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.

Beating the Winter Doldrums

Cheryl TanenbaumEven with Punxsutawney Phil’s recent declaration that spring is coming early this year, many
feel that this is still not soon enough.

As the excitement of the holidays and the seasonal changes wane, so does our mood. Even for us Floridians, the once welcoming milder temperatures have now become too low and the shorter days too short.

As February progresses, many of us find ourselves lethargic, anxious and moody, cocooning with sweet and high-carb fare, and counting the days until we can begin complaining about how hot it is again.

Does this sound familiar?

If you’re beginning to feel the winter blues, here are a few tips to help brighten your mood while you wait for the long, warm, sunny, Florida days to return.

  1. Brighten your environment – Your body is craving more daylight. You can satisfy your body’s craving either artificially, by purchasing a light box and sitting in front of it for at least 30 minutes per day, or by simply opening your blinds or drapes and sitting by the window.
  1. Maximize the benefits of food – Studies show that there is a strong relationship between the food we eat and our mood. Following a well-balanced diet, rich in protein, moderate in carbs (complex carbs are the best) and low in fat improves our mood and energy level. And for all you chocoholics out there, chocolate in moderation has been shown to enhance mood and relieve anxiety. (Of course…we chocoholics knew that, didn’t we?)
  1. Exercise – A recent study by Harvard University showed that walking briskly for about 35 minutes a day, five days a week or 60 minutes, three days a week improves mild to moderate depression. Yoga/meditation is another great way to beat the winter blahs. As a relaxation technique, yoga/meditation is great for restructuring the mind and those habitual patterns of thought.
  1. Crank up the tunes – Research shows that listening to upbeat or cheery music elevates the mood. Then, break out your best dance moves for the added physical benefits.
  2. Begin making plans for your summer vacation – Just the simple act of planning a vacation, especially one that promises warm, sunny days, significantly increases overall happiness. It gives you something to look forward to as you wait out the winter.
  1. Make yourself useful – volunteer – Giving some of your time to a cause you’re passionate about or helping someone in need improves mental health as well as overall life satisfaction.
  1. Get up off the couch and go outside – Convincing yourself to take a long walk when it’s chilly outside isn’t easy but, the benefits, emotionally and physically, are well worth it. So, put on your jacket and hat and get moving!
  1. Socialize – Make plans with family and friends. We go from fast and furious socializing during the holidays to a screeching halt, hibernating in our homes until the warmer temperatures bring us out of our winter cocoons again.

Maintaining relationships with our friends and family is key to our well-being. Research shows that people with more social support tend to be less depressed, less vulnerable to certain diseases and even live longer.

So, even though winter may not be your favorite season, keeping a positive attitude and physically on track with the tips mentioned above will help make the colder days fly by and the warmer months return before you know it.

Decluttering your life

Similar to losing weight, quitting smoking, beginning and maintaining an exercise regime or just being a happier person, decluttering your life is no easy feat. Decluttering, especially if you tend to be a collector, can seem like a daunting, insurmountable task. Due to this mindset, the best-intentioned decluttering plan is often short-lived.

Decluttering your life, like eating an elephant, is best-accomplished one bite at a time. You’ll have a higher rate of success by taking things one small step at a time. After all, clutter, like being overweight, a chain-smoker, out of shape or even a sourpuss, didn’t happen overnight.

The good…great news is, by taking that first, often painful decluttering step, and continuing on with little steps, you’ll soon see big improvements in your living and working space as well as your life.

Here are some steps to get you started:

Your Home

Take a few minutes today to sort through a pile…or declutter a shelf, table or countertop. Pick up the first item in the pile and ask yourself, “Do I really need this…love it…or use it regularly?” If the answer is no, put it into one of four piles – “Donate,” “Recycle,” “Give Away” or “Toss.” If the answer is yes, put it in a “Keep” pile.

When you’ve had enough decluttering for the day (10-20 minutes is a good start), separately bag or box up the no piles and put them in your trunk to disseminate the next time you’re out. Then, gather up the items in your yes or “Keep” pile and find a permanent home for them.

If you’re on the fence about some items, use a “Maybe” box. Put today’s date on it and a six-month reminder on your calendar. If, in six months, you haven’t used it, you probably don’t need it and should put it in one of your no piles.

Organizing your family photos can be one of the most time-consuming decluttering tasks. If you haven’t had the time to put your photos in album or scrapbook, it’s okay to stop pretending you will someday. Group your photos by subject – a family reunion, a trip to Europe, etc. – and store them in a clear shoebox, labeled and dated.

Don’t move onto another room or space until you’ve completed the current one. This may take several days, especially if you’re cleaning out closets and drawers/cabinets. Remember, take it slowly, and relish in your small accomplishments (your newly decluttered space), or you’ll think the task is too difficult and won’t want to continue.

