Budgeting Made Simple

by Gerri Willis

It seems to me nothing is harder than following a monthly budget. Costs vary month to month and sticking to a rigid plan for spending and saving can be impossible. Apologies to you Quicken and Mint budgeting pros! I admire you, but can’t muster the discipline to do what you do!

And, I’m not alone.  Long-time personal finance guru and Edelman Financial Services Vice Chairman David Bach, author of “The Millionaire Next Door,” says budgets don’t work. “People rarely really build them, and it’s even harder to stick to them.” 

Fortunately, there is a way to get the benefits of the budget without spending your weekends slaving over an Excel spreadsheet. The real advantage of a budget is that it gives you parameters on what to spend on individual categories. Think of it as a pie. According to Bach, you’re best off spending just 35 percent of your monthly income on housing costs. That means mortgage or rent, repairs, taxes, utilities and insurance. Truth is, housing costs have been increasing handily. To find out whether it is cheaper to rent or buy, go to Trulia.com.

Another tough category is debt. Bach recommends that just 15 percent of income should be snagged by student loan payments, credit cards and personal loan payments. Transportation, car payments, insurance and gas, should comprise just 15 percent of your budget while other living expenses like eating out and vacationing should be 25 percent.

The big nut to crack is savings. Bach says saving 10 percent of your income is a good rule of thumb, but you may want to spend more if you are behind on retirement goals.

The bottom line is this: By understanding the proportion of your income that should go to each category of spending, you put yourself in a better position to budget without a real budget.  Hitting your goals can be as simple as paying yourself first. By automating your savings dollars and locking in low housing costs, you’ll go a long way towards making your budget (or unbudget) work!

Year-End Moves to Manage Your Health Care

by Gerri Willis

With more and more of the costs of health care falling on American families’ shoulders, it’s really up to you to find ways to manage those costs. And, now is an important time to consider some essential moves that can save you money next year.

  • Step No. 1 is to open a Health Savings Account at work, if your employer gives you the option. Dr. Archelle Georgiou says it is a great way to use pretax dollars to pay healthcare costs. Plus, many employers will make contributions to a health savings account and the money can roll over year after year. You can even keep that money if you change jobs. HSAs have a triple tax advantage. You make tax-free contributions that generate tax free interest that can accumulate until retirement and use that money tax-free for medical expenses. Think of it as a 401(K) for your health. Contributions limits are $3,350 for individuals and $6,650 for families.
  • Step. No. 2  If an HSA isn’t an option, consider a Flexible Spending Plan. It works similarly to an HSA, but the contribution limits are lower at $2,550. The downside is that if you leave money in your FSA account at the end of the year, you may lose anything over $500.
  • Step No. 3 Watch out for the Obamacare tax, a fine for people who aren’t covered by health insurance. In 2014, you’ll pay $95 per person or 1 percent of your household income, whichever is higher. These numbers go up each year. So make a plan to get coverage, if you don’t have it already.
  • Step No. 4 If you are already on Obamacare, watch out. Insurers have made big changes in their offerings and especially their pricing. Be sure to check out your plan on the Obamacare website, because the administration has said they are defaulting enrollees into the cheapest plan available. That may mean you have been moved to a plan that does not include your doctor or the hospital you want to use.      

Planning ahead is everything these days in health care. Take advantage of whatever opportunities you can to save money and keep your family healthy.

Your Year-End Portfolio To-Do List

by Gerri Willis

The holidays are a good time to take a long, hard look at your retirement portfolio and make sure you are on track for a successful retirement. “The key question to ask yourself is, ‘In relation to my personal financial goals, is my portfolio helping me achieve them?’ Most investors say they want the most money they can (get). But, ultimately, what matters is if your money helps you get what you want and lets you sleep at night,” says Derrick Kinney, president, Derrick Kinney and Associates. 

