Budget-Friendly Family Summer Vacations

Summer is well underway.  But, there’s still time to plan an affordable summer getaway the whole family will enjoy.

Whether your family enjoys the great outdoors, relaxing on the beach, an activity-packed destination or a trip that combines it all, here are several great vacation ideas that won’t break the bank.

San Diego, California 

There are tons of family activities in sunny San Diego…from

theme parks, water parks, and family-friendly museums to miles of beautiful beaches. San Diego’s top family attractions include the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Legoland California and the museums in Balboa Park. The Go San Diego Card offers up to a 50 percent discount on these attractions. 

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park offers an array of activities to inspire the entire family. From the park’s renowned geysers, geothermic wonders like Grand Prismatic Spring and Mammoth Hot Springs, this destination is sure to create long-lasting vacation memories. Summer is peak season for hotel rates, but you can drastically reduce this cost by bringing your own tent or RV.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls State Park is an adventure-packed experience everyone in your family is sure to love.  Enjoy breathtaking views, miles of hiking trails, fireworks over the falls, and more. This destination offers reasonably priced hotels and attractions…plus a favorable exchange rate if you visit the Canadian side of the falls.

The Outer Banks

The barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina offer relaxation and adventure. The coastline’s quietbeaches are its main draw but the area also affords a multitude of activities for the family including horseback riding, hand gliding, water sports, touring shipwrecks and historical sites such as the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

Branson 

Nestled within the Ozarks in Missouri, this town has become a favorite family vacation destination. Described as a “Disney World Meets Nashville,” this destination offers Silver Dollar City, with its thrilling rides and good, clean fun family atmosphere as well as ample educational opportunities like the Titanic Museum and the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery. For the music lovers, there are also a variety of performance venues that are sure to entertain the whole family with singing, dancing and music.

Winter Park 

Not only is this Colorado resort town a wonderful family winter destination, it’s great in the summer too. Families can enjoy affordable hotel rates and plenty of fun-packed activities including hiking, biking, horseback riding, rafting, zip lining and the state’s longest alpine slide.

Williamsburg 

Virginia’s colonial Williamsburg offers all the history a family could want. This city appeals to all age groups with nearby Water Country USA and Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Combo tickets are available to reduce costs.

Catskills

This spot in southeast New York offers many ways for families to occupy their vacation time. Just a scenic two hour drive north of New York City, families can hike the Catskill Park, walk through Thomas Cole’s house, paddleboard out to the historic Hudson-Athens lighthouse or fly down the longest, fastest and highest zipline canopy tour in North America. In addition, all-inclusive, family-oriented resorts are available for extra savings…or you could rough it at one of the many local campgrounds. 

Cruising

Cruises are virtually all-inclusive vacations. One price includes accommodations, meals, activities on board the ship, kids programs and entertainment. It’s all included in one price. It’s a great vacation for both parents and kids.

So, before the sun goes down on summer, get planning!

Making This Father’s Day Special

Father’s Day is just around the corner! On June 17, you’ll be expected to set aside a day to spoil Dad. So, let’s get planning to make this Father’s Day extra special!

Traditionally, Father’s Day is a day of breakfast in bed, the perfect card (typically Hallmark) and a carefully selected, but hardly ever worn, tie. But, this year, let’s think a little outside the box. Let’s make it not so much about the perfect store-bought gift but about dedicating this day to something even greater and more memorable.

With this said, here are a few ideas:

  • Make an I.O.U. Book – Celebrate Dad all year long with a homemade I.O.U. book full of coupons for him to cash in anytime. Whether it’s a chore, like cutting the grass for him, or taking him to the movies, he is sure to appreciate the spontaneous gift and reminder of your love and appreciation.
  • Plan a Day of Bonding – Spend the day doing something simple and meaningful that affords that special father-son and/or father-daughter bonding time. Here are several activities that are sure to make lasting memories:
  1. A game of golf or mini golf – Whether Dad is a pro on the golf course or at putt-putt or just an amateur, golfing is a fun activity for dads and kids alike.
  2. Take him to a ball game – America’s favorite pastime always makes for a perfect day. If a pro baseball game is not an option, find a local minor league game to attend.
  3. Go Fishing – Casting a line is a classic and relaxing way to spend bonding time with Dad. Children’s fishing poles are not very expensive…and the memories created far outweigh the cost.
  4. Work on a project together – Is there something Dad has always wanted to do with you? Whether it’s fixing a rusty bike that’s been in the garage for years or a bigger project like building a fort/tree house, Father’s Day is the perfect day to get started.
  5. Take a hike or a long bike ride – Most dads love spending time outdoors. Find a local hiking or walking trail the entire family can enjoy or spend the day cruising around on bikes. As an added treat, bring a picnic lunch/basket filled with dad’s favorite foods.
  • Make Something for Him – A great way to make Dad’s day something really special is to give him something you’ve made, not bought. A memory book is a very personal way to express your love and appreciation for your dad. Your memory book could include photos of you and your dad, from birth to present day, with handwritten notes and memories under each picture. Your memory book could also include a special poem you’ve written for your dad or a heartfelt letter. This gift gives you the perfect opportunity to spend time with your dad and reminisce about the good old days.
  • (Wives) Celebrate Him as a Husband – Father’s Day is not just a day to celebrate Dad as a provider and caregiver for your children. It’s also a day to honor him as your husband. Bring on the praise, verbally or in writing, expressing how much you need him and he means to you as your partner, lover, friend and father.

Whatever you decide to do to celebrate this special day, remember, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on extravagant gifts. Your love and gratitude are the greatest gifts you can give him this Father’s Day!

Small Businesses Make a Big Impact on Our Economy

As we come off of National Small Business Week earlier this month, recognizing entrepreneurs andowners of small businesses, it’s an opportune time to emphasize…provide a better understanding of the impact small businesses have on our national and local economy.

Small businesses play a major role in the U.S. economy. The SBA reports that there are over twenty-seven million small businesses in our country and represent approximately 50 percent of our gross domestic product. The millions of entrepreneurs who have started businesses in our country have had a major impact on the business world, as we know it today.

Small businesses not only contribute to the general economic security of our country, but they also play a key role in the growth and vitality of particular areas of economic and socioeconomic development. Specifically, small businesses assist in the following areas:

Job Creation 

A majority of American workers first entered the business world working for small businesses.  According to the SBA, half of all U.S. adults today are either self-employed or work for businesses that employ less than 500 employees. In addition, small companies hire more frequently and fire more frequently than big companies. This is mostly due to the fact that many small companies are started every year and some are expanding. Regrettably, the survival and expansion rate for small businesses is poor. Fortunately, over time small companies add more jobs than they eliminate.

Provide Opportunities for Women and Minorities 

Small businesses provide the vehicle for many people entering the workforce. Business ownership allows individuals, including women and minorities, the opportunity to achieve financial success as well as provide confidence and pride in their accomplishments. The SBA cites that although the majority of small businesses are still owned by white males, over the last two decades there has been a substantial increase in the number of women-owned and minority-owned businesses.

Small Businesses Complement Big Businesses

Small businesses provide many of the components required by big corporations. For example, the U.S. auto industry relies on almost 2,000 suppliers to fulfill the parts needed to build their cars. Small companies also supply large companies with services such as accounting, legal and insurance. In addition, many small companies outsource themselves to assist large companies with special projects or provide certain business functions.

Small Businesses’ Impact on the Local Community 

Similar to their contribution to the national economy, small businesses also contribute greatly to the growth and innovation of the community in which they are established.  The small business makes a profound local impact in the following ways:

Community Identity 

A community is uniquely recognized in part by its “Main Street.” From the mom-and-pop shops, the local CPA and attorney office to the coffee shop, yoga studio and community bank, small businesses contribute to the look, feel and personality of its community. Many municipalities and tourism boards have prioritized the preservation of the small business, fully valuing the unique character it brings to the vibrancy of the community.

Community Involvement 

Small business entrepreneurs tend to be involved in the community. They often sponsor local Little League teams, donate to local non-profit organizations, join the Chamber of Commerce and participate in local charity events.

Community Health

Because small businesses tend to be people-oriented businesses, their owners help build a sense of community. Small business owners typically build personal relationships with their customers, greeting many of them by name.

