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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.

Life in the Fast Lane – Fit Tips for the Office

Our workdays are no longer 9 to 5. Today’s technology ensures we are connected wherever we go. Although our work hours continue to stretch, for most of us, it’s the only thing that gets any stretching done.

According to a recent study, most people sit for more than nine hours a day. Due to this, lifestyle ailments and a sense of general discontent with our lives are on the rise. Nervous breakdowns, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Cervical Spondylitis are just a few of the medical issues that plague more and more corporate employees today. The old adage, “All work and no play, makes Jack a dull boy,” couldn’t be more applicable to today’s working culture.

With the amount of time we spend in the office and on the road, it becomes difficult to work exercise into our already jam-packed schedules. However, for our physical and mental well-being, we must find creative ways to incorporate this into our day.

We can make creative use of our sitting time, especially the time we spend in front of our desks. Although exercising while we’re sitting won’t provide us with the same health benefits as a good workout at the gym, according to health experts, it can help strengthen and tone muscles, and give us the well-deserved and much-needed break from work.

Here are a few suggestions:

Stretching – Spending long periods of time slouching over our computers/laptops does more damage than we think. We strain our eyes and our neck is bent at an unnatural position causing bad posture, which can lead to serious problems in some cases. These extended periods of time on our computers/laptops can also lead to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, an extremely painful condition of the wrist.

Something as simple as standing up and stretching can ward off these afflictions. After every hour of continuous sitting, take a break and stand up from your seat. Intertwine your fingers and stretch with your hands towards the ceiling. Reach higher and higher until you are standing on your toes.

Come back to normal position and slowly rotate your neck, forward, backward and side-to-side, and then roll your shoulders forward and backward, stretching the shoulder muscles. Now work the wrists by slowly rotating them in a clockwise and counterclockwise direction. While doing this, close your eyes and give them their due rest.

Getting the most out of your chair –

Leg straightener – While sitting forward in your chair, away from the backrest, lift one leg at a time about 3 inches off the ground. Tighten your leg muscles for about 10 seconds. Release them and repeat. From this position, you can also rotate your feet in a clockwise and counterclockwise direction.

Pelvic Tilt – With your hands on your desk, sit in the middle of your chair with your feet flat on the floor. Arch your lower back so your butt feels like its sticking out. Make your abs do the work not your legs. Then, slowly pull your hips underneath your stomach, bringing your butt back underneath you, like you’re doing a crunch. Hold each of these positions for about four seconds. Repeat 10 to 20 times.

Arm Circles – Sit straight up in your chair, feet flat on the floor, and lift your arms out to your sides, parallel to the floor. Extend your fingers and make 20 small, tight circles in each direction. Then, make 20 large, open circles in each direction.

Do these exercises a few times a day.

Walk – It’s as easy as getting up out of your chair and moving. If you work in a multi-story building, walk up and down the stairs a few times during your workday. If your office is located above the ground floor, routinely take the stairs instead of the elevator when you come to work. If you need to discuss something with a colleague, walk over to him or her and chat in person instead of picking up the phone.

When you’re on the phone, stand in place and march or if you are on your cell, walk around the office while you chat.

Graze – Keep a ready stock of healthy munchies in your desk for in-between-meal snacks. A handful of nuts, baked snacks or fruits are great nutritious options. These snacks will keep your energy levels high as well as ward off the temptation to overeat at mealtime.

Also make sure to drink plenty of water (eight to ten 8-once glasses a day). Not only is water good for you, but by doing this, you will also up your daily step count due to increasing bathroom breaks.

The best cure for the body is a quiet mind. ~ Napoleon Bonaparte

Even though we try to fit more and more into our workday, including exercise, it’s vital we get 8-9 hours of sleep each night. A tired mind is an unproductive mind. We need to rest our bodies as well as our minds so we can think fresh the next day. Meditation and yoga are great options – they calm the mind and increase focus and concentration. Some people reach this same state of mind through an intensive workout. The goal in the end is to give your body and mind a pause for a while.

