose their fields of study for their personal satisfaction, and that can be a wise choice. “But it is essential that you make the college decision with open eyes.” Choose your major carefully, and if you’re unsure, test the waters with a less expensive community college close to home to reduce the cost of housing. Remember that “you can get as good an education at a good state school as you can at an Ivy League school,” and to get a leg up on your future classmates, consider taking some time off before college to work. “The gains in maturity between the ages of 18 and 20 can be dramatic, and they can give you a huge advantage in study habits and in the competition for grades.”

38. Is Obamacare working
Get ready for Round 2 of Obamacare, said Dan Mangan in CNBC.com. With the openenrollment season set to begin Nov. 15, federal officials are vowing that the “technology debacle of last year’s launch” of HealthCare .gov will not be repeated. They expect another 5 million or 6 million consumers to join the state and federal exchanges, bringing the total number of people covered to 13 million. But officials have “pointedly avoided making the kinds of promises and predictions” that burned them last year. One thing that seems certain is that consumers can expect more choice, said Jason Millman in WashingtonPost.com. The number of insurers selling on the insurance marketplaces is set to rise 25 percent. In theory, this extra competition “should help keep down premiums,” and analysts expect costs will rise by a reasonable 6 percent. But the difference in what people pay will depend on where they live, as different areas of the country have “far fewer plan choices.”

Part-time workers, in particular, should be on alert this year, said Jon Healey in the Los Angeles Times. America’s largest employer, Walmart, “gave lawmakers a concise lesson in economics” last week, when it announced it was dropping health insurance for its 30,000 part-time employees. The move “is the entirely predictable result of the employer mandate,” which takes effect in January after a one-year delay. Companies already feel squeezed by increasing health-care costs, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial, so it’s only rational to “jettison” part-time employees onto the exchanges. Other chains like Target, Home Depot, and Trader Joe’s have already done so. When there’s a subsidized government alternative and no penalties for not covering people who work fewer than 30 hours a week, “cost-control logic says to send such coverage ballast over the side.”

Walmart’s move may look like a “coldhearted mathematical maneuver,” but it’s actually “a good thing for many of the workers,” said David Graham in The Atlantic. When Trader Joe’s cut insurance for part-timers, it was because workers could get similar plans on the exchanges for less. Many of Walmart’s affected workers will be eligible for subsidies, which  will make coverage extremely affordable; others will qualify for expanded Medicaid and not pay anything at all. Walmart’s decision actually “shows that the Affordable Care Act is working,” said Paul Waldman in WashingtonPost .com. The sooner we move away from our system of employer-provided health coverage—“an accident of history that serves neither employees nor employers very well”—the better off we will be. Thanks to Obamacare, Walmart workers have health security that is “no longer dependent on the generosity of [their] employer.” And that’s a development we all “should welcome.”

39. Making the most of financial aid offers
“The era of the financial aid appeal has arrived,” said Ron Lieber in The New York Times. The opportunity to negotiate a college-bound student’s financial aid package has long been a well-kept secret, “but word has spread, and the combination of the economic collapse in 2008 and the ever-rising list price of tuition and expenses has led to a torrent of requests for reconsideration.” The first thing to know is not to refer to it as bargaining or negotiation, which might irk some financial aid officers who “don’t like to think of themselves as presiding over an open-air bazaar.” But if your financial aid package looks a little anemic, don’t be afraid to appeal. “Your best shot” will come “from a change in your family’s circumstances,” such as job loss or similar reduction in income, new health expenses, death or disability of a family member, nursing home costs, natural disasters, or parents with bad credit. It’s definitely a “delicate” process, said Gerri Willis in FoxNews.com. Be aware that some schools use a specific form for all aid appeals while others may ask you to submit a letter. Whenever possible, provide documentation and use all of the tools at your disposal. “If you have received better offers from other schools that are ranked similarly, it’s worth your time to let school administrators know.” Many colleges will “match or even beat” a rival school’s offer.

