In situations of economic uncertainty like we are facing right now, the best defense for your hard earned dollars is to be as well-informed and educated as you possibly can. Following the news that impact the markets, researching companies and following the markets should be a full-time job (unless you want to risk your money... you are probably better of at a roulette table).
Both types of contracts are binding and are typically settled for cash for the exchange in question upon expiry, although contracts can also be bought and sold before they expire. The forwards and futures markets can offer protection against risk when trading currencies. Usually, big international corporations use these markets in order to hedge against future exchange rate fluctuations, but speculators take part in these markets as well.