The sorry state of air travel...Who's defaulting on student debt? You'll be surprised...Apple wants to build cars...And more

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Welcome to MUTUAL INTEREST, the first place to check for all of the news and information you need to manage your money and build financial security. It also helps you understand what's going on in the economy, and how that affects you. This page is constantly updated, so bookmark it and come back often for the latest posts.

Why we're paying more for a poorer flight experience

The U.S. Department of Transportation says airline ticket prices shot up about 15% faster than the rate of inflation from 2005 to 2013. Comfort on flights, meanwhile, seemed to get worse — less legroom, no meals. And we've started to see more fees for bags, meals and everything else involved in air travel. "Consumers are clearly getting the short end of the stick," Charlie Leocha, head of the advocacy group Travelers United, told CNN Money. A lot could be due to airline consolidation. There are now just four major U.S. airlines, down from 10 just 12 years ago. Airlines say the new air transportation model is better overall for everyone.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Game the system. CheapAir.com recently put out a study on how to get the best price on flights (check out our Mutual Interest post about it below). Basically, if you want the best deal on a domestic flight, buy your ticket 47 days in advance.

Having just a little student debt is worse than having a lot

Students who borrow the least amount of money are having the most trouble paying it off, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In fact, the highest default rates are among those who owe less than $5,000 (34%). Those with balances of less than $10,000 had the next-highest default rates. And 43% of Americans who had loans due in 2009 owed less than $10,000, notes Bloomberg. The report notes that these borrowers may not have completed school or may have gotten credentials with less of a payoff than a four-year college degree.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Pay off your debts. Defaulting on a student loan can hold down your credit score and put you at risk of having wages garnished or part of your tax return withheld, notes Bloomberg. If you're a parent, keep in mind that to even pay for a portion of your kids' college, you should start putting money aside as soon as possible. Here's how to know if a 529 savings plan is right for your family.

Apple Inc. is racing to have an electric car by 2020

The next big product from Apple could be an electric car. Bloomberg reports the company has been secretly working on an electric car that could debut as early as 2020. If Apple succeeds, it could be battling it out with Tesla and General Motors, both of which plan to have electric cars by 2017 that can go more than 200 miles on a charge and cost less than $40,000. “Now you have Apple coming in, and this is critical mass. Was GM really going to be able to match Tesla? Apple can," Steve LeVine, author of The Powerhouse, a book about the automotive battery industry, told Bloomberg TV.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Would you purchase an Apple car? As part of the "Appleverse," your Apple car (iCar?) would likely connect seamlessly with your other Apple devices — iPhone, iPad, iCloud. But don't get too excited just yet. Bloomberg notes that Apple could scrap its car effort or delay it if the executives are unhappy with progress — just as it has done before. But its car team already has 200 people, and Apple has reportedly sought out experts in battery and robotics technologies.

See how close you are to the top 1% of income

CNN Money recently put out a calculator that allows you to see where your income ranks. Specifically, it lets you figure out how close you are, in terms of income, to the top 1% of earners. It's an easy-to-use graphic that tells you exactly where you stand. Let's say you bring in $60,000 per year. That would put you in the top 43%. To be in the top 1%, you'd have to earn at least $400,000 per year.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Income isn't wealth. It's how much you save, not how much you earn, that makes you rich. You can make $400,000 per year, but if you spend it all on assets that decline in value, you're not building wealth. And that's the goal — to save as much as possible and build wealth. Here's how to save $1 million for retirement.

Here's when to buy airline tickets for the best deal

If you want the best deal on a domestic flight, buy your ticket 47 days in advance. According to a study by CheapAir.com, that's when fares are likely to be cheapest. The online airfare shopping engine tracked the prices of about 1.5 billion airfares from 320 days in advance up to the day before a flight. But CheapAir.com notes that the best time to buy can vary substantially depending on the destination, time of year and travel days. In general, the prime time to book is one to four months ahead of your departure date.

SECOND THOUGHTS: There's no exact science to finding the cheapest flight. "As much as everyone wants an answer for an exact number so they don't have to worry about finding the best price, it's not that simple," Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, told CNN Money. But you'll have a better chance if you keep these five tips in mind: When you buy matters. Waiting for last-minute deals is a bad plan. Don't book too early. Book one to four months out. The rules are different for summer and holiday travel. Check out CheapAir.com for the details.

