Shop Smart & Save More on Groceries

by Gerri Willis

Planning to bring home the bacon? Good luck, bacon prices are up 14 percent from two years ago. And, that’s not the only item in your grocer’s aisles that is rising in prices. Fresh fruit prices are on the march, as are avocado prices. Thinking you’ll skip the high prices of steak and have a pork chop instead? Forget it. Pork chops prices are obscene and so is the lowly ground chuck. Fortunately, there are ways to save. Tod Marks, senior projects editor at Consumer Reports, gave me his best ideas.

Marks says you don’t have to spend every weekend cutting coupons to save and offered some great strategies for getting the best prices on darn near everything. Start by getting your favorite store’s loyalty card. This allows you to access to special offers that you might otherwise not get. It may sound like a small thing, but chains like Safeway and Stop & Shop offer gas discounts when you sign up.

Simple changes can make a difference. Marks recommends buying bagged produce, like apples or potatoes, and multipacks of items like soap and soda, to save as much as 36 percent. (Just make sure you can use all those apples before they go bad!)

Avoid stopping at the drug store for a last-minute gallon of milk. According to Consumer Reports, there are better places to pick up the item on your grocery list you forgot. Dollar stores are carrying a larger proportion of food items, as much as 66 percent of their sales, and savings can be dramatic. Consumer Reports price differences of as much as 28 percent.

If you like to use apps to shop, Marks recommends an app called “Boxed,” which helps users find the best prices for bulk shopping. Also, “Checkout 51” locates the best items for cash back offers.    

Otherwise, shop smart. Shopping advocates advise you trust, but verify. If something is advertised as a good deal, break down the per unit prices and make comparisons with other stores.

We’ll have more from Marks tonight on The Willis Report at 5pm ET on Fox Business.

GM Recall: Warnings Ignored

by Gerri Willis

Three months after GM CEO Mary Barra first testified before a Congressional panel, questions remain about how the one-time global vehicle manufacturing leader allowed a safety problem to fester for 11 years resulting in 54 head-on car crashes and at least 13 deaths.

While Barra will appear again next week to testify before another Congressional panel, the fact that the “pattern of accidents” as a report to GM directors described it, wasn’t detected for over a decade is nothing short of astonishing. Problems with the ignition switch designed to be used in numerous GM models on the company’s Delta production platform were evident early. The engineer who designed it, for example, called it the “switch from hell” because the prototype performed so badly.

GM’s top engineers may have been mystified by the problems with the ignition switch, which became evident early on in its Cobalt model, but others were not. In fact, in 2007 a trooper from the Wisconsin Safety Patrol made the link between the ignition switch turned to accessory mode and the fact that airbags did not deploy seven years before the company recalled cars with the switch. He wasn’t the only one.

That same year, Indiana University’s Transportation Research Center made the same connection between the switch and airbags that didn’t deploy at the very time drivers needed them. Then, in 2013, an expert hired by a plaintiff’s attorney did what GM engineers had apparently failed to do: took apart the switches to find the problem.

Even inside GM, there was a growing recognition that something was seriously wrong.  The company’s director of product investigations, a special group of safety experts, succeeded in turning off the car with her knee. Multiple investigations were launched, but nothing ever much came of them. Ultimately, the company determined that fixing the problem was simply too costly and instead sent a bulletin to dealers warning them that these cars could stall. 

Anton Valukas, who penned the report to GM directors, wrote that throughout the decade of probes “there was no demonstrated sense of urgency, right to the very end. The officials overseeing the potential fixes and investigations did not set timetables, and did not demand action.”

The lack of action is all that more confounding when you realize the legacy that GM was protecting. The company is one of the largest engineering and manufacturing enterprises in the world. For 77 years until 2007 (and again in 2011), GM sold more cars worldwide than any other company.

And, the Cobalt, in particular, was a brand designed to advance that legacy. As SUV and car sales slowed during the 2000s, GM searched for the perfect small car to compete with the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. Executives thought they had found that car in the Cobalt. Marketers launched the Cobalt at spring break events, and hosted previews at nightclubs. The strategy worked. By the end of 2008, 40 percent of Cobalt Coupe sales were to drivers under 30.

