Uncategorized

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!

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!

 

Saving For a Rainy Day

Life seldom goes as planned. So, it’s a good idea to always be prepared for the unexpected by having a solid cushion – an emeRainy Day Fundrgency fund. Having an emergency fund will help ward off financial disaster, such as bankruptcy.

To avoid letting the unexpected lead you to financial ruin, begin building your emergency fund by following these tips:

>Figure out how much you need – Begin with a specific goal in mind. While each person’s saving goal will be different, depending on their income and expenses, a good rule of thumb is to save four to seven month’s worth of expenses. Most financial experts recommend starting small…realistic…such as saving $1,000, and then work up from there. Remember, your emergency fund is exactly that. It’s not a stockpile of savings to fund vacations or other luxuries.

>Find a safe haven for your money – Your rainy day fund should be easily accessible, but not so easy that you’ll be tempted to make unnecessary, non-emergency withdrawals. Choose a traditional savings account or possibly a money market or even a short-term certificate of deposit. This way you’ve created a psychological barrier between your spending habits and your emergency fund as well as providing you the added benefit of earning interest and requirement of continued reinvestment.

>Treat it like a recurring bill – Once you’ve established a monthly savings goal (begin with $100 per month) make it part of your regular monthly budget. The easiest way to accomplish this is by setting up an automatic monthly transfer. Just as you would with your other recurring bills (electric bill, cable bill, etc.) ensure that your emergency money is saved each month. A good practice is to pay yourself first. Have the automatic transfer set up at the beginning of the month instead of waiting to see if you have money left over at the end of the month.

>Use your emergency fund only for emergencies – Although this seems like common sense, many people forget, especially when it comes to those one-time expenses each year. Planning is the key. When determining your monthly emergency fund savings goal, keep one-time expenses such as insurance or routine car expenses in mind. Remember, if you can foresee an expense, it’s not an emergency. One way to avoid this temptation is by making access to this money somewhat difficult. Don’t ask for a debit card and if you’re issued a checkbook, hide it.

>Slow and steady wins the race – Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is an emergency fund. Even if you can only start out with a small amount each month, any action you take towards establishing an emergency fund is a good one. But, the key is discipline. The goal is to increase your monthly deposit whenever possible and to reach $1,000 as quickly as you can. There are many ways to help you accomplish your goal in a shorter time frame. Add your tax refund or a commission check into your account, have a yard sale, sell items you don’t need on eBay or the oldie but goodie – put your change into a savings jar each evening.

The key is to save rather than blow excess or unexpected money, planning and discipline, cutting back on the “wants” or luxuries. By doing this little by little, you’ll see your emergency savings soar!

Last-minute Ways to Save for Summer Vacation

Summer is just around the corner and most of us have begun thinking about and possibly are already planning for our summer family vacations.

In an ideal world, we’d already have a fully funded vacation savings account to pay for our annual family getaway. However, the reality is that most of us wait until the last minute to begin planning and paying for our summer vacation.

So, here are a few fast track tips to help you save for your summer trip:

1. Start with a budget – discuss and determine upfront how much you want to spend on your family vacation. Have a specific figure in mind. This should include plane tickets or gas if you’re driving, hotel prices and an estimate of cost for meals, admission tickets for theme parks, museums, etc. Then, total it all up. If this figure sends you into a coronary arrest…just kidding…then cut back until you and your bank account are comfortable. The last thing you want to do is to go into debt for a vacation. If money is tight, consider taking a couple of weekend getaways instead of one big dream trip.

2. Prioritize now – are there some items currently in your budget that you can omit or would be willing to sacrifice now for a fun vacation later? Can you downgrade a plan, such as your TV cable or satellite plan or go out to eat less? A typical family with kids younger than 6 spends an average of $240 each month on restaurant meals, according to the National Restaurant Association.

So, go through your current household expenses and cut out some nonessentials or superfluous expenses. Then take that extra money and put it away in a separate vacation savings account.

3. Have a garage sale – a garage sale is a great way to earn some vacation cash quickly. Run an ad in the local paper to attract a crowd and post easy-to-read signs around your neighborhood. Get the entire family involved in this – make this a fun family affair. Have the kids go through their rooms, toy boxes, etc. and tell them whatever proceeds are collected from their items will be put towards their souvenirs. This is also a fun spring-cleaning project. It’s a win-win.

4. Use your tax refund now – if you typically get a sizeable income tax refund from the IRS every year, you are probably having too much money withheld from your paycheck. If this is the case, fill out a new W-4 form and adjust your withholding so that it’s fairly close to what you owe each year. Then begin transferring that extra money into your dedicated vacation savings account. If you still get a refund, stash that away as well.

5. Let your credit cards help pay for your vacation – in the months prior to your vacation, use your credit cards with reward points for everything your normally pay for with cash, debit card or check. Use these accumulated points towards plane tickets, hotels, rental cars and gift cards for restaurants. But, make sure to pay off the balance on your card in full every month or you’re defeating the purpose of a debt-free vacation.

6. Get everyone involved in the saving excitement – chart your savings with a graph, much like you see with fundraisers, on a large poster board. Track your weekly and monthly progress with colorful markers. You can even reward yourself and your family for reaching certain goals, e.g. go out for ice cream when you’ve reach a savings milestone.

In a nutshell, make a realistic plan for your family summer vacation, save for your plan and make the process a fun family affair! By doing this, you will be creating special memories instead of debt.