The newest software makes income tax season easier on you

According to The New York Times, the newest tax software from TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxAct is making it easier to switch seamlessly between doing your tax return on your computer, tablet and smartphone. But the three tax tools will likely appeal to different types of people. The Times concludes that TurboTax will appeal to technophiles, worriers will use H&R Block and the thrifty will choose TaxAct. TurboTax costs $80 for Home and Business and $37 for each state return. H&R Block charges $50 for Premium and the same for state returns. TaxAct is $20 for the Ultimate Bundle, which includes federal and state returns.

SECOND THOUGHTS: All three programs work well for a family with a house, additional freelance income and an investment portfolio that mostly includes mutual funds, notes The Times. But each has its pros and cons. The Times says TurboTax is headache-free to use, but customer service isn't as helpful as H&R Block's, with its easy access to tax advisers. TaxAct is a bargain, but the software isn't as seamless as the other two. The takeaway: You've got to find the one that fits your needs best.

The number of 401(k) millionaires doubles in 2 years

There were 72,379 individuals in the Fidelity database with over $1 million or more in their 401(k)s in 2014, according to Fidelity Investments, one of the largest 401(k) providers. That's more than twice what it was in 2012, when there were just 34,920. The booming stock market certainly helped. Typically, their portfolios are 72% invested in equities, and they contributed $21,400 annually to their accounts. Their average age is 59.8 years, and their average income is $359,000. But more than 1,000 earned less than $150,000. So it's not all about income.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Becoming a 401(k) millionaire may seem like a daunting task, but keep in mind that many are in or entering their sixties. It takes an entire career of saving to get there. Here's what it takes to amass $1 million in your 401(k) retirement account..

Many Americans are hiding their cash in secret places

Banks are still the go-to option for most Americans, but a surprising number of us (29%) say we're keeping some savings in cash, according to a new survey of 1,820 adults from American Express. And 53% of those holding cash are hiding it in a secret spot. Millennials are most likely to hide cash, with 67% saying they are keeping a secret stash. The most popular hiding place? The freezer, according to a 2012 Marist College survey, followed by the sock drawer, under the mattress and the cookie jar. No, really, the cookie jar.

SECOND THOUGHTS: This is a bad plan. Keeping large amounts of cash in the house makes personal finance experts cringe, notes CNBC. And rightfully so. While it can be good to keep a little cash at home, hiding large amounts is risky. "Keeping money stashed around the house leaves you at tremendous risk of theft or loss due to fire or some sort of unforeseen disaster," Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, tells CNBC. There are wiser choices. Here are 7 smart things to do with $1,000.

Middle-class families lack emergency savings

The typical middle-class American family, making between $36,500 and $60,000 per year, couldn't take a major financial hit. They'd only be able to replace 21 days of income by tapping cash reserves, according to a new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. And even if they liquidated all retirement savings and investments, they'd only replace 119 days of income. Families with the lowest incomes, under $20,300 per year, only have a nine-day cushion. And the richest, earning more than $101,800, only have 52 days on hand.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Stagnant wages may be one reason families aren't saving more emergency cash. Nor have families been building their nest eggs, notes CNN Money. The bottom 60% of Americans have the same amount of wealth as they did in 1989. If you're not sure where you stand financially, here's how to measure financial success.

Our 401(k) balances hit record highs last year

Our 401(k) balances hit record highs in the fourth quarter of 2014, jumping to an average of $91,300, according to an analysis from Fidelity Investments, the nation's largest provider of 401(k)s. That average is up 3% from the third quarter and 2% year-over-year. On average, employees contributed $9,670 in the fourth quarter, up 4% year-over-year. And when combined with employer contributions, the average savings rate for employees in 2014 was 12.2% of their salary.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Fidelity says conditions like lower unemployment and a raging stock market helped make 2014 a great year for retirement savers. But the ultimate value of your 401(k) will depend on a lot of things — what you make, how much you save, the length of time before you retire and market performance. You can make the most of it if you're a savvy investor. Here's how to become a smarter investor in your retirement plan.

