User's Guide to Prenups: For Better or Worse?

by Gerri Willis

Okay, I am definitely out of step with the professionals, the lawyers and marriage counselors, who say that the prenup is an essential step for the couple about to get married this year. At first glance, their arguments in favor of a prenup are pretty persuasive. Since half of marriages end in divorce, they say, agreeing how you’ll split up what you own in the event of divorce even before you take vows is the smart move. Given those odds, a responsible couple considers the end game ahead of time. Getting married, the prenup supporters say, is a roll of the dice and protecting your own skin is the name of the game.

If that’s the way you feel, I say, don’t get married. How can you possibly expect to have a real marriage unless you’re in it together? The traditional vows are “for better or worse,” not “until I find something better.” Look, undoubtedly, some people come into a marriage with a much firmer financial cushion or more debt than their partner. It’s rare that two people have the exact same financial profile. What’s missing isn’t a legal document, but communication about those differences. The bride or husband to be saddled with debt needs to be clear about the issues. Likewise, the spouse who is heir to a family business needs to share his or her expectations. But people getting married should be ready to work together.

Truth is, few couples have the money conversation and to me – that is essential. If you don’t know what your fiance earns to the penny, that’s a recipe for disaster. How much does he or she save? What is the size of the 401(k)? Is there a mountain of credit card or college debt hiding in the wings? Once you finish the financial disclosure, then you can start to tackle the other important financial questions you’ll face as a couple. What are your financial goals? How are you going to get there together?

Prenup advocates say marriage is a contractual arrangement, so, they reason, why not protect it with another contractual arrangement? I say a marriage’s most fundamental essence isn’t filed away in the county courthouse but lived out every day and for that to happen it has to be built on trust.

 

Don’t miss The Willis Report starting 5pmET on FOX Business.

Your User's Guide to Love & Money: Newlywed Advice

by Gerri Willis

By Gerri Willis

 

A couple of years ago one of my friends who I thought was a confirmed bachelor announced he was getting married. Since he lived on the West Coast, I didn’t get a chance to meet his fiancé until the wedding. And, what a wedding it was! A dozen formally-attired bridesmaids. Four-course meal. Champagne fountain. All of which was weird, because my buddy’s tastes tended to run to  Goretex jackets and Merrell shoes. Ah well, I thought, everybody changes. Besides, my friend had interviewed drug kingpins and travelled the world. He could handle himself.

But then, weeks later my friend called to say that not long after the five-star wedding he found out his new bride had debt. A lot of debt. Six figures worth of debt. A stunning revelation for my friend but stories like this play out all the time.

In fact, according to a study from Michigan University’s Ross School of Business, tightwads and spendthrifts are attracted to each other. That’s right, Mother Nature is conspiring against financially solvent, happy couples. According to the study, “Fatal Fiscal Attraction: Spendthrifts and Tightwads in Marriage,” opposites attract even when it comes to money.

For that reason, if you’re getting married for the first time or the fifth, you need to have a real world understanding of just how financially literate your intended is and the debt load they carry because it will soon be yours. You can typically get a sense of your honey’s money habits by simply watching them on dates. Who orders the extra bottle of wine at midnight? Who wants to book the last-minute weekend getaway with astronomical airfare? Some of the spending conducted by a couple in love can be blamed on their euphoria over being in love. But for some folks, overspending is a habit and a bad one.

I believe that every couple headed down the aisle should engage in financial disclosure. You need to know what your soon-to-be spouse earns for a living. What kind of credit card debt they have. Outstanding student loans? Alimony? Child support? Tell me about it. Let’s face it, if getting a mortgage to buy a house is a financial strip search, why should getting married be any different?

In short, it’s not un-romantic to understand your fiance’s money life. It’s part of them – an important part of them. And, one you need to understand before slipping on the ring.

 

Don’t miss The Willis Report starting 5pmET on FOX Business.

Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions for 2014

Job candidates must be prepared for anything during an interview. Glassdoor has combed through tens of thousands of interview questions shared by job candidates over the past year to compile its annual list of the Top 25 Oddball Interview Questions.

 

Warm Weather Getaway Tips That Will Save You Money

by Gerri Willis

By Gerri Willis

 

Dreaming of a warm weather getaway? With much of the nation locked down in freezing weather,  planning a getaway with the kids to a warm-weather theme park might just be the ticket. And, let's face it, the attractions just seem to be getting better and better. Not to be outdone by Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Disney has launched a Star Wars attraction that seems to be getting all the buzz. But what will a trip for four cost you? The answer is: Plenty.

