New wrinkles in tax strategies could help smooth your year-end planning

(BPT) – As 2016 enters its final weeks, it’s a good time for year-end tax planning strategies — including some new wrinkles:

Plan for 2016-2017 together: Consider reducing your overall tax liability by shifting income and deductions across 2016 and 2017. Assuming similar income for both, you can accelerate various deduction items into 2016. For example, mail your state estimated tax payment, due in January, before year-end to make it tax deductible in 2016. Or pay your January mortgage payment now to make the interest deductible this year. You can also accelerate charitable deductions or medical expenses into 2016. The latter may be especially attractive for those 65 or older because the threshold for deductibility is scheduled to increase from 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income to 10 percent in 2017. For those under 65, the threshold is 10 percent.

Note that taxpayers subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax may not benefit from the above strategies because some deductions are eliminated under the calculation.

Minimize tax on capital assets: If you have unused capital losses from prior years, sell investments at a gain to make those losses work. You won’t be taxed on those gains, up to the amount of the losses.

If your income level is below $75,301 for married couples filing jointly, or $37,651 for singles, consider selling stock at a gain to benefit from the 0 percent tax rate. But be careful: the gain can reduce your itemized deductions or cause more of your Social Security benefit to be taxed.

You can also sell poorly performing equity investments to use the annual $3,000 ordinary income offset for capital losses and reduce your taxable income. However, remember the “wash sale rules.” If you want to harvest a loss but continue the same investment, you need to wait 31 days to reinvest or lose your loss deduction until you sell the repurchased investment.

Finally, be careful when buying a mutual fund. Make sure it will not pay a dividend after you buy it and before year-end. That would increase your taxable income and reduce the value of your investment by the same amount.

Going forward, consider steps to minimize or eliminate the 3.8 percent Medicare surcharge on investment gain for married couples filing jointly with income more than $250,000, and single filers with income more than $200,000. For example, try municipal bond investments. Tax-exempt interest doesn’t increase your income level for purposes of the above test.

You can also convert some or all of a traditional IRA to Roth IRA form. Although the conversion will create a tax liability on the underlying IRA asset in the conversion year, all future gains should be income-tax-free and future withdrawals from the Roth IRA should not count toward the income threshold that triggers the Medicare surcharge.

Required minimum distributions: If you are 70 1/2-years-old, you generally must take your RMD from each retirement asset, including 401(k)s, each year. Roth IRAs are not subject to RMD rules; Roth 401(k)s are. The amount you must withdraw is determined by an IRS table. The idea is to force out an increasing percentage each year so the retirement asset is used over your lifetime.

In the year you turn 70 1/2, you have an option to defer your first RMD to the following calendar year. Beware: this could increase your overall tax liability for the two years combined.

Charitable gift giving: For those over age 70 1/2, if you are charitably inclined, consider making your charitable gifts using RMD funds. By using some or all of your RMD amount, up to $100,000 a year, you can avoid inclusion of such otherwise taxable income. This is usually better than an outright gift to the charity, since the charitable deduction would probably not fully offset the income from the RMD due to limitations on deductions. Note that to qualify for this special rule the charitable gift must be made directly from your IRA to the charity. You cannot take the RMD amount and then write a check to the charity.

Roth IRA conversions: Is it the right time to convert some or all of a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA? Although that would trigger the gain on the traditional IRA amount being converted, there are numerous benefits from holding Roth IRA assets over the longer term. They serve as a hedge against increased tax rates, have no RMD requirement and can continue to grow without forced distributions. And, when needed, distributions from a Roth IRA don’t increase your taxable income for purposes of the 3.8 percent Medicare surcharge, calculating the taxable amount of your Social Security benefits or determining the Medicare Part B premium surcharge applicable to higher-income taxpayers.

Prudential Financial Inc. and its affiliates do not render tax or legal advice. Please consult your tax and legal advisors for advice concerning your particular circumstances.


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Hispanics at the forefront of digital banking trends

(BPT) – With a population of more than 55 million and estimated buying power of over $1.5 trillion, Hispanics in the United States are continuing to shape economic trends; however, as new research finds, they’re shaping digital trends as well.