Which is why it’s essential to learn the language, said Maggie McGrath in Forbes.com. Financial aid letters aren’t always “as easy to decipher as an acceptance or rejection letter.” So before you fire off an appeal, know where you stand. Some schools use a standardized breakdown, endorsed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Education, that can help borrowers compare offers across schools. But until every school adopts this method, here are some things to keep in mind. While it may be called an “award,” it’s “not all a gift.” Check each line to see whether the package includes grants, which don’t have to be repaid, or loans, and whether the loans are subsidized—which means interest won’t accrue until after graduation. “Some schools will even add a Parent PLUS loan into the ‘award’ mix.” Be wary as these optional loans are sometimes included to make aid offers appear more attractive.

All the more reason you should always do your own math, said Liz Weston in Reuters.com. Some schools only account for tuition and fees, leaving out other costs like housing, books, and transportation. And “half of all colleges ‘front-load’ their grants,” meaning the award could decrease over time, or even convert from a grant to a loan once the student is enrolled.

40. A roommate for your golden years
More and more retirees are embracing the “Golden Girls” life, said Tara Bahrampour in The Washington Post. “In this era of longer lives and smaller pensions,” many retirees—especially older women—“are embracing communal living,” sharing homes with roommates instead of facing “‘death by bingo’ in a retirement home.” Most Americans would prefer to live in their own homes for as long as possible as they age, but after divorce or the death of a spouse, that can be a challenge for many senior citizens. “Today’s older adults often have higher mortgages and more debt than their parents did at the same age,” and for retirees whose 401(k)s were decimated by the Great Recession, things are even bleaker.

“This just looks like the new normal to me,” said Kelly Faircloth in Jezebel.com. Even younger Americans are living with roommates longer than they used to “thanks to sluggish wages and delayed marriage.” And let’s not even “mention the havoc student loan debt is going to wreak on retirement savings.” But shared living has its pitfalls, too, since “it means readjusting to shared space, and sometimes roommates just don’t work out.”

Finding the right housemates isn’t impossible, said Harriet Edleson in The New York Times. But “from a safety and security standpoint, background checks and references are essential.” Some organizations, such as the National Shared Housing Resource Center, can help put people together. But once you’ve narrowed down a list of potential roommates, “behavioral interviewing” and a short trial period can “reveal potential hidden attitudes or situations that would mean someone is not the right candidate.” No matter how good a fit might feel at first, always have an exit strategy. Take into account “agreements made for payments, the length of the arrangement, and plans for its termination when it’s not working,” and put those terms in writing. But remember, according to experts, the most important factor when it comes to finding a good roommate is “knowing yourself.”

Saving money isn’t the only upside of cohabitating, said Tom Sightings in USNews.com. In addition to covering expenses, having housemates also means sharing the work. Splitting up chores can put “less of a burden on everyone” since sharing responsibilities will reduce each individual’s anxiety. For older people who “have worries about living alone,” roommates will also provide “built-in companionship” and can act as a “human safety net” who “can help out with the little things and be there in case of real trouble.”

41. Why young workers are in trouble
Revealing one’s bank balance to friends is something of a “social faux pas,” said Bourree Lam in TheAtlantic.com. But for many struggling Millennials, “this conversation is easy, because the common answer to that question is: zilch.” Millions of young people remain hopelessly broke—struggling to find jobs that offer decent salaries and drowning in debt. One survey found that 47 percent of young people 22 to 33 spend at least half of their paychecks paying off credit cards, student loans, and other forms of debt. Another analysis concluded that U.S. workers 35 and under have a savings rate of negative 2 percent, meaning they spend more than they actually earn.

Is it any wonder why? asked Jordan Weissmann in Slate.com. “Millennials landed on the job market at a miserable moment in economic history.” The wages in the industries where they are most likely to work, like retail, manufacturing, hospitality, and business services, have all fallen over the past decade. Even in health care—“a hot industry where you often hear about purported labor shortages”—incomes for young workers have remained essentially flat. Of course, wages have been stagnant for most workers, regardless of age, and “Boomers who started working in the early 1980s recessions faced similar challenges” finding jobs. So what makes the Millennials’ situation unique?