  • Step No. 1, says Chris Cordaro, a certified financial planner, is to rebalance your portfolio to make sure that the run in stocks hasn’t inadvertently left you with a higher stock allocation than you planned. He advises rebalancing anytime your balances are 20 percent from your target allocation. He says emerging markets offer the most opportunity as the most undervalued asset class currently.
  •  As you evaluate actively managed mutual funds, watch for managers that “window dress” their portfolios, or change holdings to improve the appearance of the portfolio by selling losers and buying winners. Problem is, says Cordaro, window dressing hurts returns and tax efficiency.
  • Now is also a great time to make sure you’ve contributed the max to your 401(K). Limits for 2014 are $17,500 and $18,000 for 2015. If you are 50 or over, you can add catch up contributions of $5,500. If you are aged 70 and ½ or older, you are required to take minimum distributions from your IRA. Financial advisors say one of the most common mistakes retirees make is forgetting to take distributions or taking too little. If you just hit this milestone, you can delay taking the payment until April 1 of the following year. The end of the year is also a good time to review the beneficiary designations of your retirement plans and make sure everything is as you want it.

 Taking some time and reviewing your retirement accounts isn’t just good planning, it’s also peace of mind. 

Getting The Most From Your Charitable Giving

by Gerri Willis

If you’re like me, most of your charitable contributions are made online moments before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. And, to be sure, giving before year-end pays benefits come April 15 because donations to qualified organizations are deductible from your taxable income.

Having said that, making contributions that qualify may be more difficult than it appears at first. For example, you can’t deduct contributions to individuals or non-qualified organizations, like country clubs or chambers of commerce. Likewise, appraisal fees are not deductible.

However, there are plenty of donations you can deduct to reduce your tax bill next year, says Clare Levison, a CPA and the author of, “Frugal Isn’t Cheap: Spend Less, Save More and Live Better.” Even plain old cash can be tricky unless you keep a copy of your bank record or get a receipt from the charity. You’re best off contributing money by cash, check, electronic funds transfer, debit card, credit card or even payroll deduction.

You can also give household goods like clothing. Just be sure the clothes are in decent condition. Cars, boats and airplanes can be deducted for the smaller of the gross proceeds from their sale by the organization or their fair market value when they are contributed. Follow the letter of the law, though, because the IRS sees auto contributions as a red flag.

Stocks, bonds, jewelry and coin or stamp collections can also be contributed. Typically for tax purposes, you deduct the fair market value of the property. Giving stock or real estate can be tricky. Consult a tax pro to make sure you get it right.

About 70 percent of Americans will contribute this year, and most of them will be doing it this month. Stretch your charitable dollars by giving to philanthropies that have good management. Check out www.charitynavigator.org to find the best run charitable organizations. 

Five Smart Year-End Tax Moves

by Gerri Willis

Right now is the best time to lower your tax bill for your 2014 filing next April. In fact, after today, you only have 17 days to reduce your tax liability.

"Once you pop the champagne bottle, scream happy new year and give your significant other a kiss at midnight, almost all of your tax planning strategies are lost, if you haven't already implemented them," says John Vento, president of Comprehensive Wealth Management and author of "Financial Independence, Getting to Point X."

The best way to plan is to consider ways to reduce your 2014 taxable income. Here are five ideas for doing just that:

1.)    Sell your losers. If you invest in individual stocks outside a retirement plan and have enjoyed widespread gains, analyze your portfolio to identify any losers you have. If you sell those losers you can use the capital losses to offset your capital gains, plus you can take an additional $3,000 in losses against your other income. You can buy back those losers next year if you plan to hold them for the long term. Avoid tripping IRS wash sales rules by buying the same securities 30 days after when you sold them.

2.)    Delay taking your bonus. One easy way to reduce your 2014 income is to get your boss to delay giving you your bonus until 2015. That way your bonus won't show up as 2014 income. If you are self-employed, don't send out invoices until after the first of the year.

3.)    Set aside more for retirement. Most people don't contribute the maximum they are eligible for to their workplace retirement fund. According to the IRS, contribution limits are $17,500 for 2014 and $18,000 for 2015. Catch up limits for workers 50 and older are $5,500 for 2014 and $6,000 for 2015. Check the rules for contributing to your 401(k) to make sure you can modify contributions at any time. Remember, money to your 401(k) or an IRA comes out before you pay taxes (as long as you are within contribution limits). Why not pay yourself before paying Uncle Sam?

