‘Tis the Season to Shop Safely Online

tis-the-seasonBy now most of us have exhausted our turkey recipe concoctions, securely tucked away the cornucopia and the Mr. and Mrs. Pilgrim salt and pepper shakers, and have pulled out the Christmas and Hanukkah decorations. And if you’re like many Americans, you’ve also made your list, checked it twice, determined who’s been naughty and nice and commenced your holiday shopping.

Each holiday season, more and more holiday shoppers make their purchases from the comfort of their recliner or local coffee shop, using phones, tablets and other mobile devices. A recent study by Webroot found that 50 percent of mobile device users are likely to purchase holiday gifts using their smartphones or tablets this shopping season. According to the National Retail Federation, online sales are forecast to increase between 7 and 10 percent over last year to as much as $117 billion.

Huge deals, free shipping and convenience continue to increase online holiday shopping sales year after year. Whether you’re looking for the perfect gift for that hard to buy someone on your list or a wide assortment of holiday trimmings, including the fruitcake, you can accomplish this with the effortless click of your mouse, donned in your favorite festive flannel and warm, comfy slippers.

There is no better time to shop online than the holidays, avoiding the congested big box store parking lots and hoards of shoppers that can sap your energy and put a damper on your holiday spirit. But, this convenience doesn’t come without strings attached. If you don’t take a few precautions for safe online holiday shopping, the Internet savvy Grinch may end up stealing more than your presents. He may end up stealing your personal information.

Here are a few online shopping tips to protect your personal information during this bustling, holiday season:

  1. Don’t be too eager to click on a link in your email. Beware of clicking links you receive from unfamiliar senders/websites, no matter how enticing they may be. This could be a “phishing” scheme, where you’re led to a bogus website developed to steal your personal information. If the deal the company is offering in your email is too good to pass up, enter the website name by hand into your browser to make sure it’s legitimate. Look for the closed padlock on your web browser’s address bar or a URL address that begins with shttp or https. This indicates your purchase is encrypted or secured. For new sites, do a little extra homework – check out their online reviews as well.
  2. Beware of Wi-Fi Hotspots. Don’t share your personal or financial information over an unsecured network – a connection that doesn’t require a password for access. Public Wi-Fi can be hacked by someone with the right tools, exposing your passwords, billing and other sensitive information. It’s best to limit yourself to window-shopping and price comparison when using a public connection.
  3. Make sure you have up-to-date security software on all the devices you use for shopping. In addition, make sure any new apps are downloaded from a trusted source, such as Android Market, Apple App Store or the Amazon App Store.
  4. Be alert to the kinds of information being collected to complete your transaction. Make sure that the information the website requests is necessary to complete the purchase. Check the website’s privacy policy – make sure you understand how your information will be stored and used.
  5. Use safe payment options. Credit cards are generally the safest online payment option. Your monetary exposure is typically limited and a credit card allows you to seek a credit from the issuer if the product wasn’t delivered on time or wasn’t what you ordered or expected.
  6. Keep records of all purchases. Save records of all online transactions to include the online receipt and terms of sale. Also make sure to review your credit card statements carefully to make sure there are no pricing discrepancies or unauthorized charges.

Unfortunately, approximately 12.7 million U.S. consumers had their personal identities stolen or misused last year, and thieves are poised to take advantage of the growing number of online shoppers this holiday season. To avoid becoming part of this growing statistic, you must be wise. Just as you would exercise caution with your wallet and belongings in a crowded store, remember to be just as cautious while you’re shopping in the World Wide Mall.

Wishing you and yours a safe, healthy and merry holiday season!

 

 

 

 

 

November – Let’s Make it a Month of Thanks

give-thanksAs we head into the month of November, many of us are already contemplating the Thanksgiving holiday. This is a time devoted to preparing a delicious meal, spending time with family and friends, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and football, and conjuring up every possible creative concoction for the turkey leftovers. Yes, it’s truly a special day, and if you’re like me, it’s a day you eagerly anticipate every year.

But, it’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of this day, and the pre-holiday pangs of worry over everything that must be done in the next two months. It’s this added stress that often distracts us from slowing down and remembering the true meaning of this day.