But the Cobalt, as everyone now knows, didn’t extend GM’s legacy, it was a blot on that legacy. And, now, it remains to be seen just what its long-lasting impact might be.

Don’t miss our GM Special: How Safe Are We? Thursday 5pmET on FOX Business

Foster Farms Salmonella Outbreak Expands

by Gerri Willis

Sixteen months after a massive Salmonella outbreak associated with Foster Farms chicken was reported, the company is recalling some contaminated chicken. So far, the outbreak has been linked to 600 illnesses, and hospitalized 40 percent of those who have fallen ill.

The Salmonella strain in the Foster Farms case has proven to be particularly persistent. The outbreak traced to the California-based chicken processor first made people sick in the nine months between June 2012 to April 2013, but then a second outbreak started in March 2013 and is ongoing. The particular strain of salmonella found in Foster Farms chicken called Heidelberg is particularly nasty, causing life-threatening blood infections in 13 percent of those who were infected.

Far and away, the biggest health threat from chicken is poisoning from salmonella bacteria. When Consumer Reports analyzed a random sampling of 300 packaged chicken breasts from across the country earlier this year, virtually every piece of poultry -- 97 percent -- contained a dangerous bacteria. Every year, 48 million people become ill from ingesting harmful bacteria lurking in raw chicken. Vomiting, stomach upset and diarrhea are common symptoms, but the impacts can be more severe.

While the government has been able to trace the progress of the outbreak using DNA tests, it hasn't stopped it. That's because the government has few tools to fight salmonella outbreaks. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, there are no standards that companies have to meet when it comes to chicken parts. The Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is responsible for inspecting chicken, doesn't even consider Salmonella a food contaminant. What's more, its inspectors give producers a heads up before plant inspections. Pew reports that FSIS never issued any statements to consumers about the Foster Farms outbreak.

Given the industry's track record and the lack of government oversight, it’s up to you to keep your family safe. Cook all chicken thoroughly, so that the internal temperature is 165 degrees. And, don't wash the chicken because the bacteria can infect your kitchen.

 

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

User's Guide to Summer Vacation: RV Travel

by Gerri Willis

When it comes to seeing the country, one of Americans' favorite ways to travel is by recreation vehicle or RV. The first motorized campers were built in 1910, and by the 1930s and 1940s, motorists drove their Tin Lizzies across the country to tourist camps where they heated tin cans of food and bathed in cold water.

Times, though, have changed. A lot. Today's RVs have every comfort of home and then some. There are deluxe motor homes, towable sport utility RVs and truck campers. Prices can range from $40,000 for some of the basic models to well over $100,000 for top of the line models.

RV sales rose 13 percent in the first quarter of this year over the first quarter of 2013, and by year's end total shipments will reach 350,000 units, on par with 2007, a high water mark for the industry, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. And, it's not just Winnebagos anymore. Other brands in the category include Fleetwood, Thor and Forest River.

Brad and Amy Herzog hit the road for two months every summer to explore the country and have covered 150,000 miles from Yellowstone National Park to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

"For a dozen years, we did it with our kids, and it was an exciting and enlightening experience for everyone," says Brad." But now that the kids attend summer camp for eight weeks, we have the opportunity to explore as a couple. It's a second honey moon every summer."

Join us tonight on "The Willis Report," to see Brad and Amy's RVs and to learn more about RVing.

www.GoRVIng.com

Rare Reagan Document Sold

by Gerri Willis

Imagine as an 11-year-old asking the president to contribute to your charity fundraiser for the homeless. And, then, stretch your brain a little further and imagine that the president responds with a personal check and letter on White House stationary no less. That's what happened to one young girl named Lisa back in 1986, when she asked President Ronald Reagan to contribute to her walkathon for the homeless.

Now, 28 years later that letter, which offers a window into Reagan's personality, has sold for the first time. The price: $20,000.

"I am very proud to sponsor you in the walkathon," wrote Reagan in the letter. "Thank you for asking. I know you'll walk the seven miles and the enclosed is to help the cause you are serving."

Nathan Raab, Vice President of The Raab Collection, a dealer in historical documents, says, "It gives insight into Reagan the person. When Reagan was in office, he was criticized for not caring about the homeless and this letter shows that to be untrue."

Watch The Willis Report at 5 p.m. ET to see the letter and hear about it first hand from Nathan Raab.  