Your Work Area

Decluttering your workspace is essential to productivity and focus.

Begin with your desk. Clear everything off the top of your desk and assemble it in piles on the floor. This provides the perfect occasion to clean and wipe down your desk. Once you’ve done this, begin sorting through the piles. Similar to decluttering your home, determine which items are needed and can be filed or put away, and which aren’t and can be delegated or tossed.

Once you’ve accomplished this…and have had time to bask in the enjoyment of a clean and organized desk, move onto the drawers, shelves and/or cabinets.

The goal of this project is to designate a permanent place for every item you’ve decided to keep and maintain a clean, organized desktop. To accomplish this, have an inbox for all incoming papers and sort through it daily to determine what should be filed or put away, delegated or tossed. This simple daily task will help you stay on top of the clutter. In addition, develop a filing system for ongoing or currently in-process projects.

At the end of your workday, the only items that should remain on your desk are your computer, your inbox, and maybe a special photo or memento, and any documents you are working on at the moment.

In addition to decluttering your workspace, you should also declutter your computer. Weed out the files and programs on your computer that you don’t need. Clean up your desktop. These icons not only slow down your computer, but they also create visual clutter.

Your Information

In today’s digital world, there are so many different ways that information creeps into our lives. Having too much information at our fingertips can be overwhelming/stressful as well as a big timewaster. Set limits on the amount of information you receive and read each day. Get rid of things from your RSS feed. Reduce your magazine and newspaper subscriptions as well as your consumption of news and television. Instead of letting information take over your life, including the information your friends share with you via social media, control how and when you receive information by limiting the sources and what you read.

Your Commitments

Declutter your day by reducing your commitments, personal and work-related. Start by making a list of the day’s commitments. Prioritize these commitments, the things that are most important to you and your day, and say “no” to or put off the non-essential things for another day. Become ruthless about saying “no” to new commitments…guard your personal and professional time.

Maintaining Order

Once you’ve successfully decluttered, whether it’s in one area or all the areas mentioned above, clutter will always find a way of creeping back into your life. You must be vigilant and stay on top of it…so it doesn’t get out of hand again.

Set up a system to keep clutter in check. The most critical step in this system is not putting off today what you’d rather to do tomorrow. Deal with it immediately.

By devoting a little of your time to eliminating clutter and maintaining a fairly clutter-free existence, you’ll reap the rewards – a pleasing living and working environment and a more organized, productive and stress-free life.

Great Gift Ideas for the Techie on your Christmas List

Everyone has one or sometimes two or three. What is that, you say? Everyone has at least one gadget-obsessed family member and/or friend on their Christmas list. So, if you’re looking for the perfect techie gift for that special someone on your list, look (worry) no more. Here are some of this holiday season’s coolest tech gifts.

The avid adventurer – The goTenna is the perfect gift for the great outdoor person on your list. This device, which is sold in packs of two, works with your smartphone and an accompanying app to help you keep in touch (send messages and your location) to another goTenna user, even in remote locations where there’s no cell phone signal for miles. The high-tech Walkie Talkie of sorts. ($250 for the pair)

The younger virtual-reality fan – This Mattel View-Master is much more sophisticated than the one most of us had as kids. It looks somewhat like the View-Master of yesteryear, but if you place an iPhone or Android inside this View-Master, it’s whole different story. It supports Google Cardboard apps, so your young techie can play around with virtual reality. ($30)

The smartphone photographer – Photojojo, the iPhone and Android Lens Series Smartphone lens set comes with a set of stick-on lenses – two different fisheye lenses, a telephoto lens, polarized lens and a combination wide-angle and macro lens. This gift is sure to be a huge hit with the person on your Christmas list who’s obsessed with taking professional-quality smartphone photos. ($99)

The power-hungry traveler – Zolt Laptop Charger Plus is not your standard brick charger. Don’t let its size or its good looks fool you. It can charge a laptop and two other devices at the same time with a trio of USB ports, and the charging prongs can also turn 90 degrees if needed. It comes with several PC charging tips. However, if the recipient of this gift has a MacBook, you’ll need to add on an extra $20 for this tip. ($100, not including the MacBook tip)

The high-tech cyclist – With the Hammerhead One, your biking enthusiast won’t have to stop and pull out their smartphone to check directions. This T-shaped gadget mounts to the handlebars and uses glowing LEDs to show the cyclist when and in which direction to turn via a low-energy Bluetooth, which is running behind the scenes (tucked away) on the cyclist’s smartphone. ($85)

The audio-visual buff – Brookstone’s 1080p HDMI projector allows you to project whatever is on your phone out to any audience. Its compactness makes it the perfect gift for those who frequently have presentations to give. It’s also great for watching movies too. ($349.99)

