Creating a Beautiful Wedding Day on a Realistic Budget

As we move into the summer months, many parents will also be heading into the wedding months.

Although, as parents, this is a milestone, a rite of passage in your life as well as your child’s, this can also be a very stressful time as well.

The cost of a wedding today can be overwhelming. Whether you’re picking up the entire bill for your child’s big day or sharing the cost with the bride and groom-to-be or his or her perspective in-laws, having a well-thought-out plan and a realistic budget will help keep what should be one of the most memorable days of your life and your child’s from getting out of control.

In a perfect world, we would’ve started saving for this big day shortly after our child was born…in addition to saving for his or her college and our retirement fund. But, if you’re like most parents, this just wasn’t doable. Although, it’s an admirable goal to save for your child’s wedding, most financial experts would advise that this shouldn’t be prioritized over college or retirement.

This is not to say that it’s too late to save, however. As soon as you know that a wedding is on the horizon, you should start saving.

But, don’t promise what you can’t deliver. As much as you’d like to be able to give your child the wedding of his or her dreams, it’s definitely not worth jeopardizing your financial viability to do it. For example, if you withdraw money from your retirement account pre-59 ½, you could face a penalty as well as additional taxes. In addition, you may never be able to replenish the money you withdrew or make up it’s earning potential, which could really set you back.

The first step in reducing the financial stress often associated with wedding planning is by simply talking about it. Sit down and talk with the bride and groom-to-be and put your financial cards, so to speak, on the table. This way, the couple has a realistic idea of what they can expect from you and the big day in general.

The second step is to find ways to save money.

You don’t have to break the bank to give your son or daughter a beautiful wedding day. Here are a few suggestions to save money on the big day without sacrificing the memories.

Limit the Guest List – One of the easiest ways to reduce the wedding budget is to reduce the guest list. Yes, a wedding is a celebration. But, keep in mind, it’s also an intimate moment. Be realistic. If budget is a concern, limit your guest list to the immediate families and closest friends. Not only will this save a lot of money but it will also be a more meaningful day.

The Dress – Many women spend a good portion of their lives fantasizing about their wedding dress…and consequently, spend a good portion of the wedding budget on it. This doesn’t have to be the case. It’s possible to find a gorgeous dress for far less than the exorbitant prices charged by most bridal salons (e.g. secondhand stores, eBay or consider using a family member’s gown).

Reception – This typically is the most expensive part of the big day. Consider cutting the cost of the reception by holding the wedding on a Friday or Sunday and/or opt for a brunch or cocktails and hors d’oeuvres or dessert/cake/champagne or possibly a garden picnic over a full, sit-down dinner. If you want a dinner meal, consider a buffet with less expensive items like chicken, pasta and in-season produce.

Music – Have the bride or groom-to-be load up the playlists on their iPod or iPhone for each part of your wedding – pre-ceremony, ceremony, cocktail hour, special dances, dinner, dancing, etc. Ask a member of the wedding party to act as MC for special announcements.

Flowers – To cut costs on the wedding flowers make sure to only order in-season flowers and use the same flowers at the church and the reception. You can also reduce this expense by ordering loose stems and making the arrangements yourself. In addition, flowers ordered online are typically less expensive than those ordered through a traditional florist.

Drinks – It’s a personal option whether to serve alcohol or not. But, if you’re going to serve alcohol, you can save money by offering only beer and wine and/or a champagne punch. But, make sure to have ample non-alcoholic beverages as well.

What You Can Skip – Most guests toss wedding favors as soon as they get home. If you absolutely have to give out favors, make something yourself…like baking a special treat (cookies).

You can also eliminate the unnecessary expense of save-the-date cards unless it’s a destination wedding, requiring people to make travel arrangements well in advance.

With all of these suggestions in mind, remember that budgeting and saving money doesn’t mean that you’re skimping on your child’s big day. With imagination, creativity and open communication, you can still have a beautiful wedding day for your child on a realistic budget.

