MONEY Internet

Verizon Internet Customers Can Now Watch HBO Without a Pay TV Package

Game of Thrones
Nick Wall—HBO/courtesy Everett Collection Game of Thrones

HBO Now is now available if you have Verizon broadband.

On Tuesday, HBO and Verizon announced a new partnership allowing Verizon broadband customers to sign up for the Internet-only HBO Now service, starting immediately.

TV fans had begged HBO for years to introduce a streaming service that didn’t require the usual pay TV subscription. The TV giant finally obliged by launching HBO Now in April, at a price of $14.99 per month. At the beginning, however, HBO Now was available exclusively on Apple TV and Optimum.

Verizon broadband customers now have access to HBO Now too. Free 30-day trials of HBO Now are currently available via verizon.com/hbonow. After the introductory period ends, subscribers would pay $14.99 per month to keep the Internet-only service, which offers instant access to the usual HBO content, including series like “Game of Thrones” and hundreds of movies and sports and comedy specials.

For the time being, only Verizon’s broadband customers—Fios or otherwise—have access to HBO Now. Verizon says that eventually HBO Now will be open to 100+ million Verizon Wireless customers as well, though it hasn’t been announced when that option will be available.

MORE: Get Ready for Your Internet Bill to Soar
7 Streaming TV Packages That Will Let You Cut the Cord for Good

MONEY Autos

The Hot New Luxury Car Isn’t a Car at All

The 2015 Ford F-150
courtesy Ford The 2015 Ford F-150 starts at around $26,000, though a new Limited model will soon debut for more than double that.

Upscale pickup trucks listed at $50,000+ are hot sellers

The blue-collar, middle-class, mid-priced pickup truck still exists. But it’s becoming more the exception than the rule.

In June, the average price paid for a new Ford F-series truck—the best-selling vehicle in America for more than three decades—topped $44,000, an increase of $3,600 over last year.

That’s the average price per transaction, mind you. As the Wall Street Journal noted, many Ford trucks are priced well above average, and a new Ford F-150 Limited model will hit the market later this year with a sticker price above $60,000, “a larger starting price than a Porsche Cayenne sport-utility vehicle.”

The fancy new Ford pickup will have “fiddleback eucalyptus” wood trim and massaging seats, among other features. What’s perhaps more surprising than the fact that such amenities are available with what has traditionally been the vehicle of choice in blue-collar Middle America is that the high price point for Ford’s pickups is hardly an anomaly.

In 2011, 29% of heavy-duty Ram pickup trucks sold for $50,000 or more, up from 22% the year before. The Laramie Limited trim Ram 3500 truck starts at roughly $55,000, and has an MSRP over $70,000 once all the extras are added in.

Data collected by The Wall Street Journal indicate that the average transaction prices in 2015 for the Ford F-150, GMC Sierra 1500, and Chevrolet Silverado 1500 are all above $40,000, and 22% of pickup trucks are selling for more than $50,000. That’s up from just 9% of pickups being purchased for $50,000 or more in 2010.

What’s more, the average prices for the pickups mentioned above are up roughly 50% compared to the typical prices paid for these models as recently as 2005.

Rising pickup prices, as well as pickups and SUVs accounting for a larger percentage of overall sales, have pushed overall average new car transaction prices upward. In June, the average new vehicle purchase price was $33,340, according to Kelley Blue Book. That’s an increase of 2.5% over the same month in 2014. The average price paid in June for a Ford, mind you, was up 4.6%, thanks partly to an increase in those pricey pickup purchases.

As for why so many drivers are interested in trucks that cost more than a Mercedes or Lexus, some auto experts see the luxury pickup as the perfect option for well-heeled but down-to-earth business owners who want to splurge and show off while staying true to their roots. “These are successful blue-collar entrepreneurs,” John Krafcik, president of the car-buying site TrueCar.com, told The Wall Street Journal. “There is a lot of social status and manufacturers have found a way to tap into it.”

MONEY online shopping

It’ll Probably Be Years Before You’re Forced to Pay Online Sales Tax

man using credit card to make online payment on laptop
Martin Barraud—Getty Images

For that matter, you might never have to pay up.

