A Buyer’s Guide: The Best Smart Home Assistants

No matter if they are in the form of smartphones or compact speakers, smart assistants have effectively infiltrated our lives and become a part of our everyday routines. In 2011, Apple’s Siri was not only introduced as the newest iPhone feature but the first consumer-friendly voice assistant as well.

Since then, virtual companions have been introduced across the board, hoping to sway devotees away from Apple’s platform and exorbitant price points. Although it seemed as though such success was impossible to achieve, Amazon and Google have effectively undercut their fellow tech titan, providing the public with effective, affordably priced smart assistants that outperform even the newest Apple invention: the HomePod.

However, some consumers are still conflicted, unsure of which smart home assistant would best meet their needs — or if they even require a smart home assistant at all. With that in mind, let us compare these competing smart home hubs.

Amazon Echo

What was once just the Echo has expanded into an entire line of products, varying in shape, size, and price, making it one of the most consumer-friendly brands on the market.

Equipped with Alexa, Amazon’s wildly popular smart assistant, this smart device can do more than just answer the questions that pop into your mind. Instead, Alexa is capable of ordering pizzas, calling you an Uber, and connecting with your other smart devices — such as vacuum cleaners, fans, air purifiers, diffusers, and kitchen appliances.

Furthermore, these devices provide excellent sound quality, especially if you purchase the newest full-size Echo, which comes complete with Dolby Atmos speakers.

Google Home

The biggest competition for the Amazon Echo family is, without a doubt, Google Home. Available in three levels and sizes, this line is just as accessible, user-friendly, and affordable as its competitor.

Plus, this speaker is equipped with Google Assistant, a robust companion that is backed by the one and only search engine that shares its name. Because of this, Google Assistant has been proven to answer questions faster and more accurately than Amazon’s Alexa.

Additionally, this device is able to understand questions of varying structures and carry on comprehensible conversations. Finally, Google Assistant is also capable of differentiating between users via Voice Match, meaning their personal data — such as login credentials, banking information, and Netflix access codes — are completely inaccessible by those with whom they share the device.

Apple HomePod

Last and, unfortunately, least, we have the Apple HomePod. Originally, this device was slated to hit the shelves just before Christmas 2017, making it a strong competitor to Amazon and Google alike. However, due to some production issues, the Apple HomePod was delayed until just this month, effectively losing Apple the advantage it so desired.

Now that the device has been made available to the public, many consumers are underwhelmed by its design, features and, most importantly, price point. Granted, the HomePod is equipped with six microphones to ensure Siri can hear your every word, regardless of your distance, but that is really its only standalone feature. That is, unless you subscribe to Apple Music, own an iOS device, and do not mind spending $350 on a smart assistant that will likely misunderstand your request.

Users with Android phones or those who are not subscribed to Apple Music will likely encounter some issues, as the device is not compatible with competitors’ smartphones, Spotify, Pandora, or virtually anything outside of the Apple ecosystem.

Ultimately, the decision is the consumer’s to make. However, it is important to note that some of these smart assistants clearly outperform others. So, be sure to look past brand names and choose the device that would best suit your own needs, rather than dropping an exorbitant amount of money on a lackluster product.

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What Are the Financial Risks of Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is one of society’s hottest topics. Late last year, in October, 2017, J.P. Morgan Chase chief executive officer Jamie Dimon answered a media member’s question about Bitcoin with this inflammatory response:

“If you’re stupid enough to buy [Bitcoin], you’ll pay the price for it one day.”

When Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett was asked for his opinion on investing in Bitcoin. He responded by stating:

“You can’t value Bitcoin, because it’s not a value-producing asset. . . [there is] a real bubble in that sort of thing.”

While all cryptocurrencies carry an elevated risk, they are also capable of becoming an investment that garner substantial returns to investors. This statement can be exemplified by the rapid and unprecedented growth cryptocurrency experienced just last year.

As of January 1st, 2017, the price of Bitcoin, the mother of all cryptocurrencies, was just under $1,000, in terms of United States dollars.

By late December, Bitcoin experienced a massive spike, causing its price to rise to nearly $20,000. However, it has also lost considerable value, as its price has dropped to short of $9,000 just one month after its previously mentioned rally.

In spite of its pitfalls, many are still entertaining the idea of investing in Bitcoin. If you fall under that category, it is important you consider the financial risks of doing so. In order to make the most informed decision possible, let us review some of the most relevant, substantial risks that investing in cryptocurrency can bring.

