Finance

How Will Rising Interest Rate Projections Affect Consumers?

finance blogAs anyone with a bank account and/or any kind of debt – a car loan, mortgage, credit card balances, etc. – can attest, the interest rates that affect us, the retail financial consumer, are driven by the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy decisions.

A Brief Finance Lesson

Most consumer interest rates are driven by the federal funds rate – the interest rate considered the central interest rate in the U.S. financial markets. This is the interest rate that major banks use when borrowing or lending funds through the central Federal Reserve banks. The fund rate is set by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), the policy-making arm of the Fed.

The St. Louis Federal Reserve, one of the 12 member banks of the Federal Reserve System, apportions the impact of the fed funds rate. This interest rate influences the prime rate – the rate offered to the bank’s customers with the highest credit ratings.

Since 2008, interest rates have remained historically low. For the consumer, this has been a double-edged sword – very attractive borrowing rates coupled with negligible investment rates (e.g. Savings and CD rates).

However, events of the last quarter of 2016 indicate there will be upward pressure on interest rates on the horizon, both short-term and long-term.

In the last quarter, the economy began showing signs of strength. With the election of Donald Trump, businesses seem optimistic over their growth opportunities. In addition, the stock market has soared to record highs and bond yields took their first big fall, the unemployment rate holds steady, and job growth continues as household spending slowly improves. These indicators, and stirring inflation, prompted the FOMC to hike the interest rate on December 14.

Is this the beginning of the end…of historically low interest rates, that is? Financial analysts seem to think so, and expect we will witness creeping interest rates over the coming year.

What Will this Mean for Consumer?

Low rates have been painful for retirees who seek a decent return on their emergency funds and cash investments. Consequently, an increase in the fed funds rate will improve the rate on these investments.  However, most analysts’ projections for these rates are cautious, indicating that consumers shouldn’t expect to get rich on savings account and CD rates in the near future.

The housing market has enjoyed the benefits of mortgage interest rates in the range of 3 to 5 percent since 2010. The forecast for these rates suggests that the rise in the fed funds rate, in addition to the yields on treasury bonds, will prompt higher borrowing costs for consumers. Mortgage rates have already pushed to their highest levels since July 2015.

Even an incremental increase on the interest rate of a large loan balance can cause a significant increase in monthly debt payments. Consequently, with increasing mortgage rates likely on the horizon, now may be a good time to refinance, especially if you have an adjustable rate loan, or buy, if you’re in the market. This suggestion applies to auto loans as well.

Financial analysts are also predicting that consumers will see higher interest rates on credit cards and variable rate loans, such as student loans. Typically, variable rate loans adjust once a year. But, credit card APRs can be increased any time. If you have a variable rate student loan, now may be the time to refinance into a fixed rate. There are many companies who offer fixed rate student loan refinancing and consolidation with terms ranging from 5 to 20 years. If you have credit card debt, you should set a plan in motion to pay down the balances as quickly as possible. If you have the opportunity to transfer to another card that has zero interest balance transfer for 12 months or longer, now would be a good time to accept that offer.

The investor can expect to see stocks and stock funds perform well if the interest rates are rising as a result of a growing economy. However, if inflation becomes a problem, it could have a negative effect on some stocks. Investors who own bonds can expect to see their value decrease as yields increase. But, this shouldn’t present a problem if the investor plans to hold the bond until maturity.

A Sound Strategy

 No one knows where interest rates will land in the future. But, current low rates are unlikely to continue. The FOMC expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner warranting gradual increases in the federal funds rate.

With this said, savers will benefit from the Fed Funds rate increase and should look to maximize the returns on their cash by securing the best savings rates… as long as the institution is insured by the FDIC or NCUA. Borrowers should maintain strong credit profiles. If you have credit issues, take steps to improve your credit score now to receive the best borrowing rates in the future. And if you’re in the market for credit, act sooner than later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s An App for That

cardvaletToday, there’s pretty much an app for anything. There’s an app for turning the lights on in your home before you arrive and turning them off after you leave. There’s an app for measuring your daily physical activity, the calories you’ve burned as well as monitoring your vitals. There’s even an app to make purchases without ever opening your wallet. Apps are developed to entertain, provide added convenience, and even, like the one below, diminish our ever-increasing vulnerability to fraud.

CardValet®.

CardValet, an app recently developed by Fiserv, a technology solutions provider to the financial world, is a debit card management and fraud mitigation tool that enables cardholders to control when, where and how their debit cards are used. A turnkey mobile app, CardValet gives the debit cardholder significant awareness of and control over how and when their card is utilized.