Two separate bills working their way through Congress could theoretically close the loophole that allows consumers to skip out on paying sales tax on purchases from e-retailers located in different states. Even so, in all likelihood online shoppers won’t be forced into paying sales tax anytime soon.

Over the years, e-retailers and the consumers who shop online to avoid sales taxes have been accused of having a “free ride.” For the most part, the laws stipulate that online sellers must charge sales tax only when the merchant has a physical presence in the state where the purchase is taking place. The net result is that a consumer in state X might not have to automatically pay sales tax when he makes a purchase from an e-retailer based in state Y.

The scenario gives an unfair advantage to the e-retailer over local brick-and-mortar retailers, which obviously have to collect local sales tax. Consumers are supposed to keep track of their online purchases and pay the appropriate sales tax when filing their income taxes, but the number of individuals who do so is approximately … zero. (Well, it’s close to zero anyway.)

Amazon, all-powerful online entity that it is, has come under fire in particular for not universally collecting sales tax on purchases, and it has made agreements with states on a case-by-case basis to charge the appropriate taxes.

Even as the vast majority of Americans now pay sales tax on Amazon purchases regardless of where they live, there are still many e-retailers that aren’t required to collect sales tax on out-of-state purchases. If either the Remote Transaction Parity Act or the Marketplace Fairness Act of 2015 become law, this loophole would be closed and states could start requiring nearly all sellers to collect sales tax.

Yet, as InternetRetailer.com reported, it’s not looking likely that either of the bills will pass in the near future. What’s more, if and when either does manage to become law, in order to allow time for e-retailers to tweak their operations to be in line with new regulations, there will be a delay of at least 12 months before sellers will have to collect sales tax. E-retailers will also be given a reprieve from charging sales tax during the peak winter holiday shopping season in the first year after either bill becomes law.

The upshot for consumers is that even if one of these bills suddenly catches fire in Congress and surprisingly passes soon, “2017 would be the first holiday season it could take effect,” InternetRetailer.com states. Remember, that’s only if one of these bills passes. If neither does, then many online shoppers can continue enjoying their free ride indefinitely.

MONEY housing

U.S. Homeownership Drops To Its Lowest Level Since 1967

aerial view of neighborhood
Jake Wyman—Getty Images/Aurora Creative

The last time homeownership levels were this low, LBJ was president.

Data released by the Census Bureau on Tuesday reveal that the U.S. homeownership rate stood at 63.4% for the second quarter of 2015. The rate is down slightly compared to the first quarter (63.7%), and it represents the lowest level of homeownership in America since 1967. If the homeownership rate drops just a few more tenths of a percentage point, it would reach a new all-time low since the government began tracking such data in 1965 and the rate was a flat 63%.

In fact, some housing experts say it’s fairly likely the homeownership rate will continue to fall and will indeed hit a record low in the near future. “We may have another percentage point to go before we see a bottom” in terms of the homeownership rate, Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wells Fargo Securities, told Bloomberg. “We’re still suffering the effects of the housing collapse and the financial crisis.”

The bull market and an improving jobs picture would seem to bring with it rising homeownership levels. Yet as a recent Harvard study pointed out, many would-be homeowners—particularly younger ones, in their 20s, 30s, and 40s—are still struggling in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Wages have been stagnant for the middle class, and many households are cautious about jumping into homeownership in the face of hefty student loan debt and memories of being burned in the housing crash. Rising home prices don’t help ownership levels either.

All combined, these forces are conspiring to make renting seem like the wiser option over buying lately.

For the sake of comparison, the 50-year average for homeownership in the U.S. is 65.3%. The rate rose through the 1970s and early 1980s, before dipping to around 64% or slightly under in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a period marked by economic downturn in much of the world—and a recession that lasted eight months in the U.S.

Fueled by easy credit, a booming economy, and boundless optimism, the homeownership rate soared in the late ’90s and early ’00s, nearly hitting 70%. The 69.2% homeownership rate of 2004 is currently the all-time high. Based on how things have been going, it very well could remain as the record high for years or even decades to come.

MONEY fitness

Own a Nike+ FuelBand? You Could Be Eligible for a Refund

The new NIKE+ FuelBand, an innovative wristband that tracks and measures everyday movement for what Nike says is to motivate and inspire people to be more active.
Mike Segar—Reuters/Newscom The NIKE+ FuelBand tracks and measures everyday movement for what Nike says is to motivate and inspire people to be more active.