Happy planning!

Don’t Fall Victim to a Tax Scam

Tax season is looming and, unfortunately, so are the scammers. With a growing number of reports over the last several weeks, from the IRS and police departments across the country, of people falling prey to tax schemes, it’s the perfect time to share some of the most widely used tax scams. Hopefully, this insight will keep you from becoming another statistic.

Phone Scams – This scheme has been occurring with more frequency over the last few weeks. Basically, someone calls you claiming they work for the IRS. These scammers impersonate an IRS agent and typically try to scare/threaten you. They try to intimidate you with supposed penalties, being arrested or deported, etc. if you don’t pay them right now. They even may know all or part of your Social Security number. Don’t panic. The IRS won’t ever just call you out of the blue. They always initiate communication in writing, even if you owe money. They also will never ask for debit or credit card numbers over the phone or threaten you with arrest, etc. for non-payment. If you have any doubts to the authenticity of a call or any correspondence, you can contact them directly (800-829-1040) or visit their website (IRS.gov).

Phishing – This scheme happens throughout the year. This occurs when scammers try to get your personal information by fooling you with fake emails or websites. However, during tax season they lure you in by claiming they have information about your tax refund, etc. You may, for example, get an email that looks like it’s coming from the IRS, inviting you to click on a link for information concerning your tax return or the money that may be due to you. Don’t fall for it. The IRS doesn’t initiate contact via email.

Identity Theft – This one is the worst…the tax scheme of all tax schemes. You arehappily awaiting your tax return, already happily anticipating where you plan to spend it and then you find out that someone else has been using your Social Security number as well as other identifying information, has filed a return in your name and is claiming your refund. Cut this off at the pass by never giving out personal information unless you know who’s asking for it and why, shredding personal and financial documents, knowing your tax preparer (see below) and filing your return early…beating the scammers to the punch.

Tax Return Preparer Fraud – You are inundated with advertisements of people/services that want to prepare and file your return for you. Just remember, like every service and/or person, some are ethical and honest and some are not. A majority of taxpayers today use a preparer. Just do your homework…check them out…get references, etc. In addition, remember that just because someone else prepares your tax return doesn’t release you from the responsibility of its accuracy. You’re the one who is ultimately responsible for the information contained in your return. So, make sure to review it thoroughly before you file it.

False Promises – Always trust your instincts…your common sense. The old saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is,” can often be the case where refunds are concerned too. Watch for promises of big tax refunds by people who don’t know anything about you or your financial/tax circumstances.

Tax season can be hectic enough without adding undue stressors. So, eliminate the added stress by being aware of these types of scams, using your common sense, dealing with reputable, longstanding tax preparers and thoroughly reviewing your return. And last, but not least…when in doubt, contact the IRS.
Here’s to a stress-free, safe tax season!

Get your financial ducks in a row before you go house hunting

Spring is just around the corner and many people, both the seasoned homeowner and the first-time homebuyer, will be in the market for a new home. Whether you’re upgrading, downsizing, relocating or tired of the rental scene, the sooner you get your finances and credit in shape the easier it will be to get a mortgage loan.

Here are some helpful tips to help you prepare for your future home purchase:

What’s your credit history look like?
The first thing you should be focusing on is your credit history. Do you pay your bills on time? If you are a renter, do you have a history of paying your rent on time? Most mortgage lenders today require the last 12 months of cancelled checks if you’re renting from a private individual or they will want to contact the rental agency to determine if you pay your rent on time. If you are a homeowner, the lender will be looking at your mortgage history – have you paid your mortgage payments on time?

Do you have any delinquent accounts? These are accounts that are late, charged-off, sent to collections, etc. These can seriously affect your credit score as well as your ability to obtain a mortgage. If you have any of these accounts, you should pay them off before applying for a mortgage.

