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Donna Maicher
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Ready to Relocate? Avoid Hiring a 'Rogue Mover'!

November 13, 2015 12:55 am

Are you ready to relocate? If so, the Better Business Bureau cautions folks to be very selective before hiring a mover to avoid common problems, some of which may or may not be illegal.

Every year, the BBB and law enforcement officials hear about "rogue movers" who demand an additional and unexpected payment before releasing possessions to their owner. In addition, consumers may also be held responsible for additional charges if the moving company puts belongings in storage pending payment of the final amount.

The most common disputes in the BBB database involved damage to or disappearance of personal belongings, difficulty obtaining compensation for damage, a final bill well in excess of the original quote and damage to apartments, homes and condos caused by movers during the process.

Anyone with a truck and a website can claim to be a mover, and unfortunately, the moving industry is plagued by con artists who don’t adhere to best marketplace standards for honesty and ethical conduct.

The BBB recommends consumers watch for the following common red flags before hiring a mover:

- They prefer to give you an estimate over the phone, sight unseen. That preliminary estimate will likely be lower than the actual cost when the job is over.

- They demand a large sum of money before the move. However, it is not unusual for a mover to ask in advance for $100 or $200 to make sure you don’t cancel and leave them hanging the day of the move. Usually, the bill must be paid in full the day of the move.

- Be wary if you cannot find a local address, contact information and proof of licensing or insurance on their website, or if they use a generic truck.

The BBB recommends consumers thoroughly research prospective moving companies at bbb.org before hiring.

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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5 Ways to Budget for Holiday Shopping

November 12, 2015 12:55 am

It’s not uncommon for shoppers to get a head start on purchasing gifts for the holidays, but shopping before the December rush is fast becoming the norm, according to American Consumer Credit Counseling (ACCC), a nonprofit organization.

“More people realize that waiting until December to start your their holiday shopping can result in extremely high credit card balances that are impossible to pay back,” says ACCC President and CEO Steve Trumble.  “Spending small amounts on holiday gifts from each paycheck can prevent overspending and over-relying dependence on credit cards. It can also make the total amount spent on holiday shopping rather manageable.”

There are many ways shoppers can start saving on holiday spending:

1. Do Your Research – Shopping before Black Friday has its perks. You have time to do research before you hit the stores. Call around and go online to find the best deals. You should also try to consolidate your shopping trips to a few stores to cut down on transportation costs. 

2. Set a Budget and Save – Know your budget, make it non-negotiable and then save enough to afford that budget. A financial calculator can help you determine how much you will need to save on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis to save a certain amount for holiday spending. That way, you can start putting money aside now for holiday expenses.

3. Debit Instead of Credit – Use debit instead of credit cards. A debit card automatically forces you to spend only what you have, and allows you to avoid paying interest. It also prevents you from creating an enormous bill that may take months to pay off. 

4. Open a “Holiday” Account – Many banks have a “Christmas Club” account intended to help people save for the holidays. Consumers can start putting money into the account each month, and the bank only allows you to withdraw money from it on a certain date so you are not tempted to take out money prior to the holidays. 

5. Make a List and Check It Twice – Plan a list of gifts ahead of time for people and buy them before the holiday rush. One way to do this is to carry your list with you. All too often shoppers will get distracted by flash sales and “bargains” and end up with a trunk full of items that were not even included on the shopping list. By simply carrying a list with you, whether it is hand-written or on a smartphone, shoppers can save themselves hundreds in unwanted and unnecessary items. 

Source: ACCC

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Report: Smart Home Tech Slow to Catch On

November 12, 2015 12:55 am

Greater technology in the home may appear inevitable, but a recent report by The Demand Institute reveals that a truly “smart home” is still a ways off for the masses. The report, “Smart Home Technology: Not Ready for Prime Time (Yet),” indicates that most expect newly constructed homes in the next five years to include smart home technology, but just about a third say they are eager to incorporate that technology into their homes.

“Smart home products need to demonstrate clear value and solve unmet consumer needs before most will make the investment,” says Louise Keely, president of The Demand Institute. “Some of these products do meet that bar, but many still feel these products are gimmicky, even though 64 percent concede that they really do not know much about smart home technology.”

Findings from the report show that smart thermostats, wireless speakers and home security and monitoring systems are currently the most popular and well-known smart home products, but that interest in other smart home products, like smart lighting, door locks and other categories is also strong.