Millennials are feeling very financially secure

Millennials feel more positive about their finances than any other age group, even older people with a high net worth, according to the January Financial Security Index from Bankrate.com. About 46% of millennials say their overall financial situation is better than a year ago. No more than 30% of other age groups thought so. Yet millennials have a savings rate of negative 2%, according to the Federal Reserve of New York. That means they're going into debt instead of saving, notes MarketWatch.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Among all age groups, feelings about financial security were up in January. "Americans' feelings of financial security hit a record high, not because things got better as much as they got less bad," Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate, said in a news release. We still need to fight for financial security. So if you get a bonus at work or a tax refund, use it wisely. Here are 7 smart things you can do with $1,000.

Middle-class incomes are finally rising

Median household income grew 3.3% in December 2014 compared with the year before, according to data from Sentier Research. That's the strongest year-over-year increase since October 2006. The number is adjusted for inflation, so the typical middle-class family really is starting to see some income gains. December's median income was $54,417, which is 3.2% lower than the level at the end of 2007, when the recession began. “We’re still not back to where we were, but incomes are coming back,” Gordon Green of Sentier tells Yahoo Finance.

SECOND THOUGHTS: More income means more money that can be stashed away to build a secure retirement. Anything extra helps. If you can max out your 401(k) plan at work, do it. Washington is letting us make slightly larger contributions to our plans this year.

Women are struggling to save for retirement

Just 62% of women are saving for retirement, according to a recent study by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. And just 15% of that group are saving enough; 22% are barely saving at all. CNBC notes that the reasons include lower pay and taking time off to care for children or elderly parents. Women are still paid just 78% of what men with equal qualifications receive, according to the American Association of University of Women. Divorce also has a bigger impact on women's income.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Fortunately, there are ways women can give their retirement savings a boost. Taking advantage of and maxing out employer-sponsored 401(k)s is a big one. Check out these 7 rules for a successful 401(k) retirement account. Contributing to a Roth IRA also helps. And seeking advice from a financial expert can be beneficial. "If you have access to some kind of a planner or you can even get help in your community, that's a start," Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement, told CNBC.

Gas isn't actually that cheap compared with the last 30 years

Gas prices have declined sharply, but when adjusted for inflation, a gallon of gas is still more expensive than it was from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, according to The New York Times. From the start of 1986 to the end of 2002, the price averaged $1.87 a gallon. Today, it's around $2.03 a gallon. But falling gas prices are still a boon. If energy costs stayed at current levels, it would put $180 billion into Americans' pockets, according to Moody Analytics. That's about 1.2% of income and a higher share for poorer families, notes The Times.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Take advantage of low energy costs, and put that savings into a retirement account. It's not enough to simply save. If you really want a fighting chance at a secure retirement, you're going to have to become a smart investor. Here's how to become a smarter investor in your retirement plan.
February 12, 2015

The middle class is steadily declining

The middle class — households earning from $35,000 to $100,000 a year — has been steadily shrinking for 50 years, according to The New York Times. That was OK until 2000 as Americans primarily moved up the income ladder. But since then, people have been falling into lower rungs as household income dropped 9%. Just 43% of all households are now considered middle class. People 65 or older now make up the fastest-growing segment. And the share of married couples with children — once 60% of the middle class — has fallen to 25%.

SECOND THOUGHTS: With income stagnant, it's even more important to tuck away retirement savings. You can't rely on income bumps to get you there. So max out your 401(k) and your IRA, if possible. And become a smarter investor in your retirement plan.
February 11, 2015

More income can reduce your sadness

A new study released in Social Psychology & Personality Science says greater income does reduce unhappiness, but it doesn't increase happiness. Confused? That could be due to a misunderstanding of the relationship between the two emotions, notes NYMag.com. The researchers from the University of British Columbia write, "… because happiness is not simply the absence of sadness, or vice versa, income may have a different relationship to each of those emotions."