Keep close tabs on your credit
It’s a different world out there today with respect to credit scores. If you have less than a 700 credit score, you can expect to pay higher fees or a sizable down payment.

If there are discrepancies, file a dispute by with the credit bureaus.

Monitor your credit score. Check for inaccuracies that can hurt your credit score and hinder your chances of getting the best mortgage deals or a mortgage at all.

Stop applying for credit a year before you apply for a mortgage and avoid large purchases until you’ve closed on your new home.

If possible pay off any balances on your credit cards and then don’t use them for at least 45 days prior to applying for a loan.

Make sure to have three trade lines (e.g. credit cards, student or car loans, etc.) that have been open, active and in good standing for at least a year.

Figure out what you can afford
The last thing you want is too much house for your pocketbook. The home of your dreams will quickly become your worst nightmare.

There are several rules of thumb that can help you get a grasp on how much house you can afford. Typically with FHA financing, your home payment can’t exceed 31 percent of your monthly income…with some mitigating factors this percentage can be higher. If you are obtaining a conventional mortgage, a safe rule of thumb is that your home expenses shouldn’t exceed 28 percent of your gross monthly income.

Save for your down payment and closing costs
Depending on your credit situation and specific financing, you will need to save for a down payment. A bigger down payment doesn’t guarantee loan approval but it sure helps. And don’t forget the closing costs associated with a home purchase and the mortgage.

Your savings should reflect a figure that is over and above the down payment and closing costs. Lenders want to know that you’re not living hand to mouth. Three to five months’ worth of mortgage payments in savings makes you a much better loan candidate.

Do your homework
Make sure you fully understand all the costs involved in homeownership. There are property taxes, insurance and in some cases homeowner’s fees. If you are upgrading, most likely the utility bills associated with your new home are higher. Also keep in mind that the cost of repairs, maintenance and decorating may be higher than you think.

Get pre-approved
If you’re serious about purchasing a new home, get your financing in place before you walk through the first door. Get all your paperwork together and meet with a mortgage lender.

Find a house that you like
Purchase a house that you like and will fit your needs for several years to come.

Gone are the days of quick sales and depending on how much you put down and all the extraneous costs involved in a home purchase, not to the mention the costs involved in selling your current home and relocating, short-term ownership can be quite expensive.

Social Media – Maintaining the Competitive Edge in Today’s Digital World

Some small business owners believe that social media marketing is a here today, gone tomorrow marketing phenomenon, a buzzword with no practical applications in their day-to-day business, and comes at the expense of a steep, complicated learning curve. Due to its relatively quick appearance on the marketing scene, social media, at least in many entrepreneur’s opinions, has developed a reputation for being a passing interest, and therefore, unprofitable.

This mindset couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to Hubspot, a company that develops and markets a software product for inbound marketing, 92 percent of marketers in 2014 claimed that social media marketing was vital to their business, with 80 percent indicating their efforts increased traffic to their websites. In addition, Social Media Examiner, the largest online social media magazine, reports that 97 percent of marketers are currently participating in social media – but 85 percent aren’t sure what social media tools are the best to use.

Simply put, social media is part of doing business today and an integral part of the modern marketing mix. Businesses can no longer get away with only having an Internet presence through their company website or e-newsletter. Today, a business’s storefront extends to social media marketing sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

In a nutshell, if your business isn’t currently taking advantage of these social media sites, it’s missing the boat or more to the point, sales opportunities.