One word: debt. “Millennials aren’t much more poorly paid than young adults who came before,” but they have to “stretch the same wages to pay off a bigger heap of loans.”

Regularly changing jobs “has emerged as one of the few ways to escape” today’s lower wages, said Jonnelle Marte in WashingtonPost.com. But despite “the stereotypes that Millennials are entitled, noncommittal job hoppers,” they are actually staying in their jobs longer than previous generations. It’s not clear if Millennials are holding on to jobs “by choice or if they are struggling to find opportunities,” but it’s definitely taking a bite out of their earning power. Coupled with their debt loads, that’s putting them at greater risk “of being worse off financially than their parents were.” And that should have us all worried, said Emily DeRuy in Fusion.net. Young workers make up a third of the labor force today, a figure that is expected to grow to 50 percent by 2020. If Millennials’ wages continue to stagnate, “the overall economy could suffer.” It’s a great thing that more young people are going to college than ever before, but we need to “align the education people receive with the needs of the economy.” Otherwise, the opportunity to have “more secure, higher-wage careers” might pass Millennials by entirely.

42. Measuring the value of college
Who says college isn’t worth it? asked Kevin Short in HuffingtonPost.com. Sure, “tuition costs are skyrocketing, student debt is soaring, and it’s extremely difficult for college grads to find good jobs.” But a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggests “a four-year degree has never been more worth it.” Workers with a bachelor’s degree typically earn around $300,000 more over their careers than workers who hold just a high school education. “That’s more than triple the value of the degree in 1980, when college grads earned about $80,000 more than those with just high school degrees.” Despite the tuition hikes and high debt loads, “it still makes sense for most Americans to attend college.”

The truth is “more complicated,” said Jordan Weissmann in Slate.com. If you dig down into the numbers, the bottom 25 percent of college degree holders actually earn no more than the median worker with just a high school diploma. That suggests some college graduates might have been better off learning a trade or pursuing a technical degree than paying for a four-year degree. And while “any given individual does boost his pay by going to college,” the key question “is whether that earnings bump will outweigh the cost of school.” At an expensive private institution, “the return on investment might turn out to be nil (or negative).”

Employers aren’t helping matters, said Tiffany Hsu in the Los Angeles Times. In many industries, a growing number of companies now require candidates to have a degree, regardless of whether “talents developed in college would help on the job.” In some cases, it’s because the positions “require a higher skill level and technological aptitude than they once did,” such as nurse or engineering draftsman. But many bosses use the requirement as an easy way to filter through job candidates, and it may be holding back hiring. Nationally, nearly half the job ads for supervisors of mechanics or installers want applicants to be college graduates, yet only 14 percent of such workers fill the bill.

Remember when a degree was about more than the effect on your bank account? asked Frank Bruni in The New York Times. One of the biggest benefits of college is the way it exposes young people to different points of view. In a country marked by increasingly “corrosive polarization,” the value of that experience can’t be overstated. Instead of thinking of college as simply “an on ramp to professional glory,” we should focus more on college’s role in bridging divides. If more students thought that way, “it could mean a better future—for all of us.”

43. More ways to manage student debt
Good news, student borrowers, said Matt Krupnick in Time.com. President Obama vowed last week “to expand a program limiting repayment of federal student loans to 10 percent of a borrower’s income,” part of ongoing Democratic efforts to make repaying student debt more manageable. And “some in the private sector are stepping up as well.” While refinancing private student loans is all but impossible at bigger banks, “a handful of newer, more innovative startups have figured out a way to make life easier for student borrowers.” Take Pave—a New York company that uses crowdfunding methods to buy existing loans “which are then repaid based on the borrower’s income.” Other startups, like SoFi, Upstart, and CommonBond, have similar programs, aimed at protecting “high-quality” borrowers from sinking under student debt.