 

The theme park business has gotten so big, in fact, that some allow you to buy your vacation on an installment plan. Average prices for a single day at a single park are cruising just below $100. So you'll want to plan your excursion with care to make sure Junior's vacation doesn't pre-empt Junior's college education.

 

Here are some tips for getting the most out of your theme park vacation. First off,  buying multiple day passes can reduce your daily costs to visit. Check the websites of your destinations to find out if you can score a deal by planning multiple visits in advance. Keep in mind that traveling to one of these parks will still be cheaper than taking your kids to a foreign capital (they'll probably enjoy themselves more, too).

Before you even look at package prices at the theme parks themselves, check out the hotels in and around the parks. Many offer incentives with early admission; complimentary travel and passes that will help you skip the line. Consider booking an offseason trip to score the richest incentives. The best times to visit are weekdays in the shoulder months of March, April. September and October. Twilight admission deals abound, too. (That's typically after 4 p.m.) Schedule your visit for weekdays, instead of weekends, and you'll score even more savings.

 

Don’t miss The Willis Report starting 5pmET on FOX Business

 

This is NOT How to Solve the Nation’s Retirement Crisis

by Gerri Willis

By Gerri Willis

 

Every once in a while, along comes a great idea for solving the nation’s retirement crisis. Unfortunately, the President’s MyRA is not it.

Unveiled at this week’s state of the union address, MyRA is a starter savings vehicle developed to encourage the middle class to invest for retirement. An admirable goal, especially since  53 percent of American households are at risk of not being able to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

But MyRA doesn’t set its sights that high. Instead, the program, which is in early stages now, encourages workers to set aside small amounts. The minimum investment is just $25 and even that can be taken out at any time. Contributions will be made after-tax with a $15,000 account maximum. Senior administration officials, speaking on background earlier this week, said that savers would be able to take money out at any time if they hit a “rough patch.” No word yet about what would happen if the program became popular and everybody decided to pull all their money  out at one time during, say, a financial crisis like we saw in 2007. Presumably, taxpayers would be on the hook.

Worst case scenarios aside, senior administration officials said the program goal is to attract investors with its “simple, safe and secure” design. Further, they said that “Everyone who wants to save, should be able to do so.” It’s an odd assertion, especially given the fact that there are plenty of options at hand for consumers who want to save.  The nation’s more than 6,000 federal credit unions allow customers to open an account with just $5. Vanguard requires IRA applicants to have $1,000 to invest.

What’s most confounding about the plan is that there will be just one option offered to investors. A “savings-bond like” investment that will mimic the return that government employees get in their retirement accounts. Over the past five years, however, those returns have averaged just 2.69 percent, while the S&P 500 has returned 17.98 percent. I know what I’d rather have. The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that it would take a saver who contributed $50 every two weeks nearly 11 years to amass $15,000 given last year’s government fund return.  That’s a long time for a saver to wait.

Here’s the real problem with the program: With returns so low and investment options so few, who will invest? Americans are reluctant to invest in their 401(k) even when they get matching employer dollars. Participation rates are typically just 53 percent unless workers are automatically enrolled and are forced to opt out.

To be sure,  I think encouraging people to save and invest is good. We need more savings. But young investors need experience with the real world of investing and that means your principal isn’t guaranteed. That means taking on some risk. It’s a personal responsibility to save for retirement and if the government wants to help, maybe the Federal Reserve should be encouraged to let rates reset on their own so that savers can be rewarded in the marketplace.

 

Don’t miss The Willis Report starting 5pmET on FOX Business

How to Bring Down Home Heating Costs

by Gerri Willis

By Gerri Willis

 

The arctic plunge felt all over the country is pressuring Americans’ wallets. Despite the revolution in energy production, high demand and supply constraints are sending energy prices soaring. Propane prices are double their previous highs in the Midwest as demand spikes. Meanwhile, natural gas prices are soaring as inadequate pipeline capacity struggles to fulfill demand in the Northeast.

The Energy Information Agency reports that 90 percent of the 116 million Americans homes will face higher home heating bills this winter. Heating oil users will face the  highest bill for the season at an average of $2,114. Propane users come in at No. 2 with an average bill of $1,666,  Electric heat users average tab is seen at $914 and natural gas users will pay $665, that’s up 13 percent from last year. Natural gas is used by about a half of American households to heat their homes.

Experts say that keeping your home warm and safe is nothing short of a challenge this year. On the one hand, every time your ratchet up the heat on your thermostat a single degree, you increase your costs by 3 percent. But lowering your thermostat too much can cause trouble. Second home owners need to keep a particularly sharp eye on how much they turn down their thermostat. Turn it too low and your pipes can freeze. Danny Lipford, host of Today’s Homeowner, recommends allowing your faucets to drip overnight when the weather is extremely cold. Open up the cabinet doors below your kitchen faucets to allow warmer air to circulate around pipes.