Bitcoin’s value is almost as unpredictable as the lottery

Unless luck is on one’s side, consistently winning lottery jackpots is indisputably impossible. While profiting off of Bitcoin is not as unpredictable as the lottery, per se, what is true is that nobody on planet Earth can reliably predict the price of Bitcoin — or any cryptocurrency, for that matter.

Buying and holding Bitcoin in hopes of generating a profit is a bad idea for most investors. Unless one can afford to throw away their investment entirely — take this advice in a literal sense — investing in Bitcoin is likely not their best option.

Bitcoin does not guarantee long-term success

Individuals invest money to grow wealth over time, or at least protect against inflation. Unfortunately, investing in Bitcoin is not a reliable method of achieving those goals.

As an investor that is focused on consistently generating returns, why not invest your hard-earned money into tried-and-true financial instruments that are almost certain to generate profits in the long run, such as stocks, mutual funds, or personal retirement accounts?

After all, even the most daring financial advisors will say betting on Bitcoin is essentially gambling. So, if you can afford to gamble, riding the rollercoaster that is Bitcoin’s daily candlestick charts will likely prove fun. If not, it would be in your best interest to explore other options.

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The Best Financial Resolutions for 2018

As we near the end of the year, you may find yourself contemplating all of the things you will see, do, and achieve in the coming 365 days. Regardless of the scenarios you have encountered in 2017, you are likely feeling optimistic and ready to take on the challenges the new year presents, especially if they result in your own betterment.

This positive mindset is typically the reason why approximately one-half of our population sets New Year’s resolutions — goals they set and wish to achieve by the end of the coming year. However, statistics show that approximately 80 percent of these resolutions die by February, and only 8 percent of those who set these goals actually fulfill them.

While these numbers may seem grim, do not let them intimidate you, especially if you intend to set several resolutions of your own. Instead, maintain your determination and work toward your own improvement.

To further inspire you, let us examine some pertinent goals you could set to enhance your own financial growth and stability.

Put a focus on spending less money

Do you often splurge on expensive coffee drinks or meals out? You are not alone! Countless Americans find a decent chunk of their paychecks going toward these frivolous expenses. While there is nothing wrong with treating yourself every once in a while, take this opportunity to rein in these habits, trading your usual restaurant order for a packed lunch, or your large latte for a cup of coffee you brewed in your own office.

It may be difficult to adapt to these changes at first — that is, until you see just how much money you are truly saving and putting toward more worthwhile causes.

Explore your investing options

Now, it is important to note that one does not have to buy into the stock market in order to invest. After all, stocks are investment vehicles that carry high volatility — an unpredictability that newer investors will want to avoid until they get their footing. Therefore, it is recommended that one looks into investment accounts that will benefit them in the long run, such as Roth IRAs, 401(k)s, and so on.

Pay off your credit card debt

In the financial realm, there are few things more burdensome than carrying a large amount of debt on one’s shoulders. With that in mind, take some time to map out just how you can eliminate as much of your debt as possible in the new year. This could be achieved by employing tactics such as the snowball method, by putting down more than just the minimum payment, or by focusing a majority of your discretionary income on the repayment of your largest debt.

Regardless of how you choose to improve your finances in the new year, be sure you stick with the decisions you have made. Disciplining yourself in this way will be difficult, but it will certainly be worth it when you can finally say you are — or are close to being — in the financial position you have always desired to be.

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A Buyer’s Guide: Mac or PC?

Apple versus Microsoft — or Mac versus PC — is a battle that has been going on longer than some consumers have been alive, though some may still remember the commercials that personified this debate.

For years, it seemed as though Apple was inimitable, with its sleek designs, navigable software, and immunity to malware and other viruses that so often crippled its Microsoft-made counterparts. However, as technology has continued to advance and amaze us all, it appears that the playing field has been all but leveled, with Microsoft flaunting sleek designs, improved software, and a more affordable price range.

These developments have now put many consumers back at square one, debating whether they should invest in an Apple device or take a chance with Microsoft, regardless of their previous trend of brand loyalty. With that in mind, let us take a look at the pros and cons of each brand in hopes of discovering the best option for every buyer.

The advantages and disadvantages of Apple

As previously mentioned, Apple’s computers flaunted a sleek, uniform design, aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly software, and a security system that was all but impenetrable. Truthfully, not much has changed in the past decade or so, barring the few small adjustments the company has made to certain models’ designs — such as including a touch bar to their newest Macbook Pros, and removing the CD-DVD drive in order to provide consumers with a lighter, more portable laptop, though some view that as a disadvantage.

