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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

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!

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!

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!