The Elderly… Often Overlooked During the Holiday Season

During this season of giving, many of us will pledge ourselves to altruistic causes and/or deeds. Whether we place money in the red kettle or adopt a family in need or give a generous annual contribution to our favorite charity, this time of year opens our hearts, our calendars and our wallets. However, more than ever, there are many vulnerable elderly in need of our attention, especially during the holiday season, to help them avoid feelings of loneliness and isolation.

The statistics are frightening!

  • Approximately 28 percent or a little over 12million seniors live alone. As people get older their likelihood of living alone only increases.
  • More and more older adults do not have children.
  • Approximately 21 percent or one in five people over 65 do not drive, the major cause of elder isolation.
  • 43 percent of the elderly population reports being lonely on a regular basis.
  • Hunger threatens more than 9 million older adults.
  • 1 million homebound seniors are malnourished.
  • Suicide rates for the elderly are high and continuing to rise.
  • Approximately 90 percent of elderly Americans receive unpaid care at home from family and friends.

It’s difficult to fathom that a country as rich as ours can haveso many hungry, stranded and lonely older adults. Even more incomprehensible is that a decade or two ago, these same people were contributing, hardworking individuals. Now, old age, in many cases, has left them on their own and fending for themselves.

Isolation and loneliness has several adverse effects on the elderly population. Some of these include:

  • Increased risk of mortality – According to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older.

  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation can negatively affect physical and mental health – Seniors who feel lonely and isolated have more physical and mental health problems than those who are socially engaged and connected. Illnesses and conditions such as lung disease,impaired mobility, high blood pressure, depression and pessimism are also associated with social isolation.

  • Perceived loneliness and isolation contributes to cognitive decline and risk of dementia – A finding by Dr. John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Chicago, who has been studying social isolation for 30 years, is that feelings of loneliness are linked to poor cognitive performance and quicker cognitive decline.

  • Socially isolated seniors are more vulnerable to elder abuse – Studies conducted by the National Center on Elder Abuse have shown a connection between social isolation and increased rates of elder abuse.

While helping needy families with children typically comes to mind during the holiday season, we must not forget…overlook one of the most valuable and growing segments of our population…our elderly. So, this year, as you move into the hustle and bustle of this most giving season, why not consider volunteering with seniors? By spending time with the elderly, you can help curb some of the loneliness and isolation they often feel, especially during this time of year, and give back to your community, as well. Here are some ideas:

  • Help them with house chores
  • Set up their Christmas tree or holiday decorations. Help them prepare for the holidays.
  • Offer a ride
  • Take them to lunch or a movie
  • Provide respite for the family caregiver
  • Provide companionship
  • Share your holiday with them
  • Provide nutrition – e.g. Meals on Wheels or take a home-cooked meal to a needy senior in your neighborhood/community
  • Volunteer/participate/organize holiday activities at a local assisted living facility (Christmas caroling, decorating cookies,etc.)

These are only a few of the ways you can help make this holiday season special for someone who might be feeling especially lonely and depressed. And in return, you will receive the best gift of all…the gratification/pleasure of giving.

Happy Holidays from Our Intracoastal Bank family to yours!

Disposing of Outdated Electronics…Safely and Securely

Let’s face it, we’ve become a disposable society. When in doubt, we throw it out…especially if the item isn’t the latest and greatest technological gadget.

Tablets, smartphones, laptops, TVs and printers/copiers have all become more affordable which means we can replace outdated devices with newer, better and faster much more quickly. But, an important question remains, “How do we safely and securely dispose of these old devices?”

The United States produces more e-waste annually than any other country. Approximately 9.4 million tons are thrown away annually, according to the EPA. Disappointingly, only 12.5 percent of our e-waste is recycled. Cell phones alone account for over $60 million in gold and/or silver that is thrown away every year.

Not only are we tossing valuable resources into our landfills, but we are also running the risk of leaching toxic substances into the soil. Numerous chemicals are used in the production of electronics, many of which, as they break down, release harmful materials into the atmosphere and ground. This isn’t the only danger in causally disposing of our outdated electronics. When we dispose of our mobile devices, we also expose ourselves to the possibility of our sensitive information falling into the wrong hands.

So, instead of tossing our electronics, there are several better options. Some require almost no effort while others are a tad more time-consuming. However, in the end, we can feel better about our decision to help the environment as well as feel more secure about not exposing our sensitive information.