January is the month for home fires and if you are using electric space heaters be particularly careful.  Underwriters Laboratories estimates that the safest distance between your space heater and curtains or other household items that can catch fire three feet. Use a high quality extension cord and shut the heater off if you aren’t in the room.

One way to bring your costs down for the long term is to buy a more efficient furnace. New furnaces these days are extremely efficient, capturing as much as 97 percent of the fuel’s energy. But at a cost of $2,500 to $14,000 to buy and install, a gas furnace isn’t cheap. Get a pro to help you determine how much you might save by upgrading your furnace and then figure out how long it would take the savings to pay the cost of the furnace. Most experts weigh three factors: the efficiency of the furnace, the cost of the fuel and the heating load of the house – that’s the amount of energy it takes to maintain a steady 65-degree temperature. Check your state government’s website to see if you can score some government-funded rebates to make the cost easier to bear.

Chances are if your furnace still has several good years left in its 15 to 20-year life, you might want to consider other ways to improve your homes fuel efficiency, such as weather stripping and insulating your attic or blowing in insulation into your walls. (I’ve done the latter after determining that the builders of our 81-year-old house insulated with newspaper.) If you’re still not satisfied, ask your energy provider for an energy audit, which will provide detailed information about where your home drafts are coming in.

 

Don’t miss The Willis Report starting 5pmET on FOX Business.

What Obama Won't Say in His State of the Union Speech

by Gerri Willis

By Gerri Willis

 

As you listen the president’s state of the union address tonight, you might be asking yourself about the state of your personal economy. Are you better off or worse off than you expected to be when the president took office? For his part, President Obama will, no doubt, highlight macro numbers, the ones that describe the entire economy, like third quarter GDP growing 4.1 percent. The performance was better, if not great. And, no doubt, he will cite the fact that the unemployment rate has fallen to 6.7 percent from a recession high of 10 percent. These are facts that the president will likely point to tonight as evidence of the effectiveness of Washington policies.

But on Main Street the story is different. A recent survey showed that 74 percent of Americans believe the economy is in a recession. Digging into the numbers it’s easy to see why we’re so pessimistic. While the headline on last month’s jobs report looked good, job creation was a paltry 74,000, the worst in 10 months. That’s a rounding error for a $17 trillion economy. Truth is, we’re nowhere near to replacing the 8.7 million jobs we lost during the recession.

What’s more, the economy and Obama policies have dramatically reshaped the workforce. While some workers have no doubt retired in recent years, you have to go back 30 years to find a period in which workforce participation is lower. In other words, the number of Americans working fulltime is roughly equivalent to the period before women entered the workforce en masse. Discouraged, many workers are simply not trying to find a new job.

In short, many of us still feel like the economy is in neutral, a tepid recovery that is barely providing opportunity to those who need it. In fact, in a recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center and USA Today, the numbers of Americans identifying themselves as middle class fell, while those identifying themselves as lower class soared. Young people, in particular, are likely to define themselves as lower class, with those numbers doubling in the past six years under the weight of rising college debt and punk job opportunities.

I think one number describes how many of us are feeling about today’s economy better than any other and that is average weekly wages. The typical fulltime American worker made $831 a week in December 2013, that’s DOWN $2 from when the president took office.  In other words, if you are lucky enough to find a job, your pay is no better than it was five years ago. That’s the essence of the Obama economy: Stagnation.

 

Don’t miss The Willis Report starting 5pmET on FOX Business.

 

TOP FISH OIL SUPPLEMENTS

CHOOSE SAFER, MORE EFFECTIVE FISH OIL PRODUCTS:  https://labdoor.com/c/fish-oil

LabDoor analyzed 30 best-selling fish oil supplements in the United States, measuring total omega-3 content, EPA and DHA quantities, vitamin D and CLA amounts, methylmercury concentration, and total oxidation values.


 

21/30 products demonstrated omega-3 levels that varied by over 10% off their label claims, 15 of which recorded a 25% variance between actual versus claimed content. EPA + DHA content also showed significant ingredient variance, ranging from -50.7% to +90.2% versus its stated label claims.


 

Every product contained measurable amounts of mercury, with 3 products recording 50% or greater of the allowable mercury content per serving. The majority of products passed oxidation (freshness) assays, although 1 product recorded a TOTOX score above the upper limit and 6 more products measured within 5% of the upper limit.