The Health Nut – You can get all kinds of health-related information from the Fitbit One. It will give you all kinds of data about your daily routine, such as how many steps you’ve taken in a day, how many calories you’ve burned, how many times you wake up during a night’s sleep, and so much more. This data is synced and formulated into graphs for you to utilize to enhance your health. ($99.95)

The remote-control freak – The The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is the perfect gift for someone who wants a drone but doesn’t have a lot of experience navigating one. This quadcopter has GPS so you can see its flight pattern on your smartphone, which attaches to its remote control, and a camera attached to a gimbal so you can take high-definition videos and 12-megapixel still photos. This drone also boasts decent flying time: as much as 25 minutes per charge. ($699)

The emerging virtuosos – The Tap a Tune Musical Gloves can turn any surface into a piano keyboard. With embedded sensors, each fingertip will play a different note when tapped against a firm surface. The scale moves from left to right, just like a real keyboard. Don’t have a piano…no worries. ($40)

The child who really wants a tablet – The Amazon Fire Kids Edition tablet is the perfect just-for-kids tablet. It’s affordable and has decent specifications, including a seven-inch touch screen, front and rear cameras, and a microSD card slot for adding more storage to its built-in eight gigabytes. This tablet will entertain and educate…all while giving parents some peace. The tablet also comes with a case, as well as a two-year warranty…no questions asked…even if the tablet mysteriously gets broken. ($100)

Although the list of great high-tech Christmas (holiday) gifts has in no way been exhausted here, these ideas will provide you with a great start. So, relax, sip some eggnog, head out to a party…and have a safe and wonderfully blessed holiday season!

ATM/Debit Card Safety During the Holidays and Throughout the Year

The holiday season is looming and so are the identity thieves!

With the significant rise of Internet shopping and the use of debit cards, it’s never been easier to take advantage of someone’s personal, digital information.

The holidays can be a hectic time, oftentimes leaving us distracted, providing the perfect opportunity for thieves to slip in, steal our information and slip out without being noticed.

While credit cards present the same threat, debit card theft is much more problematic for the victim.

Under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, if a credit card user spots fraudulent charges on his/her bill, he/she can simply decline the charges. In addition, with a credit card, the victim’s liability is limited to $50 if the card issuer is notified within 60 days after the statement listing the transaction is mailed/emailed.

There’s no such protection with a debit card. With a debit card, the money is drawn directly out of the cardholder’s checking account and the $50 liability limit expires two days after the fraud and then your liability is up to $500. Due to this, even with clear-cut cases of fraud, debit card theft can cause significant hardship, often wreaking havoc on one’s finances.

Debit cards are a much bigger target for thieves because they are typically tied to someone’s bank account. While getting money from an ATM or getting cash back requires a PIN, thieves are getting more and more sophisticated, as evidenced by skimming (tampering with checkout line PIN pads to capture information) and security breaches by several major retailers in recent years.

While there is no complete safeguard against being the victim of debit card fraud, it’s important to keep in mind that most criminals, especially thieves, are opportunists – they tend to prey on those who will be the easiest, lowest-risk victims. With this said, here are a few tips to help protect yourself from identity theft this holiday season as well as throughout the year:

1. Be alert and aware of your surroundings – use ATMs in well-lit and unobstructed areas, especially at night, and in clear view of pedestrians and vehicle traffic. Minimize the time spent at the ATM, and, if you have to get out of your car to use the ATM, park your car as close to the ATM as possible.

2. Safeguard your account number and PIN. Whether you are at the ATM or the checkout line, use your body or free hand to shield the keypad entry. Memorize your PIN, and never give your number to someone else. In addition, don’t use easily recognized numbers as your PIN (e.g. birthdate, anniversary, house number, phone number, etc.), and never write your PIN on your card or anything that is kept with your card.

3. Take your receipt – always keep your receipts for your records – never leave them behind.

4. Watch for skimmers – be aware of cameras and/or skimming devices at ATMs or checkout line PIN pads. If the machine appears to have been tampered with, re-manufactured or has any loose parts or wires, don’t use the machine. Thieves can also skim your information from your debit/credit cards while they’re still in your wallet. Minimize this threat by taking only the cards you plan to use, and by keeping them in your front pocket.

5. Use a pre-paid debit card. A pre-paid debit card is very different from a bank account debit card because it is not linked to your checking account. With a pre-paid debit card, you pay in advance by loading funds, typically by transferring money from your checking account, onto the card. If this card is compromised, only the funds that have been loaded onto the card are at risk, not your entire checking account. This card also helps avoid overspending and overdrafts.