This innovative financial app, increasingly promoted by more and more financial institutions, lets cardholders turn their cards on and off, set spending limits as well as monitor and receive alters on transactions.

CardValet gives debit cardholders the ability to turn their cards off immediately if their card has been lost or stolen or if they detect unauthorized transactions on their card. When the card is turned off, no withdrawals or purchases will be approved. Then, after the fraud threat is eliminated, the cardholder can turn the card back on immediately.

With CardValet, the cardholder also has the option to receive text alerts every time the card is used. These real-time alerts keep the cardholder informed when his or her card is being used or has been declined.

In addition, the app can work with the GPS system in your smartphone and geographic restrictions can be established on your debit card. These transaction controls allow your debit card to work only in specific locations or geographical areas, adding another layer of protection against fraud.

The CardValet can also help you stick to your budget. Let’s face it, the increasing use of plastic over paper has made overspending easy. With this app, you can take control of your finances by setting spending thresholds on your card. You can set spending limits for general use or specify thresholds by merchant types, such as gas, groceries or retail stores. The flexible app lets you change these parameters at anytime…you simply update your transaction controls to fit your spending needs.

The CardValet also allows you to set parental controls on your child’s card. Whether your kids are shopping at the local mall or they’re away at college, you can manage their spending. With the same convenient features that help you stick to your budget, this app lets you decide where, when and how your children can use their debit cards.

For more information concerning this app – how it can help you manage your money with greater ease and confidence than ever before, please stop by and talk with a member of our team. We’ll be happy to answer all of your questions and help you get “the app for that.”

 

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.

 

 

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!

Buying Your Teen a Car

It’s hard to believe but your baby, now a teenager, is a licensed driver and wants a car. Yes, the time has finally arrived; your child wants the keys to his or her own car. So, what’s a practical, cautious parent to do…other than have a nervous breakdown, that is?

First and foremost, dispel the notion that every teenager needs a car. Many kids get along just fine without having their own set of wheels. They walk, ride a bike or a skateboard, get rides from you or their friends or take advantage of local public transportation.

However, many teenagers today do have their own cars. All you have to do is peruse your local high school parking lot. It’s filled with students’ cars. But, when contemplating whether you should purchase a car for your son or daughter, you should consider the following:

1. Does your teen want a car because his or her friends are getting one or does he or she want one because they need one to get back and forth to an after school job? If his or her primary reason is to have one because “everyone else has one,” then he or she doesn’t really need a car.

2. Is your teenager responsible enough to have his or her own car?

3. Will getting your teenager a car make life significantly easier for you? For example, if his or her school is 30 minutes from home and you are having to make several round trips a day to take him or her as well as your other children to school each day, another car in the family may be the answer. In other words, if you were spending a good portion of your day as a kid chauffer, this would be a practical reason to get your teen a car, and would take a lot of pressure off you as well.

4. Is it financially viable to buy another car? Even a good used car can be expensive. If purchasing another car is a strain on your finances and your teen can’t help out with the purchase, it would be wise to postpone buying a car until you are in a better financial position or your teen can purchase him or herself.

Okay, if after careful consideration, you’ve decided to get your teen a car, what steps can you take to make sure your son or daughter is a safe as possible on the road?

The conventional wisdom has always been to buy a big car or a road tank. This will provide a thick layer of metal insulation around your child. The truth is, size does matter. It’s basic physics. When two heavy objects collide, the heavier one wins!
Size is a big issue, especially on the freeway. The higher you sit in a car on the freeway, the more the chassis and frame is going to absorb the impact.

The next big question is whether to buy new or used. For most parents, who are already making payments on their own cars, a used car is the only economically feasible option. Another thing to consider when buying new or used is the insurance. The insurance premium on a new car, primarily driven by a young driver, is very expensive.

Experts agree that if parents are going to buy a used car for their teen, they should do their homework. Parents will want to look at the research, specifically government crash testing results (iihs.org or nhtsa.gov), as well as safety options that come with the car they’re considering for their son or daughter. Get as many safety features as possible.

You will also want to check the car over very thoroughly – the tires, the headlights, the turn signals, the brakes, as well as make sure the safety equipment is in good working order. If possible, have a reputable service technician give the car a complete once-over before purchasing it or if you can afford it, look for certified, pre-owned models that are two or three years old, often from an expired lease.
Much to your child’s dismay it’s not about looks, it’s about safety. Parents must rise above what their child wants and focus on what’s in the best interest of their child’s safety. Safety experts highly recommend staying away from the cool, sporty convertibles or cars that come equipped with large engines.

Once you’ve narrowed down the safest choices, find a good deal. Websites such as Edmunds.com, Kelley Blue Book, IntelliChoice.com and Truecar.com can help you determine a fair price given a vehicle’s age, mileage and condition.

