Why 66% of Americans Are Clueless About Health Care Costs

Woman deep in thought while looking at laptop
Visiting the doctor isn’t exactly an enjoyable experience.

But what feels worse? Opening your mail weeks later, only to face a medical bill that you didn’t anticipate.

About two-thirds of American adults — or a whopping 155 million of us — have been confronted by that unpleasant surprise in the past year, according to aVitals Index survey.

In many cases, that’s because the price tag hadn’t even come up. While the majority of survey respondents feel out-of-pocket medical costs impact their budgets “seriously” or “very much,” 3 out of 5 don’t ask their doctors about the cost of a service they’re about to receive.

Think about that for a moment … Would you buy a smartphone or a sofa without considering the price?

Why approach a medical purchase any differently?

Well, it turns out these cost conversations typically don’t happen for one of three reasons: patients believe their insurance will foot the bill; they don’t think their doctor knows the cost of the procedure; or they aren’t even aware they can ask about the price tag for recommended services.

Besides having a heart-to-heart with your doctor, you can also reduce your chances of an unexpected bill by getting more familiar with your insurance plan.

A good starting point is to confirm the amount of your health insurance deductible (something nearly 25 percent of respondents couldn’t cite offhand).

And if you need a health insurance refresher, consult our glossary of 12 need-to-know terms — and you’ll be in better shape to tackle this fall’s open enrollment period.

New Ways to Pay Back Friends and Family

Millennials Say 'Venmo Me' To Fuel Mobile-Payment Surge

When Victoria Scipione has to pay back friends after a weekend getaway, she pulls out her phone and uses the Venmo app. Since it’s linked to her bank account, she can quickly reimburse them for anything from dinner to Uber. “I’m extremely guilty of not always carrying around cash, and when I go out to dinner with friends we usually split the bill — that’s when Venmo comes in handy,” says Scipione, 23, a communications coordinator in New Jersey.

Venmo is one of the many new tools that make it easier than ever to reimburse friends and family. Choosing the right one for you often comes down to personal preference and needs — whether you’re moving funds domestically or overseas and your reason for sharing money in the first place.
Scipione says she’s drawn to Venmo largely because all her friends have the app, too. “When I think of PayPal, I think of my parents,” she says. Her generation, she adds, tends to prefer the social aspect of Venmo, which makes it easy for users to send each other friendly notes about payments, almost like texting. (Venmo is part of PayPal and charges a 3 percent processing fee per credit card and some debit card payments; receiving the funds is free.)

PayPal is also offering a new-and-improved service, called PayPal.Me​, which launched in September.​ Users can create a personalized link they can share with others to collect payments. Sending money to friends and family within the U.S. is free if it’s done using a PayPal balance or bank account. If it’s done using a debit or credit card, there is a fee of 2.9 percent plus 30 cents, paid by either the sender or recipient. ​

People were looking for a quick and easy way to collect money for group payments.

“People were looking for a quick and easy way to collect money for group payments,” says Meron Colbeci,​ senior director for global consumer product management at PayPal. “People find collecting money to be very awkward, and by giving a link right there in the email or text message, it hopefully reduces that awkwardness,” he adds. A PayPal Money Habits Study of 4,000 consumers released earlier this year found that, on average, adults owe friends almost $450, but many people said they were afraid to ask for reimbursement because they felt uncomfortable doing so.​

Because of the trend toward digital payments and away from cash, the need for easy exchanges between friends is growing, Colbeci says. “Down the line, cash will be a very small portion of the overall wallet,” he adds.

In September, Google announced the Google Wallet app, which allows users to send money for free to anyone within the U.S. using an email address. While Google is rolling out different features​, the app is currently available on Google Play and the App Store.​

Blended families exchanging child support payments often have specific needs when it comes to money, and that’s where the payment platform SupportPay can help. Founder Sheri Atwood ​says that as the ​child of divorced parents and who is now a single mom, she saw the need for making easier payments. “My parents constantly fought, and it seemed like everything they cared about was about money,” she says. She was determined to have a more amicable divorce, but she still found it hard to track the multiple payments and expenses shared between her and her ex-husband. “I was a single mom and now a debt collector,” she says — and that latter role is not one she wanted.

SupportPay, which is currently used by ​30,000 parents, keeps a record of support agreements as well as payments and receipts. “It’s like an expenses management system,” she says. It also assures the parent paying child supportthat the money goes toward the child’s expenses and not the other parent’s lifestyle. SupportPay, which has a free version as well as a premium version that is $19.99 a month, also handles notifications and billing, so divorcees don’t have to make requests of their exes.