SECOND THOUGHTS: The researchers think being well-off offers more options for dealing with adversity. If you have the money to quickly deal with a leaking roof, you'll feel more in control and less sad than someone without the funds. That's why it's crucial to build an emergency fund — for life's leaky roofs. Here's how to measure financial success. The first measurement? An emergency fund.
February 10, 2015

Free FICO scores are becoming more available

More banks and other companies are offering free FICO scores, a once tightly guarded number you'd have to shell out cash to get, notes The New York Times. Citigroup just began making free FICO scores available to its cardholders. Chase says it will soon make them available to Slate cardholders. Ally's car loan borrowers will be able to get them in February. And even Sallie Mae is making them available to private student loan borrowers.

SECOND THOUGHTS: FICO, the Fair Isaac Corp., which created the FICO score, says the scores are used in 90% of credit decisions in the U.S. So if you can get a free score, use it to improve your credit. Check out our 7 smart moves to boost your credit score and improve your life.
February 9, 2015

Financial infidelity is fairly common in U.S. households

About 20% of Americans admit they've spent $500 or more without their spouse or partner's knowledge, according to a new poll by CreditCards.com. What's more, about 6% admit to using hidden checking or savings accounts or secret credit cards. The website surveyed 843 American adults living with a spouse or partner. The results suggest 7 million Americans are keeping secret accounts — men more than women and young people more than old. "In most cases, the secret is mostly to avoid conflict and to make sure they get what they want," Paula Levy, a family therapist in Connecticut, tells the website.

SECOND THOUGHTS: There's no single correct way for couples to approach finances. But with a little bit of planning, you can achieve financial security together. Check out our money advice for a lasting marriage.

Food prices are on the march in the United States

If you think you're paying more for food than you were a year ago, you're not crazy. Food prices in the U.S. are climbing, notes Yahoo Finance. The consumer price index for food rose 3.4% in 2014, a 1.1% increase from 2013, according to the most recent CPI report from the Labor Department. Over the last 10 years, the index's average annual rise was just 2.7%. For food eaten at home — items bought at the grocery — the index rose 3.7% compared with an increase of just 0.4% in 2013. And for food eaten at restaurants and other establishments, the index rose 3% in 2014, higher than the 2.1% rise the year before.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Make a little extra room in the budget for food or cut back. You'll see the biggest price increases for beef and veal, which rose 18.7%. Meats, poultry, fish and eggs were up 9.2%, the largest year-over-year rise in December in that category since 2003. And dairy and related products were up 5.3%. Need to create a budget? Use our Home Budget Calculator.

Millennials seek financial stability before having children

Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, seem to be putting off having children until they feel financially stable. And there are worries that the declining birth rates could hinder the economy. Birth rates among 20- to 24-year-olds were down 2% between 2012 and 2013. Among 25- to 29-year-olds, rates have fallen by 1% each year since 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But older millennials, those 30- to 34-years old, are having kids. Birth rates rose among that group by 2% in 2013. Considering that millennials have higher levels of student debt, poverty and unemployment than their parents and grandparents did at the same stage, it's no wonder they're putting off having kids.

SECOND THOUGHTS: The average cost of raising a child in the U.S. has reached $250,000, not including college. But if you want kids, there's no right time to have them, notes Yahoo Finance. The best you can do is prepare yourself for what's to come. And planning for college costs is part of that. Here's how to figure out whether a 529 plan is right for your family.

European travel is about to get cheaper

If you've always wanted to visit Europe and just couldn't foot the bill, or if you just like Europe, it's nearly time to book your trip. Travel to Europe is about to get cheaper. The euro is falling so fast against the dollar that it shouldn't be too long before it's worth the same amount, notes The Washington Post. In fact, it's down to around $1.15 per euro from a high of $1.45 a few years ago. So if you're going anywhere in Europe other than Switzerland (which recently stopped pegging its currency to the euro), you'll have a much cheaper trip than you would have just a few years ago.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Take advantage of the booming U.S. economy, and go for a trip across the pond. Our economy is currently in a lot better shape than Europe's. It's good enough that the Federal Reserve is starting to think about raising short-term interest rates this year. And by the time you book your trip to Europe, the dollar may even be worth more than the euro, making it even cheaper.