Still not convinced? Here are a few reasons why social media is so important for your small business:

1. Your customers are already using it – According to a recent Neilson report, Americans spend nearly 25 percent of their time on social media networks and blogs. So, most likely, your target market is already using social media. Consequently, you will increase the odds of getting your marketing message to them if you are where they are.
2. Using social media will give your company a competitive advantage – if you competitors haven’t already ventured into the social media scene, you will have a leg up on them by taking advantage of this marketing tool.
3. It will help you connect with current customers as well as prospects – social media offers a two-way marketing channel. It allows you to have a conversation, creating a community of fans and followers that see your company as more than just an entity. It gives your company a face, so to speak. People view Twitter and Facebook as social networks, not marketing machines. Consequently, they are less likely to see your post as an advertisement and are more likely to hear what you say.
4. It will allow you to respond to problems immediately – if there’s a problem with your product or service, it’s important that you know about it immediately. With the quick feedback that social media provides, you will be the first to know when there are issues, which affords you the ability to address them in a timely fashion. Study after study indicates that customers appreciate companies that are responsive to their complaints and try to make things right.
5. It will increase your sales – when you stay in front of your customer base, there is a greater likelihood that they will buy from you when they need the products you sell. Social media also gives you the opportunity to give your customers an incentive to buy your products. Tweet or post a coupon code for one of your products and see how many people buy that product using that code. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
6. It’s free advertising – does it get any better than that?
7. It levels the playing field – you don’t need millions of dollars to launch an aggressive advertising campaign. But, what you will need is persistency and creativity. If you want to generate a lot of traffic and dramatically increase your sales online, you will need to make these platforms yours. You will have to outwit, outnetwork and outwrite your competitors while offering superior products and customer service. But, isn’t that what maintaining the competitive edge is all about?
The bottom line is that social media marketing is part of doing business today. This marketing tool has become imperative for branding your product and creating a buzz about your business. So, if your business isn’t already active on social networking sites, now is the time to start. There are millions of potential customers out there just waiting to be reached!

Make 2015 the year of organization

Happy 2015! It’s hard to believe another year is behind us. If you’re like most people, you’ve either vigorously begun attacking your New Year’s resolution list or at least contemplated making one.

While losing weight and getting your financial house in order are always popular to-dos, another worthy candidate is getting your life organized.

Keep in mind, being organized is not an inborn or inherited trait. It’s a learned behavior by cultivating healthy habits and maintaining those habits to keep your life in order.

If being organized is a priority this year, remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to overhaul your life in one month. It will be too overwhelming. You will have a greater opportunity for success if you have an overall plan or goal and by starting with a few key steps or habits to help you get organized over the year, rather than trying to get it done in one fell swoop.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Write things down – whether you are trying to remember birthdays, doctor’s appointments or items on your grocery list, make it permanent. Put pen to paper or use the calendar on your computer or smart phone.

2. Make schedules and deadlines – being organized goes hand-in-hand with using your time efficiently. Don’t waste time. Make and keep schedules for the day and week and stick to them.

3. Don’t procrastinate – the longer you wait to start something the more difficult it is to get it done. If one of your goals is to have a less stressful life, getting organized is the answer. Checking to-dos off your list will make you a happier and healthier person.

4. Find a home for everything – keeping your life organized begins with keeping your things in their proper places. Keep order by storing things properly and labeling the storage spaces. Put things that you use on a regular basis in easy-to-access storage spaces. Don’t let these spaces get cluttered and never label a storage space “miscellaneous.”

5. Declutter and weed out regularly – find time each week, possibly on cleaning day, to reorganize and get rid of things you don’t need or want. Less stuff means less clutter. Have a yard sale, donate to a thrift shop, take a trip to the recycling center or sell unwanted items on one of the popular resale websites.

6. Delegate responsibilities – don’t try to do everything yourself. Look at your to-do list (remember step one, write things down) and find tasks that you can remove and give to someone else. By doing this, you will eliminate the stress that is caused by thinking that the whole world rests on your shoulders.

7. Work hard – again, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Getting your currently disorganized world organized is going to take some effort on your part.

Getting and staying organized isn’t a walk in the park. It takes a plan, hard work and commitment. But, the rewards of a less stressful, clutter-free life are well worth the effort.

Pulling in the reigns on holiday stress

I recently read somewhere that the average person spends 42 hours a year on holiday activities. This involves shopping, wrapping, cooking/baking, attending holiday parties, traveling from one place to another and returning gifts.