This year’s Bank of America Trends in Consumer Mobility Report shows Hispanic consumers are increasingly reliant on mobile devices to navigate daily life. In fact, 35 percent of Hispanics say they are more likely to interact with their smartphone in an average day than anything or anyone else, including their significant other.

The survey, which explored mobile trends and banking behaviors among adults across the country, found this digital lifestyle also extends to how they manage their finances. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of Hispanic consumers use a mobile banking app and 69 percent cite digital as their primary method of banking. These numbers mark a stark contrast from non-Hispanic users, whose percentages were 51 and 61 percent, respectively.

“This survey reinforces what our Hispanic customers show us every day — the Hispanic community leads the way in mobile adoption, usage and engagement,” said Michelle Moore, head of digital banking at Bank of America, adding that it was the actions of the Hispanic community that spurred Bank of America to release its mobile app in Spanish. “We’re committed to delivering solutions that meet the needs and behaviors of these consumers.”

The report revealed further insights into Hispanic consumers’ mobile-first mindset.

* Texting becomes the new small talk. Nearly one-third (32 percent) of Hispanics cite texting as their preferred communications method. The vast majority (80 percent) feel that the appropriate response time to a text is under an hour, and 54 percent text someone when they’re in the same room.

* Documenting life moments. Hispanics are more inclined to share events with others, as nearly all (95 percent) say they want to have their smartphone on hand to capture important life milestones. They’re also more likely than non-Hispanics to post these life moments on social media (78 percent, compared to 69 percent).

* Growing comfort with emerging payments. More than half (56 percent) of Hispanics would use or already use their phone to make purchases at checkout, compared to just 36 percent of their non-Hispanic counterparts. Seventy-seven percent of Hispanics say they’re likely to use emerging payment methods such as mobile wallets and social media apps, and 72 percent cite they would use or already use their bank’s peer-to-peer payments service.

For more information, visit

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5 tips to protect your devices from cybercrime

(BPT) – Your smartphone, your tablet, your computer – they are some of your most important and most used possessions. They are the daily tools you use for research, to connect with others and make purchases. You take them everywhere and fill them with your important, personal information.

And all of that makes them the perfect targets for a cyberattack.

The number of cybercrime incidents in the United States grows each year, and as Americans move into an increasingly digital society — thanks to smart phones, smart cars and smart in-home technologies — cybercrime is expected to grow in frequency again in 2017. Protecting yourself, your family and the vital information on your devices means increasing your focus on your own cybersecurity. That starts with these five tips.

* Recognize you’re not immune. Cyberattacks increase in frequency and severity every year, so don’t make the mistake of believing it can’t happen to you. “It’s important to protect yourself by taking personal responsibility for your data; we can’t expect banks or other institutions to do it for us,” said Jim Karagiannes, Ph.D., professor in DeVry University’s College of Engineering & Information Services. “We lock our doors and take other security measures to protect our home and car. We need to also take precautions with our personal security and information.”

* Don’t store your username, password or credit card information with a website. The convenience makes it tempting, but websites are a popular target for cybercriminals because a successful hack gives them access to hundreds or thousands of files, including yours. Even storing this information on your own computer can expose it in a cyberattack, and if your credit card information is captured, criminals can use it to gather your social security number. That exposes you to identify theft. Keep this information off your devices and, instead, create complex passwords and write down all of your usernames and passwords on a piece of paper that you keep in a safe place, such as a deposit box.

* Use only a credit card, not a debit card, when making online purchases. Using your credit card instead of your debit card allows you to keep better track of the purchases you have made. It also limits the effects of any possible theft to just the one card instead of several. If you have no choice but to use a debit card for an online purchase, do not use your pin number online.

* If it feels like a trick, it probably is. Cybercriminals often engage in “social engineering” or other non-electronic methods to try and trick you into surrendering your data. If you get a phone call about a banking or credit card issue or if your computer tells you to call a number because it just caught a virus, be cautious. Do not divulge any personal history or credit card details. Hang up or ignore the computer-generated notices and call the customer service number of the institution’s website with any questions.

* Replace your existing credit cards with chip cards as soon as possible. Chip cards are becoming the new normal these days, and if your current credit card does not have a silver square chip on its front, consider replacing it quickly. Popularized in Europe, chip cards possess the necessary encrypted information to eliminate delays in the transaction process. Doing so closes the window criminals need to steal your personal information, thus protecting you from identity theft.

