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Money-Saving Winter Tips

November 17, 2011 7:08 pm

Rising heating costs will be a concern for many families this winter, so Amica Insurance is offering tips to help homeowners save money while keeping warm. 

“Now is the time to look around your house to make sure it’s as energy efficient as possible,” said Sean Welch, a senior assistant vice president with Amica Insurance. “Even small things—such as making sure doors and windows are tightly closed or turning your thermostat down a few degrees—can help you save money during the winter months ahead.” 

A good place to start is with your thermostat, Welch said. Make sure it’s not near a heating source or drafts of cold air, to help prevent faulty readings. Consider turning it down, even a degree or two, from what you’re used to. That can save quite a bit over the course of a few months. Also, don’t forget to turn it down while you’re not home and while you’re sleeping. Consider installing a programmable thermostat, which can be set to automatically adjust the temperature for you. 

Here are a few more money-saving tips:
• Shut doors and heating vents in rooms that are seldom used.
• Close curtains and draperies at night, to help preserve the heat. And make sure they’re open on sunny days.
• Use plastic sheets to cover windows and doors that aren’t used during the winter to help prevent drafts.
• Check the weather-stripping around all doors and windows. Repair or replace it in any spots that may make your home drafty.
• Keep dampers closed on fireplaces and stove vents shut when they’re not in use.
• Make sure you don’t have any cracks or openings in your foundation. If you do, fill them with caulking.
• Consider increasing the insulation in your attic and ceilings. If possible, cover the attic entrance with plastic. 

“While it’s great to save money by turning down the heat, never let a particular room or area of a house get too cold or you run the risk of having frozen water pipes that can burst and cause tremendous damage,” Welch said. “If possible, inspect all plumbing pipes leading in and through your house. Any pipes that run through unheated areas—such as attics, crawl spaces or outside walls – should be insulated.” 

“Also, if you’ll be using your furnace a lot this winter, make sure it’s ready to run as efficiently as possible,” Welch says. “Have your furnace inspected and cleaned by a professional and make sure you change the furnace filter regularly.” 

Every little bit helps, so before you turn up the heat, prepare your home for cold weather, Welch said. Hopefully you will save money and have a warm and comfortable winter. 

For more information on protecting your home for winter, visit http://www.disastersafety.org.
 
This is the third in a weekly series of tips Amica Insurance is offering during November to help prepare and protect your home and family this winter. To see the first and second installments of the series visit Amica.com.

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10 Holiday Gift Tips to Keep Families Debt Free

November 17, 2011 7:08 pm

With holiday shopping upon us, I’ve devised a list a list of 10 almost-no-money gift ideas for the whole family this holiday season. These tips will help you keep spending to a minimum, while still offering your loved ones gifts to be treasured. Best of all, you’ll set a good example for your kids on how to give at the holidays without overspending or taking on any credit card debt. 

Make it
Use only what you have at home. We all know that we have enough leftover craft stuff to last us a lifetime. Make a game of finding everything you have and bring it all into the kitchen and then start making a few homemade gifts for those you love. Grandparents especially love this kind of gift. Go ahead, make their day!
Re-gift it
One year my youngest wrapped up a stuffed animal she owned as a holiday present for her older sister. Well, that did not go over so well, as my youngest was 13 and was clearly late to the gift game and trying to make a silk purse out of a sows ear. With just a bit more thought, giving something you really love to someone you really love can be a great gift. 

I give books that I have read and adored. This way my friends get a book that is guaranteed to please. I often include a note with other books that I have read by that author and suggestions they might want to follow up with at the library. 

Kids can re-gift a favorite book, gently used and much-loved toy or even clothing that they have seen a sibling or friend admire. As long as they are willing to share the gift permanently and understand this, it’s a great way to let the person know you were listening. This strategy will also help strengthen a child’s sharing and empathy skills. 

Write it
Letters are so important. In the 21st century we are all inclined to email and text, but a real hand-written or typed letter is now so rare that it truly will get your child’s attention. Use it this holiday as a gift of your time and attention. Tell them how you spent your holidays as a child; what was most important. Pick a moment this year when you were proud of them. Recap a moment they really showed you what they were made of and then wrap the letter as a gift. Because it is a gift – showing you see them and think enough of them to capture this memory on paper for them to read and re-read. 

Forgive it
This is an all-time favorite of my family at New Years–but it can work at Christmas as well. I give them each a free pass on one thing they did wrong but have yet to confess. It’s a brilliant way to hear what might be lurking out there for you as a parent to yet be aware of, and it gets everybody talking about what took place that needs forgiving. 

Craft a “Forgiven” coupon and again, wrap it as a gift with a date and time when all will gather and share what they need to unburden themselves with. 

