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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!

Making a Difference – It’s a win, win

Volunteering is often thought of as something nice that people can do. Although this is true, it’s much more than that. Volunteering has a significant impact both intrinsically and extrinsically. It not only affects the health and well-being of a community but it can also make a positive difference in the volunteer’s life as well.

Volunteers provide critical services – from firefighting, delivering meals to the homebound elderly and providing public health and safety education to manning the phone lines at domestic violence and sexual assault centers. Volunteers also keep our neighborhoods safe. Volunteers tutor, mentor and coach our youth from everything from math homework, to dealing with a personal crisis to good sportsmanship on the soccer field. Volunteers also take tickets at cultural events and festivals and lead tours at museums, ensuring that the arts stay alive and well in our communities. They build houses, man soup kitchens, start recycling programs, fundraise and so much more.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, about 64.5 million Americans, or 26.5 percent of the adult population, gave 7.9 billion hours of volunteer service worth $175 billion in 2012.

But, volunteering is not just about money. Volunteering is about giving, contributing and helping people and your community at large. It’s working with other like-minded people to make a meaningful contribution to a better community…a better world.

Whether you want to address a community problem or advance a worthy cause, volunteering offers many benefits in appreciation for your time well beyond the monetary value. Volunteering can help you:

  • Make vital networking contacts
  • Develop new skills
  • Enhance your resume
  • Gain work experience
  • Build self-esteem and self-confidence, a feeling of being needed and valued
  • Improve your health
  • Meet new people
  • Show others that you care about your community

 

So now that the case has been made for the both the internal and external benefits of volunteering, how do you find or create the ideal volunteer opportunity?

Here are a few tips:

  • Identify partner organizations in your community
  • Talk to friends, colleagues and family
  • Check out your local volunteer centers
  • Search online
  • Start your own volunteer project

No matter which avenue you choose to locate volunteering opportunities, you ultimately must get to know the organization and determine if it and its cause is a good fit for you.

Once you’ve done all your homework, the only thing left for you to do is to SIGN UP and GET INVOLVED!

It’s truly a win, win!

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!

Buying Your Teen a Car

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finance 101 – Teaching Kid’s About Money

We teach our kids many valuable lessons in their formative years – how to share, right from wrong, respect for others, etc. – but, the one lesson most parents don’t teach early enough is the value of money.

As children grow older, they eventually learn about money with or without our help. But, teaching our children about money, financial literacy, early in life sets them up for a lifelong legacy. Financial expert, author, founder of Youthpreneur, an organization the encourages an entrepreneurial spirit in children, and former member of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy says, “The more control we have over our money, the less control it will have over you.”

Lechter also explains how important it is to teach children financial literacy because they see us (parents) spend money, but they don’t understand the concept of creating it, keeping it or investing it. “Kids don’t understand the relevance of earning, saving and spending,” she notes.

However, if parents make a conscious effort to teach their kids about money, they are much more likely to value it. By giving children a financial education early, beginning as early as four years old, we can help them learn to be responsible with their cash. We will also do our children and ourselves a huge favor. We will not create and reinforce the fallacy that we are human ATMs (the ole money grows on trees misnomer), setting us both up for friction, frustration and oftentimes failure later in life.

With this said, here are a few ways to get started.

1. Make children work for their money – Most children can do some small chores as early as two years old, like putting their plates in the sink, helping you pick up their toys, etc. By the time they are about four years old, you can begin giving them a small allowance for doing these behaviors. You shouldn’t give them money for doing routine behaviors like brushing their teeth or going to bed on time. They should earn allowance for doing things that are above and beyond normal daily behaviors. Determining the amount to give them is totally up to you. Typically, the recommendation for children starting out is about $4 per week.

2. Teach children to save – Children can learn the concept of saving at a very young age. Let’s say Johnny wants a Lego set that costs $12 and they earn $4 per week doing their chores. Explain to him that it will take three weeks of saving to earn enough money to buy the Lego set. This also begins teaching basic math skills (i.e. 3 weeks X $4 = $12). When they get a little older, you can throw in the lesson about Uncle Sam, the infamous TAX MAN. But for now, keep it simple.
Note: Most young children don’t quite grasp the whole savings concept. You will need to remind them and encourage them often. One great way to begin getting this concept across is with a savings jar (make it clear so they can see the money). Each week when they get their allowance have them put the money in the jar. Tell them how much money they now have in the jar and how many more weeks they have to save to get that Lego set. When they get older, you can encourage them to start putting this money in the bank.

3. Teach children to respect property – We can teach our children a lot by encouraging them to value their own property as well as the property of others. If children grow up respecting the things around them, they will learn respect for money as well.

With a younger child, the best way to teach them this lesson is by taking away a toy or other item if they mistreat it. As children get older, it should be the, “If you break it, you buy it,” philosophy. The best way to teach a child to respect property, his or hers or someone else’s, is to make them pay for (at least part of) replacing it if they intentionally break it.

4. Set a good example – Children emulate their parents. So, if they see you saving, they will save too. Set a good example by showing them that you save for things you want too. For example, have your own money jar to save up for the family summer vacation or something as simple as the family Saturday movie theater outing.
As parents, you should also be open about finances in your household. Talk about money and your financial goals in front of your kids. You must use your common sense about this though. You don’t want to worry your children by discussing serious financial troubles in front of them. But, do talk to them about financial matters – directly and in a manner that they can easily understand.

5. Make learning about money fun – Kids will be more interested in learning about money if you make it fun. A great way to do this is to set a family savings goal for something, e.g. a family vacation or a weekend outing, and begin saving for it. Make a chart and display it somewhere the entire family can see it, like on the refrigerator or somewhere in the kitchen. As you set money aside, for example, for your family vacation fund, have the children participate by coloring in the chart or writing in the new number total of the money set aside, showing the increased savings and how much closer the family is to its goal.

As your children get older, you will need to come up with new ways to teach them about money and finances. But, by beginning early, you will make this more advanced later lesson easier, as well as helping them to avoid the pitfalls of bad financial habits.

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.

Tax Season: A perfect time to think about an IRA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awareness is Your Best Defense

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

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

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

>What to look for in a phishing email:

>Generic greetings.

>Forged links.

>Requests for personal information.

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

>Incorrect spelling and bad grammar.

>Links in email.

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

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

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

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

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

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

>Never reply to a popup message to provide information.

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

>Always check the authenticity of the website.

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

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