Baby boomers will pass the torch to millennials this year

Millennials are expected to surpass baby boomers as the nation's largest living generation in 2015, according to new numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of those ages 18 to 34 is expected to hit 75.3 million this year, surpassing 74.9 million boomers (ages 51 to 69). Millennials have immigration on their side, adding more numbers to their generation than any other, notes the Pew Research Center. By 2036, the population is expected to peak at 81.1 million.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Is Millennial Nation on track for retirement? A recent Gallup poll found that only half of investors start saving for retirement in their 20s. We can do better. Without traditional pensions to help us out, taking control of our own retirement is a must. Do you know what kind of return you can expect from your 401(k)?.

More than half of Americans say they are falling behind financially

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that about 55% of Americans say they are falling behind on finances. That's despite the fact that unemployment is down, companies are hiring and the economy is growing. In fact, most Americans say their income isn't keeping up with the cost of living, and it's not just one segment of society. Those earning more than $100,000 say they also are having problems — only 20% feel they are getting ahead. But older Americans, those with lower incomes and those with only high school diplomas feel the most left behind.

SECOND THOUGHTS: What's going on here? Stagnant income seems to be a big part of the problem. The current median income — $51,939 — is about where it was in 1995 after inflation, notes CNN Money. But we have to push through and save more. If you have an extra $1,000, here are 7 smart things to do with it.

Financial stress due to medical bills is on the decline

The Affordable Care Act seems to be achieving one of its major goals. A recent survey by the health research group the Commonwealth Fund shows the percentage of Americans who had trouble with a medical bill or debt in the last year dropped from a high of 41% in 2012 to 35% in 2014, the first decline in a decade. The percentage of Americans who avoided medical care because of cost concerns also dropped, from 43% in 2012 to 36% in 2014. “We don’t know yet that the law is improving people’s health, but this is a first indication that people are affording care that they weren’t able to get in the past,” Sara Collins, a Commonwealth vice president who worked on the study, told The New York Times.

SECOND THOUGHTS: More than a third of all Americans struggle with the cost of medical care, The Times notes. If you don't have health insurance or your deductible is high, you already know the high cost of a simple checkup. But that doesn't mean you should skip tests or leave prescriptions unfilled. Here are 8 smart moves to save on health care.

Nearly half of home buyers don't shop around for best mortgage

A new report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says nearly half of Americans seriously consider only one lender or broker before applying for a mortgage. About 75% fill out an application with only one lender. Why are so many failing to comparison shop? "It is a surprising finding, and it suggests that they're still fairly intimidated by the mortgage transaction," Richard Cordray, head of the government bureau, tells NPR. "Or they're a little distracted because, at the same time, they're picking out a house."

SECOND THOUGHTS: Failing to shop around can be costly. "The difference in even a half percent of interest racks up pretty quickly over five years to about $3,500 — and over the life of a 30-year loan, obviously, far more than that," Cordray says. "So this is real money for people — meaningful money." Here's an easy to way comparison shop: Search our database of the best mortgage rates from scores of banks and mortgage companies in your area.

To boost your retirement savings, forget about them

Stop looking at your retirement portfolio — it could be ruining the growth of your savings. So says a new study from Columbia University Professor Michaela Pagel. When people check their holdings frequently and attempt to rebalance them on their own, they end up making investment decisions they believe will decrease the pain of losses and increase happiness — but they often end up worse off. “Most people, if forced to look at their portfolio every single day, would make a very poor investment decision. They would find it so painful that they would not invest anything,” Pagel tells the Columbia Business School. The solution? Just don't go there.

SECOND THOUGHTS: The market fluctuates, but historically it has gone up. “There’s a pretty good chance the market will go down on any given day or week, but the probability of loss is much lower when you look over a long-run period such as two decades,” Pagel says. Want to save more? Take a look at our 7 rules for a successful 401(k) retirement account.

Fed moves slowly but steadily toward higher interest rates

We need to be “patient” for a few more months, but the day interest rates finally start to climb for CDs, money market and savings accounts appears to be getting closer. That's the signal the Federal Reserve seems to be sending with its latest policy statement, released today. Unless something very bad happens to the world's economy between now and then, it appears the nation's central bank will begin pushing short-term rates higher by mid-summer or early fall.