Yikes! Just typing this makes me stressed out! And most often, these extra activities are crammed into our already busy schedules.

A recent survey conducted by Mental Health America concluded that the top two sources of holiday stress involve money concerns and chaotic schedules. And typically, women reported feeling more stress than men, and parents in general feel the most stressed.

With this in mind, here are some tips for reducing and controlling holiday stress and making this holiday a wonderful memory for you and your family:

1. Be realistic – You’re not Martha Stewart and you can’t do everything portrayed on TV or in your favorite magazine. If you try to cram everything in trying to make it the perfect, yet unrealistic holiday season, you and your family will be too exhausted to enjoy it. Also be realistic about your expectations of family and friends. No one is perfect, and the holidays don’t magically make him or her so.

2. Prioritize – As a family decide which activities are most important to you and which ones can be eliminated. Change things up if what you’ve always done is no longer fun and enjoyable or your children have just outgrown it.

3. Create new traditions – Choose new activities that focus on the true meaning of the holiday and not all the commercialization and hoopla.

4. Maintain a routine – During this crazy time, changing the family routine can be stressful in itself, especially to children. Try to stick to regular mealtimes and bedtime. If there’s a big activity, make sure your child is well rested and fed. There’s nothing more stressful for a parent than a hungry and exhausted child.

5. Ask for help – Don’t try to do it all yourself. Ask for assistance around the house, delegating tasks among adults and older children. Even younger children can be helpful. Let them help decorate the cookies or wrap presents. They may not be perfect but the children will keep busy and have fun in the process.

6. Less is best – Simplify the holiday season by planning easy meals for your family and friends. Suggest a potluck dinner with family and friends as opposed to doing it all yourself. Cut down on the gifts you buy every year. For most families today, making ends meet during the rest of the year is tough enough, little alone during the holiday season. Consider buying family gifts or drawing names for relatives as well as limiting the dollar amount for presents. Limit the amount of holiday cards you send –they are expensive and so are the stamps. Consider sending some electronically this year.

7. Plan fun – What do you and your family enjoy? Make plans to see your favorite Christmas play, movie or concert, drive around the neighborhood to see the holiday lights or visit a Christmas tree farm.

8. Most importantly – carve out time for yourself. During this time of year, adults find themselves committing, in many cases, over-committing themselves to others and neglecting time for themselves. Make time for yourself – reading, a bubble bath or a long walk. Make sure to get plenty of rest – even a catnap can help you rejuvenate for the evening’s party. Make alone time for you and your partner. Schedule downtime for your children to help them recuperate from all the holiday activities.

Lastly, try to roll with the punches…take things in stride. No matter how well you plan, something invariably goes awry. When all else fails…laugh…find humor in the mishaps. They make the best stories. And remember, there’s always next year.

May you and yours have a safe, blessed holiday season!

Making a Difference – It’s a win, win

Volunteering is often thought of as something nice that people can do. Although this is true, it’s much more than that. Volunteering has a significant impact both intrinsically and extrinsically. It not only affects the health and well-being of a community but it can also make a positive difference in the volunteer’s life as well.

Volunteers provide critical services – from firefighting, delivering meals to the homebound elderly and providing public health and safety education to manning the phone lines at domestic violence and sexual assault centers. Volunteers also keep our neighborhoods safe. Volunteers tutor, mentor and coach our youth from everything from math homework, to dealing with a personal crisis to good sportsmanship on the soccer field. Volunteers also take tickets at cultural events and festivals and lead tours at museums, ensuring that the arts stay alive and well in our communities. They build houses, man soup kitchens, start recycling programs, fundraise and so much more.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, about 64.5 million Americans, or 26.5 percent of the adult population, gave 7.9 billion hours of volunteer service worth $175 billion in 2012.