However, the company’s consistency is contributing to its competitor’s advances. Apple does not deliver very niche designs, but continues to push out products with a very streamlined appearance, barring the recent addition of space grey, gold, and rose gold to their otherwise underwhelming color options.

The advantages and disadvantages of Microsoft

Unlike its competitor, Microsoft relies on multiple companies to produce its computers, meaning consumers have a wider range of designs and features to choose from. Additionally, the price range of Microsoft computers is far more attainable and comfortable than that of Apple computers, which can skyrocket over $2,000.

In the case of Microsoft computers, though, it is important to remember that you get what you pay for. Yes, you may be able to purchase a touchscreen laptop in the color you desire at a massively discounted price, but do not be surprised if the machine only lasts one to two years. This is especially true if you do not take the additional precautions necessary to protect yourself from malware and other viruses — a feature that is built into Apple computers.

It goes without saying that each machine has its own list of pros and cons. Therefore, the only person who can decide which machine is more worthwhile is the consumer, as they know their specific immediate needs, budgetary restrictions, and long-term expectations for the product they ultimately purchase.

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Cryptocurrencies Are Becoming More Mainstream

There comes a moment in the life of every new technology when a light turns on and the mainstream finally accepts it. This moment may have finally come for cryptocurrencies with the opening of the LedgerX clearing and trading platform.

LedgerX received approval last July from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and offers a variety of cryptocurrency derivatives. About twenty institutional investors — an assortment of hedge funds, investment banks, and other financial entities — have been participating at the exchange, trading bitcoin forward contracts and options.

So far, trading at LedgerX has been light, with only 176 trades executing during the week of October 16-20, with a notational value of around a million dollars. But this still gives cryptocurrency supporters hope that one day soon financial institutions will be trading bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies in large numbers, both for their own accounts and for their customers.

Why? Because LedgerX opens the possibility that cryptocurrency trading will become more liquid and stable. Trading of cryptocurrencies by financial institutions have been held back by the lack of a clearing mechanism, as well as by liquidity problems at the unregulated exchanges, caused by their unorthodox settlement, security, and compliance policies. LedgerX solves all these issues.

Even more encouraging, LedgerX isn’t the only platform out there or on the horizon. Four other companies are either offering or will be offering institutional trading of cryptocurrencies, including Coinbase, DRW, BitGo, and the Cboe Options Exchange. Cboe will even offer index trading, eliminating the need to buy actual cryptocurrency.

These companies and their platforms will make it easier for financial institutions to trade cryptocurrencies, which could lead to more passive investment in them, and higher and more stable prices. They can also attract investors seeking to gain from the volatilities of the market.

A good gauge of how accepted cryptocurrencies are in the mainstream is the GBTC, which is an open-end unit investment trust that owns only bitcoins. Before October, this year it had been trading at a premium of 60 to 120 percent above the value of the currency it holds, which represents the value of owning a regulated financial product with traditional clearing and settlement policies. This month, though, the premium has plummeted to 25%. A zero premium is well within sight, and would signify true acceptance of cryptocurrencies by the mainstream financial community.

As trading increases in the coming months at LedgerX and at other platforms, we’ll see if cryptocurrencies fulfill their promise of mainstream acceptance. But cryptocurrency believers should feel good about their chances.

from Alex Gemici | Finance Professional http://ift.tt/2gPBVdY

The Best Tax Moves To Make Before The New Year

As 2017 comes down to its final few months, it’s time for adults to start thinking about how they need to file their taxes come April. There are lots of small ways you can take advantage of the tax system and save the most money possible if you’re vigilant and make plans now that will come to fruition once you begin to file your earnings and expenses.

Here are some of the best ways you can ensure a nice little windfall of cash come federal refund time.

To itemize or not to itemize?

By and large, taxpayers choose not to itemize and to take the standard deduction for all their tax-deductible activities, and by and large, that’s a good option to take for the sake of time and tedium. However, under certain circumstances, you may be better off itemizing. For example, if you’ve taken out a mortgage three or so years ago, you may have finished paying off the interest on the loan and begun paying on the house itself – that transition is a huge deduction opportunity.

If you choose to itemize, go all in: Going through the pain of itemizing all your tax deductions means that you know exactly what you have to do to max them all out. Move up any major medical procedures so that they count towards your deduction where you can. Make all the charitable contributions you intended to make sooner rather than later. Try to do any major home renovations to make your house more energy efficient before Christmas. As it’s feasible, take advantage of all the hard work you’ve done and hit those deductions hard.