You have no intention of abandoning your devices, of course, so protect them. Following the tips above will help better secure your technology and personal information from the threats of cybercrime so you can enjoy your devices with greater peace of mind.

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Creating desirable jobs by getting back to the basics

(BPT) – When it comes to hiring and retaining employees, companies are always looking at new alternatives to build their staffs. However, new research shows that when it comes to attracting top talent, many professionals prefer a return to the basics, meaning stable employment with competitive base pay with traditional medical and retirement benefits are key.

The findings come from a recent survey conducted by the Career Advisory Board, which was established by DeVry University in 2010. The survey asked employees to offer their insight into what is most important for them when looking for the right workplace. Below are some of the most interesting findings.

Predictability over perks

Employees responded resoundingly that they wanted their work life to be more in line with those of the generations before. Eighty-one percent of survey respondents said they would like to work a single, full-time job as opposed to contract work or several smaller positions. This desire rang especially true with millennials as 91 percent of those surveyed agreed.

Respondents also preferred going to the office every day (22 percent) compared to working from remotely full-time (18 percent). Millennials, in particular, were more likely to seek a job where they had to be in the office each day (27 percent).

Stable jobs were valued by 84 percent of survey respondents, while only 16 percent said they preferred a job that may come with riskier employment opportunities.

Employers looking to stay the course

For employers looking to attract and retain top talent, they should focus on solidifying their existing benefits package. A competitive salary remained the most important benefit employees consider in an employer, but traditional offerings such as medical/dental coverage, paid time off and retirement plans were heavily favored over newer perks, including onsite food, wellness offerings and day care.

Employers also don’t need to look at making dramatic changes to their existing organizational structure to attract employees. Thirty-six percent said they prefer working for a single manager, while 18 percent said they appreciated the opportunity to report to multiple managers. However, no matter how employers establish their hierarchy, they should always be looking for ways to give employees a chance to impact company decisions. Fifty-six percent said they prefer a job with “authority to make decisions that impact the entire organization,” a sign employees care deeply about where they work and want to have a vital role in its growth.

Employees seizing what they want

For employees looking for new positions, the job market is healthier and those with the right skills and attributes will have their pick of positions. As we move further away from the recession years and the economy improves, those who can afford to take their time in their job search are most likely to find a position offering the things most important to them.

“The survey results show us that businesses today need to be good employers, offering stable employment with competitive base pay and traditional medical and retirement benefits,” says Alexandra Levit, business and workplace consultant and Career Advisory Board member. “The average American worker isn’t necessarily looking for all the bells and whistles.”

To learn more about the study, visit

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5 steps for happy holiday spending

(BPT) – For many families, holiday shopping may lead to a home full of toys, closets stuffed with today’s trends, and tech-savvy games and devices, some of which will be loved for months, while others will be tossed aside before they’ve even been paid for. Worse yet, if you use a credit card for the gifts you purchase and you cannot pay it off when the bill comes in, you’ll actually be spending a lot more than you may realize.

This year, instead of setting yourself up for potential frustration and financial stress, take a step back and plan your approach for gifts that have the endurance for a longer and more valued shelf life.

Holiday shopping is an opportunity to stay or get on track for smart spending habits while also enjoying the pleasure that you and your gift recipients have when opening the treasure that you’ve selected.

To help, here are five steps from MassMutual to consider:

1. Look at that holiday gift list that you, your children or grandchild have carefully crafted, and think about what they need and what they indicated they want. Remember, a need is something you have to have, while a want is something optional. For example, if your child has outgrown his or her clothes since school started, items may be appropriate as holiday gifts. The question is whether to splurge on expensive versions of designer brand items or not. While the holidays may be a time to splurge on a special item or two, every item does not need to fall prey to unnecessary overspending.

2. Develop a budget and stick to it. If you think about your resources, such as your money and time, they are likely limited and there may be a little of both. To help with this year’s holiday shopping, start by deciding how much money is available for gift purchases. Next, allocate a certain amount per person on your list. Lastly, add it all up to ensure it is within your budget. This step is often overlooked, which can lead to post-purchase regrets and large credit card bills after the holidays — and sometimes after the glamour of your gift has worn off.