Many small businesses come together to form casual or more formal relationships such as merchant’s associations and often provide one-on-one business counseling and mentoring. By doing this, the expertise of the successful small business owner is leveraged to contribute to the overall business community’s long-term success.

Increasing the Tax Base

When local residents patronize small businesses within their community, their tax dollars stay within their community. Similarly, local businesses tend to purchase locally, which pumps more money into their community, helping improve their community and economic development.

Local Jobs

Small businesses create local jobs. This is beneficial because employees work closer to home rather than commute to another city. This also creates ample opportunity for these workers to shop at other local small businesses – grabbing lunch or dinner from local restaurants, running shopping errands on their lunch break – keeping money within their community.

Entrepreneurship 

Small businesses are the consequence of the business owner’s entrepreneurial spirit. The small business owner is taking charge of his or her financial future. America’s economic innovation and prosperity is fueled by entrepreneurialism. It is a key means for U.S. families to move up the economic ladder.

Locally Made Products and Services

One-of-a-kind, locally made goods can attract outside customers to a community, bolstering tourism and contributing to the community’s unique character. Locally made products and services are also attractive to residents who want to support their local businesses and keep their tax dollars in their community.

Supporting our small businesses isn’t just about shopping on Small Business Saturday. Small businesses benefit our national and local economies in many ways. So, the next time you’re heading to a large chain store, remember, shopping local really does matter.

Stress in America

For the first time in a 10-year history of surveys of stress in America, the American Psychological Association survey, conducted in January 2017, found a statistically significant increase in stress levels in the U.S. compared to the previous year.

It appears that Americans are more stressed today than ever.

Whether we’re stressing over financial woes, work, a romantic relationship on the rocks or possibly the latest, breaking, political news story, the anxiety can wreak havoc on our bodies if we can’t get it under control.

We experience stress when we perceive the demands placed on us exceed our ability to cope. Stress can be beneficial at times, motivating us to work hard and get ahead or by providing a necessary boost of drive and energy to help us through certain situations like exams or work deadlines. However, an extreme amount of stress, especially worry over the long haul, can have health consequences, affecting our immune, cardiovascular and neuroendocrine and central nervous system, and cause a severe emotional toll.

The human body’s stress response was made for short-term acute stress such as fleeing immanent danger, like running away from a bear. But, stressors today have become much more chronic and our bodies aren’t equipped to deal with this.

Research shows that each age group…stage of life…has its own common stressors. Findings indicate that people in their 20s are the most stressed out generation of our time.  They’re graduating from college, worrying about college debts, looking for jobs, dating and dealing with constant social media comparisons. 30-somethings are managing a lot of extra responsibilities, both at work, as they climb the career ladder, and at home, as they become parents and homeowners. 40-somethings, also referred to as the “sandwich generation,” are worrying about their growing kids as well as their aging parents. In addition, this group begins contemplating their own immortality. For 50-somethings, planning for retirement as well as an empty nest can be quite jolting.

Coping with Stress:

Understand how we stress. Each of us experiences and manages stress differently. Some things that may be stressful for one person may serve as a trigger for others to become more productive. It’s important for each of us to know what types of situations make us feel different than we do most of the time.

Find healthy ways to manage our stress. This will be unique to each of our personalities. We need to find a healthy, stress-reducing activity that works best for us. It may be exercising, talking things out with a friend or family member, listening to music, writing, or spending downtime with someone special.

Take care of ourselves. At times, we take on more than we can manage. But, no matter how hectic life gets, we must take time for ourselves – even if it’s something simple like curling up on the couch and reading a good book or listening to our favorite music. We must also make sure that we eat right, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, engage in routine physical activity and take regular vacations or other breaks from work.

Limit time watching or listening to the news. It’s great to be informed, but there’s a difference between getting needed information and becoming obsessed with what’s going on in the world. The news is presented…spun in a dramatic way, which often creates anxiety.

Focus on the aspects of our lives in which we have control. We can’t control a lot of what happens across the country or the world. So, it’s important to work on the aspects of our lives we do have some control over such as how much effort we put into our work, our relationships, our health and even our community.