So, perhaps this year we might allow this special day…feeling to permeate our lives for more than just one day. How about we celebrate this special day… feeling for the entire month? Let’s spend some time everyday, during the entire month of November, to express gratitude for the many blessings in our lives.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Send a note or make a phone call of thanks to someone who has enriched your life over the past year. Let that person know how they’ve positively impacted your life and how much you appreciate them.
  1. Take a quiet meditative walk or hike. Take in and appreciate the many sights, sounds and smells the season and nature has to offer.
  1. If you don’t already do this, begin each meal everyday by giving thanks for the nourishment to your body.
  1. Be thankful for your health. It’s easy to overlook this when we have no major health issues. But, each day that we live is a day for which to be thankful. Take time out from your busy and often hectic life to show gratitude…appreciation for a healthy body. Participate in a run/walk or some other healthy activity, pamper your body in some way (e.g. get a facial or a massage, soak in a bubble bath, etc.) or be extra mindful of what you eat.
  1. Keep a daily thankfulness journal. Each day, during the month of November, make a list of three things for which you are thankful. You could even post these on your favorite social media site and encourage your friends and family to do the same.
  1. Show appreciation for all your blessings by helping those who are less fortunate. Make a donation to your favorite charity, host a food drive or volunteer your time.
  1. Pay homage to our planet. With all the damage Earth sustains today, we’re lucky she’s in such good shape. Show acts of global kindness…thankfulness by recycling, planting a tree and/or picking up litter on the side of the road. Future generations will thank you.
  1. Forgive someone. Although it’s not always easy to forgive others who have hurt us, whether it’s a stranger who has rudely inconvenienced us by overtaking our spot in the grocery line or a close friend who has betrayed, we reap more benefits than we realize by making the choice to do so.
  1. Speak truthfully. One of the greatest things we can do to show thankfulness for those we love is by speaking truthfully – saying what we mean and meaning what we say.

Through these small daily gestures, during the month of November, we can come to appreciate the world around us and express our thankfulness for the many blessings we often take for granted. And remember, November doesn’t have to be the only time in our lives we give thanks. It can provide a great starting point for a change in our attitude for the other 11 months.

 

 

We’ve Come a Long Way Baby…

pink-ribbonEvery October, we see pink…literally. We don pink ribbons, buy pink-colored products and support numerous charity runs with pink logos. We do this to raise awareness and continue the fight against the second leading cause of cancer death in women – breast cancer.

Has this made a difference? According to the recent breast cancer research data, you bet it has!

“The progress we’ve made over the last 20 years has changed the face of the disease for American women,” says Freya Schnabel, M.D., director of breast surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center. “We can find it earlier, treat it more effectively, reduce recurrence and enhance survival.”

And additional breakthroughs are helping doctors cure more women everyday!

Breast fluids, including breast milk, may reveal your chances of developing cancer. Nipple fluid is especially telling because it contains cells from the mammary glands, where approximately 95 percent of all breast cancers originate. A procedure called ductal lavage is already available to high-risk women, and tests for the general population are on the horizon, including an at-home risk kit, according to Susan Love, M.D., the president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation and clinical professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

A diagnostic test called nanotechnology is also being studied. This technology uses zero radiation and, unlike mammography, has no risk of false positives. According to test pioneer Edward R. Flynn, Ph.D., chief scientist of the Senior Division, Manhattan Scientifics Inc., this test is 1,000 times more sensitive than a mammogram, and consequently, has the potential to catch breast cancer approximately two and a half years earlier than a mammogram. This test could be available within three to five years.

Better risk-reducing drugs are also being developed. Recent findings show that a drug called exemestane decreased the incidence of breast cancer by 65 percent in post-menopausal women at high risk for the disease. Exemestane, similar to tamoxifen, which as been the gold standard drug used to help prevent breast cancer for the past 10 years, works by decreasing the amount of estrogen produced by the body. But, unlike tamoxifen, exemestane doesn’t increase the likelihood of developing blood clots and uterine cancer.

Also, therapy regimens are more fine-tuned to the patient’s unique needs. Today, new tests are helping doctors better match patients with treatments that will work best for them and their particular type of cancer.  According to Laura J. Esserman, M.D., director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, there are at least three, if not more, different breast cancer diseases. “We have to treat patients according to their tumor type,” she explains.