More repayment options don’t just benefit borrowers’ paychecks, said Ron Lieber in The New York Times. In fact, new graduates who prioritize student loan payments over retirement plans can miss out on almost $400,000 in savings in the first 10 years of their careers. But the expense of education is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, especially now that “the earnings gap between American college graduates and everyone else has never been higher.” And even if they’re saving at the same rate, indebted college graduates will earn—and save—more than workers with no degree and no student debt. The smart thing is to explore options to limit debt while in school to help avoid falling into the “retirement savings hole.” Strategies include a few years of community college “instead of four years at a public university,” working through school, living at home, or simply not taking on debt just to “attend a more expensive college, even if it is a dream school.”

For graduates already dealing with debt, it’s time for a reality check, said Maria Shriver in NBCNews.com. First, get “a clear inventory of what you owe,” and be sure to know which loans are federal and which are private. You also might consider loan consolidation, which combines multiple loans into one, “with an interest rate based on the weighted average interest rates of the underlying loans.” This strategy can help make your monthly payments more manageable, but beware that consolidating federal loans may force you to forfeit some benefits, like unemployment deferments and loan forgiveness programs. And consider your career. Some federal programs will forgive remaining debt after a certain period of payments “for people in government, nonprofit, and other public service jobs.” Borrowers working in fields such as teaching, the military, and medicine, may also qualify for debt forgiveness.

44. What to know for 2014
“One of America’s least popular annual events” is around the corner, said Tom Herman in The Wall Street Journal. Yes, it’s tax season, and anyone eager to file early should take extra care this year. “Thanks to the ever-growing complexity of federal, state, and local tax laws, regulations, and court cases, it’s easier than ever to make mistakes, including overlooking valuable tax breaks.” Single taxpayers who earn more than $400,000 or married couples earning more than $450,000 face higher tax rates on ordinary income and capital gains. There are new taxes on investment income and an additional Medicare tax on wages and self-employment earnings to consider. Beyond that, new limits on deductions and higher thresholds for medical spending may also put a dent in your deductions. The only good news is for self-employed filers, who can now benefit from a simpler home-office form that “eliminates burdensome record-keeping rules.”

Don’t count on the IRS for much help, said Sandra Block in DailyFinance.com. Last year, the agency “answered only 61 percent of calls from taxpayers, and the average wait time to get an answer was nearly 18 minutes.” Filers with tax questions should try checking out the IRS website for answers first, and use the agency’s “Where’s My Refund?” tool to track their refunds. E-filers can check on the status of their refund within 24 hours, but if you’ve mailed in a paper return, prepare to wait at least four weeks for the IRS to receive and process your return.

And don’t be beguiled by tax myths, said Dan Ritter in USA Today. It is true that only 1 percent of all tax returns are actually audited, but “there’s no way to ensure you won’t fall into that 1 percent.” Tax professionals are actually forbidden from trying to “game the audit lottery” for you, so don’t buy that line from anyone. The good news is that unless you’re earning more  than $200,000, the odds of getting a call from the IRS are low. If an audit does happen, don’t fear a knock on your door—with the exception of corporate and estate audits, most IRS “examinations” are conducted by mail. And retirement doesn’t mean you can ignore tax season. Retirement income may still be subject to taxes, though you can reduce your tax liability by building your nest egg in a Roth IRA, which allows you to pay taxes up front rather than when you withdraw.

45. Saving up for higher costs
Students are becoming more conscious than ever of college costs, said Dennis Romero in LAWeekly.com. According to a new survey from UCLA, only 57 percent of entering college students ended up enrolling in their first-choice schools last year. That’s “the lowest reported percentage since researchers began tracking these things in 1974,” and there is an obvious reason: College costs have more than doubled in the last decade. The survey also found that almost half of all students —a higher share than ever before—considered cost and the availability of financial aid to be “very important” factors in their choice of a college. The days “when high school seniors, even poor ones, set their sights on a university first and figured out how they would pay for it later” are clearly over.