4.)    Give to charity. If you are already planning to give money to your favorite charity, now is the time to do it. In addition to cash, you can also give household goods, clothing, even a car. But before you send that old junker off, talk to a tax professional to  make sure you are doing it the right way. Vehicle contributions are often scrutinized by the IRS.

5.)    Pay your tuition bill early. If you've got a child in college, your spring semester bill isn't likely due until January, but it may be worthwhile to pay it now. Early payers can claim the American Tax Credit on their 2014 return. The credit is worth up to $2,500 and up to 40 percent of it is refundable, which means you could get back as much as $1,000 as a tax refund if you don't owe taxes. You can claim tuition, fees and course materials.

6.)    Finally, don't leave any money on the table. Be sure to use any money you've set aside in your flexible spending account at work. Like a 401(K), FSA money goes into the account before taxes, but if you fail to use the money in the same year as it is contributed, you could lose it. Plan ahead and make April 15 the best it can be!

Middle Class Crushed By Low Wages, Rising Costs

by Gerri Willis

The missing link in this economic recovery – now nearly five years old – is consumer spending. As much as retailers try to lure us to the malls, it’s clear that consumers are still tightening their purse strings. Heavy retail discounting netted retailers 11 percent lower sales than last year.  

And, it’s no secret why consumers are minding their dollars and cents. Despite obamacare, healthcare spending is up 24 percent since 2007. Bending the cost curve? A dem dream, but certainly not a reality. Want to send Junior to college? You’ll pay more for that. Washington has jawboned about the sky-high costs of college, but education costs are still up 24 percent since ’07. The natural response to curb household spending is no cinch either grocery prices are 12 percent higher and rent is 26 percent higher.

The middle class is squeezed. Incomes are flat and costs are higher, and our do-nothing economy isn’t doing much to help. I wrote the missing link in the recovery is the consumer – but what’s really missing is sustained, strong economic growth. And by that, I mean the kind of economic growth that can fuel high-paying jobs and return consumer confidence. American families need incomes that grow.

This administration can’t count on the consumer to bail out the economy until middle-class Americans stop feeling like they are the targets of Washington policy making and not its backbone.                

 

Black Friday Gives Way to Gray Thursday

by Gerri Willis

Black Friday ain’t what it used to be. Promotions and discounts have already gotten underway for holiday shoppers at national retailers across the country. And now, more than ever, the big names, like Macy’s, Walmart and Best Buy are opening on Thanksgiving Day, much to the consternation of many employees.

But the real action is already starting. According to the website, BGR, Walmart has 115 deals listed in its pre-Black Friday Sale, which is already underway. Notable deals include discounts on 58-inch Samsung LED HDTVs and 40-inch Samsung HDTVs.  Meanwhile, Aeropostale  is promoting a 50 percent off promotion and Home Depot has 12 pages worth of deals. That’s a small sample of the deals out there. But you get the picture, retailers who’ve had two years of punk holiday sales are desperately trying to prime the pump and get consumers’ attention with early markdowns. The National Retail Federation has predicted the season will yield good, but not spectacular, results for retailers with a gain of 4 percent in sales through year end.

This trend is definitely in consumers’ favor, but you’d be well advised to compare prices no matter where you shop. Online, retailers engage in dynamic prices, which means they change prices constantly to try to find the best possible price point for them. Andrea Woroch, consumer analyst with Kinoli, suggests using price comparison apps, such as PriceGrabber and Google Shopping, to make sure you score the best price.

Whether you shop on Black Friday or not, my advice is to keep an eagle eye out on what you’re paying. 

Stroller Recall

by Gerri Willis

Graco is recalling millions of strollers because they could injure a child. Here's more information from the Consumer Protection Safety Commission:

Product: Aspen, Breeze, Capri, Cirrus, Glider, Kite, LiteRider, Sierra, Solara, Sterling and TravelMate Model Strollers and Travel Systems

Hazard: The folding hinge on the sides of the stroller can pinch a child’s finger, posing a laceration or amputation hazard.

Remedy: Repair

Consumer Contact: Graco Children’s Products at (800) 345-4109 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or online at www.gracobaby.com and click on the “Help Center” at the top and Recall and Safety Notifications for more information. 