And soon, the fairly grueling five-to-seven-week course of daily radiation may be shorter and safer, consequently, causing fewer harsh side effects. Recent trials have indicated that using half as many radiation treatments is just as effective as the full regimen.

So, yes, we’ve come a long way baby. But, we still have miles to go. Crossing the finish line will require our persistent involvement.

So, as you move into October, the month of pink, play a part in the fight by continuing to create awareness and promoting breast health. Here are some simple ways you can make a difference.

First and foremost, be informed. One out of eight women in the U.S. will have invasive breast cancer in her lifetime, and each year, 40,000 women die from it. Learn about your personal risk, talk to your doctor, participate in clinical trials and sign up for alerts from organizations that focus on preventing breast cancer.

Be proactive. Early detection is the key to becoming a breast cancer survivor. Schedule a mammogram. If you can’t afford one, check out the clinics in your area, many will be offering free mammograms this month.

Encourage friends and family to get screened. This shows them that you care about their health and that you’re doing your part to help find a cure for breast cancer.

Participate in all things pink in your area…from wearing the symbolic pink looped ribbon, patronizing local businesses that offer “eat and drink pink,” with a portion of the proceeds going towards a particular breast cancer foundation, sharing information on social media, participating in a local fundraising walk or run, creating your own fundraiser to volunteering your time.

Whatever you decide to do this October, to show your support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, your efforts can make a difference.

 

 

Labor Day – More Than Just Another Long Weekend

intra labor dayToday, most Americans associate the upcoming Labor Day holiday with family and friend get-togethers, BBQs, an extended weekend and the unofficial culmination of summer. However, like other commemorative holidays, the real history behind this day has become blurred.  Although, many of us have some idea of its origination, most of us would be hard-pressed to provide a detailed narrative.

With the Labor Day holiday only several days away, now seems the perfect opportunity for a bit of a history lesson. So, while you’re grilling your steaks, taking in one of the last beach days, heading out for a long weekend getaway or just enjoying downtime with family and friends, I hope you’ll take a moment out of the day to pay homage to the American workers who fought for the working conditions and wages we’ve come to expect today.

Labor Day, which is observed on the first Monday in September, pays tribute to the many contributions and achievements of the American worker. This day was created by the late 19th century labor movement and was declared a federal holiday in 1894.

Labor Day originated during one of American labor history’s darkest chapters. It was a time, in the late 1800s, during the height of the American Revolution, when the average American worker put in 12-hour days, seven days a week, to provide the most basic living for themselves and their families. Even children, as young as 5 or 6, despite restrictions in many states, worked in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning only a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages.

During this period in America, workers of all ages, particularly recent immigrants and those who were very poor, often faced extremely unsafe working environments, including insufficient fresh air, unsanitary facilities and limited, if any, breaks during work.

However, as manufacturing continued to flourish, becoming the major source of American employment, labor unions, which began to appear in the late 18th century, became more prominent and vocal. These unions began organizing strikes and rallies to protest the deplorable working conditions and to force employers to renegotiate workers’ hours and wages.

Many of these events turned violent and numerous lives were lost. On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from New York City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.

This celebrated “workingmen’s holiday” began to take hold in other industrial areas across the country, and many states passed legislation making this first Monday in September official. However, it wasn’t until 12 years later, after the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago went on strike and the American Railroad called for a boycott, crippling railroad traffic nationwide, Congress legalized the holiday. Hoping to repair ties with the American workers, Congress passed an act making Labor Day a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

So, there you have it…the history of Labor Day in a nutshell. Now, if someone should ask you the significance of Labor Day this holiday weekend while you’re standing around the grill, relaxing by the poolside or possibly playing a friendly game of Trivial Pursuit, you’ll be able to spout off this brief history lesson…impressing all your friends and family.

In the meantime, I thought I’d leave you with one of my favorite Labor Day celebratory recipes. I hope you enjoy it and your holiday weekend!

Garlic and Oregano Baby Back Ribs

Ingredients:

4 pounds baby back pork ribs
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons kosher salt
¼ cup olive oil

Directions: Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Place the ribs in a roasting pan or on a baking sheet in one layer. In a bowl, combine the garlic, oregano, cayenne, salt, and oil and mix well. Cover both sides of the ribs with the garlic and oregano mixture, coating evenly.

