Volusia Banks

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!

Don’t Fall Victim to a Tax Scam

Tax season is looming and, unfortunately, so are the scammers. With a growing number of reports over the last several weeks, from the IRS and police departments across the country, of people falling prey to tax schemes, it’s the perfect time to share some of the most widely used tax scams. Hopefully, this insight will keep you from becoming another statistic.

Phone Scams – This scheme has been occurring with more frequency over the last few weeks. Basically, someone calls you claiming they work for the IRS. These scammers impersonate an IRS agent and typically try to scare/threaten you. They try to intimidate you with supposed penalties, being arrested or deported, etc. if you don’t pay them right now. They even may know all or part of your Social Security number. Don’t panic. The IRS won’t ever just call you out of the blue. They always initiate communication in writing, even if you owe money. They also will never ask for debit or credit card numbers over the phone or threaten you with arrest, etc. for non-payment. If you have any doubts to the authenticity of a call or any correspondence, you can contact them directly (800-829-1040) or visit their website (IRS.gov).

Phishing – This scheme happens throughout the year. This occurs when scammers try to get your personal information by fooling you with fake emails or websites. However, during tax season they lure you in by claiming they have information about your tax refund, etc. You may, for example, get an email that looks like it’s coming from the IRS, inviting you to click on a link for information concerning your tax return or the money that may be due to you. Don’t fall for it. The IRS doesn’t initiate contact via email.

Identity Theft – This one is the worst…the tax scheme of all tax schemes. You arehappily awaiting your tax return, already happily anticipating where you plan to spend it and then you find out that someone else has been using your Social Security number as well as other identifying information, has filed a return in your name and is claiming your refund. Cut this off at the pass by never giving out personal information unless you know who’s asking for it and why, shredding personal and financial documents, knowing your tax preparer (see below) and filing your return early…beating the scammers to the punch.

Tax Return Preparer Fraud – You are inundated with advertisements of people/services that want to prepare and file your return for you. Just remember, like every service and/or person, some are ethical and honest and some are not. A majority of taxpayers today use a preparer. Just do your homework…check them out…get references, etc. In addition, remember that just because someone else prepares your tax return doesn’t release you from the responsibility of its accuracy. You’re the one who is ultimately responsible for the information contained in your return. So, make sure to review it thoroughly before you file it.

False Promises – Always trust your instincts…your common sense. The old saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is,” can often be the case where refunds are concerned too. Watch for promises of big tax refunds by people who don’t know anything about you or your financial/tax circumstances.

Tax season can be hectic enough without adding undue stressors. So, eliminate the added stress by being aware of these types of scams, using your common sense, dealing with reputable, longstanding tax preparers and thoroughly reviewing your return. And last, but not least…when in doubt, contact the IRS.
Here’s to a stress-free, safe tax season!

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!


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.