Nike is offering $15 cash or $25 gift cards.

A settlement has been reached in a class action lawsuit first brought against Nike and Apple in 2013, and the net result is that some consumers who purchased Nike+ FuelBands are now eligible for either $15 cash or $25 Nike gift cards.

The suit alleged that “false and/or misleading statements were made regarding the Nike+ FuelBand’s ability to accurately track calories, steps, and NikeFuel, and that there were breaches of the warranty terms of the Nike+ FuelBand,” according to the website created to publicize the settlement’s terms, NikeFuelBandSettlement.com. Both Nike and Apple “deny the claims in the lawsuit and maintain that they did nothing wrong or illegal,” yet decided to settle “in order to avoid the expense, inconvenience, and distraction of continued litigation.”

Under the terms of the settlement, consumers who purchased a Nike+ FuelBand—a fitness-tracking device worn on the wrist that sells for $100 to $250—between January 19, 2012, and June 17, 2015, can receive a payment of $15 in the form of a check, or a $25 gift card valid at Nike stores and Nike.com. Claim forms are available at NikeFuelBandSettlement.com.

The Wall Street Journal noted that while Nike was among the first major companies to get into fitness trackers, the market has since grown crowded with devices from FitBit, JawBone, and others. Many fitness trackers can be purchased today for about $50. Starting around 2014, Nike began shifting its focus away from fitness-tracking hardware, though the Nike+ app is featured on the Apple Watch.

MONEY Airlines

This Is the Single Greatest Frequent Flyer Perk Ever

150728_EM_PrivateJetPerk
Alamy—© zechina / Alamy

Get the CEO treatment

Being upgraded to first class is pretty nice. But even the most elite frequent flyers still must deal with many of the hassles of commercial flights—including the long waits to check in, the pass through security gates, and allowing time for hundreds of commoners to board and sandwich themselves into those tiny seats at the back of the plane.

A new upgrade program from Delta could eliminate some of these headaches by moving its best customers from commercial flights entirely. The program, as Bloomberg reports, would allow a very small number of Delta’s most elite “Diamond Medallion” frequent flyers to pay $300 to $800 extra to board private jet flights that accommodate a maximum of a few dozen passengers.

Initially, the program will focus on East Coast flights, and naturally, they’ll be offered by Delta Private Jets, the private jet unit operated by Delta. The move seems motivated by the desire to keep the airline’s highest-spending customers happy, while simultaneously filling up seats on luxury private jets that might otherwise be half full.

“This is truly a groundbreaking new approach from both industry standpoints,” Delta Private Jets vice president of operations James Murray said in a statement. “Nobody else can do what we’re talking about doing.”

Read next: 5 Ways That Traveling on the Cheap Has Changed—for the Better

MONEY Autos

This Company Just Overtook Toyota to Become the World’s Top Automaker

2015 Volkswagen Jetta
courtesy Volkswagen 2015 Volkswagen Jetta

The world really likes German engineering.

During the first six months of 2015, Toyota sold 5.02 million cars. That represents a decline of 1.5% compared to the first half of 2014. More importantly in terms of bragging rights for automakers, Toyota’s total was slightly less than German rival Volkswagen, which sold 5.04 million vehicles from January through June of 2015.

Toyota has traditionally held the top spot in terms of global auto sales, though there have been flukey years like 2011, when natural disasters in Asia pushed the automaker to third place worldwide. Volkswagen, which sold just 6.2 million cars for all of 2007, has established a goal of selling 10+ million vehicles per year by 2018, if not sooner. The automaker came close in 2013, selling 9.73 million passenger cars and superseding General Motors as the world’s #2 automaker in the process.

Volkswagen just barely crossed the 10 million sales mark in 2014, and it is on pace to do so again in 2015, perhaps while taking the overall global sales crown as well. To do so, Volkswagen, which owns Audi and Porsche in addition to its flagship mid-market brand, must continue to post big sales in China—which won’t be an easy task.

“VW is snatching the sales crown in difficult times with major car markets in decline,” Stefan Bratzel, head of Germany’s Center of Automotive Management, said to the BBC. “They will need to withstand the slowdown in China if they want to keep the top spot.”