Give Them Back  

Many electronic manufacturers will take back our old electronics when we buy their updated versions. Some companies may even give a discount on the new device for handing over the old one.

Drop Them Off  

Recycling companies typically have electronic drop off locations. These companies recycle electronics for reuse or repurpose. Begin with your local electronics stores, such as a local cell phone company, and inquire about a recycling program. Some stores have special recycling events while others do this on a permanent basis.

Donate 

What we think is outdated may not be to someone who doesn’t have the means for the latest tech gadgets. Local charities will gladly take our outdated devices and give them to someone who can’t afford brand new electronics. As a bonus, this gesture may also be tax deductible. A local library may also take outdated gadgets. Many of them will be grateful to have them since they don’t have the budget for brand new electronics.

Before Giving Them Back, Dropping Them Off or Donating Them 

Before conscientiously disposing of an outdated electronic, however, make sure it has been wiped clean of all personal information.

Removing Personal Information 

Our mobile devices typically hold sensitive information, like addresses and phone numbers, passwords, account numbers, email, voicemail and text message logs. Consequently, we must take steps to ensure this information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands when we get rid of our old device.

Start by trying to use the factory reset. Many devices will allow you to “wipe” a device and clear nearly all of the information stored in its memory. This is often called a “hard reset” or a “factory reset.” In most cases, the information on the old device can be transferred to the new device before wiping it clean. Read the owner’s manual or check with the mobile provider or the device manufacturer for detailed instructions.

In addition, make sure to remove or erase the SIM and SD cards. Many mobile devices store information on a SIM card or an external SD card as well as the device’s internal memory.

Double Checking

Once the personal information from the old device has been deleted, double-check to make sure it’s gone. Check the phone book, logs for both dialed and received calls, voicemails, sent and received emails and text messages, downloads and other folders, search histories and personal photos. In addition, if you stored any apps on the device, remove them and the data associated with them.

Once the mobile device is “clean,” it’s up to us to do the right thing by disposing of it properly…using one of the environmentally friendly options listed above. E-waste isn’t always easy or convenient to recycle but our planet is worth it!

Are You Prepared for a Natural Disaster?

Collectively storms, fires, floods and heat cost $306 billion and claimed over 300 lives in the U.S. in 2017. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that more than 25 million Americans were affected by natural disasters last year, almost 8 percent of the population, and the Federal government authorized more than $7 billion in disaster funds. Unfortunately, once the final numbers are tallied from the devastating effects to the Carolinas due to Hurricane Florence, 2018 may shatter last year’s figures.

Natural disasters are a threat to everyone, everywhere. However, the greater threat is not being prepared.

Even though every state in the U.S. has its risks of natural disasters, sadly, only about half of American adults are prepared. Many don’t even have a plan. Consequently, when utilities get shut down and the grocery store shelves are empty, they’re left with little to do but panic.

Although we can’t stop a disaster from happening, we can be prepared for it. Being prepared not only keeps you from needing immediate help from first responders who may not be able to reach you, it also reduces the impact of an emergency on your life as well as the lives of your loved ones.

Your first defense is knowledge. You need to know the types of natural disasters that could occur where you live – floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, wildfires, and/or extreme cold and heat. By knowing this, you can better prepare for the specific risks resulting from these types of disasters.

Adequately preparing for a disaster means having the resources – food, shelter, water, sanitation and first aide – to be self-sufficient (you, your family and pets) – for a minimum of three days, according to FEMA.

To meet these needs, begin by building an emergency disaster supply kit with the following basics of what you’ll need to make it through three days:

Water 

At a minimum, you will need one gallon of water per person per day. If you can, store more. Most importantly, make sure that any water you use for drinking, washing or preparing food, cleaning dishes, brushing your teeth, etc. is not contaminated. Avoid water with a bad taste or odor.

Food

Have an adequate supply of food, preferably non-perishable goods such as canned soups, meats, vegetables and powered milk, to provide each person with approximately 2,000 calories a day.

First-Aid Supplies

Your emergency disaster first-aid kit should include more than bandages and topical creams. It should also contain syringes, splints and a suture kit to ensure you’re prepared for any medical emergency. You should also include a week’s supply of all prescription medications for each family member as well as over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen, antihistamines and antibacterial creams. 

 

Utensils and Safety Items

Make sure to include anything you may need to prepare and eat meals. Safety supplies are also essential to your emergency kit. Make sure to include blankets, fire starters, flashlights, a multi-tool, a knife and a whistle. A NOAA weather radio will also come in handy to keep you updated on weather alerts. Keep all assistive devices and equipment fully charged and ready to go.