For those exchanging money with people overseas, TransferWise aims to reduce costs associated with bank exchange rates. “Twenty percent of people in the U.S. will need to send money abroad at some point in the year, whether they’re paying friends or family abroad or booking travel,” says Joe Cross, ​U.S. general manager of TransferWise. “It’s incredibly expensive and hard. We’re trying to do what Skype did for international calling,” he adds, which is to keep it simple and cheap.

TransferWise works by finding a counterpart in Europe, for example,​ who wants to send money to the U.S, so the dollars go to that recipient and the money stays in the country of origin​. That way, paying exchange rates can be avoided. After the launch in the U.S. about a year ago, customers have already used TransferWise to transact around ​$4 billion. The company charges a small fee, typically 1 percent, to handle the transaction. “We believe it should be as close to free as possible,” Cross says.

Banks are also joining the friend repayment party: Chase launched QuickPay in 2009​, making it one of the first banks to launch its own “person to person” payment service, according to company spokeswoman Lauren Francis. ​Customers can access QuickPay through Chase apps or the website, and they made 30 million transactions on mobile devices in 2014, an 80 percent increase from 2013.​

8 Steps to Budget Mastery in 20 Minutes a Month

Anxious father paying bills online
The word “budget” strikes fear and panic in many. No one likes to think about them, let alone talk about them. The truth of the matter is that most budgets fail, and they fail badly, because most budgets lie. Yes, that’s right — they lie. A budget can represent whatever numbers you put in it. If you forget to add a bunch of expenses in each month, then it makes sense that you would be over budget month after month after month

To break this silly cycle of money mayhem, here’s an easy eight-step system you can use to master your budget in only 20 minutes a month. Open up a spreadsheet and let’s get started!

1. Create a Second Column

Not to be redundant, but we’ve got to first start with the budget. Why most budgets fail is because they only have one column, the budgeted column. We’ve already gone over why this doesn’t work. Instead, upgrade your budget to a two-column layout for success. Your first column is the “What I Think I Will Spend” column, and the second column is the “What I Actually Spent” column. Basically, you create two mirror columns to accurately display what is going on in your budget for a given month.

2. Fill in ‘What I Think’

The “What I Think” column should be the easiest column to complete and shouldn’t take you more than a couple of minutes at most. This column represents all of your budgeted items. It’s an approximation of what you think you will spend during the month. Most of the numbers should be easy to access from your normal monthly expenses. Don’t labor over this column too much, but make sure that you attempt to accurately itemize each income and expense item.

3. End of Month

The end of the month is where things start to get a bit more analytical (but don’t let that scare you). At the end of each month, print off your most recent bank or credit card statements in which you’ve incurred your expenses for the month. This is the easiest step in the eight-step process, but it’s critical to analyzing what went on during the month.

4. Add It Up

Once you’re armed and ready with your statements (and receipts, for cash spending), get out a handy calculator and some highlighters. Color-code your statements for budget expense items like groceries, eating out, gas, clothing, utilities, phone, and so on. Then go through the list and highlight each item in each category. This makes it easy to add it all up when you are finished. There’s nothing yet to analyze in this step, you are simply categorizing for step six. This will take you the longest out of all the steps, so allow 10 minutes to conquer your statements. Once you do this process for a month or two, it should be very easy to go through your statements in five minutes or less. Practice makes perfect.

5. ‘What I Spent’

Now it’s time to fill in the second column, “What I Spent.” Simply take the numbers from your statements and input them into the budget template. If you notice that you’ve left off a category on your budget, add it and put it in bold so it can jog your memory next month. Each month has its own twists and turns, so it’s common that you might leave out a category by accident.

6. Compare the Columns

You’ve done the heavy lifting now, and are almost through your 20 minutes this month. Take a look at your budget and compare the two columns. Are there any areas that surprise you? Did you come in under or over budget, and why? What about those missing categories, are they essential to include going forward? You see the power is in comparing these two columns. It gives you a chance to evaluate your budget from estimation in the beginning of the month, to an absolute at the end of the month.

