There aren't many companies that consumers generally love, but whether it's controversial operating practices, notorious executives or unpopular business models, there are plenty of companies that aren't doing right by consumer perceptions.
Every year, Consumerist offers up 32 candidates to see determine the business that is the most despised. Companies are paired up in tournament fashion, and readers vote. Let's take a look at the final four contenders in Consumerist's 2014 Worst Company in America tourney.
The world's largest retailer may be a haven of cheap prices, but it's also a popular target for the low wages it pays out and its skimpy benefits. Activists are calling for Walmart to provide living wages to all of its hires, asking it to boost its starting wage to $15 an hour.
Walmart counters that it's already doing its part. It employees 2.2 million associates globally, with 1.3 million of those in the United States. Every Walmart Supercenter creates 300 jobs. Yes, the front-line pay stinks, but 75 percent of its store managers -- earning between $50,000 and $170,000 a year -- started out as hourly associates.
Consumers don't see it in the same positive light, however: Walmart has posted five consecutive quarters of declining comparable store sales.
The marine life theme park operator came under fire after last year's "Blackfish" documentary called out SeaWorld's problems with having killer whales in captivity. SeaWorld countered by arguing that "Blackfish" was more propaganda than documentary, pointing out fallacies that were presented as facts in the film.
The public isn't buying it. SeaWorld's attendance declined 4 percent last year when the rest of the theme park industry posted gains in turnstile clicks. Attendance fell even harder during the first three months of this year, but the timing of the Easter holiday and iffy weather helped keep patrons away.
For better or worse, Monsanto has become the poster child for genetically modified organisms.
The agricultural chemicals giant stands by its GMO products, which include fortified seed traits that result in more bountiful harvests for farmers. It leans on decisions by the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society among the organizations that have concluded that genetically modified crops are as safe to eat as food from crops modified by conventional plant improvement techniques like plant breeding.
Many consumers don't see it that way, fearing that corporate greed under the guise of feeding the world is what's driving profits at Monsanto.
And the No. 1 most hated corporation in the country:
Comcast, which won (lost?) Consumerist's survey four years ago, reclaimed its crown this year.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Activists have staged protests at Walmart shareholder meetings and SeaWorld theme parks. Protestors have organized in various cities to object to GMO in their food supplies. Comcast is the only one of the four to not generate this kind of activist movement, but as the country's largest cable TV and Internet provider, it faces the wrath of customers frustrated with cable and Internet outages. It also doesn't help that customers have to make two calls during outages to have their accounts credited.
Folks are also unhappy with the ever-rising rates for cable TV and the inability to pay only for the channels they watch. That may be more the fault of the cable networks than Comcast, but it doesn't help that the country's top dog isn't taking a stand.
Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz and the Motley Fool have no position in any of the stocks mentioned.
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For small costs that can quickly add up over time -- like that daily latte habit or weekly apps and music purchases -- consider buying yourself a gift card and load it with a set, budgeted amount at the start of each month. Then go ahead and enjoy those treats until your card runs out. "This makes it easy to keep track of small, daily expenditures," says Natalie Taylor. "Plus, it feels more special and guilt-free when you're paying with a gift card."
If you're just starting to share in financial decisions with a significant other, Stephany Kirkpatrick suggests keeping a "slush fund" bank account into which you each set aside money every month to use for one or two joint expenses. "You can use this to pay for date nights, a vacation or a bigger purchase you want to make together," she suggests. "It helps take away the burden of wondering who is going to pay for certain things -- and it's a great way to get your feet wet when it comes to joint finances."
After a few months, you can graduate to contributing enough to the account to cover larger household bills if you live together, and before you both know it, the concept of combining your finances probably won't be as overwhelming.
"So many people get talked into buying extended warranties on electronics or insurance on their cell phones," says Tom Gilmour, who tells his friends to skip these purchases and use that money to buy term life insurance and disability insurance instead.