Important Documents 

Your emergency kit should include copies of all your important documents. This includes insurance cards (medical, house, auto and life), birth certificates, passports, social security cards, marriage licenses and driver’s licenses. You should also include your emergency disaster plan that contains the contact information for everyone in your family (your out-of-state family as well), emergency services in your area and any other vital information. You should keep all these documents in a waterproof container in your emergency kit.

Other Miscellaneous Items

Your emergency disaster kit should also contain personal care items like soap, toothpaste and shampoo. You should also include batteries of all sizes, cash (preferably small bills), a spare credit card, an extra set of car and house keys, and, if you have small children, a coloring book and crayons deserves a spot in your emergency kit.

If you have pets, make sure to have an adequate supply of food and water as well as any medications or other supplies they may require.

In addition to having your emergency disaster supply kit ready, you should have an evacuation plan. You should know the evacuation routes for your area. You should also have an emergency communications plan in place. Know how you will contact your family members if something happens and you’re separated. You should share this plan with not only your immediate family but neighbors and friends as well. 

After the Disaster 

Once the emergency is over, you will have to deal…be prepared for the aftermath as well. However, remember, the health and safety of you and your family is a priority. If medical attention is needed contact local responders or the Red Cross for assistance or get to the closest hospital or medical center.

Returning Home

If you’ve evacuated, return home only when the local government gives the okay. Once the okay has been given, proceed with caution. You should also prepare yourself and your family mentally. Even if everyone is physically okay, it can be emotionally devastating to return home and see your home and belongings destroyed.

Recovering 

With natural disasters and emergences, oftentimes come physical and financial losses. But, similar to the preparation for the event itself, you can minimize the impact of these losses with proper preparation.

Well before a disaster or emergency, contact your homeowner’s insurance company representative and have a detailed conversation with them about what’s covered and what’s not. By knowing this, you can add additional coverage for types of disasters that are most common in your area that you may not currently have.

You should also have a photographic record of all your valuable possessions – jewelry, appliances, art, electronics, etc. Having this will help you detail your losses when dealing with your insurance company as well as provide documentation for these losses come tax time.

Mental Health and Crisis Intervention 

A natural disaster or emergency can also take its toll on emotions and mental health, especially a child’s. Reach out to your family, your doctor or specialized natural disaster or emergency organizations/teams for mental health assistance.

Being prepared for a natural disaster or emergency is essential. It’s a 365-day-a-year activity. So, if you haven’t already, take charge and control now to be as prepared as possible.

When is the Right Time to Retire?

Deciding when to retire is a complex question. Many people base this decision around their birthday. The traditional age of retirement is 65 – the U.S. average is actually 63. However, there are many moving parts in this very important decision, a whole host of factors to consider – financial, physical, as well as psychological.

We’ve all had those days when we’d like to hand our boss our resignation letter and sail off into the sunset, leading the carefree life of a retiree. But, this can be a huge mistake if you’re not prepared.

Financial Considerations

  1. Your bank account: According to investment experts, not taking Social Security into account, you’ll need 25 times your annual expenses (the earlier you retire, the more you’ll need).
  2. The Market: The returns on your investments are critical during the first decade of retirement. No one has a crystal ball when it comes to the market, but if the economy is poised for a downturn, it may be wise to delay retirement. This is also the case if your portfolio has taken significant losses in the years leading up to your set retirement date. If this occurs, it may make sense to delay your retirement until your investments have had a chance to recover.
  3. Social Security Benefits: When people plan to retire in their early 60s, typically, a part of their strategy is taking their Social Security retirement benefit at 62 – the earliest claiming age. However, you must keep in mind that this strategy causes a permanent reduction (almost 30 percent) in your benefits compared to what they would be if you waited. People born after 1943 can expect an eight percent increase for each year they wait to claim benefits after full retirement age, with age 70 resulting in the maximum benefit.

    Suze Orman, American author, financial advisor, motivational speaker and television host, strongly advocates waiting until 70 to retire. “Seventy is the new retirement age – not a month or year before,” she exclaims. However, she also adds that if you have a medical condition that prevents you from working or raises the probability that you won’t live into your 80s or 90s, retiring and claiming Social Security earlier may make sense.

  1. Health Care: Recent studies by Fidelity Investments estimate that a 65-year-old couple retiring today will need between $200,000 and $400,000 to cover their health care costs during retirement – above and beyond what Medicare covers. Having additional savings, private insurance or a Medicare supplement policy is an important consideration when deciding when to retire.