“Consumers are starting small when it comes to smart home technology,” says Jeremy Burbank, vice president at The Demand Institute and leader of the American Communities Demand Shifts Program. “The typical smart home product user has just one or two products. Many of these products still cost several times what traditional models do, and a lack of industry standardization and interoperability means most consumers will add smart home technology slowly.”

The Demand Institute is a non-advocacy, nonprofit think tank jointly operated by The Conference Board and Nielsen.

Source: The Conference Board

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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10 Ways to Winterize Your Home

November 12, 2015 12:55 am

Whether winter proves mild or brutal, colder temperatures can cause major damage to your property. To avoid potential repairs come springtime, take the time now to carry out these 10 winterization steps.

1. Insulate – Proper insulation is essential to keeping heat in and cold out of your home. Insulation tends to be lacking in attics and basements, so evaluate these areas and, if needed, retrofit with cost-effective, energy-efficient injection foam insulation.

2. Weatherize – Weatherization prevents ice dams from damaging your roof.  To do it effectively, be sure to have a qualified professional ventilate, insulate and seal the attic.

3. Test – Take the time to test your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors—these early-warning systems are crucial to your family and home’s safety. Replace batteries if needed.

4. Swap – Dirty, clogged air filters in your furnace can result in unnecessary wear-and-tear on the system. Before turning on your furnace for the season, swap in a new air filter to ensure functionality and efficiency all winter long.

5. Install – Homes with single-pane windows are susceptible to cold outdoor air. If your home has single-pane windows, installing storm windows can help block the cold, saving you the expense of unnecessarily heating your home.

6. Switch – If your home has ceiling fans, switch them to rotate clockwise to keep heat from rising to the ceiling during winter.

7. Clean – Gutters free of debris will ensure winter precipitation properly drains away from your home. Clean out your gutters when the last leaves have fallen.

8. Mow – Mow the lawn one last time before winter hits. Don’t forget to leave leaves on the grass—they provide vital nutrients.

9. Trim – Before winter storms strike, assess your property for dead trees, limbs or other plantings that may cause accidental damage. Be sure to trim back branches away from your home.

10. Drain – Water in your garden hose may freeze if left out in the cold, which could cause it and the home’s spigot and pipes to burst. Take time to drain your garden hose before storing.

Source: RISMedia’s Housecall

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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Holiday Spending to Hit All-Time High

November 11, 2015 12:55 am

The most wonderful time of year is around the corner—and this year, Americans celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa will spend more than ever on holiday decorations, food, gifts and more, according to a recent National Retail Federation (NRF) survey. The magic number this holiday season? $805.65, on average.

“Despite the challenges that still exist in our economy, it looks as if consumers are eager to celebrate the holidays with friends and family this year,” says NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “We expect consumers to tackle their holiday shopping lists with a healthy dose of optimism, tempered by a hint of caution as they look for ways to find the perfect, practical gift.”

Family members top the “nice” list this year, according to the survey, with holiday shoppers planning to spend an average of $462.95 on gifts for members of their families. Shoppers will also spend an average of $77.85 on gifts for friends, an average of $28.05 on gifts for babysitters, pets and others, and an average of $25.95 on gifts for co-workers.

The majority of holiday shoppers will space out their spending to accommodate their budgets, the survey finds, with many opting to shop before Halloween.

And if you’re struggling to find the perfect present, look no further than gift cards—again the most popular item on holiday wish lists, the survey reports.

Source: NRF

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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6 Budget Management Tips for Military Families

November 11, 2015 12:55 am

As we honor our military heroes, we are reminded of the many sacrifices service members and their families make to protect our nation – at home and on the front lines.

“Military families do an amazing service for this country,” says American Bankers Association (ABA) President and CEO Frank Keating. “The nature of their jobs is inherently stressful – but financial stress shouldn’t be part of it.”

Servicemembers and their families can pave the way to a strong financial future by taking steps to cement their finances. The ABA advises:

Meeting with Your Banker before Active Duty

The Servicemember Civil Relief Act offers all military personnel entering active duty a variety of financial protections. The SCRA covers issues ranging from interest rate reductions to limits on debt accrual. Ask your banker about the key provisions of this law and how it can help you. 

Considering Housing Options

Frequent relocations and deployments can make owning a home challenging and expensive. Renting may be a smart option for short-term assignments. Decide what’s best for your family and your finances.