But, volunteering is not just about money. Volunteering is about giving, contributing and helping people and your community at large. It’s working with other like-minded people to make a meaningful contribution to a better community…a better world.

Whether you want to address a community problem or advance a worthy cause, volunteering offers many benefits in appreciation for your time well beyond the monetary value. Volunteering can help you:

  • Make vital networking contacts
  • Develop new skills
  • Enhance your resume
  • Gain work experience
  • Build self-esteem and self-confidence, a feeling of being needed and valued
  • Improve your health
  • Meet new people
  • Show others that you care about your community

 

So now that the case has been made for the both the internal and external benefits of volunteering, how do you find or create the ideal volunteer opportunity?

Here are a few tips:

  • Identify partner organizations in your community
  • Talk to friends, colleagues and family
  • Check out your local volunteer centers
  • Search online
  • Start your own volunteer project

No matter which avenue you choose to locate volunteering opportunities, you ultimately must get to know the organization and determine if it and its cause is a good fit for you.

Once you’ve done all your homework, the only thing left for you to do is to SIGN UP and GET INVOLVED!

It’s truly a win, win!

Staying out of debt and living within your means

“If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.” – Dave Ramsey

Many of my articles over the last several months have dealt with the topic of saving money, whether for retirement, a home, an emergency fund, a vacation or some other worthwhile objective. While all of these goals are vitally important, I would be remiss if I didn’t address the obvious – staying out of debt.

Although staying out of debt should be a major goal of every consumer, it’s not always easy, and, unfortunately, is often viewed negatively. Many people think that financial responsibility goes hand in hand with denying themselves the things they want in life. Quite to the contrary. By using the following “staying out of debt” practical steps, you will better understand how you can still have the things you want in life without falling deep into debt.

1. Monitor your spending – create and follow a budget. Whether you write down your income and expenses on a legal pad, create an Excel spreadsheet or utilize one of the many budget software programs out there, the road to staying out of debt and saving begins with a budget.

2. Reduce your overhead – once you’ve successfully completed your budget, take the time to completely analyze your expenses. This will be a real eye-opener as to where your money is going. Look at each expense separately and see if there is a way you can reduce it or even possibly eliminate it altogether. Perhaps you can raise the deductible on your home and your automobile insurance or lower your cell phone or cable bill. Don’t be afraid to shop around for better rates.

Sometimes bigger changes are needed to help you get a strong foothold on your finances – helping you stay out of debt and save more money each month. For example, are you spending a small fortune on gasoline each month or is your housing expense gobbling up most of your monthly income? If so, it may be wise to trade-in that gas guzzler for something more fuel-efficient or to downsize into a more affordable house.

Reducing your ongoing expenses and monitoring your spending habits can add up to big savings over time.

3. Build an emergency fund – I talked about the importance of this in one of my recent articles. An emergency fund is an integral part of staying out of debt. Expect the unexpected by opening a free or low-fee savings account that is specifically earmarked for unforeseen expenses. To make it easy, set up automatic withdrawals from your checking account.

4. Increase/supplement your income – if, once you’ve created your budget and whittled down expenses, you’re still left with more month than money, it may be time to consider ways to increase or supplement your income.

5. Live below your means – probably one of the most difficult concepts or behaviors for most Americans to grasp today. Like stated earlier, most people think that saving and staying out of debt is limiting their freedom to have what they want out of life. However, no matter how much money you make, being frugal gives you a sense of freedom that people living beyond their means will never know. Why spend sleepless nights worrying about a high mortgage payment or a fancy car you can barely afford? If you can learn to live below your means not only will you avoid debt, but as your income grows, you’ll have enough money saved to have whatever is important to you.

6. Save for the things you want – the old-fashioned way of saving for things you want and need and paying cash is the best way to stay out of debt. Yes, you can pay for things with a credit card, but make sure you have the funds to pay the card completely off, avoiding the high interest rates, when it comes due.