Roast in the oven for 1 hour, flipping once after 30 minutes. Remove and let rest, covered, for 10 minutes.

For a delicious addition, place 6 shucked ears of corn in another roasting pan or on a baking sheet and roast in the oven with the Garlic and Oregano Baby Back Ribs. Baste generously with butter and flip, with the ribs, after 30 minutes.

Social Media – Shaping the 2016 Presidential Election

american_flag-971804Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, or some affiliation in between, if you’ve spent any time on the social media sites lately, you’ve noticed a dramatic upswing in political posts.

Today, approximately 87 percent of the American public is on the Internet, and more and more of these users spend an inordinate amount of time on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, the top three social networking sites. So, it should come as no surprise that social media has become a driving force in the upcoming presidential race.

Since the Republican and Democratic conventions, these social media sites have been abuzz with information, commentaries and debates from both political camps, vying for the public’s attention. Both candidates are increasingly viewing Facebook, Twitter and now even Instagram as strategic battlegrounds in their fight for the White House.

A recent Pew Research Center study finds that the public is getting more of their news this election cycle from social media than ever before. This study indicates that 44 percent of American adults are learning about the presidential election from social media and 24 percent are using social media posts as a source of election news.

Employing social media to obtain the seat in the oval office is not new. President Obama was the first president to successfully use social media to reach minorities and young voters in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. His Ask Me Anything on Reddit, an entertainment, social news networking service, and news website, quickly became one of the most popular threads of all time.

However, during the previous elections, the candidates favored calculated statements that were highly controlled and sanitized, according to Patrick Ruffini, Republican political strategist and founder of Engage, a digital media firm. Today, Ruffini says, the candidates are exploiting it to champion an opinion and even issue a policy proposal.

Social media is a platform with the potential to reach millions of people…and in politics, that’s half the battle. This platform lends itself to imagery, which is significantly more effective than dry, non-engaging text. Via videos and succinct messages, candidates can bring the public along with them on their campaign trail and appeal to a younger generation that demands its information chop-chop.

Donald Trump has always been a fan of social media, actively using it to promote his television show The Apprentice. This medium suits his campaign style…spouting his often controversial sound snippets that are easily shareable. Much of his campaign is built around “virability,” and he has a huge online audience to prove it.

Hillary Clinton is no novice to social media either, benefiting greatly from celebrity endorsements on Instagram. A selfie with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, along with their endorsement as well as the public backing of Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler helped her capitalize social media engagement.

In recent months, social media has threatened to overtake traditional news outlets and paid advertising as the top resource for the candidates to rally voters, go after their rivals and make news. The presidential race has become a fiercely competitive battle to harness the power of social media to generate the most buzz.

The ability to reach the millennial demographic is an important aspect of each candidate’s campaign effort. It is a well-known fact that young adults are shifting more and more of their attention online to social networks. Consequently, the candidates are incorporating more and more social media in their campaigns to stand out to millennials.

Political ad spending is expected to reach an astounding $11.4 billion during this election, 20 percent more than the amount spent in 2012. But, even more surprising is that spending on social media is estimated to account for more than half of the $1 billion budget for digital media.

The bottom line is that social media has become a political game changer. As the election draws near, the American public can expect to see the increasing use of social media by both candidates to shape the election and improve their chances of securing the highest office in the land.

The European Union: A History Lesson

british flagOver the last few weeks there has been much discussion concerning the United Kingdom’s decision to separate itself from the European Union, the EU. In the wake of this decision there has also been increasing concern about the long-term ramifications of the separation on the EU, United Kingdom and United States.

To better understand this decision, with 52 percent of United Kingdom’s voters (53.4 percent of England’s voters) opting to leave the EU, and its possible ramifications, a general understanding, history lesson, so to speak, seems appropriate.

The EU was created by the Maastricht Treaty, which officially took effect on November 1, 1993. However, the EU as we know it today represents a series of efforts by several western European countries to integrate Europe following WWII. These founding countries, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany, under the Treaty of Paris in 1951, then called the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), sought closer economic, social and political ties to achieve economic growth and military security, and to promote a lasting reconciliation between France and Germany.