Even families with above average income need help these days, said AnnaMaria Andriotis in The Wall Street Journal. As college costs soar, families earning more than $100,000 a year may be “too well-off to qualify for” federal aid, yet still not “earn enough to pay for the full cost of higher education.” There are remedies, but they require some attention and forward thinking. Parents can qualify for more financial aid “by lowering their income in the calendar year before they submit the aid application, and by shifting assets into certain types of accounts before they file.” For example, bank account balances are used to calculate a family’s contribution, but individual retirement accounts are excluded from that calculation. Remember that cash gifts from family members may “count as student income,” and that large trust funds can “wipe out any shot at financial aid.” And home-equity loans “are treated as assets” for federal aid, so “borrowing money to build an addition could result in less financial aid.”

If your child’s college days are still years away, it’s still a good idea to get a head start, said Kelly Trageser in Credit.com. The easiest way to make college affordable “is to start saving the day your child is born.” One good vehicle for that is a 529 plan, a government savings program in which “the principal grows taxdeferred, and distributions for the beneficiary’s college costs are exempt from tax.” Having a 529 can put a dent in the amount of federal aid you receive when your child is ready to enroll, but not a big one: Those savings can never cut benefits by more than 6 percent under federal aid application guidelines. And one thing is certain: Planning ahead with a 529 plan is better than “the hard way” of scrambling to find the money only once those acceptance letters start coming in the mail.

46. The Black Friday backlash
What’s one of the biggest Black Friday retail trends this year? Refusing to open early, said Drew Harwell in The Washington Post. As the “corporate tug-of-war over Black Friday crowds” has increasingly crept into the “juicy hours of Turkey Day,” a number of major retailers are “loudly proclaiming” they will stay closed on Thanksgiving out of respect for their employees. Barnes & Noble, Bed Bath and Beyond, Costco, Crate and Barrel, GameStop, Marshalls, Nordstrom, and a dozen other big-name stores have all announced they’ll stay closed on the holiday, “hoping the moral high ground will pay off even more” with shoppers than early  holiday door busters. In the process, “they’re winning a type of publicity money can’t buy.” One Today show segment introduced the trend by stating, “Family trumps profits at these stores.”

Walmart is taking a different tack, said Sapna Maheshwari in BuzzFeed.com. The retail giant is kicking off sales beginning at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving but staggering deals across five days. The move might be an effort to combat Walmart’s “ugly reputation” for Black Friday events “that border on the barbaric”: A store worker was trampled and killed by shoppers in 2008, and a series of violent incidents around the country last year, including knife fights over parking spots and fistfights over Xboxes, “simultaneously entertained and horrified” the Internet via the Twitter hashtag #WalmartFights. By spreading out sales and bringing some order to the chaos—the store will distribute wristbands for highdemand items—Walmart is clearly hoping to achieve “a more peaceful holiday” shopping season.

Why bother with Black Friday at all? asked Brad Tuttle in Time.com. Retailers have been airing holiday ads as early as September, so “the idea that Black Friday is the ‘start’ of anything is silly.” In fact, shoppers who want to score deals might already be too late. Retail data from last year show that the “biggest price drops took place the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the best overall prices were not to be had on Black Friday but the Wednesday before.” If you eschew Black Friday for Cyber Monday, remember to keep your digital data safe, said Anna Marie Kukec in suburban Chicago’s DailyHerald.com. Avoid using unsecured Wi-Fi networks and limit your shopping to HTTPS-encrypted sites. Monitor your billing statements for unfamiliar charges, and finally, beware of potentially bogus emails from retailers, especially those “seeking more personal information.” It could be a scammer in disguise.