Reach out for support and take action if needed. It’s not always easy to open up to others about our lives and problems. However, talking to and accepting help from a trusted and supportive family member, friend or even a professional can improve our ability to manage stress as well as change unhealthy behaviors.

File Your Income Taxes Early… Before Someone Else Does It For You

Spring is just around the corner and so is the deadline for filing your 2017 income taxes.

For those of us who haven’t filed our tax return already, this somewhat daunting, annual task is beginning to weigh more heavily on our minds. Many of us are concerned about filing our return correctly, what kind of tax refund or, in some cases, payment we can expect and whether we should do it on our own with an online service or hire an accountant.

But, as we procrastinators begin getting our tax documents together, there’s something else we should keep in mind: tax return fraud.

The IRS launched 1,117 general tax fraud investigations for the fiscal year of 2016. Although this was a decrease from the two prior years, according to IRS, it doesn’t appear that tax scams are ever going away. Unfortunately, with every measure taken by the IRS to prevent this, the schemers/scammers find ways to circumvent it.

Identity theft related tax fraud occurs when an identity thief somehow obtains your name and social security number and uses it to file a fraudulent tax return in your name. This is accomplished in many ways to include phishing emails, snooping through your trash for intact documents containing personal information, hacking into a site/entity that has your personal information, stealing or finding your wallet/purse and public WiFi monitoring.

Once the identity thief has your personal information, they can use this to file fraudulent tax returns with the IRS in order to receive credits or refunds. In most cases, these thieves have the funds distributed via a pre-loaded debit card or direct deposit. This helps them avoid the security measures relating to cashing a paper check.

When this happens, the tax return you file comes under suspicion because it is the second return filed for the same taxpayer. Unfortunately, the burden of proof now lies on you. You will need to send the IRS a Form 14039 (IRS Identity Theft Affidavit). This can be a lengthy process.  If you’re expecting a refund it will not be processed until the IRS confirms your identity, as the actual taxpayer. If you owe taxes, you can be left with resulting collection actions, audits and even aggressive tax collection through the IRS appeals process.

It can become ugly.

But, like many situations in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Here are several ways to minimize your risk of falling prey to these sinister scams:

  • File Early (okay, this advice is a little late for those of us who haven’t already filed. But, let’s make sure to keep this in mind next year.)

Filing early lowers the chance of someone doing it before you. This turns the tables on the identity thief, as your return will be accepted by the IRS first and their fraudulent return in your name will be denied.

  • Clear Your Email Inbox and Invest in a Shredder

Most identity theft occurs via the trash. All identity thieves need to file a false return is your legal name, date of birth and social security number.  Think of the people you may have mailed or emailed pieces of this information…a W-9 for an employer, a scanned copy of your passport to a travel agency or a completed form to your healthcare provider.

Don’t keep this information in your email in/sent box. In addition, shred any physical/hardcopy documents containing this information.

  • The IRS Will Never Call You…So, Hang Up

Scammers often call under the pretense they are the IRS and you owe money. They may sound totally legitimate, oftentimes giving you a fake badge number and even sharing knowledge that leads you to believe they really know you.

Hang up! The IRS will never call or email you. The IRS only communicates by physical (snail) mail.

  • If Your Credit Card Company or Bank Contacts You, Call Them Back on an Official Number

Identity thieves may pose as representatives from your bank or credit card company. These scammers may be trickier to catch because these types of organizations do sometimes call.

Don’t give out any personal information with inbound requests. Call the organization back using their official customer service number.

  • Don’t Sign a Blank Return 

If a friend asks you to sign a blank return and they will take care of doing your taxes…don’t do it. Sometimes scammers are found in the least expected place…your inner social circle.

  • Beware of Tax Pop-Up Shops

When hiring anyone to do your taxes, especially those “once a year” tax preparation shops, do your homework and make sure they are legitimate.

Although special attention is being given to identity fraud risks during tax season in this article, this should be a year-round concern. Monitoring your credit on a regular basis yourself or through a monitoring service is the best practice to reduce your risk of becoming the victim of an identity thief.

American Heart Health Month

With February designated as American Hearth Health Month, it seems fitting to help bring attention and awareness to the seriousness of heart disease in the United States.