Over the next 40 years, a series of further international treaties (two Treaties of Rome, the Brussels Treaty and Lisbon Treaty) and treaty revisions, based largely on the ECSC model, eventually led to the Maastricht Treaty and the creation of the EU.

The Maastricht Treaty consisted of three major components: the European Communities (EC), a common foreign and security policy and enhanced cooperation concerning domestic affairs and justice. The treaty also incorporated a monetary policy into the EC and formalized the planning, which had begun in the late 1980s, to replace national currencies with a common currency, the euro, that would be managed by common monetary institutions.  The euro was introduced for use by the general public on January 1, 2002. (Nine EU members – Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Demark, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Sweden and the United Kingdom – don’t use the euro.)

The treaty’s second component defined and implemented common foreign and security policies. EU members agreed that, where possible, they’d adopt common defense policies. These policies would be implemented through the Western European Union, a security organization that includes many EU members.

The treaty’s final component, the Single Market, eliminated border controls, allowing free movement of goods, services, people and money, within EU’s borders.

Today, the European Union is comprised of 28 European countries – Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The EU was awarded the Noble Prize for Peace in 2012, recognizing the organization’s efforts to promote peace and democracy in Europe.

Reasons behind Brexit

Those opposed to the EU argued that it has become a “dysfunctional economic entity.” According to these challengers, the EU failed to address the widespread economic problems that have been plaguing Europe (e.g. 20 percent unemployment) since 2008.

The second reason sighted is the rise of nationalism across the world. There’s been a growing distrust of multinational financial, trade and defense organizations that were created following WWII (e.g. EU, IMF and NATO).

Many EU opponents feel these institutions no longer serve a purpose, and take control away from the individual nations. This mistrust and loss of control prompted Brexit as a practical solution.

In addition, similar to the sentiment of many Americans, many EU opponents see immigration as a national issue, affecting the internal life of their country. This sentiment is in direct contrast to some EU leaders, who argue that aiding refugees is a moral obligation of the EU.

Many are convinced that Brexit was a vote against the British elite, the politicians, business leaders and intellectuals that have lost their right over the last several years to control the system.

Interestingly, this is not a new phenomenon or one limited to Great Britain. It appears to be an ideology that is sweeping Europe, China as well as the U.S.

What does Brexit mean for the United Kingdom, the EU and the U.S.?

Great Britain’s referendum result is not legally binding. Parliament still has to pass the laws that will remove Britain from the 28-nation bloc, starting with the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act, and ratify the withdrawal agreement.

If, however, what appears to be the inevitable happens, the EU will be losing one of its largest and wealthiest members. In addition, the consequences for the British people will be significant. Britain’s economy and legal system have become deeply entrenched in Europe. Unraveling their relationships with the remaining members of the EU is likely, at least at the onset, to be economically and socially unsettling.

Many speculate that Britain’s exit will be initially disruptive for the other EU countries. But, most EU advocates believe the larger threat is that Britain will pave the way for other EU members, and could be the first step towards the disintegration of the EU.

From an American perspective, British exit from the EU is more about geopolitics than economics. Since WII, the U.S. has been deeply devoted to maintaining peace and prosperity in Europe. The U.S. still has thousands of troops stationed in Germany in an attempt to minimize the possibility of conflict.

Only time will tell if Europe will ultimately emerge stronger and more prosperous. But, the likelihood of turmoil in Europe as it muddles through Britain’s departure is cause for concern for the U.S. and the rest of the world.

 

 

Camping – The Great Family Escape

CampfireSummer is almost officially here! And, if you haven’t already, it’s time to begin planning your family, summer vacation.

Whether you’re thinking about a long weekend or a week getaway, consider hitting the trails with your kids this summer. Young or old, novice or expert, camping is a wonderful experience everyone can share.

At one time in America, camping was a way of life. The campsite, for travelers, explorers, hunters, couriers and cowboys of the Old West, was known as a place to bed down for the night or for a spell. Today, however, camping is a means of recreation.