7. The Envelope Trick

If you have a category that is always your Achilles’ heel, and month after month you are overspending, then it might be time to kick it old school. For instance, let’s say eating out is always an area you overspend in. If you’ve budgeted $200 for the month in your first column, then at the beginning of the month you can withdrawal that $200 in cash, and stick it in an envelope. For the entire month, every time you eat out, you must dip into this envelope. Once the money is gone, your eating-out budget is gone. While this might seem harsh, it’s an old school way to force you to stay within budget. At the end of the day though, none of these steps will work unless you put effort in and are committed to mastering your budget.

8. Reward Yourself

We all love a good reward, and you should pat yourself on the back if you’ve completed these steps for the month. No matter the outcome, you’ve taken small moves that will lead to big changes in your cash flow. Pick a dollar amount that you are comfortable with at the beginning of the month, and set a goal for yourself. Maybe you want to treat yourself to an extra cupcake at the end of the month, or go to that concert that you are dying to see. Whatever it is, give yourself a pat on the back, but not for too long — next month is coming quickly and it will be time to restart the 20-minute system.

6 Reasons to Remain in Your Current Home in Retirement

Senior couple using tablet computer at home
The typical retirement dream involves riding off into the sunbelt, golf clubs and beach umbrella in hand. However, the reality is that the majority of retirees never leave home. Most people opt to age in place, or if they do move, they find a smaller house near their old neighborhood.

Only about 7 percent of older Americans move every year, according to a long-term study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. And even though more people have recently been relocating with the improving economy, an AARP survey found that most people approaching retirement hope to remain in their current residence as long as they can.

Home is where the heart is. Many people feel attached to their home towns. Whether they grew up there or moved there to raise a family, they still enjoy going to the park where they took their kids as toddlers. They feel comfortable knowing about the best hardware store and the best pizza place. Many old-line suburbs have developed programs and amenities for their older population. Another benefit: urban centers in the north provide better public transportation than the retirement meccas of the sunbelt. There’s no subway in San Diego or T in Tampa.

Home is where your friends are. You go to the library and see familiar faces. Maybe you belong to a book club, or regularly meet friends for lunch, tennis or golf. All the research says that a strong social network is crucial for successful aging. Friends not only supply emotional support, but sometimes offer practical benefits like loaning you a book or DVD, helping with a project at home or giving you a ride. Why should you uproot yourself, move a thousand miles away and then be faced with the sometimes difficult challenge of finding a new group of like-minded friends?

People retire in the last place they land.Some people never settle down to live in one place for 20 or 30 years to raise their kids in a single community. Many baby boomers have moved around for work, or just because they’re restless, and then finally put down roots when they’re in their 40s or 50s. For example, my sister-in-law grew up in New Jersey, then moved to Michigan, Texas and finally in her late 40s settled down in Pennsylvania. She’s pretty adamant that she’s not moving again.

You don’t necessarily save much money. It costs a lot to move. You give up about 10 percent of the selling price of your house in real estate commissions, legal fees and taxes. Then there’s the cost of buying, moving and resupplying your new house. If you’re moving a long distance there are additional expenses involved in traveling and researching your new location. You might need to rent for a while or store some furniture. It’s not worth it if you only save a couple thousand dollars a year in your cost of living.

It doesn’t have to cost a lot to age-proof your home. Of course you can spend a lot of money if you want to remodel your entire house. But many of the safety issues involved in age-proofing a home involve modest expenses. Improve the lighting in stairways and outdoor areas. Change out doorknobs for lever handles that are easier to manipulate. Install bathroom grab bars and raised toilet seats. Get rid of scatter rugs, and put down colorful traction strips on the front edge of your stairs to help prevent falls. None of these changes costs much money. Depending on the layout of your home, it may even be possible to turn a study or den on the first floor into a master suite, converting the upstairs rooms into guest quarters.

Visit a virtual village. Virtual retirement villages can help seniors access resources to make it easier to age in place. A virtual village is a local non-profit organization that posts information online, providing referrals to member-recommended service companies and volunteers available to help out with dog walking, yard work and other homeowner needs. Some villages host social activities such as concerts, restaurant gatherings and group trips. Check outVillage to Village Network to find out more information on what villages do and how they work.

4 Smart Places to Put Your Short-Term Savings

More going out than coming in?
Short-term savings often take the form of an emergency fund — the three to six months’ worth of living expenses everyone should have in case of a layoff, family crisis, medical emergency or other misfortune. Savings can also be set aside for short-term goals or expenses that may come up in the next one to three years, such as a vacation, renovations or a car.