According to the American Health Association, nearly a quarter of the deaths in the U.S. are caused by heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in this country, causing 1 in 4 deaths. Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, remains the leading global cause of death with more than 17.9 million deaths each year. This staggering number is expected to rise to more than 23.6 million by 2030.

High blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking are the leading risk factors for heart disease. Shockingly (or maybe not), about 47% of Americans today have at least one of these risk factors.

In the U.S., 1 in 4 women dies from heart disease. The most common causes of heart disease in both men and women is narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart. This happens very slowly over time and it’s the major reason people have heart attacks.

In addition to the leading risk factors mentioned above, several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices also put people at a higher risk of heart disease, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Poor Diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle – Physical inactivity
  • Excessive alcohol use

Heart Attack Symptoms – Men vs. Women

Women have a higher risk of dying from a heart attack than men. One of the reasons is because women don’t know they are having a heart attack and, consequently, don’t seek medical help until it’s too late.

Years of clinical research indicate that the symptoms of a heart attack can be different in men and women. Recent findings indicate that women are less likely to experience chest pain, or at least to the degree of pain, than men. Nearly half of the women in a recent study experienced no chest pain at all during their heart attack. Shortness of breath and fatigue were cited as their most common symptoms.

Although women can certainly experience chest pain, they must also be aware of less obvious symptoms like nausea, indigestion, palpitations, as well as shortness of breath and back pain.

Sometimes heart attack symptoms are inaccurately attributed to other health issues such as indigestion. This is why it’s so important to have your doctor administer an EKG test or an enzyme blood test.

With this said, the most common heart attack symptoms for men and women include:

  • Discomfort, tightness, uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes…or comes and goes.
  • Crushing chest pain
  • Pressure or pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, upper back, jaw, or arms
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Clammy sweats, heart flutters or paleness
  • Unexplained feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness, especially with exertion
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing

More common symptoms in women:

  • Pain in the arm, especially the left arm, back, neck, abdomen or shoulder blades
  • Jaw pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Overwhelming and unusual fatigue, sometimes with shortness of breath
  • Light headedness or sweating.

The good news is you’re never too young or too old to take care of your heart. While you can’t change certain factors, like age and family history, you can lower your risk of heart disease, and ultimately a heart attack, by making healthy life choices and managing health conditions.

What You Can Do to Prevent Heart Disease 

  • Establish a healthy eating plan. Choose foods low in saturated fats, trans fat and sodium. A healthy diet should include plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich grains, fish, nuts, legumes and seeds. Limit your intake of red meat and sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco. When it comes to preventing heart disease, no amount of smoking, including smokeless tobacco, is safe.
  • Regular, daily exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease…and combining this with a healthy eating plan makes the payoff even greater. Activities such as gardening, housekeeping, taking the stairs instead of the elevator/escalator and walking the dog all count. However, you will see bigger benefits by increasing the intensity, duration and frequency of your activity.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight, especially if you carry this extra baggage around your middle, increases your risk of heart disease. Even a small weight loss can be beneficial to your heart health. Reducing your weight by 3 to 5 percent can help decrease your triglycerides and blood sugar, and reduce your risk of diabetes.
  • Get enough quality sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to more than yawning throughout the day. People who don’t get enough sleep have a higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes and depression.

Adults typically require seven to nine hours of sleep each night.  If you wake up without your alarm clock, feeling refreshed, you’re getting enough sleep. Sleep should be a priority in your life.

  • Manage stress. Overeating, drinking or smoking are ways some people cope with stress. Find healthier alternatives such as physical activity, relaxation exercises or meditation.
  • Get regular health screenings. Schedule a yearly top-to-bottom physical so you know your numbers – blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol.

As we move through February, let’s use this month, American Heart Health Month, to raise awareness of heart disease and how we can all do our part to prevent it…at home and in our community.

 

What to Expect from the Tax-Overhaul Plan

Happy New “Tax” Year!

We’ve welcomed in 2018 and President Trump’s new tax-overhaul plan, which was signed into law on December 22. Even though most of us have already received our first payroll check of the new year, we haven’t seen any changes. The IRS is still working to develop the withholding guidance, which is expected to be issued sometime this month. Once this happens, employers and payroll service providers will be encouraged to implement the new rules by February.