This recall includes eleven Graco and Century-branded strollers with model names Aspen, Breeze, Capri, Cirrus, Glider, Kite, LiteRider, Sierra, Solara, Sterling and TravelMate.  All models are a single-occupant stroller with an external sliding fold-lock hinge on each side and a one-hand fold release mechanism on the handle. Strollers with a manufacture date from August 1, 2000 to September 25, 2014 are included in the recall. Model numbers and the date of manufacture are printed on the white label located at the bottom of the stroller leg just above the rear wheel. 

For more information:

http://www.cpsc.gov/en/Recalls/2015/Graco-Recalls-11-Models-of-Strollers/

Takata Airbag Recall: Is Your Car On This List?

by Gerri Willis

AFFECTED VEHICLES

 

Acura: 2002–2003 CL and TL; 2003–2006 MDX; 2005 RL

BMW: 2000–2005 3-series sedan and wagon; 2000–2006 3-series coupe and convertible; 2001–2006 M3 coupe and convertible

Chrysler: 2005–2008 Chrysler 300; 2007–2008 Aspen

Dodge/Ram: 2003–2008 Dodge Ram 1500; 2005–2008 Ram 2500, Dakota, and Durango; 2006–2008 Ram 3500 and 4500; 2008 Ram 5500

Ford: 2004 Ranger; 2005–2006 GT; 2005–2007 Mustang

Honda: 2001–2007 Accord; 2001–2005 Civic; 2002–2006 CR-V; 2002–2004 Odyssey; 2003–2011 Element; 2003–2007 Pilot; 2006 Ridgeline

Infiniti: 2001–2004 Infiniti I30/I35; 2002–2003 Infiniti QX4; 2003–2005 Infiniti FX35/FX45; 2006 Infiniti M35/M45

Lexus: 2002–2005 SC430

Mazda: 2003–2007 Mazda 6; 2006–2007 Mazdaspeed 6; 2004–2008 Mazda RX-8; 2004–2005 MPV; 2004 B-series

Mitsubishi: 2004–2005 Lancer; 2006–2007 Raider

Nissan: 2001–2003 Maxima; 2001–2004 Pathfinder; 2002–2006 Nissan Sentra

Pontiac: 2003–2005 Vibe

Saab: 2005 9-2X

Subaru: 2003–2005 Baja, Legacy, Outback; 2004–2005 Impreza, Impreza WRX, Impreza WRX STI

Toyota: 2002–2005 Toyota Corolla and Sequoia; 2003–2005 Matrix, Tundra

 

 

Best Tech Gifts Under $200

by Gerri Willis

Let’s face it; inevitably there is always someone on your Christmas shopping list who is a tech geek. And, whether you are a geek or not, you may be forced to find them the perfect gizmo. For that reason, we turned to our friends at Consumer Reports, who test hundreds of products, including tablets, TVs and cameras. Here are their top 5 picks for the season.

No. 1: If you’re looking for a TV, the Samsung UN28H4000 if great for the college student or child. The 28-inch LCD TV has good high definition picture quality and excellent color. Cost: $200.

No. 2: Bose FreeStyle earbuds. This in-ear model works for IPods, iPads and cellphones delivering good overall sound quality. Cost: $130.

No. 3: Sonos Play: 1: Wireless speakers are everywhere but the Sonos speakers deliver good sound at a reasonable price. There’s no remote. They just play music directly from your phone, tablet or computer. Cost: $200.

No. 4: Samsung Gear Fit: An activity monitor and a watch. You can receive phone calls and text messages but the product also has a built-in heart rate sensor. The folks at Consumer Reports note that the device is only compatible with Samsung smart phones. Cost: $150.

No. 5: Amazon Kindle Fire HDX: Wi-Fi 16 GB. This portable, 7-inch tablet has a super clear screen. The Amazon app market isn’t as big as Apple’s but Amazon Prime members get access to plenty of free movies and music. Cost: $180.

Consumer Reports December issue has more picks in its December issue. Join us tonight on The Willis Report when associate electronics editor Terry Sullivan gives us even more ideas.