Health Considerations

Working longer may better fit into your plans, especially financially, if you are in excellent health and have longevity in your family. However, this is not so if you or your spouse are in poor health. In this case, postponing retirement could mean your opportunities for doing certain things, like traveling, are gone for good. Take an honest look at your health and life expectancy and factor this into your decision about when to retire.

Psychological Considerations 

Another important factor to consider in deciding when or in some cases if you should retire is the psychological impact. You should ask yourself two important questions: 1. Will I be happier and healthier retired or working? 2. Am I psychologically prepared to retire?

Some people enjoy what they do – their jobs give them a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives – and would be lost without this or an activity or passion to replace it. Yet, other people, especially those who find their jobs stressful or unrewarding, are counting the days until retirement.

The key is preparation. Do you have hobbies or interests to fill your time? Have you realistically considered what your life will look like as a retired person?

Many people have unrealistic expectations or ideas of what their retirement lives will look like. They imagine they will take up hobbies, like golf, tennis or playing an instrument. However, being realistic means evaluating your life now…pre-retirement. What are you passionate about or actively involved in now? The probability of developing a passion for something the day after you retire is small.

Studies show that people who have meaningful, purposeful and productive lives live longer. So, the lesson for anyone contemplating retirement is to have a plan for your post-working lives.

As you can see, deciding when to retire isn’t an easy decision. But, by giving it the time and attention it deserves…having a well-thought-out plan…addressing the financial, physical and psychological considerations…you can help ensure your retirement gets off on the right foot.

The Debit Card Advantage

Many people believe the advantages of using a credit card outweigh those of using a debit card. Not so.

Although credit cards are convenient and provide lucrative rewards, they certainly don’t come without risk. Credit cards carry a huge risk of allowing the user to incur high interest debt. A new study by the personal finance website WalletHub reported that U.S. consumers’ total credit card debt exceeded $1 trillion in March of this year. Consumers took on an additional $92.2 billion in debt in 2017, leaving the average household owing $8,600 on credit cards.

According to Dave Ramsey, “America’s trusted voice on money,” consumers shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that credit cards are the “safe” way to go. “They’ll get you into trouble and force you to make payments,” Ramsey says.

Using cash, although, the safest option when it comes to staying out of debt, doesn’t come without its disadvantages and risks. ATM fees, the risk of loss or theft, and the inconvenience of always having enough money in your wallet means that cash might not be the perfect choice, either.

Here are several advantages of using debit cards.

No Risk of Debt

Credit cards typically allow your spending to be capped at a credit limit, which can be thousands of dollars. When you use a credit card, you’re essentially borrowing money from the card issuer and agreeing to back it back at a later date. The problem occurs when the card user is purchasing something they can’t afford to pay cash for now, or, in many instances, when the bill comes due. Now the credit cardholder is subject to interest, typically at a double-digit rate.  A recent survey reported that the average APR for a new credit card is just short of 17 percent.

Debit cards solve this problem. Since a debit card is directly linked to your bank account, it provides a convenient way to purchase things without incurring debt. You can only spend what’s in your bank account. 

Ease of Tracking Cash Flow 

When using cash, the onus of accounting, so to speak, is on you. You have to manually track your spending either by holding onto every receipt or memorizing what you spend and logging it into your household expense spreadsheet.

Debit cards offer the solution to this. Cash is taken from your bank account today in near real-time when purchases occur. Then, by adding online banking into the mix, you have your up-to-date spending and account balances at your fingertips!

Ease of Acquiring and Maintaining 

An application and a decent credit history are required to obtain a credit card. Consequently, there’s always a chance of being rejected.

This is not the case with a debit card. Anyone that can open a bank account can get a debit card. In fact, today, debit cards are typically included when opening a new account. Even though some banks have added monthly fees to these accounts, there are still many free options out there.

With a debit card, you never have to deal with a monthly bill. You’re issued a monthly statement, via “snail” mail or online (paperless), to review and file away. A credit card requires you to pay a bill every month…and if you don’t make the payment on time, you’ll incur a late fee, a penalty interest rate, and possibly a ding on your credit report.

Eliminate Checks 

Checks can be the slowest way to conduct a transaction. When using a check, you have to wait for it to be deposited before the expense/purchase is reflected in your actual account balance. Unless you balance your checkbook regularly this can be an inconvenience and sometimes a problem…such as an overdraft.