Toyota has struggled in China and wants to improve sales there. But overall, the Japanese automaker has stressed for quite some time that it’s not particularly worried about holding the global top spot for sales. “Their focus is not No. 1,” Peggy Furusaka, a Tokyo- based auto-credit analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, observed in January. “Toyota is more concerned about keeping profitability than chasing numbers. So for coming years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Toyota selling fewer cars than Volkswagen.”

MONEY Shopping

Where to Find the Best Back to School Deals Right Now

150727_EM_BTSShopping
Richard B. Levine—Newscom

Here are the six places you should shop.

It’s not August yet, but back-to-school shopping season is already in full swing. Or at least the back-to-school promotional deals are. The circulars from this week’s Sunday newspapers were full of retailers pushing back-to-school merchandise in the hopes of beating the competition to families’ limited school supply dollars.

As for shoppers themselves, there seems to be no rush to stock up for a school year that isn’t starting for a few weeks. In a new survey conducted by Deloitte, 38% of parents said back-to-school shopping is less important than it’s been in the past because they tend to stock up on needed supplies throughout the year. What’s more, 31% say they’ll complete back-to-school shopping after the school year begins, up 5% over last year.

More parents are also reusing last year’s school supplies to save money: 39% said they’ll do so in 2015, up from just 26% in 2011. That may partly explain how families expect to scale back on overall back-to-school spending this year. According to National Retail Federation data, the average family with a child in grades K-12 will spend $630 this season, down 6% from a year ago. The number of families that will shop last minute—a week or two before the first day—rose too, from 25% to 30%.

Perhaps parents are catching on to how back-to-school sales stretch on for weeks, sometimes even months, so there’s no need to hurry. Shoppers can also count on some of the best back-to-school sales popping up at the last minute, with big discounts on all manner of school supplies appearing during Labor Day sales.

All that said, now is a great time to pick and choose select bargains. Bear in mind that not every “sale” is worth your while. Target, for instance, is promoting a “Temp Price Cut” on 70-page Mead notebooks that normally cost $1. The “special” sale brings the price down to 99¢, for a discount of … a whopping single penny. We found the deals from the six retailers below far more enticing.

Apple: In addition to its usual back-to-school discounts of $20 to $200 off laptops, tablets, and desktops, Apple is also including an instant credit for a pair of Beats headphones at no extra charge with certain purchases. A long list of terms and conditions apply that specify which purchases include the free set of headphones (basically, MacBooks and iMacs) and who is eligible for the discounts (college students and educators). The discounts are in effect right now online and at Apple Stores; the free headphones offer is valid now in Apple Stores but is available for online purchases only from August 6 to September 18.

CVS: Among other deals, many Sharpie, Bic, and Papermate pens are available on a buy-one-get-one-50%-off basis at CVS locations.

Office Depot: In addition to the usual coupons and sales on electronics and classic school supplies, Office Depot is offering 20% to 50% off cleaning supplies—parents are often asked to supply hand sanitizers and tissues for classrooms—and a special promotion knocks an extra $20 off qualifying online purchases of at least $125, and $40 off purchases of $250 or more.

Staples: The sub-$1 deals will probably grab your attention first. One-subject notebooks, pencil sharpeners, and a 12-pack of erasers are each priced at just 25¢, while a 100-pack of index cards is 47¢, a 12-pack of #2 pencils is 68¢, and a 10-pack of Crayola markers is 97¢. Tons of other sale items amount to roughly 50% off list prices, while various coupons offer things like 25% back in store rewards for all in-store purchases and a ream of multipurpose paper for only 1¢.

Walgreens: The Deal of the Week is 10¢ for two-pocket paper folders. Two-packs of Sharpies and various other school supplies are on sale for 99¢, while notebooks and Crayola art supplies are priced at buy-one-get-one-50%-off and backpacks are buy-one-get-one-free. In most cases, a Walgreens loyalty card is required for discounts.

Walmart: Among Walmart’s best back-to-school deals are school uniforms starting at just just $4.47 apiece and bulk-discount bundles of, say, three boxes of 12 Bic pens each for $4.53.