3. Do your research. Scout when you’re out. Browse online. Check out holiday sale advertisements and store and restaurant signage. Watch your email for discounts, deals and specials. Comparison shop. Unless you have unlimited time and money, holiday shopping is not the time for impulse purchases.

4. Cross reference what you’ve found and learned through your research with your holiday gift list. Did you discover any options that would be valuable and long-lasting for the recipient? Update your list and next to each item, jot down the best price found and where it was found. Total up the dollar amounts and compare the total with what you allocated per person and your total budget.

5. If you’re lucky, the total will be under or at the budget limit you set for your holiday shopping. More than likely, however, you’ve overspent on paper so now you can determine what to adjust and how to trim costs. Be resourceful and creative, and think through trade-offs. Again, splurging may make sense for certain items, but not all, and do not spend more than you have.

Available at no cost to schools across the United States, similar tips on developing smart spending habits are part of a new FutureSmart digital financial education curriculum developed specifically for middle school students in English and Spanish by the MassMutual Foundation in partnership with education technology leader EverFi.

For additional useful information, visit To learn more about FutureSmart and to request the program for a local school, visit

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5 affordable ways to connect with family without breaking the bank

(BPT) – Ready or not, the holidays are fast approaching. While it’s a season known for celebrating family and friends, the stress of gift-giving and holiday planning can make people lose sight of what’s really important.

Here are five ways you can easily connect with your family without breaking the bank.

Take a family “staycation”

Making time for your family during the holidays doesn’t have to mean splurging on a trip across the world. Instead, opt for a cheaper alternative and spend time in your area. Take time to explore neighborhoods or attractions nearby. You never know — you might find a new favorite place right in your own hometown.

Simplify communication

Not everyone can celebrate with family in-person over the holidays. Not to worry: a simple and affordable way to stay in touch with loved ones is just what you need. TracFone has you covered with amazing smartphone and feature phone deals, to help you connect for moments that matter this season. TracFone now offers a 30-day smartphone-only plan with talk, text and data for just $15 on America’s largest and most dependable networks with 4G LTE nationwide coverage — so you can easily share photos, videos and more. For more great deals and information on affordable, no-contract plans, visit

Repurpose a recipe

The holiday season means lots of meals and entertaining — and one of the best parts of this time of year is also leftovers! Rather than simply re-heating, look up some recipes you and your family can make to spice up extras from your holiday meal. This way, you can not only spend time in the kitchen together, but enjoy the meal you made around the table.

DIY decorate

This year, instead of buying generic (and expensive) decorations, get creative by making your own! Get the entire family involved and create decorations that will forever have a special meaning in your home. You can also get help thinking outside the box by turning to Pinterest, craft bloggers or YouTube tutorials for inspiration.

Give back

It can be easy to forget that the holidays are a time to remember to give to those in need. Take some time with your family to volunteer for an organization you feel strongly about. Volunteering is a great way to not only remind your family of what the holidays are all about, but a way for you to bond over an unforgettable experience.

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Easy DIY tips to save on your winter energy bills

(BPT) – Here’s what Americans have to look forward to this winter: While the south will be drier and warmer, the northern U.S. can expect “wetter, cooler conditions,” predicts the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“Regardless of the outlook, there is always some chance for extreme winter weather, so prepare now for what might come later this winter,” says Mike Halpert, deputy director for NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

As a homeowner, what can you do to get ready for the season’s frigid blasts, in order to keep your family warm and comfortable while avoiding heart-stopping heating bills?

Whether you have an older or a newer home, chances are it could use additional insulation to make it more energy efficient. Approximately 90 percent of U.S. single-family homes are under-insulated, according to research conducted by Boston University for the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association. With proper insulation, “residential electricity use nationwide would drop by about 5 percent and natural gas use by more than 10 percent,” says Dr. Jonathan Levy, professor of environmental health at Boston University.

Fortunately, adding insulation in a few key spots in the home isn’t difficult, and is within the skill level of many do-it-yourselfers. Two key areas to check for proper insulation are the attic hatch and basement walls.