There are endless possibilities and no excuses. With a little creativity and dedication to our health, we can make it possible to incorporate fitness into our busy days with office exercise.

Smart, Smartphone Security

Smartphones today are capable of doing many things to make our lives easier… except, at least for now, making dinner. However, with its growing repertoire of capabilities, also come new security risks.

As we continue to use our smartphones for a much wider range of activities – social networking, online banking and shopping, emailing and surfing the web – we need to take sensible precautions to ensure that our phones and our information are safe.

Here are some security tips to protect your phone and your information from malware attacks and cybercriminals.

1. Keep your smartphone locked – Create a PIN or a PASSWORD and always have your phone’s lock screen on.

2. Don’t modify your smartphone’s security settings – Although it may be tempting to alter some of your security settings in order to access specific apps or services, don’t do it!

3. Protect your phone and your data – Today’s smartphones are powerful computers, and, like any laptop, PC, or Mac, should be protected by a reputable anti-malware program. You should also make sure your antivirus databases are regularly updated.

4. Backup your data – You should continually backup the data stored on your smartphone – contacts, important documents, photos, etc. These files can be stored on your computer, a storage card, or the cloud. By doing this, you can easily restore the information on your phone in the event your phone is lost, stolen or otherwise erased.

5. Only install trusted apps – Bad apps are loaded with malware that can infect your smartphone with viruses and steal your information. Before downloading an app, do some research to ensure the app is legitimate and safe. Also be cautious about granting applications access to your personal information contained on your phone. Make sure to check the apps privacy settings before installing it.

6. Update your smartphone’s software – Keep your smartphone’s operating system software up-to-date by accepting updates and enabling automatic updates when prompted by your service provider, operating system provider, device manufacturer or application provider.

7. Stay safe on public Wi-Fi networks – Even though free public Wi-Fi is a cost-effective way to surf the web on your smartphone (it doesn’t eat into your data plan), it can be dangerous. Hackers love to infiltrate these networks to snoop and steal valuable information. So, be safe, and do your online banking and shopping at home or use a mobile wireless connection.

8. Install security apps that enable remote location and wiping – Most smartphones today, either by default or as an app, have the ability to remotely locate and erase all data stored on your phone, even if the GPS is disabled. Visit for a full list of anti-theft protection apps.

9. Wipe your old smartphone before donating, selling or recycling – Your smartphone contains your personal data. So, make sure to protect your privacy by completely erasing the data off your phone and resetting the phone to its original factory settings before donating, selling or recycling. Visit for step-by-step instructions.

10. Report a stolen smartphone immediately – If your phone is stolen, you should immediately report the theft to your local law enforcement authorities and your wireless provider. By doing this, all of the major wireless service providers will be notified that the phone has been stolen and will not re-activate the phone without your permission.

11. Turn off your Bluetooth when you’re not using it – Switching off your Bluetooth connection reduces your smartphone’s vulnerability to cyber-attacks as well as the drain on its battery.

For more information on smartphone security, visit

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.

The Chip Cards are Coming!

In a continual effort to reduce fraudulent credit card charges and increase security, the credit card companies are moving away from magnetic-stripe cards, which are easier to counterfeit, and towards the EMV chip card as soon as possible.

According to a recent report by Barclays, almost half of the world’s credit card fraud happens in the United States, even though only a quarter of all credit card transactions occur here. This statistic, in addition to the Target and Neiman Marcus security breaches, are the major motivators behind the changeover.

In an attempt to reduce this statistic and future breaches in security, the EMV (Europay, MasterCard and Visa) chip card is already being rolled out across the U.S., and by October of 2015 merchants will be pretty much forced (see below) to upgrade their machines.