It’s important to stash this money somewhere safe and accessible, rather than tie it up in risky investments. “You’re going to need it, and you don’t want it flushed away,” says Chad Smith, a certified financial planner in North Carolina. “Avoid doing anything aggressive with it.”

So, where should short-term savings go?

Savings Account. Savings accounts are one of the best ways to make sure your money is secure and available when needed. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund guarantee that if a bank or credit union goes under, each customer’s lost money gets reimbursed up to $250,000. The downside is that the average interest on a savings account is 0.41 percent, according to Bankrate (RATE), although online banks may offer higher rates. Ally Bank savings accounts earn 1 percent.

High-Interest Checking Account. Often the highest interest rates are offered by regional banks or credit unions, and many of these regional institutions let anyone join, no matter where they live. Lake Michigan Credit Union, for example, opens up membership to people living in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan and those who have a family member with an account — but also anyone who makes a $5 donation to the West Michigan chapter of the ALS Association.

The LMCU Max Checking account offers members 3 percent APR for the first $15,000; additional funds accrue no interest. The account also refunds up to $15 in ATM fees each month and is part of a national network of ATMs with free withdrawals.

Most high-yield checking accounts have monthly requirements. In LMCU’s case, account holders must make 10 debit card purchases, log in to the account four times, sign up for emailed statements, and set up direct deposit. At many banks and credit unions, transfers from other bank accounts, including personal accounts, count as direct deposits. Some people buy small-denomination gift cards online or buy gas to meet the 10-purchase requirement.

It’s a bit of a hassle, but using a high-yield account for everyday checking and short-term savings can be rewarding. The difference between 0.41 percent interest and 3 percent interest on $15,000 over three years is $1,206.

Credit Card Debt. Paying off debt may not seem like a way to save money for an emergency, but consider that the average interest rate for credit card debt is 15.72 percent, according to Bankrate. That means paying off debt yields a guaranteed return of 15.72 percent — much more than a safe short-term investment would make.The idea here is to use money that would otherwise go into an emergency fund to pay down credit card debt, and fall back on the credit card in case of an emergency. However, keep in mind that some payments cannot be made with a credit card. It is wise to save at least several months’ worth of funds for cash-only expenses such as rent rather than put all your savings toward eliminating high-interest debt.

CD Laddering. This tactic is a bit more complicated but might result in a better yield, and a bank or financial planner can lend a hand. CD laddering is intended for short-term savings that might be needed in one to two years, as opposed to an emergency fund, which should be kept in a liquid account.

To build a CD ladder, invest equal amounts of money in certificates of deposit with different maturity dates. (The longer the term, the higher the interest rate.) For instance, buy CDs that mature in six months, one year, 18 months, two years, and so on. As the CDs mature, renew them for the longest term on your ladder. This strategy ensures that cash will be available regularly to use if necessary. In the meantime, the money earns more interest than it would in a most savings accounts.

Why So Many Black Friday Deals Are Here Already

Macy's Black Friday
The day after Thanksgiving, replete with doorbuster deals at jam-packed department stores and long lines at electronics purveyors, has for years marked the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season. But Black Friday continues to diminish in importance for shoppers as major retailers start offering deals online right after Halloween in order to get the jump on one another and drive more holiday sales overall, and more people choose to shop on their mobile devices at their own leisure.

Black Friday was named for the start of the period when stores traditionally began to claim a profit for the year, with black ink used to mark profits by accountants, versus red ink for losses. But Black Friday shopping as a relic of years past is once again starting to take shape this November.

On Nov. 1, Walmart (WMT) began offering discounts on thousands of items online, including toys and electronics. For example, Apple’s (AAPL) iPad Mini 2 is being sold for $199, down from $268. A 48-inch RCA smart TV could be had for $299.99 compared to $319.99 previously. At the top of its homepage, Walmart is promoting “hot holiday rollbacks all season long”, likely in an attempt to reawaken sluggish sales in the U.S. before the holiday season kicks into gear.

Walmart’s fiercest rival, Amazon (AMZN) isn’t standing idly by. On Nov. 2, Amazon rolled out its new “deals of the day” holiday season promotion, which will lead up to its more serious discounts for Black Friday on Nov. 27.