Remodeling Magazine puts out its annual Cost vs. Value survey

Thinking about starting a remodeling project? Take time to check out the Cost vs. Value survey from Remodeling Magazine. It compares the average cost of 36 popular remodeling projects with the value those projects retain at resale in 102 U.S. markets. This is a great way to see if your project is worth it. For 2015, the survey's overall cost-value ratio slipped to 62.2%, ending two years of gains. Only five projects saw their ratios rise in the 2015 report, with midrange roof replacement leading the way.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Before you remodel, think it through. Some homeowners get so excited, they only focus on the result. Here are the 11 biggest remodeling mistakes to avoid.

Funding for pensions took a big hit in 2014

Private pension plan funding took a dive last year, hitting levels not seen since right after the financial crisis, according to professional services firm Towers Watson. The average private pension plan was only about 80% funded at the end of 2014, down from 89% in 2013. And the pension deficit jumped to $343 billion by the end of last year, almost double what it was in 2013. Funding fell for a couple of reasons: Interest rates dropped, so pension plans have fewer dollars for the future. And many plans adjusted for improved lifespans, so benefits will be paid out longer. Those two things canceled out any benefits from a raging stock market in 2014, Alan Glickstein, a senior retirement consultant at Towers Watson, told The Washington Post.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Where will pensions land in 2015? It's anyone's guess. The Fed is expected to raise short-term interest rates this year — a potential boon for pensions. Yet bond markets could get hit unexpectedly — a negative for pensions. Don't have a pension? Then, like many of us, you'll have to rely on your company 401(k) or other savings for retirement. Here's what kind of return we can expect from our 401(k).

Will you quit your job if you don't get a raise in 2015?

Looking for a raise? You're not alone. Of nearly 900 workers surveyed by Glassdoor.com, 35% said they'd be on the hunt for a new job if they didn't get a salary bump in 2015. Those under age 35 and those making less than $50,000 per year were most likely to quit. But 36% of those between ages 35 and 44 said they'd take a walk if they didn't get a raise, and 31% making more than $100,000 would do the same. About half of employed adults said they expect a 3% to 5% hike. Confidence about finding a new job is also up. Close to half said they were confident they'd be able to pick up a job matching their experience and salary within six months, the highest level since early 2009, notes CNN Money.

SECOND THOUGHTS: If you're planning to ask for a raise, here's a tip: Do it after your company has had a great quarter and when your boss is doing well at work, Rusty Rueff, a former Fortune 500 HR executive and board member at Glassdoor.com, tells CNN Money. That's when your boss will have the most leverage with the higher-ups. Start the convo by asking the boss about your performance, and convey how much you want to succeed at the company, Rueff suggests.

Here's how to save like the top 1% of Americans

Want to save like the rich? Don't bank on your house being your main wealth builder. A recent report from Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University, offers insight into the portfolios of the top 1% (a net worth more than $7.8 million), the upper middle class (more than $400,000 but less than $7.8 million) and the broad middle class. The wealthiest 1% of Americans have only about 9% of their net worth tied up in their home, compared with 28% for the upper middle class and 63% for the broad middle class. So where do the top 1% invest? Nearly half (47%) of their gross assets are in unincorporated business equity and other real estate. Financial securities account for 27%. Those in the middle class hold over three-fifths of their wealth in their primary residence, just 9% in business equity and other real estate, and 16% in financial securities.

SECOND THOUGHTS: This helps explain why the housing bust and recession were tougher for the middle class, notes The Wall Street Journal. Housing has been slow to recover, while corporate profitability and the stock market have soared. But let's not discount homeownership for the middle class. It's still an investment and a stepping-stone to financial security. Just make sure to avoid these 10 big mortgage mistakes.

The gap between executive and worker retirement pay is growing

While the highest-paid employees still get executive pensions and other benefits, many underlings get only a 401(k). According to data from Bloomberg, CEO compensation at large U.S. companies was 204 times higher than the pay of workers on average in 2013. That's a 20% jump since 2009. The retirement compensation of Gregg Steinhafel, who recently stepped down as Target's CEO, highlights the disparity. He received retirement plans worth more than $47 million. That's 1,044 times the average balance — just $45,000 — that Target workers have saved in the company's 401(k) plan. Steinhafel got $27.7 million from a combined pension and deferred compensation plan, $9.8 million from an earlier deferred compensation plan and $9.9 million in interest. And that's on top of the more than $20 million in cash salary and bonus he earned in the five previous years.