Last, but certainly not least, safety experts agree that the most important factor in purchasing a car for your teen is proper training for your teen. If there’s no formal driver’s education program, then it is recommended that parents create their own training program. Driving is a difficult and complicated lengthy learning process. Insurance rates for young people do not come down until age 25. Until then, these drivers are considered “at risk” drivers.

The key to any driving program is parental involvement. There should be a nighttime curfew for beginner drivers, zero tolerance for alcohol and the parent and teen should use a contract or come up with something similar, in writing, that outlines the whens, whereas and with whoms.

Driving is a major milestone in your child’s life. Make it a safe one…one they can remember for a lifetime.

Tax Season: A perfect time to think about an IRA

With tax day looming, it’s a great time to review your current retirement savings strategies and make any changes that are necessary in an effort to keep your plan on track for long-term financial security. This time of year is also a perfect time to start an IRA if you haven’t done so already.

The IRS allows contributions to an IRA up to April 15, 2014 for the 2013 tax year.

There are two types of IRAs available: a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA. The principal difference between the two is the tax treatment of contributions and distributions or withdrawals.

The traditional IRA may allow a tax deduction based on your contribution, depending on your income level. Earnings on this type of account compound on a tax-deferred basis. In other words, distributions are taxable at the time of withdrawal at the then-current income tax rates.

The Roth IRA doesn’t allow a deduction for contributions. However, earnings and qualified withdrawals are tax-free.

When deciding whether a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA is the right choice for you, you need to weigh the immediate benefit of the tax deduction and earnings that compound on a tax-deferred basis against tax-free distributions in retirement.

If you need the tax deduction to help lower your tax bill this year – and you qualify for it – then you may want to opt for the traditional IRA.

To qualify for the full annual IRA deduction in 2013, you must either: 1. Not be eligible to participate in a company retirement plan, or 2. If you are eligible, you must have an adjusted gross income of $59,000 or less for singles, or $95,000 or less for married couples filing jointly. If you are not eligible for a company plan but your spouse is, your traditional IRA contribution is fully deductible as long as your combined gross income does not exceed $178,000.

If you are covered by a retirement plan at work, your 2013 deduction will be reduced if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is:

Between $95,000 and $115,000 for a married couple filing a joint return for the 2013 tax year.
Between $59,000 and $69,000 for a single individual or head of the household for the 2013 tax year.

You must also consider the tax bracket you think you will be at retirement. If you expect your tax bracket to drop considerably and you qualify for the deduction, the traditional IRA may be the better choice.

If, based on the scenarios above, you don’t qualify for the deduction and/or you expect that your tax bracket will not be significantly lower; a Roth IRA may be the better option.

You should maximize your IRS allowable contributions if financially possible. The maximum is $5,500 per individual, plus an additional $1,000 annually if you are aged 50 and older for 2013. Note, those amounts are per individual not per IRA.

Not everyone can afford to maximize his/her annual IRA contribution, especially if you are already contributing to an employer retirement plan. If your workplace plan offers an employer’s matching contribution, then this “free” money may be more of an incentive to than the annual IRA deduction. If this is the case, it may make more sense to maximize the employer matched plan first and then try to maximize your contributions to your IRA.

The important takeaway from this information is that you shouldn’t hesitate to use the remaining time between now and April 15 to contribute or start an IRA. The ability for you to live comfortably in retirement depends on it.

Note: The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information for educational purposes only. It is not intended to give personalized tax, investment, legal or other business or professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional.

Awareness is Your Best Defense

With the growth of e-commerce, consumer online presence and email communication, scammers have also adapted to leverage this medium to con people into providing personal and financial information. One of the most common mechanisms is “phishing.”

Phishing is a fraudulent attempt to steal information, such as usernames, passwords, financial details, etc. by masquerading as a trustworthy entity. Some examples of this would include someone pretending to be social media website, a bank site, an auction site, an online payment processor or an IT administrator – the most popular culprits.

Phishing is typically done through email. The email has the look and feel of the legitimate sender. Phishing emails almost always instruct the recipient to click on a link that is contained in the email. This is a fake link that takes you to a fake website where the scammer – cybercriminal gathers your personal information.

>What to look for in a phishing email:

>Generic greetings.

>Forged links.

>Requests for personal information.

>A Sense of urgency – making the recipient believe that something has happened that requires their immediate attention.

>Incorrect spelling and bad grammar.

>Links in email.

>Threats – telling you that your security has been compromised and that you must act immediately to correct it.