47. How robo-scheduling hurts workers
Starbucks is shaking up its employees’ schedules, said Jodi Kantor in The New York Times. The coffee chain vowed last week to revise the way it sets baristas’ schedules after an exposé revealed how its automated scheduling process—which analyzes sales data to predict how many workers are needed at any given time—causes “havoc in employees’ lives: giving only a few days’ notice of working hours, sending workers home early when sales are slow, and shifting hours significantly from week to week.” Starbucks’s new policies will probably be good news for the chain’s 130,000 employees. But low-wage workers at other firms might not be so lucky, since “many other chains use even more severe methods, such as requiring workers to have ‘open availability,’” meaning they are able to work anytime they are needed, or to stay “‘on call,’ meaning they only find out that morning if they are needed.”

Talk about exploitative, said Annie Lowery in NYMag.com. These companies are taking advantage of needy workers who are desperate for a paycheck in tough times. Thanks to the decline of labor unions, employees have less bargaining power than ever. Bad publicity may have forced Starbucks’s hand, but “there is no real economic pressure for it to quit putting such a grind on its baristas.” These kinds of jobs are supposed to be schedules of white-collar workers, said Max Nisen in Qz.com. But “there’s nothing particularly flexible about the variability of robot scheduling.” Plus, the constant chaos makes it hard for workers to find better jobs, because many “don’t have the skills to get more consistent work, and their unreliable schedules make it even harder to pursue those skills” in the classroom.

These kinds of scheduling shenanigans are just “the latest fresh hell visited upon lowwage  workers by their corporate bosses,” said Amanda Marcotte in Slate.com. But they are especially bad for parents, given that arranging day care is dependent on maintaining a regular schedule. For many employees, a simple task like “picking up a kid from school becomes a nightmare” if they don’t know where they need to be at any given time. At many firms, “flex time” offers some reprieve by allowing employees to set their own schedules. But in low-wage industries, those schedules “are usually based on the whims of management.” And workers have few protections. Some states, like California, have laws that require bosses to pay you for scheduled hours, even if you get sent home early, but “legislators need to do more, because expecting corporations to voluntarily give up the profits they earn by shifting around their employees” just won’t cut it.

48. Is flextime good for business
Employers are getting more flexible—up to a point, said Lauren Weber in The Wall Street Journal. A new survey suggests that while many employers are offering workers more day-to-day flexibility, they’re cutting back on more substantial flex options like job sharing and extended leave. This year, 67 percent of businesses say they allow workers to occasionally telecommute, up from 50 percent in 2008. But the number of companies offering job sharing fell from 29 percent to 18 percent; those allowing a temporary break for family issues fell from 64 percent to 52 percent. The very notion of “flexible work appears to be getting less, well, flexible,” said Sarah Halzack in WashingtonPost.com. Though workers increasingly want the freedom to work where and when they choose, employers remain wary of offering anything more than the occasional schedule tweak. So while ducking out for a child’s piano recital is less of an issue, ask for a schedule overhaul and bosses are simply “less willing to work with you.”

That’s shortsighted, said Jena McGregor, also in Washington Post.com. “Study after study has shown that employees with flexible work arrangements tend to be healthier, happier, and more productive—and even less likely to want to change jobs.” We also know that “remarkable” things tend to happen when you give workers more autonomy, said Seth Stevenson in Slate.com. When Best Buy experimented with giving some employees 100 percent freedom over their schedules, the results were “surprisingly positive.” In exchange for the ability to work from anywhere, unlimited vacation and sick days, and an attendance-optional policy for all meetings, workers were held to strict productivity goals. Not only did employees report less stress, better health, and improved morale, the flexible teams’ productivity increased 41 percent, while voluntary turnover rates decreased by as much as 90 percent.

So why do workers with flexible schedules often have “less successful careers” than those who put in more face time at the office? said Max Nisen in Qz.com. It often boils down to managers’ biases. New research shows managers believe that workers who get an early start are harder working and more disciplined than colleagues who begin work later in the day, even if all workers put in the same number of hours. It’s about time we start treating workers like adults, said Tracy Moore in Jezebel.com. What time you start “shouldn’t count more than actual working.” If you leave people alone to do their job, and judge them on their results, they will probably surprise you. “It seems so simple, and yet, it’s so very rare.”