Reminiscent of once popular flash sales, Amazon’s deals are timed, in order to create a sense of urgency among gift-seeking consumers. Some of the first deals offered by Amazon include video-game Metal Gear Solid 5 for Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox One, which is discounted to $39.99 from $59. A pair of Saucony running sneakers is listed for $39.99, down from $70 previously.While Walmart and Amazon do battle online for holiday dollars in the early going, Target (TGT) isn’t joining the fray. The Minneapolis-based retailer began to stock its stores with holiday merchandise on Nov. 1, but isn’t offering any specific deals in the weeks leading up to Black Friday. Target didn’t return a request for comment.

Meanwhile, department store retailer J.C. Penney (JCP) downplayed the declining relevance of Black Friday, saying via email that “Black Friday remains an important shopping period for the company.”

“Black Friday is not dead, but it’s definitely different — I don’t think it will ever die, but it has to change because customers are changing,” said Kathy Grannis Allen, senior director at the National Retail Federation. Those changes to traditional Black Friday buying, fueled by a combination of more mobile shopping and earlier deals offered by retailers, were front and center during Black Friday 2014.

U.S. shoppers spent $9.1 billion at brick-and-mortar stores on Black Friday last year, according to data from research firm ShopperTrak. That represented a drop of 7 percent compared with Black Friday in 2013. In 2013, sales at physical retailers declined an even steeper 13.2 percent from the previous year.

Customer traffic on Black Friday has also declined by a similar amount, falling 5.6 percent in 2014 and 11 percent in 2013, according to ShopperTrak.

However, online and mobile shopping have surged. Online sales on Thanksgiving Day last year increased 14.3 percent over 2013, with sales on Black Friday up 9.5 percent year over year, according to IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark. Black Friday mobile traffic reached 49.6 percent of all online traffic, an increase of 25 percent from 2013. Black Friday mobile sales accounted for 27.9 percent of total online sales, up 28.2 percent from a year earlier.

“Black Friday is not irrelevant, it’s just that a lot more people are [buying] on mobile devices,” says Hannah Egan, product strategy specialist at IBM Commerce. Egan notes that mobile buying experiences have improved, as retailers have done a better job of targeting consumers with specific promotions on mobile devices.

Adds Egan, “the mobile device has become one’s personal shopper — those retailers that will win are the ones who treat their customers as one customer, offering good deals both online and in-store.”

If traditional Black Friday shopping at physical stores is starting to become a thing of the past, there may be some distinct winners and losers from the retail sector.

Winners could include companies that sell electronics such as Best Buy (BBY) or Amazon, as consumers look for good deals on these products throughout November and December and not just on Black Friday weekend. On the other hand, companies hawking impulse items people would buy for themselves while they’re out shopping on Black Friday, such as winter coats, boots and other apparel, may be hurt.

“Athleisure normally sells well over Black Friday weekend because it’s never discounted,” noted Allen, suggesting the likes of Lululemon (LULU) and Nike (NKE) could be impacted if fewer consumers are in the malls to buy yoga pants and joggers.

And this year, November may also mean another in which the Black Friday buying orgy fades further into the background of importance for retailers.

Fed is creating uncertainty: Goldman’s Zoellick

The ambiguous monetary policies implemented by central banks, like the U.S Federal Reserve, are beginning to dampen sentiment in the corporate world, according to the former president of the World Bank.

Robert Zoellick, now the chairman of Goldman Sachs International Advisers, told CNBC Thursday that the current challenge facing policymakers was how they communicated their future strategies and how that was impacting productivity and the fundamentals of growth in the business community.

“I personally think that you’re getting to a point, particularly in the United States, where the QE (quantitative easing) policies are creating greater uncertainty, And that affects the business climate,” he said, speaking at a Goldman Sachs symposium being held in London.

“So far in the United States you still have sort of reasonable growth based on the consumption sector, which is based on income and that’s based on jobs. But, it’s been the slowest recovery in the United States ever….so I think these are some of the fundamentals that frankly go beyond what central bankers can address.”

Zoellick said you could argue that the Federal Reserve is acting too slow in ending its era of easy monetary policing. He added that there were scenarios that could significantly surprise investors and global asset markets as the Fed begins to normalize interest rates.

“If the U.S. economy does start to pick up more over the course of 2016 and 2017 could (the Fed) be caught behind the curve?,” he asked. “That is something that the markets are not at all ready for.”

He signaled that forecasts from the central bank still predict the U.S. will have a “negative” real interest rate a year from now. A real interest rate has been adjusted to remove the effects of inflation to reflect the real cost of funds that a borrower faces.

“Given the fact the you have about (a) 5.1 percent unemployment (rate), that’s a question mark about whether they’ll (the Fed) get caught behind the curve,” he added.