The new tax reform bill makes major changes to the U.S. tax code for both individuals and corporations, to include repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. Although the Republicans were unsuccessful in repealing the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obama Care, as a whole, under the new bill, non-insured people will no longer have to pay a tax penalty. This change, however, doesn’t go into effect until 2019. So, for 2018, the Obama Care penalty can still be assessed.

This bill represents the most significant tax changes in the U.S. in more than 30 years. Some of the key changes include: 

The number of brackets – seven – remained the same, but rates overall have come down. The top rate falls from 39.6% to 37% and the bottom rate remains at 10%, but covers twice the income compared to the previous brackets. For individuals, these lower rates are scheduled to expire in 2025, unless Congress extends them.

Standard Deduction and Exemptions 

Standard deduction and exemptions will change dramatically under the new tax rules. The standard deduction as the law currently exists is $13,000 for a couple filing jointly and $6,500 for single filers. This number will jump to $24,000 and $12,000 respectively.

The personal exemption, currently at $4,150 for 2018, will be repealed. However, the child tax credit gets a big boost. This currently sits at $1,000 and starts to phase out at $110,000 in income for couples and $75,000 in income for everyone else. Under the new law, however, the credit doubles to $2,000, $1,400 of which is a refundable tax credit. In addition, it doesn’t begin to phase out until $400,000 in income for couples and $200,000 for singles.

Itemized Deductions 

Some major changes are on the horizon for itemized deductions.  State and local taxes can still be itemized, but they are now capped at $10,000. This change is an attempt to address the uproar from states that levy big taxes on their citizens.

Interest on mortgages for primary and secondary homes is still deductible. However, the limit has come down from loans up to $1 million to loans up to $750,000.

Medical expenses in 2017 and 2018 are deductible to the extent that they exceed 7.5% of income…down from 10%.

Capital Gains Tax 

The current structure of the capital gains tax structure, which applies to things like stock sales and sales of other appreciated assets, won’t see much change. However, there are still a few key points to keep in mind.

For example, short-term capital gains are still taxed as ordinary income. Since the tax brackets applied to ordinary income have changed dramatically, as seen from chart above, short-term gains will likely be taxed at a different rate than they were.

In summary, Americans won’t see a significant difference in this spring’s tax return. The proposed cuts in the bill will be more pronounced when most people file in 2019.

 

Celebrations of the Season

December marks the beginning of the most celebrated holiday season in America. However, many people will be celebrating something other than the highly anticipated arrival of jolly, old St. Nick and the birth of Jesus Christ.

Over the next few weeks, while many of us are rejoicing the season by decorating our trees, adorning our homes with colorful lights and nativity scenes, braving over-crowded malls in an attempt to buy that special something for someone to place under the tree, sending out festive/religious cards near and far, and attending holiday parties, merrily donning our ugly holiday sweaters, others will be celebrating in a very different way.

Yes, Christmas is only one of several holidays, here and around the world, which is celebrated during the month of December.

Bodhi Day 

Buddhists celebrate Bodhi day, which falls on December 8. This celebration recalls the date when Buddha attained enlightenment.

The Day of the Return of the Wandering Goddess

Synchronized with the Winter Solstice, this holiday has been observed by followers of Kemetic Orthodoxy, the religion of ancient Egypt, since about 4500 BCE. It celebrates the return of the Goddess Hathor to her father Ra and the healing of their relationship.

Hanukkah

This holiday, celebrated by Jewish people, honors the Maccabees’s victory over King Antiochus, who forbade Jews to practice their religion. For eight nights – this year it starts the evening of December 12 and ends on December 20 (the dates change because this holiday follows the lunar cycle) – Hanukkah is celebrated with prayer, the lighting of the menorah and food. A Hanukkah menorah has nine candles, a candle for every night, plus a helper candle.

Over the eight days, children play games, sing songs, spin a top called a dreidel to win chocolate coins, nuts or raisins, and exchange gifts. Potato pancakes, known as latkes in Yiddish, served with applesauce and sour cream, are traditionally associated with this Jewish holiday. 

Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice, an astronomical phenomenon marking the shortest day of the year, occurs between December 20 and 23 in the Northern Hemisphere.