SECOND THOUGHTS: "Target throws workers a cracker, and top executives take the cake," Ron Pierce, a former worker at the retailer's distribution center in Stuarts Draft, Virginia, tells Bloomberg. "Who can even spend $47 million? I'd like to see a chunk of that go for pensions for all employees." Good point, Ron. Something has got to give. But fewer and fewer companies are offering traditional pension plans. If the only retirement plan your employer offers is a 401(k) account, you've got to sign up and make the most of it. Here are 7 rules for a successful 401(k) retirement account.

Spend less on your wedding: You'll stay together longer

On average, couples spend around $30,000 on their wedding day, according to media company XO Group. Yet the more you spend on your wedding, the shorter your marriage will be, according to a study by Emory University economics professors Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon. Here's the breakdown: Fellas, put between $2,000 and $4,000 toward an engagement ring, and you'll be 1.3 times more likely to get divorced compared with those spending between $500 and $2,000. For men and women, shell out more than $20,000 on the big day, and you'll up your odds of divorce by 3.5 times compared with couples keeping it between $5,000 and $10,000. But the best odds come when you spend $1,000 or less on the festivities. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that post-wedding debt stokes marital tension, Francis and Mialon tell Ozy.com. Another potential problem: The wedding has become the highlight rather than relationship and commitment. Whatever the reason, spending on weddings is completely out of control. It's now a $55-billion-a-year industry, according to research firm IBIS World.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Don't skimp on the guest list. According to the report, a hefty guest list has the opposite effect than heavy spending. Simply spend less per person, notes Ozy.com. Make your own playlist instead of having a DJ. Grab a couple of Polaroid cameras instead of having a photo booth. Pick a cheaper venue. You'll thank yourself later when you get your bank statement and have plenty saved to stash in your 401(k) account or IRA.

This tax season could be the worst in 30 years

With the tax code getting more complicated and the IRS budget shrinking, this tax season could get pretty messy, notes CNN Money. In fact, it could be the worst since 1985, when computer failure, lost returns and delayed refunds plagued the IRS, Nina Olson, the national taxpayer advocate, said at a recent conference. The IRS top-line budget is about 10% less than in 2010, the number of IRS personnel has fallen by at least 8% and the IRS' training money has dropped by more than 85%. Meanwhile, the number of taxpayers has jumped 7 million. That means less taxpayer service and possibly delayed refunds. The major worry of the IRS is that deterioration in taxpayer service and enforcement will create long-term risk for a tax system that's based on voluntary compliance. "If the compliance rate goes down by 1%, it costs the government $30 billion a year. That's almost three times the entire budget of the IRS," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said at the same conference where Olson spoke.

SECOND THOUGHTS: What should we expect? For starters, a lot of waiting. Only 53% of calls to the IRS will be answered (meaning 47% won't be), and callers will wait an average of 34 minutes to talk to another human, Olson said. Tax preparers will wait around 52 minutes. There's also a small chance — very small — that our refunds will be delayed. Unfortunately, all we can do as taxpayers is be patient.

Half of us start saving for retirement in our 20s

According to a new poll from Gallup, 26% of Americans began saving for retirement before age 25, with 7% of that group starting before they turned 20. About half of today's investors started saving sometime before they turned 30, 28% said they started at some point in their 30s, 14% waited until their 40s and 8% waited until they were 50 or older. On average, retired and nonretired investors combined started saving at age 30. But most of us, although we should be, aren't saving as much as possible. Most investors (69%) believe that they could save more — a median of $250 more each month, according to the poll.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Compound interest is a powerful tool, but it needs time to really do its magic. That's why it's crucial to save as much as possible while you're young and keep adding to the pile. If you can swing stashing away a little extra cash each month, don't hesitate to add to your 401(k) or IRA. Keep in mind that Washington is letting us make slightly larger 401(k) contributions in 2015. And maxing out your 401(k) each year is a stepping-stone to financial security in retirement.

