Back-to-School Shopping on a Budget

It’s hard to believe summer vacation is coming to a close and the beginning of the new school year is just around the bend.

Some kids dread the end of summer vacation while others happily anticipate the first day of school. Both, however, want to start the new school year looking their best and armed with the required school supplies. And this can put additional financial strain on many families’ already stressed-out wallets.

So, here are a few tips to keep your kids happy while saving your wallet from a complete meltdown.

1. Plan – Before you buy the first pair of jeans or notebook, make a list of what you need and estimate how much you can afford to spend overall – clothes and supplies. Make a realistic budget and explain to your children that you will only buy what’s on the list and within your budget.
2. Recycle from last year – Check your children’s closets for clothes they can still wear or their younger siblings can wear. In addition, have your kids help find school supplies around the house that were left over from last year or can be re-used this year, such as markers, pencils and binders.
3. Watch for promotions, in-store and online coupons – Comparison shop. Many stores will match a competitor’s ad or coupon. If you’re purchasing online, make sure to check the cost of shipping and include that in your budget. Look for online retailers that offer free back-to-school shipping.
4. Postpone some purchases – Don’t buy everything in one fell swoop. Spread out your purchases. Retailers typically offer sweeter deals after the back-to-school rush. Review your children’s school supply list – if there are some items on the list that won’t be needed right away, hold off buying them now while keeping your eyes peeled for sales.
5. Be frugal – Consider thrift stores, outlet malls, and discount and consignment stores to get better deals on new and gently used clothing. If school uniforms are required, find out if the school has a trading or discount program.
6. Get Creative – If you’re not planning to hand your child’s clothes down to younger siblings, sell them (gently used and in good condition) and use the money to purchase back-to-school clothes or supplies. Consider doing a clothing swap with your friends who have children.
7. Get family members in on the act – When grandparents and other family members ask what they can buy your kids for their birthdays or other holidays, encourage them to buy school clothing or clothing gift cards.
8. Involve your kids – Back-to-school shopping is a great way to teach your children about budgeting and money management. Have them make their own back-to-school lists and put them in charge of finding coupons or the best deals on these items to stay on budget. Help your kids to understand the difference between wants and needs.

With these tips in mind, make this practical back-to-school approach an annual tradition. Shop wisely and find novel ways to stretch your dollar. Above all, remember that you are the parent so take control, stay on budget and don’t let your kids dictate what you buy. Teach your children to be thrifty…they’ll thank you for it later.

Bring on Summer and the Backyard Grilling Season!

June is a time of celebrations – Father’s Day and graduations – and initiations – the first official day of summer, and, of course, backyard grilling season!

To get June and the summer off to a great start, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite grilling recipes (collected over the years from many culinary sources). If you haven’t bought your new summer grill yet, now (possibly as a gift for Dad) is the time to get it.

Whether you already have your grill fired up or are planning on buying one soon, let’s get the summer grilling season started!

Grilled Spareribs with Cherry Cola Sauce
Spareribs baked in the oven until tender and then finished on the grill with a sweet and spicy cherry cola glaze.
Serves: 6

• 4 (12-ounce) cans cherry cola (use flat soda or pour it into a bowl and let it sit on the counter for 4 hours.)
• 2 cups cherry jam or preserves
• ⅔ cup Dijon mustard
• 1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
• 3 tablespoons soy sauce
• 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
• 2 teaspoons tabasco sauce
• 7 to 7½ pounds well-trimmed pork spareribs

1. Place cola in a Dutch oven or large saucepan and boil over medium-high heat until reduced to 1½ cups, about 45 minutes.
2. Add next 6 ingredients and stir well. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until reduced to 2½ cups, stirring occasionally. This will take about 35 minutes. Remove from heat.
3. Place oven racks in top and bottom thirds of oven and heat oven to 325 degrees.
4. Season ribs with salt and pepper. Wrap each rack tightly in foil. Divide ribs between 2 baking sheets and place in oven for 2 hours. Let ribs cool slightly.
5. Heat grill to medium heat.
6. Cut racks of ribs into individual ribs. Toss with 1 cup of glaze.
7. Grill ribs, basting with extra glaze, for about 2 to 3 minutes per side.
8. Serve with extra glaze.

Grilled Asparagus with Wasabi Soy Dipping Sauce

Serves: 6

• 1 pound fresh asparagus
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• salt
• 1 cup reduced fat mayonnaise
• 3 tablespoons soy sauce
• 1 tablespoon SPLENDA® Brown Sugar Blend
• 2 teaspoons wasabi paste (or wasabi powder mixed with water)
• 1 lemon, optional

1. Cut off tough ends of asparagus and discard.
2. Heat grill to medium-high heat.
3. Toss asparagus with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill for 5 minutes, or until tender.
4. In a small bowl, mix together mayonnaise, soy sauce, SPLENDA® Brown Sugar Blend, and wasabi paste.
5. If desired, squeeze fresh lemon juice over grilled asparagus.

Grilled Salmon Fillet

Serves: Makes 4 4-oz. portions

• 1 pound fresh wild Salmon
• olive oil
• kosher salt
• coarsely ground black pepper

1. Prepare your grill and bring to high heat.
2. Rinse the salmon under cold water and pat dry with a paper towel. Run your fingers along the meaty surface to check for any bones and remove any of them with needle nose pliers or fish tweezers.
3. Lighty coat the meaty side with olive oil then sprinkle generously with kosher salt and lots of freshly ground coarse black pepper. You don’t want to be skimpy here.
4. Place the fish fillet on a hot grill, meat side down, and cook for 3-4 minutes or until you can easily slide your spatula under the fish without it falling apart. Don’t disturb the fish once its on the grill until you’re ready to flip it. Flip the fish and cook for another 2-3 minutes or until desired doneness. Section into preferred serving sizes with or without the skin and serve with fresh cut lemon and cucumber dill sauce.

Cucumber Dill Sauce:

The addition of blue cheese dressing gives this cucumber dill sauce a tart tang that’s perfectly paired with a sturdy fish.
Serves: Makes 1-½ cups

• ½ cup sour cream
• ½ cup olive oil mayonnaise
• ½ english cucumber, about ½ cup, diced
• ¼ cup blue cheese dressing
• 2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
• zest of 1 lemon
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice
• pinch of kosher salt

1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Healthy Grilled Greek Chicken
Serves: 4

• ⅓ cup olive oil
• Juice of one lemon
• 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
• 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)
• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
• ½ teaspoon dried thyme
• ¼ teaspoon paprika
• 1½ teaspoons salt
• 1 teaspoon pepper
• 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts

1. Combine all ingredients except chicken in a medium bowl. Pour into a large ziptop plastic bag. Add chicken and place in refrigerator to marinate for 6 to 12 hours.
2. Remove chicken from refrigerator and place on counter. Heat grill (or grill pan) to medium-high.
3. Remove chicken from marinade and discard marinade. Place chicken on grill and grill for 5 minutes. Flip over and grill until no longer pink in the middle.

Enjoy the summer!

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!

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.

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.