7. Consider credit card alternatives – there are more and more people today choosing not to use credit cards. Others shouldn’t be using them because they have problems with overspending and getting trapped in recurring debt. Some good alternatives to a regular credit card include debit cards, pre-paid debit cards, and of course, cash.

Again, successfully practicing these principles isn’t always easy. But, if you have a plan in place that can help you gain control of your finances, you will always have your head above water.

September is National Preparedness Month

September marks the sixth annual National Preparedness Month. In 2004, following the September 11 tragedies, September was designated as National Preparedness Month.

Governor Rick Scott has also designated September as Florida Preparedness Month. Scott, along with the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) reminds Floridians that September is historically the peak season for hurricanes and consequently, there is no better time than now to have an emergency plan for your family and/or business.

While Florida is one of the most hurricane vulnerable states in the U.S., it is equally important to focus on becoming better prepared for emergencies of all kinds, natural and man-made. Hazards facing Florida include extreme heat, tropical weather, thunderstorms, tornadoes, wildfires, floods and drought.

This month serves as a reminder to all Florida residents to be both alert and prepared for hazards and other disasters.

Are you prepared?

According to FDEM, all Floridians should have (if you don’t this is a good time to develop one) a disaster preparedness plan based on their own personal needs as well as an emergency kit to sustain themselves and their family for up to 72 hours after a disaster strikes.

The most important person to protect your life and property is not the firefighter or police officer or a representative from the federal government…it is you, said FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. “By taking a few simple steps now, each of us can make sure we are better prepared for the next emergency or disaster.”

Some initial steps

1. Begin by identifying an out-of-town contact that all family members know to reach should you become separated in an emergency. This individual would serve as a contact person for family members to report to in the event of an emergency to let them know their location and that they are safe.
2. Identify a location away from home for family members to meet in case of an emergency and your home is inaccessible. This would be the location, preferably close to home, that your family would meet. Be sure all family members are aware of this location.
3. Prepare a disaster supply kit. This would include but not be limited to the following:
One gallon of water for each person per day for at least three days
Canned and dried food or anything easy to prepare and doesn’t require refrigeration
A manual can opener
Sleeping bags or cots
Flashlights and lanterns with extra batteries
First-aid kit
Bathroom supplies
Medicines (prescriptions and over-the-counter medications)
Soap and hand sanitizer
Rain gear and tarps
Pet supplies
Facemasks
Tools
NOAA all-hazards weather radio or battery-powered radio
Credit cards and cash (bring enough cash keep you afloat for at least three days in the event there is no electrical power to operate credit/debit card machines)
Written list of important contacts
Games

But, this list is only a beginning. Preparedness plans come in all sizes, and need to be customized to individual and collective needs. But, the best plan for everyone is the plan that begins today. To be better prepared to plan for, respond to, and recover from emergency events visit ready.gov/September or FloridaDisaster.org.

Countdown to College – A High School Action Plan

In the blink of an eye, seeming like it was only yesterday you put them on the bus for their first day of kindergarten, your child is entering high school and it’s time to begin preparing him or her for the next big chapter of their lives – college.

Believe it or not, the classes that your child takes and the activities they do in high school play an integral part in shaping them as an adult as well as a college applicant.  Even if your child plans to attend a local community college or less-selective state college, he or she will still need to successfully fulfill certain requirements, and if they want to gain admission to highly selective colleges or receive scholarships, they will need to accomplish even more. The bottom line, it’s very competitive out there!

In the same breath, high school shouldn’t be a dreary march through class requirements and mandatory community service hours. It should also be a time of exploration for your child – figuring out who he or she is and what he or she wants to be when they grow up.

With that said, here are some basic guidelines to help your high schooler work toward his or her educational and life goals.

First and foremost, have them begin setting goals. Whether your child plans to go to college or immediately head out into the workforce, now is the time for them, with your help and guidance, to take stock of their aspirations, strengths, weaknesses and life experiences and begin the process of ascertaining what they might like doing when they’re on their own. They don’t need anything written in stone, but by their sophomore year they should have some broad ideas of what they might want to pursue in the next several years.