49. The growing danger of retail hacks
“In the battle between hackers and retailers, it sure looks as though the hackers are winning,” said Joe Nocera in The New  York Times. This month big-box retailer Target revealed that up to 110 million customers’ personal information— including names, addresses, phone numbers, and PINs—was hacked before the holidays. Since then we’ve learned of breaches at Neiman Marcus and other U.S. merchants. Security experts have determined that the attack on Target was almost certainly the work of “extremely sophisticated” Russian hackers using malware that grabbed data at the “moment of maximum vulnerability,” when customers swipe their cards and their magnetic stripes “yield all the information the hacker needed.” The obvious fix is for the U.S. to do what virtually every other country in the world has done: switch to cards embedded with far more secure chips.

Multiple investigations into the hacks are underway at the federal and state levels, said Amrita Jayakumar and Hayley Tsukayama in The Washington Post. But whatever they find, there’s no doubt that you should “keep an eye out for any strange transactions” on your credit and debit cards. There’s no all-clear for data breaches of this nature: “Hackers who take big swaths of data like this sell them to criminals, so your information could stay on the marketplace for a while.” Target says it encrypted customers’ PINs before they were stolen, but “debit card users may want to take the precaution of calling their banks to get their PINs changed.” Report any fraudulent or suspicious charges to your bank or card issuer, and scrutinize any emails “that appear to come from your bank or Target.” Numerous reports have surfaced about phishing scams that masquerade as customer support in sometimes quite ingenious attempts “to trick people into parting with personal information.”

There’s still “no federal law that requires disclosure of security breaches,” said Pamela M. Prah in USA Today. But most states do require companies to inform consumers when their data has been compromised. California’s laws are the strongest, laying out a catalog of data breaches that companies are required to report. California has also passed laws requiring businesses to give more detailed disclosures about their privacy policies and what information they gather from online consumers. Given the number of security incidents we’ve seen lately, these are all laws “that other states are expected to consider this year.”

50. What’s behind the market’s volatility
“After a long period of quiet, the markets are once again taking investors on a wild ride,” said Ben Casselman in FiveThirtyEight.com. Driven by fears over Europe’s slide toward recession, a housing bubble in China, and falling oil prices—as well as anxieties about ISIS and the Ebola outbreak—markets around the globe have swung wildly in recent weeks. The Dow Jones industrial average fell nearly 7 percent in the past month, near the 10 percent benchmark that qualifies as a “correction.” U.S. Treasury yields briefly dropped below 2 percent for the first time in 16 months, signaling that investors were fleeing stocks for the refuge of safe government bonds, and a key measure of market volatility rose to its highest level in two years, when the world economy was suffering through the worst of the euro zone debt crisis.

Yes, the markets are in tumult, but there’s no need to “freak out” just yet, said Zachary Karabell in Slate.com. This longexpected correction is “not the beginning of something more ominous.” For months, we’ve heard “constant rumblings that stocks were overpriced, that the calm couldn’t last, that markets were being propped up primarily by the Fed” pumping money into the economy. Rather than panic, “you would think that market participants would be quite prepared for what is happening now.”

Still, if you are an investor, the recent market tremors “are unnerving,” said Tara Siegel Bernard in The New York Times. Most advisers will tell you to “ignore the headlines” and stick with your long-term plan. After all, “if any lesson should have been learned from the last recession, it was the importance of having a well-diversified portfolio and resisting the urge to sell in a state of panic.” Last week’s market activity proved that diversification works—while stocks fell, “longerterm bond prices picked up some of the slack,” which is good news for investors with a healthy mix of both.

Investors should still brace themselves “for the risk of mediocre longer-term returns” in the years to come, said Brett Arends in The Wall Street Journal. “By almost any historical measure, most global stock and bond markets today are all either fully priced or overpriced,” so investors are going to have to look even harder for reasonable returns. “The easy money has most likely already been made,” said Barry Ritholtz in BloombergView.com. “Things are going to get even more interesting and challenging from here.”

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