If your home’s hatch to the attic is above a heated space (versus in an “unconditioned” space such as the garage), it could be a prime source for heat loss. “Hot air rises, and many attic hatches are not properly sealed and insulated, so homeowners can be losing big money through that opening,” says Tom Savoy, technical director for Insulfoam. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends inspecting the attic hatch to make sure it is “at least as heavily insulated as the attic, is weather stripped, and closes tightly.” For the insulation, homeowners can easily cut and attach rigid foam panels made of expanded polystyrene (EPS) or graphite polystyrene (GPS), notes Savoy.

Rigid foam insulation is also easy to install on basement walls, in garages and attics. Some manufacturers even offer DIY Insulation Kits to help simplify the job. Available at home improvement stores nationwide, such kits can be used for a quick weekend project to boost your home’s energy savings.

Because insulating the attic hatch and basement walls happens inside the home, you can complete these jobs even in the dead of winter in order to start seeing immediate savings on your energy bills.

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When bad health hits, look to this financial tool

(BPT) – Working hard may take a toll on your health. But what are your options when your work pays the price for your bad health?

Chronic illness, an injury or a severe disability can create a financial crossroads for people. Often, people are torn between trying to keep working in ill health, losing important income and benefits, and trying to stabilize their health conditions. A cancer diagnosis, stroke or car accident is just the beginning of a challenging path. Usually, financial problems follow soon after.

Many people have limited options and turn to investments and savings set aside for retirement, like a 401(k) or an IRA. “Many workers make the worst mistake when they borrow money against their 401(k) after a work-disrupting illness or disability,” says Tricia Blazier, personal health and financial planning director for Allsup. “This devastates your financial future for the long term, and it’s very difficult to recover.”

But nearly three times as many American workers are insured for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits because they pay FICA payroll taxes as those who establish a 401(k). That breaks down to 152 million workers insured for SSDI, according to the Social Security Administration, and about 52 million with an active 401(k), according to the Investment Company Institute. In addition, it’s estimated only 32 million workers have private long-term disability insurance through their employers.

“Really you need all three — 401(k), LTD and SSDI — in your financial toolkit, no matter how old you are,” Blazier says. “You need to consider SSDI because you can access this income without penalty or trade-offs before you turn 59-1/2 years old, unlike your 401(k).”

The SSDI program is insurance for workers who experience a severe disability. It pays monthly income for those people who qualify due to a severe chronic or terminal illness or disability, and it includes incentives to return to work if they medically recover.

SSDI as part of your financial toolkit

Blazier says many workers don’t consider filing SSDI applications because they don’t understand eligibility rules or feel conflicted about seeking benefits from the program.

“This is an insurance program, and you’ve paid the premiums,” Blazier says. “You are making a huge mistake if you don’t at least find out if you’re eligible for SSDI when you are forced to leave work due to an injury, illness or disability.”

Common questions about this program include:

How do I know if I’m eligible for SSDI? Social Security has stringent rules to receive benefits. Individuals must have paid FICA payroll taxes, usually worked five out of the last 10 years, and have a severe work-disrupting condition that is expected to last at least 12 months or is terminal. Applicants also must be under full retirement age (65-67).

What does it take to file an SSDI application? Options include answering simple questions online at your convenience and letting an expert SSDI representative complete and submit Social Security forms on your behalf, schedule appointments with Social Security weeks in advance, or complete forms and submit them on your own.

Why is SSDI important to my financial future? Receiving Social Security disability income does not have to be a permanent circumstance. Thousands of individuals who experience work-disrupting illness go through rehabilitation, recover and eventually return to work. Your SSDI application is the first step in this process to reclaiming the life that provides you with financial and health stability you need.

For more information about SSDI eligibility and your Social Security disability application, visit

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3 reasons why winter is a smart time to buy a home

(BPT) – Don’t give up on buying a home as winter nears. In fact, December through February may be better for buyers than the busy season in spring and summer.

Enjoy less competition and lower prices.

Fewer properties are typically available during the winter, as sellers and buyers aim to complete transactions before the school year begins. You can turn that to your advantage.

“In winter, there are fewer properties, but it’s less competitive, with fewer buyers per property,” says Greg Jaeger, president of USAA Residential Real Estate Services Inc., and former real estate agent.

The more favorable supply-demand balance can lower prices. In the winter, “negotiations are slower-paced and there is more negotiating room,” Jaeger says. Also, winter sellers may be more motivated, especially if they’re forced to sell by divorce or by corporate or military transfers.