Budgeting Made Simple

by Gerri Willis

It seems to me nothing is harder than following a monthly budget. Costs vary month to month and sticking to a rigid plan for spending and saving can be impossible. Apologies to you Quicken and Mint budgeting pros! I admire you, but can’t muster the discipline to do what you do!

And, I’m not alone.  Long-time personal finance guru and Edelman Financial Services Vice Chairman David Bach, author of “The Millionaire Next Door,” says budgets don’t work. “People rarely really build them, and it’s even harder to stick to them.” 

Fortunately, there is a way to get the benefits of the budget without spending your weekends slaving over an Excel spreadsheet. The real advantage of a budget is that it gives you parameters on what to spend on individual categories. Think of it as a pie. According to Bach, you’re best off spending just 35 percent of your monthly income on housing costs. That means mortgage or rent, repairs, taxes, utilities and insurance. Truth is, housing costs have been increasing handily. To find out whether it is cheaper to rent or buy, go to Trulia.com.

Another tough category is debt. Bach recommends that just 15 percent of income should be snagged by student loan payments, credit cards and personal loan payments. Transportation, car payments, insurance and gas, should comprise just 15 percent of your budget while other living expenses like eating out and vacationing should be 25 percent.

The big nut to crack is savings. Bach says saving 10 percent of your income is a good rule of thumb, but you may want to spend more if you are behind on retirement goals.

The bottom line is this: By understanding the proportion of your income that should go to each category of spending, you put yourself in a better position to budget without a real budget.  Hitting your goals can be as simple as paying yourself first. By automating your savings dollars and locking in low housing costs, you’ll go a long way towards making your budget (or unbudget) work!

Year-End Moves to Manage Your Health Care

by Gerri Willis

With more and more of the costs of health care falling on American families’ shoulders, it’s really up to you to find ways to manage those costs. And, now is an important time to consider some essential moves that can save you money next year.

  • Step No. 1 is to open a Health Savings Account at work, if your employer gives you the option. Dr. Archelle Georgiou says it is a great way to use pretax dollars to pay healthcare costs. Plus, many employers will make contributions to a health savings account and the money can roll over year after year. You can even keep that money if you change jobs. HSAs have a triple tax advantage. You make tax-free contributions that generate tax free interest that can accumulate until retirement and use that money tax-free for medical expenses. Think of it as a 401(K) for your health. Contributions limits are $3,350 for individuals and $6,650 for families.
  • Step. No. 2  If an HSA isn’t an option, consider a Flexible Spending Plan. It works similarly to an HSA, but the contribution limits are lower at $2,550. The downside is that if you leave money in your FSA account at the end of the year, you may lose anything over $500.
  • Step No. 3 Watch out for the Obamacare tax, a fine for people who aren’t covered by health insurance. In 2014, you’ll pay $95 per person or 1 percent of your household income, whichever is higher. These numbers go up each year. So make a plan to get coverage, if you don’t have it already.
  • Step No. 4 If you are already on Obamacare, watch out. Insurers have made big changes in their offerings and especially their pricing. Be sure to check out your plan on the Obamacare website, because the administration has said they are defaulting enrollees into the cheapest plan available. That may mean you have been moved to a plan that does not include your doctor or the hospital you want to use.      

Planning ahead is everything these days in health care. Take advantage of whatever opportunities you can to save money and keep your family healthy.

Your Year-End Portfolio To-Do List

by Gerri Willis

The holidays are a good time to take a long, hard look at your retirement portfolio and make sure you are on track for a successful retirement. “The key question to ask yourself is, ‘In relation to my personal financial goals, is my portfolio helping me achieve them?’ Most investors say they want the most money they can (get). But, ultimately, what matters is if your money helps you get what you want and lets you sleep at night,” says Derrick Kinney, president, Derrick Kinney and Associates. 