>Spoofing websites or companies – scam artists use graphics in the email that appear to be connected with legitimate websites, taking you to phony sites or legitimate-looking pop-up windows. They also use web addresses that resemble names of well-known companies but are slightly altered.

Phishing is big business. As the world gets ready for the XXII Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, so are the professional scammers. On the heels of the recent payments breach at Target Corp., cybercriminals have already begun targeting the customers affected by the breach, sending fraudulent emails, pretending to act on Target’s behalf, attempting to get personal information.

Quite unfortunately, in a digital world, the safest practice is to trust no one. The Internet is a wonderful too. But we must use it wisely – think before you click and keep in mind:

>No reputable company or organization will ask for your confidential information via email.

>Never click on a link in an email that asks you to give your personal information.

>Never reply to a popup message to provide information.

>Review you accounts (banking, credit cards, etc.) regularly.

>Always check the authenticity of the website.

>Never provide personal or confidential information to “http” links. Look for “https” links and the SSL lock symbol in the browser.

If you suspect that you have received a phishing email, contact the real company and report it to antiphishing.com, the Federal Trade Commission at spam@uce.com or the Internet Fraud Complaint Center of the FBI website.

Staying Safe During the Holiday Season

As we begin the hustle and bustle this time of year is so famous for, don’t let your holidays be ruined by becoming a victim of a crime.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the “peace on earth, good will toward men” attitude. So with a little common sense and practicing the following safety tips, you can ensure your holiday is filled with happiness and celebration.

  • Use your ATM card wisely – When using your ATM card, make sure to be observant. Look around for any suspicious persons or activity.
  • What’s in your wallet – Losing your wallet can be a disaster for your holiday and a field day for an identity thief. Limit the amount of confidential information you carry in your wallet. Never carry account numbers, PIN numbers, a passport or your social security card. Most importantly, never set your wallet/purse down – unless your hand is attached to it.
  • Parking – Always park in a well-lit area and take note of where you’ve parked. Lock your car and close your windows (also while driving). When you return to your vehicle, have your keys in hand and when you approach your vehicle look around you for anyone or anything that looks suspicious. Make sure to scan the interior and exterior (especially underneath the car) from a distance to be sure no one is hiding.
  • Packages – Avoid overloading yourself with packages. It’s important to have clear visibility and freedom of motion to avoid potential mishaps. Lock all your packages out of sight in the trunk.
  • Cash – Avoid carrying large amounts of cash. Pay for purchases with a credit or debit card when possible. Notify your credit card company or bank immediately if your credit or debit card is stolen or has been fraudulently used.
  • Children – Make sure to go over a plan with your children ahead of time concerning what to do should you become separated while shopping. Never allow them to go to the parking lot or the car alone.
  • Scams – Be aware of anything that sounds too good – the “good deal” scams.
  • At home – Be extra cautious during the holidays. Make sure to always lock your doors and windows when you leave the house – even if it’s for only a few minutes. Leave lights on and music or the TV so the house appears to be occupied. Don’t have large displays of holiday gifts in open view of windows and doors. If you go away for the holidays make sure your home appears “lived in.” Purchase an automatic timer for your lights. Have a trusting neighbor watch your home and pick up your newspapers and mail while you are away. In addition, if you use lights on your Christmas tree, make sure they are in good working order and don’t leave them on while you’re not at home.
  • Drive defensively – Traffic is heavier during the holidays and drivers may also be indulged in too many holiday libations.
  • Parties – When hosting a party, find alternative transportation for guests who have had too much to drink; and if you are going out, please remember, Don’t Drink and Drive.

I hope by utilizing these helpful holiday tips, you and yours will have a safe and blessed holiday season!

 

 

Give Thanks at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is just around the corner! Soon we will be feverishly preparing those much-anticipated annual feasts. We will be reviewing our cherished Turkey Day recipes, preparing our grocery lists, inviting our guests and calling “dibs” on the most comfy chair in the house to watch the infamous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Sadly, this holiday has lost some of its meaning over the years. It’s become an increasingly thinner slice of the celebration it was originally meant to be, sandwiched somewhere between the marketing machines of Halloween and Christmas. In many ways, Thanksgiving has become a few days of respite before the craziness of Christmas-Hanukkah-Kwanzaa unfolds.

I recently stumbled upon an extremely poignant quote by H.U. Westermayer, which I believe aptly sums up the true meaning of Thanksgiving, as it was originally intended by those who gave birth to this celebration over 390 years ago:

“The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving.”

With these sobering words in mind, let’s all take time to give thanks for our many blessings – our health, family, home, friends, job and having food on the table.