 

**Image Credit: Raab Collection

Festive Feasts

by Gerri Willis

This holiday season, instead of piling your pet’s food bowl high with table scraps and bones, which can be hazardous to their health, try whipping up these smart, seasonal dishes, from the vet experts at Petplan. 

Remember, moderation is key. Treats should make up less than 5-10% of your pet’s caloric intake – talk to your vet about how many calories your pet should be consuming to stay trim given their breed, level of activity and life stage. 

Paws-atively Peanuty Crudité

Baby CarrotsApple slicesCelery sticks (no longer than 4 inches)Natural unsalted creamy peanut butterWith a spoon or butter knife, spread a small amount of peanut butter onto each baby carrot, apple slice and along the inside surface of the celery and then arrange on a small plate. Give one carrot, one apple slice and one stick of celery to each pet. 

Turkey Pie

3.5 cups cooked (unseasoned) chopped white turkey meat

1 cup chopped raw broccoli½ cup chopped apples

1½ cups cooked millet

1T kelp powderRinse the turkey break with cold water and pat dry.Wrap the breast with aluminum foil, folding the edges to seal in moisture. Place in a baking pan. Roast at 350 degrees for 20 minutes per pound.Open the aluminum foil, being careful not to burn yourself on the escaping steam. Chop once cooled.Combine broccoli and apples in blender or food processor and blend until minced.In bowl, combine vegetable mix with turkey, millet and kelp powder and mix thoroughly.Divide into portions appropriate for your pet’s caloric intake.Makes 6 ½ cups (163.5 calories per cup).Recipe from Dr. Ernie Ward’s Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs are Getting Fatter - a Vet's Plan to Save Their Lives (2010 HCI). 

Sweet Potato Cookies

1 large cooked sweet potato1 banana1 T vegetable oil½ cup quinoa flourPreheat oven to 350. In a medium bowl, mash together the banana and sweet potato until well blended. Add the vegetable oil, then add the flour to the wet mixture until well blended.Place one teaspoon of dough on a nonstick baking sheet and lightly flatten. Repeat for all dough.Bake 30 minutes.Makes 4 dozen cookies, each with 14-15 cal.Recipe from Dr. Ernie Ward’s Chow Hounds: Why Our Dogs are Getting Fatter - a Vet's Plan to Save Their Lives (2010 HCI).

 

http://www.gopetplan.com/

 

What's in Your Beef

by Gerri Willis

Before you break out the grill this Memorial Day Weekend, be sure to check your freezers!

Stores in nine states may be selling ground beef contaminated with E. coli. Earlier this week, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced a recall of 1.8 million pounds of ground beef products.  

The USDA won't list the restaurants where people have been sickened, but did outline the stores that may have received contaminated products. 

Consumers should return or throw out meats purchased between March 31 and April 18, 2014 from the following locations:

-- Gordon Food Service Marketplace stores in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin

-- Surf N Turf Market in Sebring, Florida--Giorgio's Italian Delicatessen in Stuart, Florida

-- M Sixty Six General Store in Orleans, Michigan-- Buchtel Food Mart in Buchtel, Ohio

-- Supervalu in Beulah & New Town, North Dakota

 

Americans Sold on Real Estate as Best Long-Term Investment

by Gerri Willis

You don’t have to look far to find negative news on the housing market. Just this week there were headlines proclaiming that millennials had abandoned the market and may never come back. Another lamented the rising unaffordability of housing. And, yet, most Americans are ignoring the constant drumbeat of negative news about the housing market. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans believe that real estate is the best long-term investment, even better than stocks, bonds or gold.

Frankly, having spent a lot of time writing and researching real estate, I’m not all that surprised people feel that way. That’s because housing is an arena where the individual investor really can become the expert. Unlike stocks or bonds, you can walk around a neighborhood, touch and feel the properties and really get to know your investment first hand.

Founder of the Real Deal, Amir Korangy says that if you want to invest in real estate, choosing a market you already know is critical. Korangy, who has bought and sold dozens of properties, in addition to founding the monthly real estate publication, advises getting started with a property you live in as the “safest and best investment.”