Planning for Deployment

Before deploying, have a conversation with your family about managing the household budget. Consider granting power of attorney to your spouse should they need to make any urgent financial decisions while you are gone. Check with your bank to see if they have pre-printed forms you can use for bank accounts. Military personnel also receive additional funds while deployed, so decide on the best use for that extra cash.

Budgeting for a Single-Income Household

Frequent moves are an inevitable part of military life and can make it difficult for spouses to establish stable careers. As a precaution, make plans to operate on a single-income household budget. That way, should your spouse’s employment status change, your family will be prepared.

Setting Up Automatic Bill Pay

Whether you’re stationed stateside or overseas, automatic bill pay will give you and your family one less thing to worry about each month. It can be particularly helpful during deployments in regions where Internet access is unreliable and mobile banking isn’t an option.

Contributing to a Thrift Savings Plan

Military members have access to the Federal Thrift Savings Program, which offers the lowest-cost retirement-savings plan available. Have automatic contributions withdrawn from your paycheck.

Source: ABA.com

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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The Financial Challenges Faced by Veterans

November 11, 2015 12:55 am

Active members of the military, veterans, and their families are routinely facing complex challenges in their daily lives. Among the matters that weigh heavy on servicemembers and their families are debt management and savings, which are common challenges for civilians, as well. Among the aspects of military life that pose challenges to personal financial management:

Frequent Relocation – With each move, military families are presented with new housing choices and a different local economy to consider. Length of time at a duty station, employment options for spouses, and cost of living are all factors that can have a significant impact on household budgets and savings plans.

Employment for Military Spouses – A single income is often not enough to make ends meet; however, the changing local economy and the cycle of relocation make it nearly impossible for spouses to maintain steady employment. Carefully planning a budget to operate on a single income when necessary is the key to balance income and expenses while avoiding unnecessary reliance on debt.

Deployment – Deployed members of the military are protected from a pileup of interest and fees on existing debts through the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act (SSCRA, also known as the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act or SCRA). Although this protection can cap annual interest rates at 6 percent during deployment, it only applies to debt incurred before beginning active duty and requires a written request for relief to the lender. Responsible debt management that prevents further balance increases is an important consideration for deployed servicemembers and their families on the home front.

Transition to Civilian Life – Employers are encouraged to hire military veterans for a number of good reasons. Former servicemembers are among the best trained and most highly skilled employees available in today’s workforce. With all of the advantages of a distinguished military record, there can still be a few bumps along the way during the move from active duty to civilian life. Changes in salary and housing expenses can pose their own challenges that may require some reliable advice from objective sources.

“The men and women who serve our country as members of the military are faced with unique circumstances that can impact the financial choices they make,” says National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) President and CEO Susan C. Keating. “Our network of member agencies is proud to provide professional resources to guide military members and their families through financial matters throughout all stages of military life.”

Source: NFCC

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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How Much Is Too Much? Get the Facts on Tax Withholding

November 10, 2015 12:52 am

Is your withholding on par with your tax liability? The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recommends taxpayers assess their withholding sooner rather than later to ensure the correct amount of tax is withheld. If not enough tax is withheld, taxpayers will owe tax at the end of the year and may have to pay interest and a penalty. If too much tax is withheld, they will lose the use of that money until they get their refund.

When should you check your withholding?

• If you receive a large refund or find you have an unexpected balance due
• If you experience a financial or personal change that may affect your tax liability, such as a marriage, divorce or birth of a child, or if you’ve purchased a home
• If there are changes in federal tax law that may affect your tax liability

To determine the status of your withholding, use the IRS Withholding Calculator on IRS.gov.  This easy-to-use tool can help figure your federal income tax withholding so your employer can withhold the correct amount from your pay. This is particularly helpful if you’ve had too much or too little withheld in the past, if your situation has changed, or if you’ve started a new job.

You may also use the worksheets and tables in Publication 505, Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax, to see if you are having the right amount of tax withheld.

Events during the year may change a taxpayer’s marital status or the exemptions, adjustments, deductions, or credits they expect to claim on their return. When this happens, you may need to give your employer a new Form W-4, Employee's Withholding Allowance Certificate, to change your withholding status or number of allowances.

Generally, taxpayers should give their employer a new Form W–4 within 10 days after either a divorce, if they have been claiming married status, or any event that decreases the number of withholding allowances they can claim.

Source: IRS.gov

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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5 Home Fire Safety Tips

November 10, 2015 12:52 am

Unfortunately, reports of home fire incidents are a common occurrence during the winter season. A home fire can be devastating to households who may not only experience property damage, but also the loss of sentimental, irreplaceable belongings.

