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Budget-Friendly Family Summer Vacations

Summer is well underway.  But, there’s still time to plan an affordable summer getaway the whole family will enjoy.

Whether your family enjoys the great outdoors, relaxing on the beach, an activity-packed destination or a trip that combines it all, here are several great vacation ideas that won’t break the bank.

San Diego, California 

There are tons of family activities in sunny San Diego…from

theme parks, water parks, and family-friendly museums to miles of beautiful beaches. San Diego’s top family attractions include the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Legoland California and the museums in Balboa Park. The Go San Diego Card offers up to a 50 percent discount on these attractions. 

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park offers an array of activities to inspire the entire family. From the park’s renowned geysers, geothermic wonders like Grand Prismatic Spring and Mammoth Hot Springs, this destination is sure to create long-lasting vacation memories. Summer is peak season for hotel rates, but you can drastically reduce this cost by bringing your own tent or RV.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls State Park is an adventure-packed experience everyone in your family is sure to love.  Enjoy breathtaking views, miles of hiking trails, fireworks over the falls, and more. This destination offers reasonably priced hotels and attractions…plus a favorable exchange rate if you visit the Canadian side of the falls.

The Outer Banks

The barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina offer relaxation and adventure. The coastline’s quietbeaches are its main draw but the area also affords a multitude of activities for the family including horseback riding, hand gliding, water sports, touring shipwrecks and historical sites such as the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

Branson 

Nestled within the Ozarks in Missouri, this town has become a favorite family vacation destination. Described as a “Disney World Meets Nashville,” this destination offers Silver Dollar City, with its thrilling rides and good, clean fun family atmosphere as well as ample educational opportunities like the Titanic Museum and the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery. For the music lovers, there are also a variety of performance venues that are sure to entertain the whole family with singing, dancing and music.

Winter Park 

Not only is this Colorado resort town a wonderful family winter destination, it’s great in the summer too. Families can enjoy affordable hotel rates and plenty of fun-packed activities including hiking, biking, horseback riding, rafting, zip lining and the state’s longest alpine slide.

Williamsburg 

Virginia’s colonial Williamsburg offers all the history a family could want. This city appeals to all age groups with nearby Water Country USA and Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Combo tickets are available to reduce costs.

Catskills

This spot in southeast New York offers many ways for families to occupy their vacation time. Just a scenic two hour drive north of New York City, families can hike the Catskill Park, walk through Thomas Cole’s house, paddleboard out to the historic Hudson-Athens lighthouse or fly down the longest, fastest and highest zipline canopy tour in North America. In addition, all-inclusive, family-oriented resorts are available for extra savings…or you could rough it at one of the many local campgrounds. 

Cruising

Cruises are virtually all-inclusive vacations. One price includes accommodations, meals, activities on board the ship, kids programs and entertainment. It’s all included in one price. It’s a great vacation for both parents and kids.

So, before the sun goes down on summer, get planning!

Making This Father’s Day Special

Father’s Day is just around the corner! On June 17, you’ll be expected to set aside a day to spoil Dad. So, let’s get planning to make this Father’s Day extra special!

Traditionally, Father’s Day is a day of breakfast in bed, the perfect card (typically Hallmark) and a carefully selected, but hardly ever worn, tie. But, this year, let’s think a little outside the box. Let’s make it not so much about the perfect store-bought gift but about dedicating this day to something even greater and more memorable.

With this said, here are a few ideas:

  • Make an I.O.U. Book – Celebrate Dad all year long with a homemade I.O.U. book full of coupons for him to cash in anytime. Whether it’s a chore, like cutting the grass for him, or taking him to the movies, he is sure to appreciate the spontaneous gift and reminder of your love and appreciation.
  • Plan a Day of Bonding – Spend the day doing something simple and meaningful that affords that special father-son and/or father-daughter bonding time. Here are several activities that are sure to make lasting memories:
  1. A game of golf or mini golf – Whether Dad is a pro on the golf course or at putt-putt or just an amateur, golfing is a fun activity for dads and kids alike.
  2. Take him to a ball game – America’s favorite pastime always makes for a perfect day. If a pro baseball game is not an option, find a local minor league game to attend.
  3. Go Fishing – Casting a line is a classic and relaxing way to spend bonding time with Dad. Children’s fishing poles are not very expensive…and the memories created far outweigh the cost.
  4. Work on a project together – Is there something Dad has always wanted to do with you? Whether it’s fixing a rusty bike that’s been in the garage for years or a bigger project like building a fort/tree house, Father’s Day is the perfect day to get started.
  5. Take a hike or a long bike ride – Most dads love spending time outdoors. Find a local hiking or walking trail the entire family can enjoy or spend the day cruising around on bikes. As an added treat, bring a picnic lunch/basket filled with dad’s favorite foods.
  • Make Something for Him – A great way to make Dad’s day something really special is to give him something you’ve made, not bought. A memory book is a very personal way to express your love and appreciation for your dad. Your memory book could include photos of you and your dad, from birth to present day, with handwritten notes and memories under each picture. Your memory book could also include a special poem you’ve written for your dad or a heartfelt letter. This gift gives you the perfect opportunity to spend time with your dad and reminisce about the good old days.
  • (Wives) Celebrate Him as a Husband – Father’s Day is not just a day to celebrate Dad as a provider and caregiver for your children. It’s also a day to honor him as your husband. Bring on the praise, verbally or in writing, expressing how much you need him and he means to you as your partner, lover, friend and father.

Whatever you decide to do to celebrate this special day, remember, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on extravagant gifts. Your love and gratitude are the greatest gifts you can give him this Father’s Day!

Small Businesses Make a Big Impact on Our Economy

As we come off of National Small Business Week earlier this month, recognizing entrepreneurs andowners of small businesses, it’s an opportune time to emphasize…provide a better understanding of the impact small businesses have on our national and local economy.

Small businesses play a major role in the U.S. economy. The SBA reports that there are over twenty-seven million small businesses in our country and represent approximately 50 percent of our gross domestic product. The millions of entrepreneurs who have started businesses in our country have had a major impact on the business world, as we know it today.

Small businesses not only contribute to the general economic security of our country, but they also play a key role in the growth and vitality of particular areas of economic and socioeconomic development. Specifically, small businesses assist in the following areas:

Job Creation 

A majority of American workers first entered the business world working for small businesses.  According to the SBA, half of all U.S. adults today are either self-employed or work for businesses that employ less than 500 employees. In addition, small companies hire more frequently and fire more frequently than big companies. This is mostly due to the fact that many small companies are started every year and some are expanding. Regrettably, the survival and expansion rate for small businesses is poor. Fortunately, over time small companies add more jobs than they eliminate.

Provide Opportunities for Women and Minorities 

Small businesses provide the vehicle for many people entering the workforce. Business ownership allows individuals, including women and minorities, the opportunity to achieve financial success as well as provide confidence and pride in their accomplishments. The SBA cites that although the majority of small businesses are still owned by white males, over the last two decades there has been a substantial increase in the number of women-owned and minority-owned businesses.

Small Businesses Complement Big Businesses

Small businesses provide many of the components required by big corporations. For example, the U.S. auto industry relies on almost 2,000 suppliers to fulfill the parts needed to build their cars. Small companies also supply large companies with services such as accounting, legal and insurance. In addition, many small companies outsource themselves to assist large companies with special projects or provide certain business functions.

Small Businesses’ Impact on the Local Community 

Similar to their contribution to the national economy, small businesses also contribute greatly to the growth and innovation of the community in which they are established.  The small business makes a profound local impact in the following ways:

Community Identity 

A community is uniquely recognized in part by its “Main Street.” From the mom-and-pop shops, the local CPA and attorney office to the coffee shop, yoga studio and community bank, small businesses contribute to the look, feel and personality of its community. Many municipalities and tourism boards have prioritized the preservation of the small business, fully valuing the unique character it brings to the vibrancy of the community.

Community Involvement 

Small business entrepreneurs tend to be involved in the community. They often sponsor local Little League teams, donate to local non-profit organizations, join the Chamber of Commerce and participate in local charity events.

Community Health

Because small businesses tend to be people-oriented businesses, their owners help build a sense of community. Small business owners typically build personal relationships with their customers, greeting many of them by name.

Many small businesses come together to form casual or more formal relationships such as merchant’s associations and often provide one-on-one business counseling and mentoring. By doing this, the expertise of the successful small business owner is leveraged to contribute to the overall business community’s long-term success.

Increasing the Tax Base

When local residents patronize small businesses within their community, their tax dollars stay within their community. Similarly, local businesses tend to purchase locally, which pumps more money into their community, helping improve their community and economic development.