Since ancient times, people all over the world have recognized this important astronomical occurrence and celebrated the subsequent return of the sun.

The start of the solar year is a celebration of light and the rebirth of the sun. In Europe, it was known as Yule, from the Norse, Jul, meaning wheel.

St. Lucia Day 

On December 13, this Swedish holiday honors this third-century saint. Many girls in Sweden dress up as “Lucia brides, donning long white gowns with red sashes, and a wreath of burning candles on their heads. They wake up their families on this day by singing them songs and bringing them coffee and twisted saffron buns called “Lucia cats.”

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, which means “First Fruits,” is celebrated December 26 through January 1. This African holiday, based on ancient harvest festivals, celebrates family life and unity, commemorating African heritage. Friends and family gather to exchange gifts and to light a series of black, red, and green candles. These candles symbolize the seven basic values of African family life – unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

Three Kings Day 

At the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas comes a day, which is celebrated in Spain, called Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This holiday is celebrated as the day the three wise men first saw baby Jesus and brought him gifts. Many Spanish children receive their Christmas presents on this day.

Yes, this is truly a wondrous time of year! And no matter how you celebrate this holiday season, I hope it is filled with love and laughter, and creating long-lasting memories with family and friends.

Being Smart with Student Loans

Today, student loans have become an inevitable part of attaining higher education.  However, not being financially savvy when taking this money can come back to haunt you long after you’ve received that coveted college diploma.

According to Forbes, in 2017, student loan debt has swelled into a $1.3 trillion crisis. Forty-four million borrowers are shouldering this financial burden, with the average 2016 graduate owing approximately $37,172.

As many families are preparing for college, excitedly completing applications, they should also be accessing the total cost…especially if they plan to borrow.

One of the most important factors of one’s higher education is becoming debt-smart. Knowing how much the money you borrow today will cost you in the future, not just in terms of the monthly payments, but also in total interest, and how this could affect your standard of living, is crucial to living the life you want.

A recent report by the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center cited that student loans have the highest delinquency rates of all consumer debt products today. Most of these delinquencies are due to the fact that the graduate hasn’t been able to secure a job that pays enough to cover their basic living expenses and student loan payment.

Borrowing to pay for college isn’t a bad thing. The cost of going to college is an investment in yourself and your future, which can yield big rewards after graduation. However, the key to obtaining that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, is making financially smart decisions today.

Look at the ROI of Your Education

Being debt-smart is about early intervention, examining all the facts prior to filling out the first college application.

One of the first and most important pieces of information to gather is the return on your investment in your education.  You should assess the cost of attending a certain school having a clear picture of what your post-graduation salary could be.

Use common sense. If you’re going to spend $100,000 on a four-year degree that will only earn you $30,000 a year after graduation, it doesn’t make good financial sense.

Target Schools that Offer Grants Over Loans

Many colleges offer all-grant programs, adhering to a loan-free policy. If you meet certain income and asset requirements, you can qualify for these programs and, consequently, won’t be saddled with student loan debt later. There are many websites that offer a list of these colleges and their requirements.

Look at Every Option to Lower the Cost 

Apply for FAFSA, student financial aid, look for scholarships, and, most importantly, talk with a financial aid counselor. Many families underestimate the value of the financial aid office.  They are a wealth of information and have many resources to help make college more affordable. All you have to do is ask.

Get a Part-time Job 

Don’t be afraid to work while going to school. For most students today, having a job isn’t a “nice-to-have,” it’s a must. In addition to generating income to offset the cost of college, a job also provides students with many of the skills employers are looking for when they interview recent graduates. 

If You Need to Borrow, Look at All the Options 

Favor federal loans over private loans. Thoroughly review loan packages, selecting the one that offers the lowest overall (term and interest rate) cost. Make sure you understand the different types of student loans (i.e. fixed and variable rate) and how they are to be repaid.

In addition, know all of the income-based repayment options. With many federal loan programs, you have the ability to lower your repayments if your post-graduate income isn’t adequate.

You should also know how to take advantage of the flexibility of the loan program. With some loan programs, for example, if you enter a public service profession, you can have your remaining loan balance forgiven after a certain amount of time. You should also know if you could consolidate loans to lower your overall interest payments.