Wait On Bonuses

We all love that big check at the end of a year from a company to thank employees for a job well done. However, for the sake of your taxes, it may be smarter to ask your HR department to hang onto those bonuses until after New Year’s Day. This will make the biggest difference if you’re right on the precipice of a tax bracket jump and a hefty bonus will put you over the edge.

Withdraw Your RMD

The federal government will slap you with a mighty penalty tax of up to 50% if you fail to take the appropriate deductions from your IRA or 401K after you’ve retired. If you’re over seventy years old, it’s imperative that you take the required minimum withdrawal prior to the new year, whether you actually need the money or not.

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You Only Need $5 to Start Investing with These Apps

You Only Need $5 to Start Investing with These Apps

Investing can be a difficult subject for many to understand. The thought of risking hundreds of dollars is unappealing to most. However, for the uneducated and those unwilling to risk it all, there are a number of apps that exist specifically to cater to you. Read on to find out how you can start investing with as little as $5.

Acorns

The first app, and one of the easiest to grasp, is Acorns. This app is great for those who want to take more of a “set it and forget it” approach, or those who would rather someone else decide what they should invest in. After taking a short survey about your needs and wants, Acorns suggests one of five portfolios for you to invest your money in. The choice is ultimately left up to you, and you can switch at any time, but this app is meant for a more hands-off clientele.

One key feature to point out is the recurring investment (which you can set to your own amount and time-frame). Another, and one that sets them apart, is round-ups. With round-ups, you hook up your bank account and any debit/credit cards you have and Acorns will round each purchase you make up to the next dollar and invest the difference. This is an easy way to invest small amounts of money without thinking about it. The third main feature is found money, where companies will invest a small amount of money in your portfolio when you use them. Some large retailers, such as Walmart, partake, but there are often caveats to the purchase.

Also, with 0 fees for students and people under 25, Acorns is an easy choice for the Millennial population, which makes up most of its user-base.

Robinhood

Robinhood is an app for people who would like to learn more about the stock market, or who have more free time and money on their hands. Although you can start your account with $5, Robinhood works by allowing its users to trade in the stock market – a feature that involves paying full price for stocks. However, with easy to use charts, a customizable list of stocks you want to watch, and instant buying power, Robinhood remains one of the top investment apps for first-time buyers.

Some key components to point out are: instant buying power once you initiate a money transfer, a news section to keep you up-to-date on all the latest news regarding your stocks, and a referral program that gives you (and the person you referred) one free stock for using your referral link.

Betterment

Betterment works similarly to Acorns in that it is less time-consuming to work with. Betterment uses a computer algorithm to determine the best stocks to invest in, and does all the work for you behind-the-scenes. The upside to this app over Acorns is that there are no set portfolios, so there is a better chance of outperforming other investment avenues, but the downside is it is not customizable like Robinhood.

Investing in the digital age is easier than it once was, and we have many companies to thank for that. Although financial concerns have caused many to hold tightly to their funds, investing a few dollars using one of these apps can lead to great returns. Nothing in the stock market is certain, but what is certain is you can begin to invest with just a few swipes and taps.

The Lesser-Known Financial Tips For Startups

THE LESSER-KNOWN FINANCIAL TIPS FOR STARTUPS

Startups, as new businesses, frequently end up having to spend a lot of money on various things, many of which aren’t worth the money.

Because entrepreneurs who are building startups are often newer to business ownership, there are a few financial blunders they may fall prey to along the way. Based off of my experience, here are the lesser-known financial tips that every entrepreneur should be mindful of:

Avoid (most) lawyers.

Startups more often than not require legal assistance, but this is at a pretty basic level. Law agencies and lawyers might offer packages that cater to a startup, but that’s not necessary for a business that’s just trying to get off the ground. Rather, hire legal service as and when required, as opposed to contracting law agencies in advance.  

Don’t overpay on tickets.

One way for a startup to get the word out about their business is to attend various conferences and events. Yet, tickets for these events are frequently not worth what you’ll get out of them. Instead, you can just as easily – and much more cheaply – take advice from people in your network or learn from videos.  

Coworking isn’t always the best option.

Coworking spaces are one of those tropes of the modern-age startup, and indeed, they can help many startups save money. Yet the people sharing your space can shape the culture of your startup for better or worse. Getting your own workplace allows you to establish a dedicated working culture, where developers can focus on their work. 

Save on accounting.

A startup that is just starting up isn’t big enough to hire accounting and finance services. When you have thirty people working for you, that, then, become a much different conversation, but until then you can handle such issues on your own.  

Keep a limited advertising budget.