  • Step No. 1, says Chris Cordaro, a certified financial planner, is to rebalance your portfolio to make sure that the run in stocks hasn’t inadvertently left you with a higher stock allocation than you planned. He advises rebalancing anytime your balances are 20 percent from your target allocation. He says emerging markets offer the most opportunity as the most undervalued asset class currently.
  •  As you evaluate actively managed mutual funds, watch for managers that “window dress” their portfolios, or change holdings to improve the appearance of the portfolio by selling losers and buying winners. Problem is, says Cordaro, window dressing hurts returns and tax efficiency.
  • Now is also a great time to make sure you’ve contributed the max to your 401(K). Limits for 2014 are $17,500 and $18,000 for 2015. If you are 50 or over, you can add catch up contributions of $5,500. If you are aged 70 and ½ or older, you are required to take minimum distributions from your IRA. Financial advisors say one of the most common mistakes retirees make is forgetting to take distributions or taking too little. If you just hit this milestone, you can delay taking the payment until April 1 of the following year. The end of the year is also a good time to review the beneficiary designations of your retirement plans and make sure everything is as you want it.

 Taking some time and reviewing your retirement accounts isn’t just good planning, it’s also peace of mind. 

Getting The Most From Your Charitable Giving

by Gerri Willis

If you’re like me, most of your charitable contributions are made online moments before the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. And, to be sure, giving before year-end pays benefits come April 15 because donations to qualified organizations are deductible from your taxable income.

Having said that, making contributions that qualify may be more difficult than it appears at first. For example, you can’t deduct contributions to individuals or non-qualified organizations, like country clubs or chambers of commerce. Likewise, appraisal fees are not deductible.

However, there are plenty of donations you can deduct to reduce your tax bill next year, says Clare Levison, a CPA and the author of, “Frugal Isn’t Cheap: Spend Less, Save More and Live Better.” Even plain old cash can be tricky unless you keep a copy of your bank record or get a receipt from the charity. You’re best off contributing money by cash, check, electronic funds transfer, debit card, credit card or even payroll deduction.

You can also give household goods like clothing. Just be sure the clothes are in decent condition. Cars, boats and airplanes can be deducted for the smaller of the gross proceeds from their sale by the organization or their fair market value when they are contributed. Follow the letter of the law, though, because the IRS sees auto contributions as a red flag.

Stocks, bonds, jewelry and coin or stamp collections can also be contributed. Typically for tax purposes, you deduct the fair market value of the property. Giving stock or real estate can be tricky. Consult a tax pro to make sure you get it right.

About 70 percent of Americans will contribute this year, and most of them will be doing it this month. Stretch your charitable dollars by giving to philanthropies that have good management. Check out www.charitynavigator.org to find the best run charitable organizations. 

Five Smart Year-End Tax Moves

by Gerri Willis

Right now is the best time to lower your tax bill for your 2014 filing next April. In fact, after today, you only have 17 days to reduce your tax liability.

"Once you pop the champagne bottle, scream happy new year and give your significant other a kiss at midnight, almost all of your tax planning strategies are lost, if you haven't already implemented them," says John Vento, president of Comprehensive Wealth Management and author of "Financial Independence, Getting to Point X."

The best way to plan is to consider ways to reduce your 2014 taxable income. Here are five ideas for doing just that:

1.)    Sell your losers. If you invest in individual stocks outside a retirement plan and have enjoyed widespread gains, analyze your portfolio to identify any losers you have. If you sell those losers you can use the capital losses to offset your capital gains, plus you can take an additional $3,000 in losses against your other income. You can buy back those losers next year if you plan to hold them for the long term. Avoid tripping IRS wash sales rules by buying the same securities 30 days after when you sold them.

2.)    Delay taking your bonus. One easy way to reduce your 2014 income is to get your boss to delay giving you your bonus until 2015. That way your bonus won't show up as 2014 income. If you are self-employed, don't send out invoices until after the first of the year.

3.)    Set aside more for retirement. Most people don't contribute the maximum they are eligible for to their workplace retirement fund. According to the IRS, contribution limits are $17,500 for 2014 and $18,000 for 2015. Catch up limits for workers 50 and older are $5,500 for 2014 and $6,000 for 2015. Check the rules for contributing to your 401(k) to make sure you can modify contributions at any time. Remember, money to your 401(k) or an IRA comes out before you pay taxes (as long as you are within contribution limits). Why not pay yourself before paying Uncle Sam?