These cards, which have been status quo for in EU and Canada for several years, are manufactured with a small integrated circuit or chip in the card. Payment data (name, billing address, phone number, etc.) is read from this chip instead of the magnetic stripe. This chip protects against fraud in two ways: making it more difficult and expensive to counterfeit and varying the way the data is transmitted each time the card is read. Consequently, while the magnetic-stripe card can be skimmed easily, chip information will be much harder to garner.

Processing device providers are promising to make the transition for their customers (merchants) as flawless and cost-effective as possible. They are also working on several solutions for their Square Stand customers.

Chip cards will not be swiped in the same way as the magnetic-stripe cards, hence the new processing equipment. The cards are inserted into the payment device and left in place for the entire transaction as the reader and the card talk back and forth.

Although this new measure goes a long way to thwart fraud, it will not provide any added protection against the card-not-present transaction, i.e. purchases online or over the phone.

Even though merchants will have the option of using their current processing technology because the new chip cards will still have the magnetic stripe as a backup, starting in October 2015, the liability for fraud will shift to the cardholder and the merchant. In other words, since the EMV terminal could have theoretically prevented the fraud, the liability now falls on the user (the customer) and the processor (the merchant/business).

The timeline for the EMV Chip Card Liability Shift in the U.S.

October 1, 2015 – Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover liability shift to POS terminals.

October 1, 2016 – MasterCard liability shift for ATMs.

October 1, 2017 – Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover liability shift to pay-at-pump gas stations, as well as for Visa and American Express at ATMs.

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!

Creating a Beautiful Wedding Day on a Realistic Budget

As we move into the summer months, many parents will also be heading into the wedding months.

Although, as parents, this is a milestone, a rite of passage in your life as well as your child’s, this can also be a very stressful time as well.

The cost of a wedding today can be overwhelming. Whether you’re picking up the entire bill for your child’s big day or sharing the cost with the bride and groom-to-be or his or her perspective in-laws, having a well-thought-out plan and a realistic budget will help keep what should be one of the most memorable days of your life and your child’s from getting out of control.

In a perfect world, we would’ve started saving for this big day shortly after our child was born…in addition to saving for his or her college and our retirement fund. But, if you’re like most parents, this just wasn’t doable. Although, it’s an admirable goal to save for your child’s wedding, most financial experts would advise that this shouldn’t be prioritized over college or retirement.

This is not to say that it’s too late to save, however. As soon as you know that a wedding is on the horizon, you should start saving.

But, don’t promise what you can’t deliver. As much as you’d like to be able to give your child the wedding of his or her dreams, it’s definitely not worth jeopardizing your financial viability to do it. For example, if you withdraw money from your retirement account pre-59 ½, you could face a penalty as well as additional taxes. In addition, you may never be able to replenish the money you withdrew or make up it’s earning potential, which could really set you back.

The first step in reducing the financial stress often associated with wedding planning is by simply talking about it. Sit down and talk with the bride and groom-to-be and put your financial cards, so to speak, on the table. This way, the couple has a realistic idea of what they can expect from you and the big day in general.

The second step is to find ways to save money.

You don’t have to break the bank to give your son or daughter a beautiful wedding day. Here are a few suggestions to save money on the big day without sacrificing the memories.

Limit the Guest List – One of the easiest ways to reduce the wedding budget is to reduce the guest list. Yes, a wedding is a celebration. But, keep in mind, it’s also an intimate moment. Be realistic. If budget is a concern, limit your guest list to the immediate families and closest friends. Not only will this save a lot of money but it will also be a more meaningful day.

The Dress – Many women spend a good portion of their lives fantasizing about their wedding dress…and consequently, spend a good portion of the wedding budget on it. This doesn’t have to be the case. It’s possible to find a gorgeous dress for far less than the exorbitant prices charged by most bridal salons (e.g. secondhand stores, eBay or consider using a family member’s gown).

Reception – This typically is the most expensive part of the big day. Consider cutting the cost of the reception by holding the wedding on a Friday or Sunday and/or opt for a brunch or cocktails and hors d’oeuvres or dessert/cake/champagne or possibly a garden picnic over a full, sit-down dinner. If you want a dinner meal, consider a buffet with less expensive items like chicken, pasta and in-season produce.