Local Jobs

Small businesses create local jobs. This is beneficial because employees work closer to home rather than commute to another city. This also creates ample opportunity for these workers to shop at other local small businesses – grabbing lunch or dinner from local restaurants, running shopping errands on their lunch break – keeping money within their community.

Entrepreneurship 

Small businesses are the consequence of the business owner’s entrepreneurial spirit. The small business owner is taking charge of his or her financial future. America’s economic innovation and prosperity is fueled by entrepreneurialism. It is a key means for U.S. families to move up the economic ladder.

Locally Made Products and Services

One-of-a-kind, locally made goods can attract outside customers to a community, bolstering tourism and contributing to the community’s unique character. Locally made products and services are also attractive to residents who want to support their local businesses and keep their tax dollars in their community.

Supporting our small businesses isn’t just about shopping on Small Business Saturday. Small businesses benefit our national and local economies in many ways. So, the next time you’re heading to a large chain store, remember, shopping local really does matter.

Celebrations of the Season

December marks the beginning of the most celebrated holiday season in America. However, many people will be celebrating something other than the highly anticipated arrival of jolly, old St. Nick and the birth of Jesus Christ.

Over the next few weeks, while many of us are rejoicing the season by decorating our trees, adorning our homes with colorful lights and nativity scenes, braving over-crowded malls in an attempt to buy that special something for someone to place under the tree, sending out festive/religious cards near and far, and attending holiday parties, merrily donning our ugly holiday sweaters, others will be celebrating in a very different way.

Yes, Christmas is only one of several holidays, here and around the world, which is celebrated during the month of December.

Bodhi Day 

Buddhists celebrate Bodhi day, which falls on December 8. This celebration recalls the date when Buddha attained enlightenment.

The Day of the Return of the Wandering Goddess

Synchronized with the Winter Solstice, this holiday has been observed by followers of Kemetic Orthodoxy, the religion of ancient Egypt, since about 4500 BCE. It celebrates the return of the Goddess Hathor to her father Ra and the healing of their relationship.

Hanukkah

This holiday, celebrated by Jewish people, honors the Maccabees’s victory over King Antiochus, who forbade Jews to practice their religion. For eight nights – this year it starts the evening of December 12 and ends on December 20 (the dates change because this holiday follows the lunar cycle) – Hanukkah is celebrated with prayer, the lighting of the menorah and food. A Hanukkah menorah has nine candles, a candle for every night, plus a helper candle.

Over the eight days, children play games, sing songs, spin a top called a dreidel to win chocolate coins, nuts or raisins, and exchange gifts. Potato pancakes, known as latkes in Yiddish, served with applesauce and sour cream, are traditionally associated with this Jewish holiday. 

Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice, an astronomical phenomenon marking the shortest day of the year, occurs between December 20 and 23 in the Northern Hemisphere.

Since ancient times, people all over the world have recognized this important astronomical occurrence and celebrated the subsequent return of the sun.

The start of the solar year is a celebration of light and the rebirth of the sun. In Europe, it was known as Yule, from the Norse, Jul, meaning wheel.

St. Lucia Day 

On December 13, this Swedish holiday honors this third-century saint. Many girls in Sweden dress up as “Lucia brides, donning long white gowns with red sashes, and a wreath of burning candles on their heads. They wake up their families on this day by singing them songs and bringing them coffee and twisted saffron buns called “Lucia cats.”

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, which means “First Fruits,” is celebrated December 26 through January 1. This African holiday, based on ancient harvest festivals, celebrates family life and unity, commemorating African heritage. Friends and family gather to exchange gifts and to light a series of black, red, and green candles. These candles symbolize the seven basic values of African family life – unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

Three Kings Day 

At the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas comes a day, which is celebrated in Spain, called Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This holiday is celebrated as the day the three wise men first saw baby Jesus and brought him gifts. Many Spanish children receive their Christmas presents on this day.

Yes, this is truly a wondrous time of year! And no matter how you celebrate this holiday season, I hope it is filled with love and laughter, and creating long-lasting memories with family and friends.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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

Ingredients
• 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

Instructions
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

Ingredients
• 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

Instructions
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

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

Instructions
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

Ingredients
• 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

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

Healthy Grilled Greek Chicken
Serves: 4

Ingredients
• 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

Instructions
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!