David Blaylock agrees. "Life and disability insurance are often overlooked and shouldn't be," he says. "For most of us, the greatest asset we have is our ability to earn income. If we become sick (or die) and we lose that ability, it can be financially devastating. I see clients all the time who have these benefits available to them through their employers and simply haven't signed up for them."
"Jot down all of the things under $30 that are little, feel-good splurges -- and when you need to treat yourself or someone special, pull from this list," Kirkpatrick says. "Whether it's frozen yogurt, an impromptu yoga class, a few copies of recent New York Times best sellers or a nice bottle of wine, $30 can give you the happiness boost you need -- without derailing progress you've made on your financial goals."
"I recommend prenups and postnups," says Brandie Farnam. "If you think about it, people are most inclined to be fair and equitable when things are happy and stable in a relationship -- not when you're fighting for things while parting ways." She notes stay-at-home moms need to protect themselves financially if they opt to leave the workforce for an extended period to raise a family.
Thinking of having a baby and trying to decide whether you can afford for one parent to scale back at work or quit altogether? Farnam tells her friends to completely bank the income they're thinking of dropping (or reducing) for six months -- and rely on the other salary to cover expenses during that period. "This will give you a sense of how it'll feel before you make such a huge, potentially irreversible [career] decision," she says.
Speaking of kids, Gilmour tells all of his new-parent friends to consider setting up a 529 plan -- even if they can't afford to start saving for college themselves. "You can use it to deposit monetary gifts received from grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends."
Taylor tells all of her friends to consider opening a "fun account," so they can splurge without guilt every once in a while. Taylor and her husband used their own fun account to buy a used elliptical machine, pay for a private Pilates trainer and go on a post-maternity wardrobe shopping spree. If it works for your budget, "Dedicate a certain percentage of your income and all money windfalls, like bonuses, to put into this account," Taylor suggests. "10 percent is a great place to start."
You may be able to accomplish the same idea the old-school way too. "One of my friends was able to treat a few of us to a poolside cabana when we were on vacation because she'd been putting small bills into a 'fun jar' for guilt-free splurges just like that," Farnam says.
Don't want to hire an investment adviser or don't have the confidence to manage your own portfolio? "Consider using an all-in-one asset allocation fund to help ensure you always have a diversified asset allocation," says Elizabeth Sklaver. "When buying investments, be sure to check your firm's [no-transaction-fee]/commission-free list, so you're not paying fees you may have avoided. If you are contributing regularly and paying a fee for each trade, it may be worth it to switch firms."
Staying home to raise the kids? If possible, you should still be saving for your golden years, notes Kirkpatrick. "I tell my girlfriends that if they choose to leave their jobs, they should maximize a Spousal IRA or Spousal Roth IRA," she says. "This way, retirement savings is accumulating in their name, in addition to what their spouse saves for the future."
Kirkpatrick says she's amazed by the number of people who skip the simple step of filling out a beneficiary form for their retirement plan or life insurance. "Since a beneficiary form is a substitute for a will, this is a critical document that allows money to transfer to a beneficiary directly -- without the overhead or complexities of probate," she says. This can become especially important, if you aren't married or if you want someone other than your spouse to inherit your money. "Just remember that if something changes -- say, you get married or divorced -- you need to update paperwork everywhere."
Remember to donate some of your hard-earned money. "People who set aside money to support various organizations live richer lives," Blaylock says. Choose an amount you can afford to donate each year -- and consistently give it away. "I hear people say that they will give when they are older," he says. "But I find that those who don't get into the habit of giving early on rarely become charitable."
Yes, your eyes may glaze over when you're reading the fine print. But really understanding what's offered to you can help you take advantage of any "free money," like a 401(k) matching program, health savings account, gym discount or a pretax commuter benefit, says Gilmour. "Also, if you donate to charity," he says, "many large companies are willing to match your gift, which helps your dollar go even further."
Plannerssay they are shocked by how few people have a budget. Blaylock says that you should start by asking yourself these key questions: How much are your monthly fixed expenses? How much are your variable or flex expenses each month? How much is your net income? Armed with the answers, you can then sit down to map out a monthly budget that can help keep you on track for your financial goals.