Marketing and advertising are essential for a startup to build a brand and spread the word. At the onset, because your finances will be more strapped, make sure to spend wisely on what is necessary. Write out a set budget for marketing to ensure you aren’t overspending. As you grow, you can begin to spend more money on advertising efforts.

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What To Do And What Not To Do When Consolidating Credit Card Debt

WHAT TO DO AND WHAT NOT TO DO WHEN CONSOLIDATING CREDIT CARD DEBT

Countless Americans struggle with credit card debt on a regular basis. Trying to get out from under that debt can be an overwhelming process.

Many people try to consolidate their outstanding debt under one bill, lower their overall interest rates, and simplify the process of repayment. Yet, this often comes with plenty of perils to consider, so it’s important that you know what you should and shouldn’t do.

With that in mind, here are some dos and don’ts of consolidating your credit card debt:

Do…

…set up a balance transfer credit cards. One extremely easy way to refinance your credit card debt is by opening a new balance transfer credit card and moving your balances to it. These 0% interest cards give you time to focus on paying down your credit card balance by deferring your interest. The interest savings typically cover the cost of upfront fees, while the process will supercharge your ability to pay back debts. However, there are limits; for example, you can only consolidate as much debt on your balance transfer card as your new line of credit will allow.

look into debt consolidation laws. Taking out a separate consolidation loan can be a good way to consolidate your credit card debt, but only if you can get a lower interest rate than what’s part of your card’s terms. You should also know what type of payment plan you’ll be entering with this new loan. As long as you’re lowering your interest rates and know about any and all costs involved, then it can be a good alternative to opening a balance transfer credit card.

work on a repayment plan. After you decide how to consolidate your credit card debt, start working on a repayment plan. Decide how much you can afford on a monthly basis and estimate how long it will take before your loan is fully paid off. You want to find a good balance between saving and paying off the debt; you may hate debt, and want to get it out of the way as soon as possible, but you also want to keep saving up money for potential emergencies.

Don’t…

…make new purchases on your balance transfer card. When you’re transferring all of your balances onto a new card, focus first and foremost on repaying your debt. Don’t charge new purchases to this card. If you continue to make new purchases instead of paying your debt, then you can’t put a dent in the principal balance you had planned to get rid of.

take out home equity loans. While you look for ways to consolidate credit card debt, you may come across offers for home equity loans, which have you put up your home as collateral. It goes without saying that these are extremely risky, so don’t take one of these out to pay down your outstanding credit card debt.

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Why Building Lasting Partnerships Is Good For Your Business

WHY BUILDING LASTING PARTNERSHIPS IS GOOD FOR YOUR BUSINESS

When people think of business relationships, they often think of competition. After all, if your company is making as much revenue as it can, it’s costing other company’s money. Or, you might think of contracted services, like hiring another company to distribute your product.

But there are other types of partnerships that businesses can engage in. Business development is a term that describes the formation of these relationships. It can sometimes refer to sales relationships, including contracted services and the sales of raw materials or component parts. But more frequently, it describes the formation of mutually beneficial business relationships between businesses in related, but not competing, areas.

How do you form these types of business partnerships?

Mutual Benefits

Think of what types of businesses it would benefit you to partner with. Sometimes, there is an obvious answer. For example, if you run a pet grooming business, forging a partnership with a pet store makes sense and could drive a lot of customers to your business. Other times, it may take more brainstorming. Think about where your product or service is sold, who it benefits, and what else the people who purchase it might need.

Once you’ve come up with some possibilities, reverse it and think of how your potential partners would benefit from doing business with you. The best partnerships are the ones in which everyone wins.

No Regrets

Don’t make too many partnerships, as that can complicate the priorities of your business. If there are many possibilities, really consider which ones will be the most beneficial to make. But that said, don’t enter into any exclusive partnerships. Even if you only intend to partner with one other company, you don’t know what the future needs of your company will be, and you don’t want to agree to something you’ll regret in the future.

And on that note, make sure that you have an exit strategy if a partnership doesn’t work out. Talk to potential partners about how to create a mutually useful and fair exit strategy, in case of a future conflict of company values, or simply a change in what your company needs.

Avoid Competing

A good partner’s business will often overlap with yours. Be wary of that overlap, and be careful not to overstep your bounds. If you run a pet grooming business, you might sell dog toys on the side. But if you decide to partner with a pet store for extra customers, it might be wise to discontinue this, or sell only a limited stock, or buy the toys through the store’s supplier. Discuss areas of potential competition with potential partners to see if you can come up with a mutually amenable agreement.

from Alex Gemici | Finance Professional http://ift.tt/2hCIwMk