This is also the time to have your child look into the scholastic/collegiate requirements of his or her career interests. Have your child begin setting goals based on this concerning his or her grades, standardized test scores, involvement in school and community as well as the steps needed to reach those goals.

Your child should also begin seeking experiences through clubs at school, volunteer activities and speaking to individuals in the fields he or she is possibly interested in pursuing. A wide range of experiences will help your child narrow down career possibilities as well as help them build an attractive, competitive college resume.

Now that your child has set his or her goals for the next four years (freshman through senior years), he or she should break them down year by year. Having a long list goals and to-dos can be daunting. The process won’t be so overwhelming if it broken down into a yearly check list. His or her high school counselor should be very helpful with this task. This will also help your high school student stay on track and eliminate any last minute surprises.

Below is a basic action plan or check list for your child’s high school freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years.

  1. Freshman year – Have your child meet with his or her counselor and start getting involved in extracurricular activities (e.g. a part-time job, joining a school club or volunteering in the community). This is the time for your child to seriously think about not only their GPA but also the classes they are taking to earn that GPA. If they haven’t been automatically placed into advanced classes, it’s a good time to have them ask to be placed in them. Most schools will allow students to move into accelerated classes if they’re doing well in the ones their currently taking.
  2. Sophomore year – Have your child continue meeting with his or her counselor, keeping grades up and staying involved in outside activities. This is the year to begin looking at perspective schools and their scholastic requirements as well as financial planning. Creating a financial plan can better help you and your child prepare for the financial responsibility of college, establishing an estimate of tuition, housing and ancillary costs (books, fees, meals, etc.), so that your child’s college education doesn’t become a financial burden.
  3. Junior year – This year is when the rubber meets the road so to speak. Your child should begin preparing for standardized tests now instead of waiting until their senior year. Time spent doing this now will allow your child to concentrate on their grades and enjoy their final year of high school. This is also the time to begin searching for scholarship opportunities. A great place to begin is scholarships.com. Again, his or her counselor can be of great help with this.
  4. Senior year – Your child’s high school days are numbered and college is right around the corner. Now is the time to begin the college application process. Here are a few helpful reminders:

a. Begin gathering recommendations – To ace this section of the college application, have your child get letters of recommendation (e.g. teachers, coaches, volunteer directors, summer job supervisors, etc.).

b. Register for the ACT and/or SAT.

c. Apply to selected schools – Pay close attention to deadlines. Your student will stand a better chance of admission if they apply early. Make sure your child also pays close attention to grammar and spelling when completing his or her application form. Have your child personalize their essay to the particular school where they are applying (e.g. citing reasons for their interest in each particular school).

d. Continue searching for scholarships – Have your child begin this at the start of the school year.  Have them see what’s available and what’s coming up so they will have time to apply for those scholarships that are best suited to them. There will be hundreds of scholarships that will be applicable to your child. So, it’s best to have them select their top 10 or 20 to begin and continue moving through the list with another 10 or 20 each month until they’ve exhausted the list.

e. Submit the FAFSA form – the deadline for submitting the FAFSA on the web varies by state. No matter the date, you and your child should try to submit it as soon after January 1 as possible. It’s quicker and easier to submit this form online at fafsa.ed.gov. Beware of sites that want to charge for applying for financial aid. The FAFSA is a free application for federal student aid.

e. Now, it’s just a waiting game – Most colleges will let your child know their decision by May. Once your child has received all his or her letters of acceptance, begin weighing the options. Both of you will want to consider financial needs, the location, and of course, the overall reputation of the college as well as their reputation in the field of study your child is planning to pursue. Have your child let each school know their decision as soon as they can.

Phew! You’re done! Now, you both can sit back, relax and begin looking forward to a life changing and exciting next four years!