Everyone has his or her own definition of camping. For some, it’s roughing it with backpacks and the basic necessities, and sleeping under the stars in sleeping bags. And for others, it means a motorhome with all the comforts of home. But, no matter the definition, spending family time in the great outdoors, hiking, riding bikes, playing cards and board games, sitting by a campfire and being, as they say, one with nature, offers many benefits.

  1. Connecting/Bonding. Camping creates an environment for quality family time. With all of the demands and distractions of everyday life, camping gives you the opportunity to unplug, put everything on hold, and just enjoy the solitude and the quiet of the outdoors. It gives you the opportunity to re-establish the real family connection.
  1. Creating Memories. Camping memories, even the ones that seem like disasters at the time, will be the ones that will have you and your family laughing for years to come. Share some of your own family stories/memories with your kids while you sit around the campfire roasting marshmallows.
  1. Vacations can be expensive, especially when you throw an entire family into the mix. Today, many families are restricted to where they can go and what they can do because of the high cost of hotels and airfares. By driving to your destination and spending your nights at a campground, for a daily fee much lower than the price of a hotel, you can save a great deal of money, while spending quality family time together. Camping provides a family-friendly and economical way to see the country.
  1. Mentally and physically healthy. You won’t find any cell phone towers in the middle of nowhere…and believe it or not, that’s a beautiful thing. Ditching your screens – cell phones, video games and the Internet – can have a positive impact on you and your family’s mental and physical well-being. Research suggests that too much tech can lead to increased anxiety and poor sleep habits.

    Staying in the great outdoors allows our bodies to reset. Our sleep cycles re-program to the rising and setting of the sun. In addition, we breathe fresh, clean air, nature’s recharger, and our activities tend toward more physical, calorie-burning behaviors like hiking, fishing, canoeing, swimming or just exploring…all while getting a healthy dose of vitamin D.

  1. Getting back to nature. Camping with your children also brings back the simplicity of nature and increases our awareness of our surroundings. It refreshes our appreciation for the many things that, today, so often go unnoticed. In nature there are so many things to discover. You can help your children appreciate Mother Nature by learning to clean up after themselves and learning the importance of protecting the environment. At the same time, they will also be learning valuable life skills.
  1. A camping vacation can provide a multitude of experiences. It provides an opportunity to enjoy some things you rarely get to at home. A large number of campgrounds across the country have a variety of activities onsite, such as pools, lakes and trails. You and your family can learn new skills together like campfire cooking, stargazing and rafting down a lazy…or not so lazy…river.

Yes, a camping vacation provides many worthwhile benefits for you and your family. But, best of all, it’s just plain ole’ fun!

 

Online Bill Pay Has Its Advantages

indexLet’s face it, whether we like it or not, technology, specifically the computer and the Internet, has made our lives easier. In fact, most of us today, would be lost without it. We can instantly communicate and share our lives with family and friends all over the world. We can order almost anything we could ever want or need with a stroke of a key and/or the click of our mouse. We can also manage and monitor our finances in real time, and even pay our bills online.

However, there was a time, not so long ago, when people were hesitant to pay their bills online. (Some people are still skeptical today.) People were concerned about the security of Internet transactions and viewed online bill pay as a loss of control over their finances. Somehow, writing checks, stamping envelopes and putting these checks in the mail seemed safer. But, think about this for a minute. The simple act of putting a check in the mail puts your personal information (your name, address and bank account information) in the hands of numerous people before and after the check gets to its intended destination.

Today, people can pay almost every bill imaginable safely online – mortgages, college tuition, car loans, rent, utilities…you name it.

Switching to eBills or paying your bills online has many advantages, including enhanced security (replacing paper bills with electronic versions reduces the flow of personal information from unsecured mailboxes, where theft is a threat, as well as the number of people who handle it). And it’s also free!

You can pay your bills online in three key ways. You can pay them through your bank, the biller’s site or a third-party bill payment service. There are pluses and minuses to each. So, do a little homework to determine which method suites you best.

Online bill pay doesn’t necessarily mean you’re setting up automatic drafts from your bank account every month. You can be in charge of when bills get paid (of course, within the due date window) and, in the instance of credit card bills, the amount you want to pay.