4.)    Give to charity. If you are already planning to give money to your favorite charity, now is the time to do it. In addition to cash, you can also give household goods, clothing, even a car. But before you send that old junker off, talk to a tax professional to  make sure you are doing it the right way. Vehicle contributions are often scrutinized by the IRS.

5.)    Pay your tuition bill early. If you've got a child in college, your spring semester bill isn't likely due until January, but it may be worthwhile to pay it now. Early payers can claim the American Tax Credit on their 2014 return. The credit is worth up to $2,500 and up to 40 percent of it is refundable, which means you could get back as much as $1,000 as a tax refund if you don't owe taxes. You can claim tuition, fees and course materials.

6.)    Finally, don't leave any money on the table. Be sure to use any money you've set aside in your flexible spending account at work. Like a 401(K), FSA money goes into the account before taxes, but if you fail to use the money in the same year as it is contributed, you could lose it. Plan ahead and make April 15 the best it can be!

Middle Class Crushed By Low Wages, Rising Costs

by Gerri Willis

The missing link in this economic recovery – now nearly five years old – is consumer spending. As much as retailers try to lure us to the malls, it’s clear that consumers are still tightening their purse strings. Heavy retail discounting netted retailers 11 percent lower sales than last year.  

And, it’s no secret why consumers are minding their dollars and cents. Despite obamacare, healthcare spending is up 24 percent since 2007. Bending the cost curve? A dem dream, but certainly not a reality. Want to send Junior to college? You’ll pay more for that. Washington has jawboned about the sky-high costs of college, but education costs are still up 24 percent since ’07. The natural response to curb household spending is no cinch either grocery prices are 12 percent higher and rent is 26 percent higher.

The middle class is squeezed. Incomes are flat and costs are higher, and our do-nothing economy isn’t doing much to help. I wrote the missing link in the recovery is the consumer – but what’s really missing is sustained, strong economic growth. And by that, I mean the kind of economic growth that can fuel high-paying jobs and return consumer confidence. American families need incomes that grow.

This administration can’t count on the consumer to bail out the economy until middle-class Americans stop feeling like they are the targets of Washington policy making and not its backbone.                

 

Black Friday Gives Way to Gray Thursday

by Gerri Willis

Black Friday ain’t what it used to be. Promotions and discounts have already gotten underway for holiday shoppers at national retailers across the country. And now, more than ever, the big names, like Macy’s, Walmart and Best Buy are opening on Thanksgiving Day, much to the consternation of many employees.

But the real action is already starting. According to the website, BGR, Walmart has 115 deals listed in its pre-Black Friday Sale, which is already underway. Notable deals include discounts on 58-inch Samsung LED HDTVs and 40-inch Samsung HDTVs.  Meanwhile, Aeropostale  is promoting a 50 percent off promotion and Home Depot has 12 pages worth of deals. That’s a small sample of the deals out there. But you get the picture, retailers who’ve had two years of punk holiday sales are desperately trying to prime the pump and get consumers’ attention with early markdowns. The National Retail Federation has predicted the season will yield good, but not spectacular, results for retailers with a gain of 4 percent in sales through year end.

This trend is definitely in consumers’ favor, but you’d be well advised to compare prices no matter where you shop. Online, retailers engage in dynamic prices, which means they change prices constantly to try to find the best possible price point for them. Andrea Woroch, consumer analyst with Kinoli, suggests using price comparison apps, such as PriceGrabber and Google Shopping, to make sure you score the best price.

Whether you shop on Black Friday or not, my advice is to keep an eagle eye out on what you’re paying. 

Stroller Recall

by Gerri Willis

Graco is recalling millions of strollers because they could injure a child. Here's more information from the Consumer Protection Safety Commission:

Product: Aspen, Breeze, Capri, Cirrus, Glider, Kite, LiteRider, Sierra, Solara, Sterling and TravelMate Model Strollers and Travel Systems

Hazard: The folding hinge on the sides of the stroller can pinch a child’s finger, posing a laceration or amputation hazard.

Remedy: Repair

Consumer Contact: Graco Children’s Products at (800) 345-4109 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday or online at www.gracobaby.com and click on the “Help Center” at the top and Recall and Safety Notifications for more information. 