To avoid being left out in the cold by a home fire, the American Red Cross strongly advises homeowners to:

• Follow the three feet rule. Heating equipment is one of the leading causes of home fire deaths. Keep children, pets and anything flammable at least three feet away from heating equipment. Turn off portable space heaters when you leave the room and when you go to sleep.

• Use gas wisely. Four percent of Americans admit to having used a gas stove to heat their home. Never use a cooking range or oven to heat your home.

• Use flashlights, not candles. Use battery operated flashlights or lanterns instead of candles during power outages.

• Sound the alarm. Install smoke alarms on every level of your home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas. Test smoke alarms once a month. If they’re not working, change the batteries and test again.

• Plan and practice. Ensure that all household members know two ways to escape from every room of your home. Make sure everyone knows where to meet outside in case of fire. Practice escaping from your home at least twice a year and at different times of the day.

Source: The American Red Cross

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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6 Kitchen Design Dilemmas and How to Solve Them

November 10, 2015 12:52 am

(BPT)—Kitchen design is an art form, one where function and beauty harmoniously co-exist. Achieving that balance, however, isn't always easy. When renovating a kitchen, homeowners can find themselves facing challenging design dilemmas. And they are not alone.

"When redesigning or refreshing a kitchen, the goal is to create a space that is hard-working, yet beautiful," says Nate Berkus, renowned designer and artistic advisor to LG Studio. "Look for items that really represent who you are and your design personality, and you'll create an area you and your family will love both now and 10 years from now."

Berkus points to six common kitchen design dilemmas and offers suggestions on how homeowners can remedy those issues:

1. Space Challenges – When you don't have enough room for the large table your family needs, get creative. Consider building an L-shaped bench around a farm table and adding extra chairs. It's a clever use of space and will create a cozy nook where your family can gather for meals or kids can do homework. Plus, the bench can double as storage space.

2. Last Year's (or Last Decade's) Cabinets – Cabinets are one of the first things you notice in any kitchen, and they're also one of the most important in terms of functionality. If your cabinets provide ample space but look dated, Berkus suggests giving them a facelift with varying materials and finishes, like a wood or paint color that's different from the rest of the kitchen.

"I always appreciate a simple, clean style, but with cabinets, I tell my clients they shouldn't be afraid to mix it up," Berkus says. “I recommend sticking with a neutral palette for cabinets, whether you're installing brand new ones or painting your existing cabinets. White, charcoal and gray will always be elegant, and you can't go wrong with black - it's absolutely one of my favorites. It makes a dramatic statement and looks fantastic paired with stainless steel appliances."

3. Small Budgets, Big Taste – When you long for that sleek, built-in look but don't want to break the bank, counter-depth appliances are a great design choice. They seamlessly integrate with cabinetry no matter what the material, supporting that clean look you ultimately want your kitchen to reflect.

4. Unattractive, Inefficient Lighting – Lighting is one of the most important design elements in any room, and it's the one thing people often overlook when re-designing their kitchens. "Lighting can instantly change the whole feel of a space," Berkus says. "I believe it is one of the most important decisions you can make in any room, especially the kitchen, which, let's be honest, is usually the hardest working room in your home."

To create lighting that is both useful and beautiful, remember to light the room in layers - from above, under cabinets to illuminate work areas and all-around accent lighting to create ambiance.

5. Counter Space Confusion – Figuring out how much counter space you'll need is always tricky. Start by considering all the ways you'll be using your counters. You'll need food prep areas, of course, but will you also want a breakfast bar where your family can sit for meals and snacks? Will you need extra room for countertop appliances?

"My rule of thumb is, to always double the amount of counter space you think you'll need," Berkus says. "You can never have too much, especially if you like to cook and entertain."

6. A Too-Clean Slate – A large, open-concept kitchen can seem appealing, but it can also be daunting to design and decorate.

"Don't be afraid to do something unexpected in the kitchen to break up the space," Berkus says. "I love the idea of creating an unexpected seating area in your kitchen. Shop your weekend flea markets or online stores for a vintage sofa, coffee table and rug to set up an area for your family to relax in."

Ultimately, Berkus says, keep in mind that the kitchen truly is the heart of the home. "Kitchen design is about creating a space in your home that brings the whole family together, and is the best place to reflect your sense of personal style."

Published with permission from RISMedia.

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