How to Protect Yourself from Credit Hackers

by Gerri Willis

By Gerri Willis

 

The Target breach of credit card numbers and other private information of as many as 110 million customers has just about everyone on edge. Already two people have been arrested in connection with the hacking of customer data that began last Black Friday, but we still have a long way to go in determining exactly how the breach happened. Protecting yourself from such trouble isn't simple. First off, some sources say that more chains were hit. So simply not going back to Target to shop isn't a solution.

Here are my best ideas for protecting yourself from credit hackers:

 

  • Consider using cash. The reality is that, in the second or so it takes a credit card transaction to take place, your information switches hands a dozen times -- from your bank to the store's bank, but also to middlemen like card processors. That's a lot of opportunity for trouble. Using cash today will protect yourself from hackers this moment, but won't do anything to reduce the likelihood that your information has already been compromised.

 

  • Ditch the debit card, for now. Your least protected card in your wallet is your debit card. Look, if bad guys grab your credit card number and go on shopping field day, you can contest those transactions and your liability is capped at $50, and many card issuers don't even make you pay that much.

 

  • The rules are stricter with debit cards. Debit card liability is capped at $50 unless you fail to report fraud within two days, and then your liability jumps to $500. Miss the deadline for a couple of months and you have no protection.

 

  • Remember, a debit card is a call on your personal checking account. Credit card transactions, on the other hand, are made with the bank's money.

 

  • Check your credit card statements routinely online – as often as every single day. That's what one of my experts told me on The Willis Report. And, it makes sense. You want to be aware of fraud as soon as it happens. Checking everyday means that you'll want to have as few cards as possible. After all, who wants to have to troll online through 15 different websites?

 

Fraud protection services, in my view, are really too little, too late. Target is offering this sort of benefits to customers, but it's only useful in finding out a theft that has already occurred.

 

If you were a Target shopper this holiday season, take special care in responding to any offers or requests for information. Already, some scammers have started contacting consumers, pretending to be bank representatives and asking for information. If someone contacts you asking for personal data, hang up the phone and call your bank directly. At the end of the day, your money can be replaced, but the real item you want to protect is your personal identity, because when that is stolen, it can cause headaches for years to come.

 

Don’t miss The Willis Report starting 5pmET on FOX Business

Gym Membership Gotchas

by Gerri Willis

By Gerri Willis

 

It’s January – the biggest month of the year for fitness club signups. According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, 18 percent of Americans are members of a health club or soon will be. I have to admit to having been a gym rat, off and on, for years, really. But there is much consumers need to know before signing on the dotted line this month.

First off, these memberships can get expensive over time. For that reason, you need to do the math. How many times a week are you likely to make it to the gym realistically? Recently, I dropped my membership at a pricy New York gym when I realized my work schedule would prevent me from going more than once a week. Fifty bucks for each visit? No way. Instead, I opted for the company-sponsored gym at the Fox offices. It doesn’t have eucalyptus-scented towels, but the people are nice and it’s incredibly convenient. Truth is, if you overspend on your fitness club, you start to resent the place over time.

If you do decide it’s worth it, check out just how busy the floor is at the time you are likely to go. If the gym is packed every morning from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. and that is the only time you can attend, you need to reassess. Cleanliness counts. A dirty shower area doesn’t bode well for the way the rest of the operation is run.      

Read the contract. Seriously. I’ve written so many stories about the Federal Trade Commission going after fitness club chains, I can almost write the press release itself. Sometimes what the high-pressure sales person giveth, the contract takes away. One famous example: A 30-day free trial offered by one national gym. But there was a catch – if you didn’t go to the gym 12 times within that first month, you were automatically enrolled in a multi-year membership – and on the hook for the months and months of dues. Watch for the fine print on what happens when you decide to cancel your membership. It’s not unusual for clubs to require you to wait a month or two before your cancellation becomes official. In other words, you have to pay an additional two months of dues, even though you don’t want them. The time to address that issue is before you sign the contract.

And, once you do become a member understand that security is your own problem. I once had my iPad stolen at a gym. It may feel very chummy in the locker room, but the reality is that there are people with bad motives everywhere and a gym is an easy place for thieves to strike. Get a lock, use it and make sure you don’t share your combination with anyone.  

The good news is this:  Sign up time is the best time to ask for perks or extras with your membership. Do you get a 10 percent discount on services at the spa with your membership? It’s worth asking for.  Ask for an extra month’s worth of membership to be thrown in for free. What do you get if you refer a friend? Truth is, January is a big month for sign ups, but it’s also a big month for gym freebies. Don’t be shy.

 

Don’t miss The Willis Report starting 5pmET on FOX Business

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