Acknowledge it
Look around you. There are likely a multitude of things to be grateful for. A word or a letter of acknowledgement is one of the best gifts you can give anyone. Thank your pastor for his or her spiritual leadership. Thank your friends for being there for you. Thank your doctor for his or her compassion. I’m sure that if you sit down for five minutes and think about the blessings in your life you will generate a very long list of people that deserve a gift of your acknowledgement. 

Promise it
My favorite gifts from my kids when they were young – coupons! “Anytime kitchen clean-up”, “shoulder massage”, “one hour of quiet time”, oh there were many such wonderful gifts. Kids made the coupons and wrapped each up and I got to “cash-in” throughout the year.

Grandparents love to get coupons for guaranteed time with grandkids. From face-to-face time to time on the phone or Skyping on the computer on a regular basis—this will be a cherished commitment that will end up being a gift to both grandparents and grandkids. 

This year, as budgets are tight and Christmas is notoriously tough on budgets, because so much money gets spent all at once, try stretching that budget with a coupon. Do the kids love baseball? Coupon them tickets to a home game this summer and add a baseball or t-shirt to the gift to make it fun. 

Tackle it
Everybody in the family can make a list of needs and wants for things that do not cost money, but need someone’s time and talent to do. Then print the lists and cut apart each item from the list separately. (To make sure you do not pick your own, you can either color the paper or use colored paper when you print your list –using a unique color for each family member.) Fold each item “card” up and place them all in Santa’s hat, then on Christmas Day, everybody gets to pick 11. And that becomes the family’s gift to one another. 

What’s on my list this year? Changing light bulbs around the house inside and out. Picking up shoes at the back door and putting them where they belong! Emptying the dishwasher. What kids list will depend on their age, but requests can range from a ride to the library to using the car on Friday night. 

Start it
Set a great example by starting something this year that your kids (or spouse) have been after you to do. Lose weight? Exercise? Cook more meals at home? Eat out more? Read more?

If you have a habit that is stressing out your kids—not to mention your own health—make a gift of quitting, tapering, changing or getting some kind of help that gives them peace. Show them how you plan to tackle the issue, and enlist their help. Everybody wins. 

Bake it
Okay, it does cost time and some money, but baking has long been a tradition for gifting at this time of the year for our family. I have a long list of kids that wait on my chocolate chip banana bread. Attach the recipe to the baked goods and you are good to go! 

Lend it
Make a list of what you have that you would be willing to “lend out” when asked. Maybe you have a snow blower—for those of us here in the Midwest, it’s a welcome gift on those wet, snow days—which you could lend to a friend and neighbor. Take the list and place it in your holiday card and include an email or phone number they can use when they’d like to take advantage of the gift you have offered for use. 

Susan Beacham is CEO of Money Savvy Generation. Susan is an award-winning education entrepreneur and nationally recognized kids and money expert.

For more information, visit http://www.msgen.com.

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Traveling Over the Holidays? Safety First!

November 17, 2011 7:08 pm

Wallet? Check. Passport? Check. Phone charger? Check. According to the Air Transport Association, an estimated 23.2 million air travelers will be going through similar mental checklists this holiday season. However, many will forget the importance of checking personal safety off of their lists. FrontierMEDEX, a global medical, safety and security solutions provider, conducted a survey of more than 400 travelers last week, and found that most travelers place a higher priority on the weather than on their own safety.
According to the survey, only 29 percent of travelers considered the crime rate a primary concern when researching their destination, as compared with 62 percent citing weather and 55 percent citing recreational activities as most important. FrontierMEDEX experts say that a shift in priorities is critical to keeping travelers safe this holiday season. 

A recent study conducted by USA Today found the risk of becoming a crime victim is four times greater than the national average in areas outside most of the nation's big city airports. However, only 51 percent of the FrontierMEDEX traveler safety survey respondents recognized those specific areas as the biggest threat to their personal safety. The number one choice for 73 percent of respondents was city streets, followed by subways at 53 percent. 

“During the holidays, people are carrying large sums of cash in their wallets, purses and bags,” said Charlie LeBlanc, president of security solutions for FrontierMEDEX. “They are in and out of airports and train stations and are distracted by getting to where they need to go, and not paying close attention to their surroundings when traveling. Larger crowds, longer lines, and extra articles to carry like coats, gifts, and luggage create an even greater opportunity for distraction. Being alert and mindful of who and what are around you are crucial to staying out of harm’s way.” 

In an effort to ensure travelers have a safe, and hopefully happy, holiday season, the following are tips from LeBlanc, a leading authority on security principles: 

• Skilled thieves steal smaller items like wallets, passports, and cell phones, so keep a close eye on all your possessions, especially small bags, purses and laptop cases as these are prime targets for airport thieves;
• Do not let your purse or laptop go through the security scanner before you do;
• Carry wallets in front pockets or in a zippered purse or handbag;
• Separate cash and valuables into different bags, so that if your wallet or purse is stolen, not everything will be gone;
• Arrange ground transportation in advance to ensure swift airport departure via a trusted driver you hire or a friend. 