Getting Your Fiscal House in Order in 2014

Getting Your Fiscal House in Order in 2014

By now, most of you diehard “resolutionists” have committed your 2014 goals to paper. You are full of confidence or at least a hopeful expectation that this year will be the year you really get your life in order. You’ve vowed not to repeat past mistakes and are ready to take the bull, the new year, by the horns.

Before the year gets away from you, as they always seem to do, and you find some of your goals falling by the wayside, again, as they always seem to do, you may want to make sure you get your fiscal house in order first. After all, most people’s resolutions consistently revolve around two things: health and money.

Even the federal government has a New Year’s Resolutions site with links of references to help you stay on track. Not too surprisingly, three of the 13 most popular resolutions are money focused – getting a job, saving money and managing debt.

So before you get caught up in life and your best New Year’s intentions fade away with the glitter of the holiday season, consider the following financial checklist for the new year.

Meet with a financial advisor. If you haven’t had a discussion with a financial advisor in some time, or ever, now is the time to do so. It’s never too early or too late to begin planning for your future/retirement. If you already have a financial advisor it is a good idea to meet with him or her at least once a year to monitor your progress and evaluate your plan.

Look at your taxes. If you are one of the many April 15 procrastinators this could be the year to change that. While you are waiting on your W-2s, 1099s, etc., you can begin getting your receipts in order and/or schedule an appointment with your tax preparer. Why not take the stress off tax season this year and get your taxes done early, especially if you are getting a refund. Please note that the earliest day the IRS will be processing 2013 individual tax returns this year is Jan. 31. This date is slightly later than usual due to the government shutdown last fall.

Develop or review your budget. If you haven’t created a budget, create one, or if you haven’t looked at your budget in some time, it’s time to update it. Things change (having a baby, elimination of a debt, an increase in household utilities, etc.) and consequently this affects your budget. This is also great time to re-evaluate your expenses. Cancel subscriptions or services you never use and contact companies that your do business with regularly (e.g. your cable company) to see if they can offer you a better rate. Increase deductibles on your automobile, home or medical insurance, if possible, to lower your monthly premiums.

Update your will. Like your budget, any changes, good or bad (e.g. divorce), can affect your will. If you don’t have a will, now is a good time to draft one.

Check your credit report. With identity theft on the rise, it’s very wise to monitor your credit. At annualcreditreport.com, you can get a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies once a year.

Evaluate your retirement situation (ties in with ‘Meet with a financial advisor’). If you haven’t begun putting away money for retirement, there is no time better than now to start. Most financial experts will tell you to set aside 10 to 15 percent of your annual income each year for retirement. However, if you can’t manage that, put away as much as you can. Remember, saving something is better than nothing.

If you are on target with your yearly retirement contributions, it’s a great time to review your retirement accounts and strategies. If possible, according to financial experts, savers should increase their retirement contributions by 1 percent each year. You should continue this increase every year as long as you can until you are saving the maximum allowed by the IRS.

As is the case when making any major changes in your life, Rome was not built in a day. However, if you will commit to at least one of these recommendations, your 2014 finances are sure to see an improvement over 2013.

Experience the Celebrated Colors of Fall Close to Home

Although we Floridians are continuing to experience muggy, summer-like days, most other areas of the country are meandering into one of the most beautiful seasons of the year – fall.

Even though I’ve lived in Florida for over twenty years, having grown up in New York, fall remains the season I miss most. Oh sure, northern Florida gets a taste of fall, but it is quite dull in comparison to the vibrant, rich colors observed by our colder states.

One of the many benefits of living in central to northern Florida – other than the fact it doesn’t snow or more accurately, accumulate snow here – is our close proximity to the true fall – the kind all of us more northern transplants fondly remember and often yearn for each year around this time.

A recent Southern Living article I came across listed the best places in the south for experiencing the radiant colors of fall. I thought I’d share a few with you which are fairly close to home.

So, before this incredible color-packed foliage disappears (peak season is usually the second and third week of October), pack a bag, gas up the car and take a delightfully unexpected trip and celebrate the true colors of fall!

Enjoy your trip and tell me all about it when you return!

1. Ellijay, GA
Ellijay is located on the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest, about 80 miles north of Atlanta. This town and surrounding Gilmer County are known for being the apple capitol of Georgia, claiming 10 pick-your-own apples orchards.

2. Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, Clermont, KY
This forest is located just south of Louisville in Clermont. It includes 14,000 acres of fields and forests and 35 miles of hiking trails. For the biking enthusiast, there is a bike route that winds along the beautifully fall-colored Long Lick Creek.

3. Hanging Rock State Park, Danbury, NC
This state 7, 024 acre park, which boasts some of the best colors of fall in North Carolina, is approximately 30 miles north of Winston-Salem. You will find mountains rising more than 2,500 ft., cascading waterfalls and more!

4. Lover’s Leap Loop Trail, Hot Springs, NC
The Lover’s Leap Loop Trail overlooks the French Broad River and the town of Hot Springs, North Carolina. A hiker’s heaven – offering 1.6 mile miles of the Appalachian Trail. With its panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you won’t want to miss this!

5. Mountain National Park, Gatlinburg, TN
This most visited national park offers acres of fall colors and incredible wildlife to include white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and black bears. This park spreads across 800 acres of the southern Appalachian Mountains, winding through Tennessee and North Carolina.

6. Natchez Trace Parkway, TN
The Natchez Trace Parkway runs through Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. It connects the cities of Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi. Approximately 100 miles of this parkway runs through Tennessee and passes through such towns as Leipers Fork, and several historic spots.