There seemed to be little ambiguity from Fed Chair Janet Yellen on Wednesday when she said that December would be a “live possibility” for a rate hike if the upcoming data are supportive.

Testifying before the House Financial Services Committee, her words were taken as decidedly hawkish and the probability of a Fed rate hike next month increased to about 60 percent afterwards, according to the CME Group.

Are millennials making good choices with stocks?

Millennials have been less inclined to own stocks than their parents are. About 26 percent of Americans under the age of 30 own stocks compared to 58 percent of baby boomers, according to Bankrate.com.

But the young investors who are jumping into the market are choosing very different stocks than their parents are.

In an exclusive analysis for CNBC.com, online portfolio manager SigFig examined 410,000 portfolios for 220,000 investors who had at least one stock holding. They identified which stocks were most likely to be owned by millennials compared to baby boomers, and vice versa. Turns out the two generations not only favor different companies, but different sectors, as well.

SigFig researchers found millennial investors are most likely to own stock in Advanced Micro Devices, SolarCity, Twitter, GoPro — andTesla, which they’re 2.7 times more likely to own than boomer investors. Boomers, meanwhile, tend to favor larger, well-established companies. They are more than five times more likely than millennial investors to own shares of Southern Co., an electric utility company, and about five times more likely to own shares of Honeywell, Duke Energy, Merck and Mondelez, a multinational food and beverage conglomerate.

Why the disparity? Age explains a lot of it. For one, millennials are in the accumulation phase, said Marla Mason, a certified financial planner and vice president of the Colorado-based brokerage firm America’s Retirement Store. “They are looking for growth,” she said. “They are not necessarily looking for their grandfather’s portfolio of large blue-chip, dividend-paying stocks and bonds.”

Millennials are also more likely than their parents to pick stocks based on familiarity, looking at companies that produce products they use, she added. That hasn’t paid off in the short run; year to date, the boomers’ stock picks have outperformed the millennials’ favorite stocks. (See video.) But millennials do have more time to ride out the market’s ups and downs.

Still, if you’re a young investor, there are additional steps you can take to improve your chances of long-term financial success.

1. Get your finances in order. Before you even open an investment account, make sure you’ve paid off any credit card debt and that you have money set aside in a savings account in case you get hit with unexpected expenses or a job loss. Aim for enough to cover about three to six months’ worth of expenses.

“If you don’t have that money set aside first, then it really doesn’t make sense to put money aside in the markets,” said certified financial planner Charles Bennett Sachs of Private Wealth Counsel in Miami.

Millennial computer

2. Fund your retirement account first. Before you open an investment account, make sure you’re taking full advantage of the benefits of tax-advantaged retirement accounts. Focus on maxing out your employer-sponsored plan before opening a regular investment account. For 2015, you can contribute up to $18,000 in your 401(k).

At the least, make sure you’re contributing enough to get any employer match available to you. “If your employer matches, you want to max that out because you won’t get that kind of return with the stock market [alone],” said Zach Abrams, manager of wealth management at Capital Advisors in Ohio.

If you don’t have access to a 401(k), you can contribute up to $5,500 this year into a Roth IRA or a regular IRA. A Roth IRA lets you grow your money tax free, but you do pay taxes on contributions. With a regular IRA, you’ll be taxed when you start taking money out, but you won’t pay taxes in the meantime on annual gains.

3. Keep costs down. If you have money left over to open an investment account, try to make sure you’re keeping as much of your money as you can. Look for brokerage firms that have low commissions and low fees like Schwab, Vanguard, TD Ameritrade or Fidelity. Just make sure you are aware of all the fees associated with the funds you’re investing in, as well as trade commissions and any expenses associated with managing and maintaining your account. “Commissions can start eating you up,” warns Abrams, especially if you trade a lot. So it’s important to factor that in.

You could also try a roboadvisor service such as Wealthfront or Betterment. Neil Waxman, managing director at Capital Advisors, said this can be a good solution for a young investor because it is “low cost and you won’t have to do the research on your own.” The services offer fund suggestions based on your risk level, goals and timeline. The trade-off is that you have somewhat less flexibility with your investment choices.

4. Diversify. While you have time to ride out market volatility if you’re young, you still want to be sure you’re comfortable with the amount of money you’ve invested in particular stocks. “If you can’t commit that money for five years, it shouldn’t be in at all,” said Sachs. Ask yourself how long you plan to invest, how much realistically you can afford to invest and how comfortable you are with risk.