MONEY Gas prices

5 Places Where Gas Prices Are Plummeting

gas prices at chevron gas station
Mike Blake—Reuters/Newscom

Prices have dropped at least 10¢ in one week's time.

Nationwide, the price of gasoline keeps inching lower. According to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, the average of a gallon of regular was $2.710 as of Monday, nearly a nickel less than the average one week ago ($2.756).

“All but seven states in the U.S. saw a drop in gasoline prices over the last week,” the researchers at the gas price-tracking site GasBuddy.com noted on Monday. More importantly, the trend for lower and lower gas prices is one that’s expected to stick around for months: “It would appear that the latter half of the summer will bring cheaper gas prices than the first half while this autumn is shaping up to give this past winter a run for its money in terms of cheap gas prices.”

Drivers in some parts of the country are the beneficiaries of a particularly pronounced price break lately. Here are five places where average prices have dropped by 10¢ or more over the past week.

Southern California: Mercifully, gas prices in Los Angeles and Orange counties decreased for nine straight days recently, together lowering the average price of a gallon of regular by about 12¢, according to the (Los Angeles) Daily News. The price dip followed an extraordinarily painful period for drivers, who watched prices at the pump spike by more than 50¢ in a single week, hitting more than $4.50 per gallon at gas stations in places like Beverly Hills and downtown Los Angeles.

Statewide, the average price for a gallon of regular as of Monday is $3.83, the highest in the country and over $1.10 more than the nationwide average, per AAA data. Still, analysts say California gas prices should drop regularly in the days and weeks ahead, as the supply has improved substantially.

Ohio: Prices at the pump have dropped dropped 17¢ per gallon, on average, in one week. The current average statewide is now $2.46 for a gallon of regular.

Kentucky: Prices dropped 12¢ in one week, according to GasBuddy, and now average $2.50 per gallon.

Indiana: The current average is $2.44 for a gallon of regular, representing a decrease of 11¢ over the past week.

Michigan: Average prices dropped by about 10¢ per gallon over the last week in Michigan, where prices at the pump have also decreased by at least 10¢ in each of the past three weeks.

MONEY Internet

Get Ready for Your Internet Bill to Soar

Broadband cable
Shaun Wilkinson—Alamy

True competition among Internet providers remains a dream for consumers.

“Infrastructure deployment requires the expectation of a healthy return on capital.”

In a nutshell, this jargon-laden statement explains why there isn’t much in the way of genuine competition among Internet providers, and why most Americans have only one or (if lucky) two options for service. The real bummer is that this concept also means that consumers shouldn’t expect all that much more real broadband competition going forward—and that there’s good reason to expect the price of Internet service to soar in the near future.

The statement comes from Craig Moffett, an industry analyst for MoffettNathanson who testified before Congress’s Energy & Commerce Committee this week in a meeting about “Promoting Broadband Infrastructure Investment” (HT: Consumerist).

What Moffett was getting at is that businesses like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable are highly unlikely to spend big bucks to lay fiber and expand or upgrade their networks unless they’re all but assured of making even bigger bucks as a result. “It is not a matter of whether a business is or isn’t profitable, it is instead a matter of whether it is sufficiently profitable to warrant the high levels of capital investment required for the deployment of infrastructure,” Moffett said.

Spending money to expand into new markets is especially not worth it for an Internet provider when it will have to compete with another service that’s already entrenched in the area. “The returns to be had from overbuilding—that is, being the second or third broadband provider in a given market—are generally poor,” said Moffett. “Let that sink in for a moment. Stated simply, it means that market forces are unlikely to yield a competitive broadband market.”

In other words, there is no robust competition because broadband providers find it not worthwhile to compete. As for the prospect of installing regulations and incentives that would boost competition, Moffett said, “there is a not unreasonable assumption that any attempts to foster competition will ultimately be unsuccessful.” In yet another honest-yet-depressing bit of insight, Moffett offered, “There are no easy answers.”

Oh, and in all likelihood, Moffett sees that the result of cord cutting becoming more common is that “video will become unprofitable and broadband will be left to carry the entire burden” of covering growth costs and bringing in revenues for TV-Internet providers. What this means for the Comcasts and Charters of the world is this, in Moffett’s analysis: “They will simply have to sharply raise broadband prices.”

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