You can also use your credit cards to pay your bills online. More and more companies are accepting credit cards as online payment. By using your credit card to pay your bills online, you can keep better track of your finances as well as earn airline travel miles and other cash-based rewards. You will also have more recourse if there’s a dispute or fraudulent activity. But, there’s a catch. Always make sure to pay this balance off when the credit car bill comes due. The last thing you want to be doing is financing your monthly living expenses.

Other great benefits of receiving and paying your bills online include:

Convenience – It’s faster and easier than the snail mail method. You also don’t have to be at home to view or pay your bills. You can access and pay them securely from anywhere in the world.

Eliminates the procrastinator factor – With online bill pay, there are no bills piling up on the counter or the desk in your home office waiting to be paid. And if you’re like most people and don’t pay them immediately, there’s the chance that you may forget about them and their due dates, until they are past due. Even if you wait until the last minute to pay your bills online, the transactions typically are processed within a day or two.

Organization – Online bill pay eliminates filing. Your bill paying history is available online.

Protect your credit score – You can set up your accounts to send you email reminders when bills are due as well as schedule automatic payments to ensure your bills are paid on time. This helps you maintain a good credit score.

Eco-friendly – Using online bill pay reduces the demand for paper. Less mail and envelopes to open and refill means less waste in our landfills, and less energy and fuel expended on printing, processing, mailing and transporting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making Your Paycheck Go Further

moneyIn these turbulent economic times, it can seem impossible to make any serious headway towards financial security or to save some extra cash for something special, like a vacation or a new car, or for that inevitable, yet unpredictable rainy day. According to a recent poll released by the American Payroll Association, more than 70% of American workers live from paycheck to paycheck.

No one actively chooses to live from paycheck to paycheck or create increasing debt by filling in the monetary voids with high-interest credit cards. But, when there always seems to be more month than money, unfortunately, for many people, this seems to be the only viable solution.

But, as we all know, especially if you’re one of the many Americans that have accumulated a significant amount of high-interest, credit card debt to offset this financial imbalance, this is not the answer. Whether you have a modest income or a large salary, there are numerous ways to make your hard-earned dollars go further every month.

Here are few ways:

  1. Adjust your federal income tax withholdings – While getting a huge tax refund every year may seem like a nice bonus, you’re actually letting the federal government use your money interest-free. You could have saved/invested this money or paid down other expenses or possibly credit card balances.

    If you’re getting a huge tax refund, you’re having too much money withheld from your check. Fixing this is easy. Just fill out a new W-4 form with your employer and adjust your tax withholdings. Use caution though. You don’t want to claim too many exemptions and end up owing the IRS instead.

  1. Ask for a raise – When was the last time you got a raise in pay? If you think you deserve a raise, it’s worth asking. But, make sure to prepare your case before you meet with your boss. Do your homework – research what others are getting paid in your field, list your accomplishments and your long-term goals at the company. If you’re prepared, you’re more apt to get a raise.
  1. Develop a budget – Although starting a budget can seem like a daunting task, it’s worth it. This is the only way you can see where your money is going each paycheck/month. This, in turn, will help you prioritize expenses and make adjustments to your spending. You’ll be amazed to see on paper just how much those coffee shop lattes are costing you each month/year.
  1. Increase your insurance deductibles – Review your current auto, home and medical insurance deductibles. By raising your insurance deductibles, you can reduce your premiums. But, use caution here as well. You need to make sure you have those deductible amounts on-hand (put away some of your federal tax savings or your raise) to cover accidents or health issues.
  1. Refinance your mortgage – Mortgage rates are still very low. If you haven’t taken advantage of these low rates, now may be the time to talk to your local banker or mortgage lender. He/she can help determine how much you’d save by refinancing and determine your breakeven point (how long you’d have to live in the house to recover your refinancing costs.)
  1. Use cash, not credit – It’s easy to send money you don’t have when you don’t use credit cards wisely. Use cash or a debit card so you can see the impact of how much your spending immediately. Paying off high-interest credit card balances will take a major toll on your paycheck. Note: If you carry credit card balances and you have a good credit history, call your credit card companies and ask for a lower rate or find a credit card issuer that offers low fixed rates to cardholders with good credit. Then, transfer some, if not all, of your high-interest card balances to that card.
  1. Trim your grocery and/or eating out budget – Overspending at the grocery store or eating out often can quickly destroy your monthly budget. Come up with a realistic monthly food budget, which should include eating out, and stick to it. Helpful hints: Plan weekly meals to prepare at home, cut coupons, buy generic brands, quit buying bottled water, purchase staple items in bulk, always shop with a list and never shop hungry.
  1. Reduce or eliminate the cable/satellite bill – Do you really need 500 channels? Get rid of the premium movie channels and rent the movies you want to see or, better yet, get them free at your local library. Save money by using online services like Netflix.
  1. Visit your local library – Purchasing the latest bestsellers can become costly, even if you’re downloading them. Take advantage of your local library and checkout books and DVDs for free.
  1. Pay your bills online – Very few companies today don’t have an online service to pay your bills. By taking the time to set up your bill paying online, you’ll save postage as well as avoid the possibility of being late and/or incurring late fees. This plays a significant factor in maintaining a good credit history.
  1. Get a part-time job – If you can’t make it on your current income, even after you’ve implemented some of the tips above, look for a second part-time job. You could find a position with a local business, such as a hardware or grocery store, for a few hours each week or find ways to make extra money at home. Just a few extra paid hours each week will go a long way to help with your finances.