Investing in a property you intend to rent out, however, is a little more complicated. One metric professional investors use to compare deals when shopping for an investment  is the “cap rate,” or capitalization rate, which is simply the net annual operating income divided by the sale price. “As a general rule of thumb, the lower the cap rate, the better the deal for seller. The higher the cap rate, the better the deal for the buyer,” Korangy says.

Don’t stop your research there. He says investors need to investigate the property’s condition, income trends, and the neighborhood’s condition. As with any investment, it’s important to do your due diligence.

 

Don’t miss our User’s Guide to Spring Real Estate 5pmET on FOX Business

How to Choose a Home Renovation

by Gerri Willis

Flipping homes is back! After a long hiatus, it is again popular in some markets to buy homes, spruce them up and sell for a profit, a topic we are covering in today's User's Guide to Spring Real Estate. Flippers know something home owners may not -- renovations can boost property values. But it can't be just any remodel.

Remodeling Magazine's annual cost versus value survey, is a great way to figure out which remodel projects have the best return on investment and what the average price is that you'll pay to get the work done.

And, there are some surprises this year. The highest return on investment for a mid-range project is switching out your entry door for a steel replacement. That job returned 97 percent of consumers' average investment of $1,162. No. 2 was the wood deck addition, which returned 87 percent of the $9,539 investment. Also scoring high on the mid-range list were attic bedrooms, garage door replacements and minor kitchen remodels.

If you're willing to pony up more dough for a luxury project, the best ROI replacing old-fashioned wood siding with fiber-cement siding. Cost is estimated at $13,378, and the return on investment is 87 percent. A foam-backed siding replacement gets less, 78 percent on the $14,236 investment. Also big on the luxury list: garage door and window replacements.

Some investments just don't pay for themselves. High on the ‘Don't Do’ list are big projects like a master suite or sunroom addition.

You can check out Remodeling's lists yourself at www.remodeling.hw.net. Drill down to your region of the country, and even your city, for more precise data. 

 

Don’t miss our User’s Guide to Spring Real Estate starting 5pmET on FOX Business

Millennials Face Homebuying Hurdles

by Gerri Willis

First off, let me just put my cards on the table: I am in favor of home ownership. To be clear, I don’t believe in investing in a home to the exclusion of everything else, but I do believe it’s part of the equation if you want to set yourself up for financial success. Millennials, however, appear to be unconvinced about the value of owning a home.

It’s hard to read the business pages and not see a story or two about how younger potential buyers have decided that the ownership society is not for them. They are happy enough, according to these reports, with their smartphone and maybe a set of Beats wireless headphones. It’s cool to travel light, so the thinking goes.

But that attitude is masking a deeper issue:  Millennials are having a tough time affording a home. A punk job market isn’t just making it difficult to find work, but even those who do may find it’s difficult to find a job that pays enough to sustain a mortgage. Possibly even more important is the burden of student loan debt. According to the Federal Reserve, the number of 25-year-olds with student debt is rising, and the amount of debt they have has doubled in the last decade from $10,649 in 2003 to $20,926 in 2013.  As if that were not enough, housing prices are up 11 percent year to year, mortgage rates are higher and bank lending requirements are still tight.

All of those hurdles mean that many younger potential buyers are on the sidelines at a time when the opportunity in housing is huge. Prices may be up 11 percent year to year, but in many markets, prices still haven’t rebounded to the 2006 high water mark. What’s more, mortgage rates are still at multi-year lows. In other words, the stars are aligned for people who can afford to buy.

My advice: Don’t delay homeownership forever. Once you own, you’ll be able to take advantage of tax breaks like the mortgage deduction. And, even more important: Wouldn’t you rather pay yourself than pay a landlord? Overtime, when you buy a house, you build up equity, that’s an asset. Paying rent buys you nothing.

For millennials, the good news is this: The housing market isn’t going away. What’s more, inventories are constrained right now, and despite projections that interest rates are poised to go through the roof, it hasn’t happened yet. By the time this age group gets a down payment together, they may well find more choices on the market, and banks easing down payment and other lending restrictions.

Look, home ownership rates over the last decade may have slipped seven percent for those 35 years and younger, but they could rebound just as quickly. Millennials who want to invest for their future will save for a house. 

Don’t miss our User’s Guide to Spring Real Estate 5pmET on FOX Business

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