Music – Have the bride or groom-to-be load up the playlists on their iPod or iPhone for each part of your wedding – pre-ceremony, ceremony, cocktail hour, special dances, dinner, dancing, etc. Ask a member of the wedding party to act as MC for special announcements.

Flowers – To cut costs on the wedding flowers make sure to only order in-season flowers and use the same flowers at the church and the reception. You can also reduce this expense by ordering loose stems and making the arrangements yourself. In addition, flowers ordered online are typically less expensive than those ordered through a traditional florist.

Drinks – It’s a personal option whether to serve alcohol or not. But, if you’re going to serve alcohol, you can save money by offering only beer and wine and/or a champagne punch. But, make sure to have ample non-alcoholic beverages as well.

What You Can Skip – Most guests toss wedding favors as soon as they get home. If you absolutely have to give out favors, make something yourself…like baking a special treat (cookies).

You can also eliminate the unnecessary expense of save-the-date cards unless it’s a destination wedding, requiring people to make travel arrangements well in advance.

With all of these suggestions in mind, remember that budgeting and saving money doesn’t mean that you’re skimping on your child’s big day. With imagination, creativity and open communication, you can still have a beautiful wedding day for your child on a realistic budget.

Happy planning!

Get your financial ducks in a row before you go house hunting

Spring is just around the corner and many people, both the seasoned homeowner and the first-time homebuyer, will be in the market for a new home. Whether you’re upgrading, downsizing, relocating or tired of the rental scene, the sooner you get your finances and credit in shape the easier it will be to get a mortgage loan.

Here are some helpful tips to help you prepare for your future home purchase:

What’s your credit history look like?
The first thing you should be focusing on is your credit history. Do you pay your bills on time? If you are a renter, do you have a history of paying your rent on time? Most mortgage lenders today require the last 12 months of cancelled checks if you’re renting from a private individual or they will want to contact the rental agency to determine if you pay your rent on time. If you are a homeowner, the lender will be looking at your mortgage history – have you paid your mortgage payments on time?

Do you have any delinquent accounts? These are accounts that are late, charged-off, sent to collections, etc. These can seriously affect your credit score as well as your ability to obtain a mortgage. If you have any of these accounts, you should pay them off before applying for a mortgage.

Keep close tabs on your credit
It’s a different world out there today with respect to credit scores. If you have less than a 700 credit score, you can expect to pay higher fees or a sizable down payment.

If there are discrepancies, file a dispute by with the credit bureaus.

Monitor your credit score. Check for inaccuracies that can hurt your credit score and hinder your chances of getting the best mortgage deals or a mortgage at all.

Stop applying for credit a year before you apply for a mortgage and avoid large purchases until you’ve closed on your new home.

If possible pay off any balances on your credit cards and then don’t use them for at least 45 days prior to applying for a loan.

Make sure to have three trade lines (e.g. credit cards, student or car loans, etc.) that have been open, active and in good standing for at least a year.

Figure out what you can afford
The last thing you want is too much house for your pocketbook. The home of your dreams will quickly become your worst nightmare.

There are several rules of thumb that can help you get a grasp on how much house you can afford. Typically with FHA financing, your home payment can’t exceed 31 percent of your monthly income…with some mitigating factors this percentage can be higher. If you are obtaining a conventional mortgage, a safe rule of thumb is that your home expenses shouldn’t exceed 28 percent of your gross monthly income.

Save for your down payment and closing costs
Depending on your credit situation and specific financing, you will need to save for a down payment. A bigger down payment doesn’t guarantee loan approval but it sure helps. And don’t forget the closing costs associated with a home purchase and the mortgage.

Your savings should reflect a figure that is over and above the down payment and closing costs. Lenders want to know that you’re not living hand to mouth. Three to five months’ worth of mortgage payments in savings makes you a much better loan candidate.