    Needless to say, with a little creative thought, you could come up with many more ways/practices to save money and make your paycheck go further. But, the tips above will provide you with a very good start.

 

Helping your Teen Understand Income Taxes

tax planningThe often-dreaded tax day is just around the corner. But, as this day approaches, whether we’re anticipating it or not, it provides the perfect opportunity for us, as parents, to teach our teens about taxes, and, if they’ve had a part-time job, filing a tax return.

As our children move toward adulthood, they face many milestones. And with these milestones come great opportunities for them to learn important life skills.

The subject of income taxes and income tax filing, like most financial concepts, is not taught in school. Most teen’s initial understanding of taxes and tax filing is limited to the look of anguish they see on their parents’ faces during tax season.

A teen job is likely your child’s first, and no doubt shocking, introduction to the world of taxes. When they receive their first paycheck, they will notice that some of their money has been taken from this vaguely familiar entity called the federal government, and in some cases the state and city governments as well. (The FICA tax is separate discussion.)

Most teens have trouble understanding the tax concept (some adults still do). It seems strange, as well as frustrating, that some of their hard-earned money was deducted for such shared services as government employee benefits, roads and national defense. All they really comprehend at this point in their young, working lives is that these items have affected their cash in hand.

As parents, we can help our teenagers better understand income taxes by explaining the following:

1. Make them aware that when they work and earn money, they have to pay taxes – Explain that when they receive money from a company, the company will take taxes out of their pay and, if they make over a certain amount in a given year (with no unearned income, above $6,300), they will be required to file a separate tax return. (In most cases, a 1040EZ.)

Teens should also understand that even though they may not be required to file a tax return, it might be beneficial for them to do so anyway. If, for example, they’ve worked part-time for an employer, earning less then the required amount, and federal taxes were taken out on that lesser amount, they’ll be due a refund. The only way they can receive this refund is by filing an income tax form.

2. Teens should also become familiar with certain tax forms and paperwork – Explain and help them fill out their W-4 when they land their first job, and how it affects their net income. When they receive their first W-2, go over it with them (even the boxes that don’t pertain to them), and how this form is used to file their tax return. Explain the importance of the form and that it should be kept in a safe place.

3. Teach your teen how to file their own tax return – Now is an ideal time to show them how to file their return because, in most cases, their tax situations are extremely simple.

Many tax preparation software companies, like TurboTax for example, offer free e-filing if certain qualifications are met. (Visit IRS.gov for details and lists of free software options.)

These programs will walk your teen through the process, step-by-step, and keep them updated on the progress of their return. If your teen doesn’t have a checking account already, now is a good time to open one. (Their return can be automatically deposited in their account.) By helping them with this the first time, they’ll soon become old pros.

The bottom line is that it is up to us to teach our children about taxes, returns and the value of a dollar by fully explaining the steps involved in the process and the reasons behind each step they are taking. If you don’t have all the answers…don’t stress…there are plenty resources out there today that you can turn to for help.