In honor of this holiday, I thought I’d give you a few creative ideas/ways to give thanks that I recently found in an article in Better Homes and Gardens. I hope you find these crafts fun to make and will make at least one of them part of your Thanksgiving tradition.

Wine Glass Tags – Print out leaf-shape pattern (you can find one on the Internet) onto fall-color papers, cut out, and punch a hole at the base of each leaf. Ask guests to pick a leaf and write a word or short phrase describing something they’re thankful for, such as “family” or “good health.” Attach leaves to the wineglass stems using lengths of gold cord or raffia.

Notes of Appreciation – For those who can’t be at your Thanksgiving table, set pen to paper to tell them they’ve made a difference in your life this year. Print these Thanksgiving designs to make lovely foldable cards for your thank-you notes.

 A Thanksgiving Tree – Stick bare branches into a pitcher filled with sand. Make ornaments from paper cutouts by punching a hole in the top of each one and tying ribbon through it. In addition to asking guests to share their thankful thoughts, ask them to sign their name and date their ornaments. Save the Thanksgiving ornaments as mementos for the coming years.

 A Journal – Craft a paper journal to record a Thanksgiving celebration. Pass the journal among guests to capture their sentiments and memories. Start your own anthology and make a journal each year. When Thanksgiving comes around again, bring out the old journals and reminisce.

Paper Placemats – Simple pieces of construction paper become expressions of thankfulness. Ask kids to write the things they are thankful for on the pieces of paper, which they can use as place mats for the Thanksgiving meal.

Gracious Giving – Extend the generous spirit beyond your gathering of friends and family. In the weeks before Thanksgiving, pick a charity to contribute to, such as a food pantry or homeless shelter. Ask guests to bring items to donate. (Be sure to give advance notice about the project so it’s not a last-minute surprise.) Place a large basket for collecting donations near the front door or close to the main Thanksgiving festivities.

For more creative Thanksgiving craft ideas visit bhg.com

So as we begin preparations to celebrate this most special day with our families and friends, let’s take time to be mindful of the original meaning of this day and be ever thankful for our many blessings.

From my house to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!

Balancing and Reconciling Bank Accounts…Still a Good Practice

Even in this electronic age, it is still important to balance and reconcile your personal and business bank accounts. For many, balancing and reconciling their accounts is still something akin to having a root canal. But today, with online banking and smartphone apps, this seemingly outmoded exercise is easier than ever before and believe it or not, just as necessary.

Before we begin this discussion, I think it’s important to differentiate between the terms balance and reconcile. These two terms are oftentimes confusing and mistakenly used interchangeably, especially by consumers who don’t use paper checks or a check register to record their transactions.

Balancing – Balancing a check book shows how much money is available in your account at any given time. To balance an account, simply add all your new deposits to the beginning balance of the account and then subtract from that subtotal checks you’ve written, ATM and debit card transactions, cash withdrawals and bank fees. This process will determine your account balance on that given date.

Reconciling – Reconciling an account compares the bank’s records to your records – your check register. Your register should contain a running total of all of your transactions (deposits, checks, ATMs and debit card transactions, ACH debits and credits, fees, etc.). By performing this task on a routine basis you can quickly discover bank errors and most importantly, unauthorized activity.

Reconciling is completed by adding all of the deposits the bank has not yet credited to the bank’s balance and then subtracting all the payments, withdrawals and bank fees the bank has not cleared from that subtotal, confirming that the bank’s records match your check register. This should be done at least monthly – online banking allows the ability and ease to perform this procedure more frequently.

In the old days, these two tasks required paper and pencil and some mathematical calculations. Today, with the advent of technology, this process can easily be completed in minutes.

The benefits of taking the time to complete these two steps, balancing and reconciling, although much less time-consuming today, are still just as important.

By not reviewing your accounts on a monthly basis, first and foremost, you are not being a good steward of your finances. You are not keeping track of the money you spend or where you are spending it. Keeping an eye on your finances helps you maintain a healthy budget, avoiding overspending, overdrafts and incurring unnecessary and costly bank fees.

Many people are reluctant to critically examine their spending habits. The initial examination can oftentimes be painful. However, the end result, especially if this periodic looksee changes harmful spending patterns, is well worth the effort. In addition, there’s just as much value in simply making sure the math is correct.

Another very important reason to go through the balancing-reconciling-reviewing exercise is to spot financial management mistakes and fraudulent activity. This helps you recognize any unfamiliar transactions and unwanted recurring deductions. The sooner you are aware of this unauthorized activity, the sooner you and your bank can take the necessary actions and precautions.

In the end, taking a few minutes to balance, reconcile and review your bank accounts is time well spent. After all, it’s your hard-earned money!