With the swipe of your debit card, the money is taken directly from your checking account. There is no need to keep track of outstanding checks because your available balance is updated, in most cases immediately, with each purchase/payment.

Protection from Fraud and Theft 

Debit cards, unlike cash, offer increased protection in case your wallet is lost or stolen. Debit cards are backed by fraud protection if anyone tries to use your card.

It’s a myth that credit cards have a better track record when it comes to protection. Any debit card carrying the Visa or MasterCard logo has the same policy concerning unauthorized charges that a credit card has.

Today, many financial institutions have started offering additional protection, like the CardValet app, for both debit and credit cards. This app allows you to turn your debit card “off” if it’s lost or stolen. This safeguards against fraud because no purchases can be made/approved when the card is turned “off.” Once you find your card, you can easily turn it back “on” within the app. Many institutions suggest turning your card “off” anytime you’re not using it.

CardValet also alerts you immediately with a notification on your phone of any attempted use of your card. If your card is still “on” and there’s an unauthorized purchase, you can turn it “off” and prevent any further transactions from occurring. You can customize these alert notifications based on your spending habits, transactions and locations. The CardValet app not only offers protection against the fraudulent use of your debit card, it also provides a great way to help you stay on budget.

So, in a nutshell, when making purchases, take the middle ground with debit cards, and enjoy the many benefits over credit and cash.

Budget-Friendly Family Summer Vacations

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

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

San Diego, California 

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

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

Yellowstone National Park

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

Niagara Falls

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

The Outer Banks

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

Branson 

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

Winter Park 

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

Williamsburg 

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

Catskills

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

Cruising

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

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

Making This Father’s Day Special

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

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

With this said, here are a few ideas:

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

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

Small Businesses Make a Big Impact on Our Economy

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

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

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

Job Creation 

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

Provide Opportunities for Women and Minorities 

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

Small Businesses Complement Big Businesses

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

Small Businesses’ Impact on the Local Community 

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

Community Identity 

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

Community Involvement 

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

Community Health

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

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

Increasing the Tax Base

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

Local Jobs

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

Entrepreneurship 

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

Locally Made Products and Services

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

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

Stress in America

For the first time in a 10-year history of surveys of stress in America, the American Psychological Association survey, conducted in January 2017, found a statistically significant increase in stress levels in the U.S. compared to the previous year.

It appears that Americans are more stressed today than ever.

Whether we’re stressing over financial woes, work, a romantic relationship on the rocks or possibly the latest, breaking, political news story, the anxiety can wreak havoc on our bodies if we can’t get it under control.

We experience stress when we perceive the demands placed on us exceed our ability to cope. Stress can be beneficial at times, motivating us to work hard and get ahead or by providing a necessary boost of drive and energy to help us through certain situations like exams or work deadlines. However, an extreme amount of stress, especially worry over the long haul, can have health consequences, affecting our immune, cardiovascular and neuroendocrine and central nervous system, and cause a severe emotional toll.

The human body’s stress response was made for short-term acute stress such as fleeing immanent danger, like running away from a bear. But, stressors today have become much more chronic and our bodies aren’t equipped to deal with this.

Research shows that each age group…stage of life…has its own common stressors. Findings indicate that people in their 20s are the most stressed out generation of our time.  They’re graduating from college, worrying about college debts, looking for jobs, dating and dealing with constant social media comparisons. 30-somethings are managing a lot of extra responsibilities, both at work, as they climb the career ladder, and at home, as they become parents and homeowners. 40-somethings, also referred to as the “sandwich generation,” are worrying about their growing kids as well as their aging parents. In addition, this group begins contemplating their own immortality. For 50-somethings, planning for retirement as well as an empty nest can be quite jolting.

Coping with Stress:

Understand how we stress. Each of us experiences and manages stress differently. Some things that may be stressful for one person may serve as a trigger for others to become more productive. It’s important for each of us to know what types of situations make us feel different than we do most of the time.

Find healthy ways to manage our stress. This will be unique to each of our personalities. We need to find a healthy, stress-reducing activity that works best for us. It may be exercising, talking things out with a friend or family member, listening to music, writing, or spending downtime with someone special.

Take care of ourselves. At times, we take on more than we can manage. But, no matter how hectic life gets, we must take time for ourselves – even if it’s something simple like curling up on the couch and reading a good book or listening to our favorite music. We must also make sure that we eat right, get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, engage in routine physical activity and take regular vacations or other breaks from work.