This recall includes eleven Graco and Century-branded strollers with model names Aspen, Breeze, Capri, Cirrus, Glider, Kite, LiteRider, Sierra, Solara, Sterling and TravelMate.  All models are a single-occupant stroller with an external sliding fold-lock hinge on each side and a one-hand fold release mechanism on the handle. Strollers with a manufacture date from August 1, 2000 to September 25, 2014 are included in the recall. Model numbers and the date of manufacture are printed on the white label located at the bottom of the stroller leg just above the rear wheel. 

For more information:

http://www.cpsc.gov/en/Recalls/2015/Graco-Recalls-11-Models-of-Strollers/

Takata Airbag Recall: Is Your Car On This List?

by Gerri Willis

AFFECTED VEHICLES

 

Acura: 2002–2003 CL and TL; 2003–2006 MDX; 2005 RL

BMW: 2000–2005 3-series sedan and wagon; 2000–2006 3-series coupe and convertible; 2001–2006 M3 coupe and convertible

Chrysler: 2005–2008 Chrysler 300; 2007–2008 Aspen

Dodge/Ram: 2003–2008 Dodge Ram 1500; 2005–2008 Ram 2500, Dakota, and Durango; 2006–2008 Ram 3500 and 4500; 2008 Ram 5500

Ford: 2004 Ranger; 2005–2006 GT; 2005–2007 Mustang

Honda: 2001–2007 Accord; 2001–2005 Civic; 2002–2006 CR-V; 2002–2004 Odyssey; 2003–2011 Element; 2003–2007 Pilot; 2006 Ridgeline

Infiniti: 2001–2004 Infiniti I30/I35; 2002–2003 Infiniti QX4; 2003–2005 Infiniti FX35/FX45; 2006 Infiniti M35/M45

Lexus: 2002–2005 SC430

Mazda: 2003–2007 Mazda 6; 2006–2007 Mazdaspeed 6; 2004–2008 Mazda RX-8; 2004–2005 MPV; 2004 B-series

Mitsubishi: 2004–2005 Lancer; 2006–2007 Raider

Nissan: 2001–2003 Maxima; 2001–2004 Pathfinder; 2002–2006 Nissan Sentra

Pontiac: 2003–2005 Vibe

Saab: 2005 9-2X

Subaru: 2003–2005 Baja, Legacy, Outback; 2004–2005 Impreza, Impreza WRX, Impreza WRX STI

Toyota: 2002–2005 Toyota Corolla and Sequoia; 2003–2005 Matrix, Tundra

 

 

Best Tech Gifts Under $200

by Gerri Willis

Let’s face it; inevitably there is always someone on your Christmas shopping list who is a tech geek. And, whether you are a geek or not, you may be forced to find them the perfect gizmo. For that reason, we turned to our friends at Consumer Reports, who test hundreds of products, including tablets, TVs and cameras. Here are their top 5 picks for the season.

No. 1: If you’re looking for a TV, the Samsung UN28H4000 if great for the college student or child. The 28-inch LCD TV has good high definition picture quality and excellent color. Cost: $200.

No. 2: Bose FreeStyle earbuds. This in-ear model works for IPods, iPads and cellphones delivering good overall sound quality. Cost: $130.

No. 3: Sonos Play: 1: Wireless speakers are everywhere but the Sonos speakers deliver good sound at a reasonable price. There’s no remote. They just play music directly from your phone, tablet or computer. Cost: $200.

No. 4: Samsung Gear Fit: An activity monitor and a watch. You can receive phone calls and text messages but the product also has a built-in heart rate sensor. The folks at Consumer Reports note that the device is only compatible with Samsung smart phones. Cost: $150.

No. 5: Amazon Kindle Fire HDX: Wi-Fi 16 GB. This portable, 7-inch tablet has a super clear screen. The Amazon app market isn’t as big as Apple’s but Amazon Prime members get access to plenty of free movies and music. Cost: $180.

Consumer Reports December issue has more picks in its December issue. Join us tonight on The Willis Report when associate electronics editor Terry Sullivan gives us even more ideas.

ADVERTISEMENT

On Twitter

ADVERTISEMENT