FOX Business Network’s Gerri Willis talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her special tax season coverage on “The Willis Report,” what taxpayers should be mindful of this year and what she enjoys most about hosting her own show.
The April 15 deadline to file tax returns is fast approaching but there is still time to learn all you can to ensure you get every deduction you deserve. Starting today and running through Tax Day, “The Willis Report” (weekdays on FOX Business Network (FBN) from 5-6 p.m. ET), is one place to tune in for advice from the experts. “Tax season is a big deal to every American,” says Gerri Willis, host of the show, which regularly covers leading financial and political stories of the day and their impact on consumers. “This is a very anxious time for folks. We are going to help people understand the best way to file taxes. We will have tax experts, people who’ve studied code, accountants and regular Americans come on the show and give advice, talk about what they’re finding, how things are different this year, last-minute tips, deductions taxpayers might have missed and how to make sure they’re getting everything they can.” Guests include Grover Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform and the CEO of H&R Block, among others. “It should be a lot of fun,” adds Willis. “I can’t wait.”
Willis, who joined FBN in March 2010, previously served as the personal finance editor for CNN, where she hosted the weekly “Your Bottom Line” program featuring ways to save Americans money and the economy’s effects on personal finance. Before CNN, she was the senior financial correspondent for Smart Money magazine. A graduate of Columbia Business School, Willis is the author of two business books: The Smart Money Guide to Real Estate Investing and Home Rich.
Opportunist: Why do you think so many Americans are fearful of tax time, Gerri?
Gerri Willis: Americans are under pressure to meet the deadline, and understanding the tax code is unbelievably difficult. It’s written in arcane language that is only understandable by professionals and Americans feel frustrated by it. The IRS expects you to take every break that you can but it’s not like they make it easy to find out what they are. So it’s on you to get that information.
Opportunist: What should taxpayers be mindful of this year?
Gerri Willis: The biggest change this year is Obamacare reporting. It’s complicated and there have been major problems with people misunderstanding the rules and estimating numbers incorrectly. Not much has changed beyond that, and if you don’t have to worry about that you’re looking at pretty much the same as last year.
Opportunist: Have tax preparation software programs forever changed the way people do their taxes?
Gerri Willis: There is no doubt that software companies have completely changed tax filings. The very best way is to file online, whether you go to a financial advisor or an accountant or use a program like TurboTax.
I favor the tax accountant for complicated taxes. If yours are complicated, get a real, live person. For those with super easy taxes, you’re better off just doing it quickly with a software program. It’s best to file early, but we’re already past that point.
What’s shocking this year is the degree to which bad guys have infiltrated the system to get between the IRS and the tax preparation software company to extract refunds. Some people are getting their refunds stolen by scam artists. It’s one of the biggest scams out there that people need to pay attention to.
Opportunist: Is it difficult to get the money back?
Gerri Willis: Yes. They steal the password you’re using with a company like TurboTax and claim your refund, and the IRS sends the refund to the out-and-out crook. Then, when you go and file your taxes the IRS is like ‘we’ve already given that refund out.’ It’s very difficult to get the money. It can take months and months.
Opportunist: If someone misses the April 15 deadline, what happens next?
Gerri Willis: If you know you’re going to miss the deadline you still have to pay your taxes. You have to stroke a check if you owe money and you have to fill out a form to the IRS saying you’re going to file later.
Opportunist: What if a taxpayer owes the IRS more money than he or she can afford to pay right now?
Gerri Willis: If you find yourself facing a bigger tab than you can pay you need to make an initial payment and give the IRS a hard and fast schedule of when and how you’re going to pay what you owe. The IRS will often go along with that. Look, they can garnish your wages if you don’t cooperate. They have extreme power. But the vast majority of Americans want to pay their taxes and the IRS is really interested in making sure that the scofflaws pay.
Opportunist: You are known for giving your viewers sound advice to help them make the most of their money. What is one piece of advice you would give our readers?
Gerri Willis: I think you have to set money aside. The government has all kinds of programs they say will save your life—Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment insurance—but, at the end of the day, you don’t even know if you’re ever going to get that. So it’s up to you to set aside money to control your own future. You need to have a stash and savings. Americans seem to struggle with that.
Opportunist: As we move into the second quarter, how do you feel about the U.S. economy?
Gerri Willis: The economy is not even ticking at 3 percent GDP growth. We should be doing better. That’s interesting because there are lots of factors that tell different stories. Jobless rates, for example, seem to be improving and yet regular Americans aren’t finding the type of full-time jobs that lead to improvement and certainly not the wages.
Opportunist: What do you see as the solution?
Gerri Willis: An environment in which companies feel they can expand and grow, where they aren’t penalized for investing in themselves or the country. I think CEOs are still anxious because there is still uncertainty about policy and what shoe might fall next coming out of Washington.
Gerri Willis: It’s a weird path because I wasn’t really trained in TV. My training had a lot more to do with business and journalism and writing in general. I was a print reporter before I went into TV. My main inspiration was a bunch of auto workers in Ohio. I was covering politics for the newspaper in Lima at the time, which I loved, and I thought that was my future. The editor sent me out to cover these Ford auto workers who had been laid off during a deep recession. They had been out of work for a long time and how they coped with their circumstances got me hooked. Money was super tight and they developed an informal sort of barter system where they would trade toilet paper for lightbulbs. I was so inspired. I realized how business and the economy had so much to do with the way people lived their lives. The mayor could do virtually nothing for those Ford workers. That’s how I got hooked. I saw how important it was in the day-to-day lives of Americans.
Opportunist: What are some of the most recent stories you are covering on ‘The Willis Report?’
Gerri Willis: We have been doing a lot of consumer stories. Consumer news is my current love. We covered the data security breaches at retailers such as Target and Neiman Marcus and what’s happened to Americans because of it. Last summer we spent a lot of time on the GM story about all of the recalls due to problems with the ignition switch. The best part of that story was that we were able to show people how to stop those cars. We try to find that extra, added piece of advice that people are looking for.
Opportunist: What do you enjoy most about hosting your own TV show?
Gerri Willis: It’s a total gas. TV is a team sport and we have a great team of folks—producers, writers and people who put together the show’s segments—and we all get together to pick out our stories every day. The challenge is that you reinvent the thing every night, which takes a lot of energy, but it’s so much fun. I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.
Opportunist: Is there a downside to appearing on TV five days a week?
Gerri Willis: I can’t tell you a bad thing about it. I am a very lucky girl. I really am. It would be hard for me to complain.
Opportunist: Have you faced any challenges in your career that your male counterparts have not had to deal with?
Gerri Willis: The big challenge every day is getting the eyelashes to stay on—and wearing heels. [Laughs] I know the men don’t have to do that.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
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