“Most people let their guard down at the train station or airport because of a perceived increase in security,” LeBlanc added. “There are several no-cost things a traveler can do to help reduce the chance of personally becoming a victim of crime. By staying focused, knowing where the greater risks are and following our recommended tips, they’ll increase their personal safety this holiday season. A safe holiday should help to create a happy one.” 

For more information, visit http://www.FrontierMEDEX.com.

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Your Free Range Turkey May Not be All that Free

November 17, 2011 7:08 pm

It's nearly that time of the year again. Family members from across the nation will soon be congregating at your dinner table, eager to get a slice of that free range turkey you purchased at your local grocery store.
Before you selected this year's bird, you probably read its packaging, including the poultry label touting it as "free range." 

But you might wonder what the truth is behind these labels. And what the USDA actually requires of producers. 

In your mind, the phrase "free range" conjures images of an idyllic farm in the countryside. The turkey that is now cooked and prepped for your diners to devour lived a great life in the outdoors, wandering the hillsides and eating only the freshest... whatever it is that turkeys eat. 

Here is what the USDA requires of producers claiming their turkey is free range or free roaming:
"Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside."
This might just mean that a bird has been labeled "free range" simply because whatever structure is used to house the animal has access to the outdoors in the form of a small yard. The standard doesn't mandate how long birds can spend outdoors, or how big the outdoors area should be. 

So it could also mean that the turkey did have the dreamy outdoors life that you envisioned it living before it made its way onto your dinner plate. The USDA labeling requirement sets a minimum standard for what's considered free-range. It doesn't set a maximum. 

Savvy shoppers and bird lovers might want to look beyond the "free range" turkey label at the store. Poultry labeling can help you pick the perfect protein course for your Thanksgiving meal, though the requirements may not be as strict as you might think. 

For more information, visit www.findlaw.com.

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Word of the Day

November 17, 2011 7:08 pm

Property tax. Assessment levied by city and county governments on real and personal property to generate the bulk of their operating revenues to pay for such public services as schools, libraries, and roads.

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Question of the Day

November 17, 2011 7:08 pm

Q: What is a lease option?

A: It is an agreement between a renter and a landlord in which the renter signs a lease with an option to purchase the property. The option only binds the seller; the tenant has a choice to make a purchase or not.

Lease options are common among buyers who would like to own a home but do not have enough money for the down payment and closing costs. A lease option may also be attractive to tenants who are working to improve bad credit before approaching a lender for a home loan.

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Starting Traditions That May Last Your Kids a Lifetime

November 16, 2011 7:08 pm

Holidays and children just naturally go together, and every family develops its own patterns and traditions, notes North Carolina family counselor Eleanor Gaines. But some families more than others, says Gaines, do a great job of instilling in children the real meaning of the holidays; giving to others.

“There are many ways families can work together to make the holiday season more rewarding for those who may lack the family or resources that make the season joyous,” Gaines said. “A few hours spent making someone else’s season merrier can make your own season that much more memorable.”

Gaines offers five suggestions for working with your kids to make it happen:

• Bake some cookies – Have the kids help bake some family favorites and set them out on wrapped trays. Deliver a day or two before the holiday as a thank-you to local police or fire stations.
• Do some caroling – Plan an hour or two of caroling at a local hospital or convalescent home. Call ahead to clear a time with administrators; then invite a few friends or neighbors to go caroling with your family and invite them home for hot chocolate and cookies afterward.
• Greet a serviceman or woman – Shop together for a few items a service person overseas can enjoy—like cosmetic or personal items, cookies or candy, magazines, crossword puzzles or books. Package them up with note of thanks for their service and go to soldierpackages.org for the name and address of a solider or Marine.
• Fill a backpack – Children in the juvenile system often go from home to foster home or social service facility with little but the clothes on their backs. Fill a backpack with socks, underwear, toys and books, and anything else your children might suggest, and take it to a police station or a juvenile facility to be available the next time an emergency causes a child to be removed from home.
• Empty the toy box – Before your kids are inundated with a new season of toys, ask them to gather together the gently used toys they have tired of or outgrown. Pack them up and deliver them to a hospital or a child’s home to be enjoyed by less fortunate kids.


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5 Tips to Get Your Finances in Order and Save Money in Your New Home

November 16, 2011 7:08 pm

Buying a new home can be an exciting adventure, especially for first-time buyers. But the process isn’t all fun and excitement—owning a home comes with increased responsibilities and challenges that many new buyers haven’t previously faced. Before you get into the routine of day-to-day life in your new home, there are certain things that can be done to help you save a little money.
According to The Simple Dollar blog, the following tips will help homeowners save money while still living comfortably in their home.