Health insurance penalties are rising in 2015

Pull out your wallet, and get ready to pay a fine if you didn't carry health insurance last year. Under the Affordable Care Act, you'll now face a fine if you were uninsured. That's unless you qualify for one of about 30 exemptions, notes the Associated Press. How much will you pay? For 2014, it's the greater of $95 per person or 1 percent of household income above the threshold for filing taxes. That's jumping up significantly in 2015, when not carrying health insurance will cost you the greater of 2 percent of income or $325. And by 2016, the average fine could be around $1,100. Of course, many will be exempt. According to H&R Block, the tax prep giant, around 4 million uninsured will pay penalties while 26 million will qualify for exemptions. Turbo Tax has a free tool called "Exemption Check" that allows you to see where you stand.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Being uninsured comes with some large financial risks. Medical bills can stack up into the tens of thousands of dollars if you have an accident. Plus, you'll now get fined. The Tax Policy Center offers a tax penalty calculator that helps you weigh your potential fine against average premiums. For a single individual with no dependents making an adjusted gross income of $50,000 per year, the penalty for not having health insurance would be $399 for 2014 and $794 for 2015, according to the calculator. Depending on the health insurance plan you choose, those penalties amount to three or four premium payments.

Is tipping at restaurants on its way out?

Tipping at restaurants might soon be a thing of the past, at least in major metropolitan areas. According to CNN Money, more restaurants, especially in big cities, are adopting no-tipping policies and using alternative menu pricing to compensate employees. For instance, patrons of Bar Agricole and its sister Trou Normand in San Francisco will not be expected to leave a tip starting Jan. 1. Instead, owner Thad Vogler will increase his menu prices by 20% to compensate the staff. Naturally, customers will no longer need to worry about breaking out the old smartphone calculator at the end of the night to calculate tip amount. Plus, staff will get steadier pay. "It's time for the restaurant business to be more like every other industry and charge what's appropriate rather than relying on other people to compensate its workers," Vogler tells CNN Money.

SECOND THOUGHTS: Volger has a great point. So let's kick tipping to the curb. It's an obsolete concept. With gratuity already included in the bill, eating at a restaurant becomes a more streamlined experience for both the restaurant and the customer. And as long as restaurant owners compensate their staff appropriately, service shouldn't suffer. No doubt, getting rid of tipping won't be easy. It's a cultural norm. But if you walk into a restaurant with a no-tipping policy, resist the urge to leave a few bucks extra. Your tip is built into the bill.

2014 was the biggest year for job growth in well over a decade

Last year was the best year for job growth since 1999. More than 2.95 million jobs were created, according to the Department of Labor. The big concern throughout the recovery has been that jobs were being added too slowly, frustrating workers. But that wasn't the case last year. Indeed, the U.S. economy added more than 200,000 jobs every month in 2014 except two — January and August. November was the by far the best month for job gains, with 353,000 jobs added. And the unemployment rate is also down. It dropped in December 2014 to 5.6% from 6.7% in December 2013. This year could be just as good or better. By the end of 2015, the unemployment rate is expected to drop to 5.2%, according to a survey of economists by CNN Money.

SECOND THOUGHTS: It could be a great year to find a new job. "American businesses are on a hiring binge," Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, told CNN Money. "It clearly suggests the economy is on a much stronger growth track than the first four years of the recovery." Of course, while job growth is taking off, wages aren't. Wages rose by just 1.7% over the past year, barely ahead of inflation. That stagnation in wages is tough on workers. And it makes it even more important to diligently save. Here are 7 rules for a successful 401(k) retirement account.

Google's new self-driving prototype is the future of transportation

Bay Area drivers in California might soon spot a Google vehicle with no human behind the wheel. That's right. Google is planning to test its first "fully functional" self-driving prototype on the roads. It still needs approval from the government, but the two-seater is a sign that driverless cars could soon become a staple in Silicon Valley neighborhoods, notes the San Jose Mercury News. Google is just one of seven companies that have won approval from the state Department of Motor Vehicles to test driverless cars on public roads. Google's new prototype has an electric battery and a speed cap of 25 mph, ensuring it can't get in too much trouble.

SECOND THOUGHTS: No doubt about it — this is the future of transportation. Google is aiming to have the car tooling around Northern California next year, according to Mashable. And Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Delphi Automotive, Tesla, Bosch and Nissan are all also testing driverless cars.