6. Use a credit card for online purchases, especially when dealing with an unfamiliar site.

7. Check your account frequently – contact the bank if you suspect fraud or find irregularities in your account/statement. Remember that the extent of your liability in fraudulent losses depend on how quickly you report the unauthorized activity/transactions.

8. Report lost or stolen cards immediately – notify the bank immediately if your card is lost or stolen and then follow-up with the bank the next day, first thing in the morning, to determine if any transactions have occurred.

These tips are just a few of the many things you can do to keep safe and protect yourself from identity theft during the holiday season…as well as all through the year. Always keep in mind, thieves are opportunists, and the more difficult you make it for them, the less likely they will bother with you.

Life in the Fast Lane – Fit Tips for the Office

Our workdays are no longer 9 to 5. Today’s technology ensures we are connected wherever we go. Although our work hours continue to stretch, for most of us, it’s the only thing that gets any stretching done.

According to a recent study, most people sit for more than nine hours a day. Due to this, lifestyle ailments and a sense of general discontent with our lives are on the rise. Nervous breakdowns, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Cervical Spondylitis are just a few of the medical issues that plague more and more corporate employees today. The old adage, “All work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy,” couldn’t be more applicable to today’s working culture.

With the amount of time we spend in the office and on the road, it becomes difficult to work exercise into our already jam-packed schedules. However, for our physical and mental well-being, we must find creative ways to incorporate this into our day.

We can make creative use of our sitting time, especially the time we spend in front of our desks. Although exercising while we’re sitting won’t provide us with the same health benefits as a good workout at the gym, according to health experts, it can help strengthen and tone muscles, and give us the well-deserved and much-needed break from work.

Here are a few suggestions:

Stretching – Spending long periods of time slouching over our computers/laptops does more damage than we think. We strain our eyes and our neck is bent at an unnatural position causing bad posture, which can lead to serious problems in some cases. These extended periods of time on our computers/laptops can also lead to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, an extremely painful condition of the wrist.

Something as simple as standing up and stretching can ward off these afflictions. After every hour of continuous sitting, take a break and stand up from your seat. Intertwine your fingers and stretch with your hands towards the ceiling. Reach higher and higher until you are standing on your toes.

Come back to normal position and slowly rotate your neck, forward, backward and side-to-side, and then roll your shoulders forward and backward, stretching the shoulder muscles. Now work the wrists by slowly rotating them in a clockwise and counterclockwise direction. While doing this, close your eyes and give them their due rest.

Getting the most out of your chair –

Leg straightener – While sitting forward in your chair, away from the backrest, lift one leg at a time about 3 inches off the ground. Tighten your leg muscles for about 10 seconds. Release them and repeat. From this position, you can also rotate your feet in a clockwise and counterclockwise direction.

Pelvic Tilt – With your hands on your desk, sit in the middle of your chair with your feet flat on the floor. Arch your lower back so your butt feels like its sticking out. Make your abs do the work not your legs. Then, slowly pull your hips underneath your stomach, bringing your butt back underneath you, like you’re doing a crunch. Hold each of these positions for about four seconds. Repeat 10 to 20 times.

Arm Circles – Sit straight up in your chair, feet flat on the floor, and lift your arms out to your sides, parallel to the floor. Extend your fingers and make 20 small, tight circles in each direction. Then, make 20 large, open circles in each direction.

Do these exercises a few times a day.

Walk – It’s as easy as getting up out of your chair and moving. If you work in a multi-story building, walk up and down the stairs a few times during your workday. If your office is located above the ground floor, routinely take the stairs instead of the elevator when you come to work. If you need to discuss something with a colleague, walk over to him or her and chat in person instead of picking up the phone.

When you’re on the phone, stand in place and march or if you are on your cell, walk around the office while you chat.

Graze – Keep a ready stock of healthy munchies in your desk for in-between-meal snacks. A handful of nuts, baked snacks or fruits are great nutritious options. These snacks will keep your energy levels high as well as ward off the temptation to overeat at mealtime.

Also make sure to drink plenty of water (eight to ten 8-once glasses a day). Not only is water good for you, but by doing this, you will also up your daily step count due to increasing bathroom breaks.

The best cure for the body is a quiet mind. ~ Napoleon Bonaparte

Even though we try to fit more and more into our workday, including exercise, it’s vital we get 8-9 hours of sleep each night. A tired mind is an unproductive mind. We need to rest our bodies as well as our minds so we can think fresh the next day. Meditation and yoga are great options – they calm the mind and increase focus and concentration. Some people reach this same state of mind through an intensive workout. The goal in the end is to give your body and mind a pause for a while.

There are endless possibilities and no excuses. With a little creativity and dedication to our health, we can make it possible to incorporate fitness into our busy days with office exercise.