Do the Math

There are countless free, college loan repayment calculators out there. So, before you sign on the dotted line, do the math. Determine your monthly repayments and your living expenses where you plan to live. This will give you the big financial picture, keeping you from getting in over your head as well as warding off the possibility of damaging your credit down the road.

In summary, preparation and knowledge is key to financial success. Students who are debt-smart now will be enjoying their wise decisions later.

October: National Cyber Security Awareness Month

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month.  This annual campaign, which began in 2003 as a collaborative effort between government and industry, was created to raise awareness about the importance of cyber security.

Whether we realize it or not, today, the Internet touches almost every aspect of our daily lives. National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM) serves to engage and educate both the private and public sectors, through events and initiatives, of the importance of cyber security. Through tools and resources the objective of NCSAM is to increase the awareness of safe online practices and resiliency of our nation in the event of a cyber incident.

With recent legislation and support from the White House, there is an even stronger focus on consumers and their cyber safety. Consequently, this month also marks the 7th anniversary of the STOP. THINK. CONNECT. campaign.  Each year, NCSAM highlights the overall message and capstones of this campaign – Keep a Clean Machine, Protect Your Personal Information, Connect with Care, Be Web Wise, Be a Good Online Citizen, Own Your Online Presence and Lock Down Your Login – and offers the following tips to stay safe online.

Watch for Malicious Email/Spear Phishing

A malicious email can be disguised, looking just like it comes from a financial institution, an e-commerce site, a government agency or any business. It typically urges you to act quickly, often by supplying a link in the email, because one of your accounts has been compromised or your online order cannot be fulfilled without additional information or some other urgent matter requiring your immediate attention.

Spear Phishing involves highly specialized attacks against specific targets or small groups to collect information or gain access to data systems. Once they’ve gained access to the network (e.g. a business’ list of customers), they can launch a phishing attack, posing as the business, and sending emails to their customers that look authentic.

If you are unsure if an email is legitimate, try verifying it by contacting the company directly and/or searching for the company online. But, be sure to do this by not using the information provided in the questionable email.

Protect Yourself When Shopping Online

With the convenience of making purchases with the click of a mouse and next-day delivery to obtaining great deals on an endless catalogue of items, online shopping continues to grow in popularity. This convenience, however, also makes it lucrative for scammers to trick buyers into paying for merchandise they will never receive and obtain your personal information for their financial gain.

Take the following safety precautions when shopping online:

  1. When purchasing items from a new website, read the customers reviews.
  2. When making purchases online, be alert to the kinds of information being collected to complete your transaction.
  3. Use safe payment options. Credit cards are usually the safest option when making purchases online. Credit card companies allow buyers to receive a credit if the product isn’t delivered or isn’t what was ordered.
  4. Always read the return policies to know what to expect if your purchase experience doesn’t go as planned.
  5. When shopping online, make sure the site is security enabled.

In addition to the safety precautions mentioned above, limit the type of business you conduct over open public Wi-Fi connections, including logging into accounts like email and banking, and adjust the security settings on your phone or tablet to limit who can access them.

Keep Security Software Current 

Having the latest security software, web browser and operating system is the best defense against viruses, malware and other online threats. In addition to computers, your smartphones, gaming systems and other web-enabled devices also need protection.

Use Unique Passwords 

The best passwords are the random ones…the ones that are the most difficult for you to remember and the cyber criminal to crack. So, mix it up – use variations on capitalization, spelling, numbers and punctuation. Avoid using names, places and dictionary words and never reuse the same password.

With this said, don’t leave notes with your passwords on your computer or your desk. If you choose to save passwords in a file on your computer, create a name for the file that won’t give it away. If you have a difficult time remembering multiple, unique passwords, use a trusted password manager. Be sure to check out the reviews and reputation of the service.

Data Backup 

Today, our digital devices house vast amounts of our important and cherished data. While very convenient, storing all this on our computer or mobile device comes with the risk of being lost. Data can be lost in many ways including computer malfunctions, theft, viruses, spyware, accidental deleting and even natural causes.

So, it’s important to back up your files – make copies of your data, select the hardware or method of storage and safely store the device that holds your copied files – on a regular basis.