One way to lower your overall risk is by diversifying your portfolio, not just by investing in different stocks, but by considering different types of assets like CDs or bonds.

Whatever you choose, advisors recommend you do your research on the stocks or funds you invest in, checking analyst reports and ratings, and invest a little at a time so you can get a sense of your tolerance for risk.

“Keep it simple … as you start out,” said Sachs. “Get started and get in the habit and then you can start working toward more complex investing.”

Oil companies are learning to do more with less

The first wave of mid-sized oil and gas exploration and production companies has reported, and the results are more encouraging than many had anticipated. Production levels remain relatively high — in most cases at or near year-ago levels — yet capital expenditures are way down.

This means companies are employing new technologies and learning to produce more with less. Capital efficiency is increasing dramatically.

Read MoreFrackers change methods in ‘imploding’ oil market

Look at Marathon Oil, out last night after the bell. The loss of 20 cents was far less than the 40-cents expected loss. Sales volumes were higher than expected. Production expenses came in lower than expected. Capital expenditures for 2015 are being cut more than estimated, and projected capital expenditures for 2016 are also being slashed further.

Devon Energy also reported a sizable earnings beat (76 cents vs. 52 cents consensus), with production higher than expected, and spending lower than expected. For 2016, it looks like capital expenditures will be much lower, with production increasing in the low single-digits.

You see? Production steady, but spending much lower. Earnings somewhat better than expected. Doing more with less!

There was also Chesapeake Energy, which took a big writedown on its oil and natural gas properties, but even then, the loss was less than expected. Production growth was up 3 percent, but capital expenditures were down 35 percent quarter over quarter.

The goal for this quarter is to reassure the Street that: 1) commodity prices may remain low for some time and 2) we have the means to make money within the new capital restraints.

Read MoreThis group presents a ‘compelling buy’: Technician

There’s another story with some of the oil plays: lower debt expenses.

Look at Denbury Resources, a smaller E&P that operates in the Gulf Coast and rocky Mountain regions. The driller also had a good earnings beat due to lower than expected capital expenditures. Production is down slightly, but capital spending is down dramatically, and it is reducing spending even further in 2016.

Denbury had recently suspended its dividend, freeing up $88 million in cash. Much of that is going to reduce bank debt, which is now down to $210 million at the end of the third quarter, from $395 million at the end of 2014.

Look, these companies have had a terrible year and it’s still debatable whether oil has bottomed. And many will look askance on the fact that production levels are still high and see that as a negative.

But it is stunning to see how they are finding ways to survive with oil in the mid-$40s.

Anyone who is looking at the oil and gas business and not marveling at the technological innovation and the effort to increasing operating efficiency is not paying attention.

6 giant stocks smash all-time highs

Investors are counting the days before the ongoing market rally returns stocks to an all-time high. But the wait is over—if you own the right stocks.

There are six companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500, including online retailer Amazon.com (AMZN), Google holding company Alphabet (GOOGL) and beauty product maker L Brands (LB) that are already trading at or above their all-time highs, according to a USA TODAY analysis of data from S&P Capital IQ.

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And there could be more where that came from. Thanks to the market’s recent rally, which has pushed the S&P 500 up more than 6% over the past month, there are 30 additional stocks that aren’t at all-time highs yet—but are less than 2% away.

Seeing so many stocks race close to record highs offers a vote of confidence for the market as it goes into what’s usually the strongest season for returns. The S&P 500 itself is just 1% away from its high-water mark of 2128.28 set in July. The S&P 500 is down roughly 7 points Wednesday at 2102.39.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

But there’s no more waiting for investors in Amazon.com, which has seen its shares more than double this year to $644.34—taking out its previous all-time high of $630.70. Amazon’s previous high was set in late October following the company’s surprising profit during the third quarter. If you back out the company’s three splits, a 2-for-1 in 1999 and 1998 and a 3-for-1 in 1999—the stock would be trading for an astounding $7,680 a share.

Tech definitely holds a pole position in the race to new highs. Alphabet—also coming off a strong third quarter for results—is trading for $756.55 a share—leaving behind its previous all-time high of $752.50 on Oct. 23. Investors continue to applaud the company’s highly profitable model of mining personal online data and selling those in aggregate to online advertisers. The company is expected to put up 12% growth in adjusted profit this fiscal year and another 18% growth in fiscal 2016.