1. Check the insulation. If your new home has an attic, make sure you take a peek around before you begin using the room for storage. It is especially important if you have an unfinished attic to check and be sure there is at least six inches of insulation around the entire room. Take the time to thoroughly inspect the insulation and replace any areas as needed.

2. Lower the temperature on your water heater. If you’re looking to save some money on your energy bill, turn your hot water heater down to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. If your water heater is a few years old, you may want to think about adding an extra layer of insulation to keep the heat where it’s needed.

3. Create a home maintenance checklist. Even though you have just moved into a new home, home maintenance can’t be forgotten. Create a home maintenance checklist now and be sure to go through the list at least once a month. Include any maintenance projects you can think of—including tasks that may only need to be completed every few months. This way nothing will get overlooked and you can take preventive action which will help extend the life of your appliances.

4. Hang your clothes up to dry. While drying your clothes in the dryer is a huge convenience for many homeowners, it also eats up a lot of energy. If you’re looking to save both energy and money, invest in a clothes rack where you can hang your clothes to dry.

5. Install energy-efficient appliances. Energy-efficient appliances may cost more upfront, but in the end, they will save you plenty of money. Do your homework before heading to your local Lowe’s and be sure to go for appliances that are reliable and energy efficient.


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Tips for Single Parent Success

November 16, 2011 7:08 pm

More than one-third of American children live in single-parent households right now. And 59% of American kids will live in a single-parent household sometime before they turn 18. Patricia Nan Anderson, an expert in child development and author of the book Parenting: A Field Guide, offers the following tips on single parenting. 

1. Enjoy your independence. Parenting alone means never having to ask for a second opinion. So rather than wishing things were different or feeling weak and lonely, revel in your independence. You are master of your fate. Rise to the challenge!
2. Create a support system. Just because you’re independent, you don’t have to do everything yourself. Link up with other single parents. Line up friends and family you can call on in a pinch. Find someone whose judgment you trust to use as a sounding board. You’re the CEO of your family but you need an advisory group.
3. Avoid unwise entanglements. It will seem that things would be better if there were another adult in the house, another income, companionship. And, yes, probably, all this is so. But rushing into a relationship that won’t last hurts you and hurts your kids. Remember that your children are watching your every move; show them how a sensible adult handles romantic interests.
4. Let your kids be kids. Your support system is not your own children. If you’re a mother, your son is not “the man of the family” and your daughter is not your best friend. If you’re a father, your son is not your best buddy and your daughter is not your “little mama” or the family housekeeper. Children shouldn’t worry along with you about finances or relationships or your job. Let your kids be kids.
5. Remember what’s important. Single parents are busy, doing the work of two adults. But make certain that each day with your kids includes a meal together, some conversation, some reading, games, walks, whatever. This goes double if you see your kids only on the weekends. Quality time is key. Nothing is more important than that.
6. Keep it real. Pay attention to what’s going on for your kids and don’t ignore warning signs. If your children are struggling in school, having trouble with friends, seem withdrawn, depressed, or angry, get help. Talk to someone at your child’s school and get a referral to free or low-cost services. Help is out there. Take action.
7. Speak well of your child’s biological parent. No matter what your relationship is or was with your child’s other parent, your child is still related to this person and needs to know that this person has good qualities. Your child will adopt as his own the traits you describe his other parent having, so emphasize the good stuff. Keep your anger and disappointment to yourself.
8. Stretch your dollars. Raising kids is expensive. Most single parents are poor. Those are the realities. So get creative and uncouple yourself from a consumer mindset. You and your kids can have as rich and satisfying a life as every other family but do it, not by buying stuff, but by doing stuff. Doing is often free and doing is how great memories are made.
9. Make time for yourself. Being all things to all your children is exhausting. You need to recharge. Set a reasonable bedtime for your kids and stick to it. Make certain you have an hour or more to yourself before bed to read, think, and breathe. Slow down. Keep your life on a human scale.
10. Look to your future. Unlike in two-parent families, when your child goes off to college or moves into a place of her own, you will be left all alone. Every parent realizes eventually that children grow up and move on but not every parent is ready. Be different. Be ready to grow along with your kids in new directions. Be ready to move ahead too. 

We know from recent history that children raised by single parents turn out well—two became Presidents, after all. Your kids can turn out well too. Make it happen! 

Source: www.swparents.com.

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Word of the Day

November 16, 2011 7:08 pm

Property tax deductions. The Internal Revenue Service allows homeowners to claim as itemized personal deductions money paid for state and local realty taxes, as well as interest on debt secured by their homes. It also allows for the deduction of loan prepayment penalties, and the deduction of points on new loans.

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