Do your homework
Make sure you fully understand all the costs involved in homeownership. There are property taxes, insurance and in some cases homeowner’s fees. If you are upgrading, most likely the utility bills associated with your new home are higher. Also keep in mind that the cost of repairs, maintenance and decorating may be higher than you think.

Get pre-approved
If you’re serious about purchasing a new home, get your financing in place before you walk through the first door. Get all your paperwork together and meet with a mortgage lender.

Find a house that you like
Purchase a house that you like and will fit your needs for several years to come.

Gone are the days of quick sales and depending on how much you put down and all the extraneous costs involved in a home purchase, not to the mention the costs involved in selling your current home and relocating, short-term ownership can be quite expensive.

Social Media – Maintaining the Competitive Edge in Today’s Digital World

Some small business owners believe that social media marketing is a here today, gone tomorrow marketing phenomenon, a buzzword with no practical applications in their day-to-day business, and comes at the expense of a steep, complicated learning curve. Due to its relatively quick appearance on the marketing scene, social media, at least in many entrepreneur’s opinions, has developed a reputation for being a passing interest, and therefore, unprofitable.

This mindset couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to Hubspot, a company that develops and markets a software product for inbound marketing, 92 percent of marketers in 2014 claimed that social media marketing was vital to their business, with 80 percent indicating their efforts increased traffic to their websites. In addition, Social Media Examiner, the largest online social media magazine, reports that 97 percent of marketers are currently participating in social media – but 85 percent aren’t sure what social media tools are the best to use.

Simply put, social media is part of doing business today and an integral part of the modern marketing mix. Businesses can no longer get away with only having an Internet presence through their company website or e-newsletter. Today, a business’s storefront extends to social media marketing sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

In a nutshell, if your business isn’t currently taking advantage of these social media sites, it’s missing the boat or more to the point, sales opportunities.

Still not convinced? Here are a few reasons why social media is so important for your small business:

1. Your customers are already using it – According to a recent Neilson report, Americans spend nearly 25 percent of their time on social media networks and blogs. So, most likely, your target market is already using social media. Consequently, you will increase the odds of getting your marketing message to them if you are where they are.
2. Using social media will give your company a competitive advantage – if you competitors haven’t already ventured into the social media scene, you will have a leg up on them by taking advantage of this marketing tool.
3. It will help you connect with current customers as well as prospects – social media offers a two-way marketing channel. It allows you to have a conversation, creating a community of fans and followers that see your company as more than just an entity. It gives your company a face, so to speak. People view Twitter and Facebook as social networks, not marketing machines. Consequently, they are less likely to see your post as an advertisement and are more likely to hear what you say.
4. It will allow you to respond to problems immediately – if there’s a problem with your product or service, it’s important that you know about it immediately. With the quick feedback that social media provides, you will be the first to know when there are issues, which affords you the ability to address them in a timely fashion. Study after study indicates that customers appreciate companies that are responsive to their complaints and try to make things right.
5. It will increase your sales – when you stay in front of your customer base, there is a greater likelihood that they will buy from you when they need the products you sell. Social media also gives you the opportunity to give your customers an incentive to buy your products. Tweet or post a coupon code for one of your products and see how many people buy that product using that code. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
6. It’s free advertising – does it get any better than that?
7. It levels the playing field – you don’t need millions of dollars to launch an aggressive advertising campaign. But, what you will need is persistency and creativity. If you want to generate a lot of traffic and dramatically increase your sales online, you will need to make these platforms yours. You will have to outwit, outnetwork and outwrite your competitors while offering superior products and customer service. But, isn’t that what maintaining the competitive edge is all about?
The bottom line is that social media marketing is part of doing business today. This marketing tool has become imperative for branding your product and creating a buzz about your business. So, if your business isn’t already active on social networking sites, now is the time to start. There are millions of potential customers out there just waiting to be reached!

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!