Limit time watching or listening to the news. It’s great to be informed, but there’s a difference between getting needed information and becoming obsessed with what’s going on in the world. The news is presented…spun in a dramatic way, which often creates anxiety.

Focus on the aspects of our lives in which we have control. We can’t control a lot of what happens across the country or the world. So, it’s important to work on the aspects of our lives we do have some control over such as how much effort we put into our work, our relationships, our health and even our community.

Reach out for support and take action if needed. It’s not always easy to open up to others about our lives and problems. However, talking to and accepting help from a trusted and supportive family member, friend or even a professional can improve our ability to manage stress as well as change unhealthy behaviors.

File Your Income Taxes Early… Before Someone Else Does It For You

Spring is just around the corner and so is the deadline for filing your 2017 income taxes.

For those of us who haven’t filed our tax return already, this somewhat daunting, annual task is beginning to weigh more heavily on our minds. Many of us are concerned about filing our return correctly, what kind of tax refund or, in some cases, payment we can expect and whether we should do it on our own with an online service or hire an accountant.

But, as we procrastinators begin getting our tax documents together, there’s something else we should keep in mind: tax return fraud.

The IRS launched 1,117 general tax fraud investigations for the fiscal year of 2016. Although this was a decrease from the two prior years, according to IRS, it doesn’t appear that tax scams are ever going away. Unfortunately, with every measure taken by the IRS to prevent this, the schemers/scammers find ways to circumvent it.

Identity theft related tax fraud occurs when an identity thief somehow obtains your name and social security number and uses it to file a fraudulent tax return in your name. This is accomplished in many ways to include phishing emails, snooping through your trash for intact documents containing personal information, hacking into a site/entity that has your personal information, stealing or finding your wallet/purse and public WiFi monitoring.

Once the identity thief has your personal information, they can use this to file fraudulent tax returns with the IRS in order to receive credits or refunds. In most cases, these thieves have the funds distributed via a pre-loaded debit card or direct deposit. This helps them avoid the security measures relating to cashing a paper check.

When this happens, the tax return you file comes under suspicion because it is the second return filed for the same taxpayer. Unfortunately, the burden of proof now lies on you. You will need to send the IRS a Form 14039 (IRS Identity Theft Affidavit). This can be a lengthy process.  If you’re expecting a refund it will not be processed until the IRS confirms your identity, as the actual taxpayer. If you owe taxes, you can be left with resulting collection actions, audits and even aggressive tax collection through the IRS appeals process.

It can become ugly.

But, like many situations in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Here are several ways to minimize your risk of falling prey to these sinister scams:

  • File Early (okay, this advice is a little late for those of us who haven’t already filed. But, let’s make sure to keep this in mind next year.)

Filing early lowers the chance of someone doing it before you. This turns the tables on the identity thief, as your return will be accepted by the IRS first and their fraudulent return in your name will be denied.

  • Clear Your Email Inbox and Invest in a Shredder

Most identity theft occurs via the trash. All identity thieves need to file a false return is your legal name, date of birth and social security number.  Think of the people you may have mailed or emailed pieces of this information…a W-9 for an employer, a scanned copy of your passport to a travel agency or a completed form to your healthcare provider.

Don’t keep this information in your email in/sent box. In addition, shred any physical/hardcopy documents containing this information.

  • The IRS Will Never Call You…So, Hang Up

Scammers often call under the pretense they are the IRS and you owe money. They may sound totally legitimate, oftentimes giving you a fake badge number and even sharing knowledge that leads you to believe they really know you.

Hang up! The IRS will never call or email you. The IRS only communicates by physical (snail) mail.

  • If Your Credit Card Company or Bank Contacts You, Call Them Back on an Official Number

Identity thieves may pose as representatives from your bank or credit card company. These scammers may be trickier to catch because these types of organizations do sometimes call.

Don’t give out any personal information with inbound requests. Call the organization back using their official customer service number.

  • Don’t Sign a Blank Return 

If a friend asks you to sign a blank return and they will take care of doing your taxes…don’t do it. Sometimes scammers are found in the least expected place…your inner social circle.

  • Beware of Tax Pop-Up Shops

When hiring anyone to do your taxes, especially those “once a year” tax preparation shops, do your homework and make sure they are legitimate.

Although special attention is being given to identity fraud risks during tax season in this article, this should be a year-round concern. Monitoring your credit on a regular basis yourself or through a monitoring service is the best practice to reduce your risk of becoming the victim of an identity thief.