In January and February, homes cost 8.45 percent less on average than in June through August, according to NerdWallet research conducted using data from 2014 and 2015. That’s in line with what Jaeger sees, particularly in competitive real estate markets where supply is limited.

Lower prices help at closing — and over the life of your mortgage.

A lower price eases your home purchase in many ways, Jaeger says. It lowers your down payment, any closing costs that are calculated as a percentage of the home’s sale price and your mortgage payments. There’s also less of a seller’s agent commission bundled into the sales price. These savings help when you buy, and they add up over the life of your mortgage.

The right agent can help.

When supply is limited, the right agent can help you get a jump on other buyers. Agents who are well connected learn about properties before they are listed.

The right agent understands the market where you are buying. That includes doing competitive market analysis so you understand what the house is worth.

Look for an agent who suits your style. For example, if you’re a statistics geek, you need an agent who’ll provide them. “Just having access to statistics doesn’t mean they have analytical skills and will use them,” Jaeger says. He recommends USAA’s Real Estate Rewards Network as a source for seasoned agents who deliver great service to USAA members.

Many resources are available to help consumers find the right agent, including USAA Real Estate Rewards Network, a free program that gives members access to USAA’s network of real estate agents and rewards when they buy or sell.

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4 reasons why you should fill your shopping cart with store brands

(BPT) – Price isn’t the only reason 97 percent of millennials say they buy store brands. Shoppers age 18-36 say store brand products are also more innovative than brand name ones, deliver better value and are higher quality than ever, according to a report by Mintel.

What’s more, millennials aren’t the only group driving the growing demand for store brands. Private label brands now account for nearly 18 percent of all sales — $115.3 billion, according to the Private Label Manufacturer’s Association. In supermarkets, store brands make up 23 percent of all products sold and more than 17 percent of all products sold in drug stores, the PLMA says.

Performance and innovation

Early store brands had a reputation for mimicking the winning qualities of national brands, but many of today’s private labels are leading the way. In today’s market, it’s not unusual to find store brands launching their own innovations and bringing a new standard of performance to both national and competitive private label brands.

For example, some store brand incontinence and feminine care products now incorporate Dri-Fit innovations — the same absorbency technology found in the Prevail national brand of adult incontinence products. With a unique blend of natural and synthetic fibers, Dri-Fit innovations provide the comfort of cotton and the protection of synthetics in protective underwear, bladder control pads/liners, ultrathin maxi pads, thick maxi pads and panty liners. Independent lab testing found that products incorporating Dri-Fit innovations lock in 20 percent more wetness than other leading bladder control brands, based on retention capacity. To learn more, visit

Quality and value

Innovation by store brands could explain why, globally, 71 percent of store brand buyers say the quality of private label brands has improved, according to one Nielsen study. And while this study also found that a quarter of American shoppers describe store brands as an extremely good value, it’s clear that cost is no longer the only benefit of private label products.

For food items in particular, one major consumer study found most taste-testers felt store brands tasted as good as, and in some cases better than, national brands, Time magazine and Money Manifesto both reported.

Choice and convenience

Today’s store brands are available in virtually every product category. From prepared foods and dry goods, to fresh and deli meats, dairy and eggs, as well as health and beauty items and even baby formula, it’s possible to find alternative options for many popular name-brand products.

What’s more, nearly every major department, grocery and pharmacy chain now has its own store brand, meaning you can find innovative and value-oriented alternatives no matter where you prefer to shop.

Same sources and standards

Food and beverage and consumer products are regulated in the U.S., and store brands are held to the same regulatory standards of quality, safety and source as national brands. What’s more, some store brands not only offer the same quality as national brands, they come from the same place.

Store brands may come from national brand manufacturers who use their excess plant capacity to produce and supply store brands to retail chains. Others are made by specialized producers that concentrate their business on providing products for store brands. Still others, such as retailers and wholesalers, may own their own manufacturing facilities that supply product exclusively to their stores.

In a report on private labels, Nielsen noted that “Long gone are the days of no-frills packaging intended only for those on a tight budget — private label, also known as store brands, are no longer viewed simply as low-cost alternatives to name brands; they’re increasingly high-quality products that fulfill consumer needs across a variety of price points.”

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