October 26, 2011 6:14 pm
Q: How much can I afford to pay for a home?
A: The general rule of thumb is that you can buy a home that costs about two-and-one-half times your annual salary. A good real estate agent or lender can determine how much you can afford and estimate the maximum monthly payment based on the loan amount, taxes, insurance and other expenses.
October 25, 2011 6:14 pm
Recycle fall leaves into compost, a soil amendment or a nutritious topdressing for the lawn. It saves time, improves your landscape, and is good for the environment, states gardening expert, TV/radio host and author Melinda Myers.
Shred fall leaves with a mower and leave them on the lawn. As long as the grass blades can be seen for the leaf pieces, the lawn will be fine. Those shredded leaves will break down adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
“It is also a good time to make your last application of fertilizer for your lawn,” explains Myers. “Use a slow release organic nitrogen fertilizer, like Milorganite, that won’t burn the lawn. Plus, the phosphorous is non-leaching and recent research found when the micro-organisms break down this fertilizer some of the phosphorous and potassium tied up in the soil is released for plants to use.”
Northern gardeners with bluegrass, fescue and rye grass lawns can make their last application in late fall before the ground freezes. Those in the south growing Bermuda, St Augustine and other warm weather grasses can make their last fertilization about one month before the lawn goes dormant. That’s about the time of the first killing frost. Fertilizing later can result in winter damage.
“Bag any leaves you don’t want to leave on the lawn and dig them into annual flower and vegetable gardens,” adds Myers. “They will break down over winter improving the soil.”
Use any remaining shredded leaves as mulch on the soil around perennials, trees and shrubs. The shredded leaves help conserve moisture, moderate temperature extremes and reduce weed problems. And once decomposed, help improve the soil.
Still leaves left? Start a compost pile by mixing fall leaves with other yard waste. Don’t add aggressive weeds or those gone to seed. Leave insect and disease infested or chemically treated plant debris out of the pile. Don’t add fat, meat and other animal products that can attract rodents. Moisten and occasionally turn the pile to speed up the process. Soon it will turn into a wonderful soil conditioner to put back into the landscape.
Nationally known gardening expert, TV/radio host, author & columnist Melinda Myers has 30 years of horticulture experience and has written over 20 gardening books, including Can’t Miss Small Space Gardening.
For more information, visit http://www.melindamyers.com.
October 25, 2011 6:14 pm
The Halloween season is filled with scary thrills and fun, but also potential danger. Pumpkin carving, costumes, unfamiliar homes, and young children traveling in darkness all provide possible scenarios for accidents and injuries. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) urges children and adults to take proper precautions to ensure a safe Halloween.
A nine-year study examined holiday-related pediatric emergency room visits between 1997 and 2006. (Results of the study show Halloween among the top three holidays for ER visits.):
• Finger/hand injuries accounted for the greatest proportion of injuries on Halloween (17.6 percent)
• Of the finger/hand injuries sustained on Halloween, 33.3 percent were lacerations and 20.1 percent were fractures
• Children, ages 10-14 sustained the greatest proportion of injuries (30.3 percent)
Halloween Safety Tips:
• In general, children should not carve pumpkins. However, some Halloween carving devices, designed especially for children, may be safe for use with parental supervision. Children also can empty the seeds out of the pumpkin, or use a pumpkin decorating kit that does not involve pumpkin carving.
• Adults carving pumpkins should remember to use a pumpkin carving kit, or knives specifically designed for carving, as they are less likely to get stuck in the thick pumpkin skin.
• Always carve pumpkins in a clean, dry and well-lit area and make sure there is no moisture on the carving tools or your hands.
• Should a pumpkin carver cut a finger or hand, make sure the hand is elevated higher than the heart and apply direct pressure to the wound with a clean cloth to stop the bleeding. If continuous pressure does not slow or stop the bleeding after 15 minutes, or if the cut is deep, an emergency room visit may be necessary.
• Be considerate of fire hazards when lighting jack-o-lantern candles or use non-flammable light sources, like glow sticks or artificial pumpkin lights.
• Costumes should be flame-resistant and fit properly. Be sure the child's vision is unobstructed by masks, face paint or hats. Costumes that are too long may cause kids to trip and fall, so trim or hem them as necessary.
• Children should wear sturdy, comfortable, slip-resistant shoes to avoid falls.
• It is important that children walk on sidewalks and never cut across yards or driveways. They also should obey all traffic signals and remain in designated crosswalks when crossing the street.
• Trick-or-treaters should only approach houses that are well lit. Both children and parents should carry flashlights to see and be seen.
• Be aware of neighborhood dogs when trick-or-treating and remember that these pets can impose a threat when you approach their home.
• Also, it's a good idea to carry a cell phone while trick-or-treating in case of an emergency.
"Every Halloween orthopaedic surgeons treat cuts, lacerations and injuries just from carving a pumpkin," says Christopher Doumas, M.D. "It's important to realize that there is a wrong way to do this, and for starters, children and adults should never use a kitchen knife. Use proper utensils, carve away from the body, and never rush when engaging in this popular fall activity."
For more information, visit http://www.aaos.org.
October 25, 2011 6:14 pm
When Stephen "Dusty" Roberts and Barry O'Connell get together, talk invariably turns to rugs. So it was inevitable that Roberts, a rug care industry personal coach (http://www.imaruglover.com), and O'Connell, a world-renowned oriental rug expert (http://www.spongobongo.com/), would draw upon their mutual passion and expertise to create the Great NYC RugLover Tour—and, following the tour, to pass on the insight they gained leading a group of rug enthusiasts through the city's most stunning collections of antique and high-end collectible rugs.
Held last weekend, the tour took participants to New York's most prestigious showrooms, including those of Hagop Manoyan and the Nazmiyal Collection, New York's leading Antique Oriental Rug store and were invited to a Christie's auction preview with leading Washington DC rug dealer Mark Keshishian and America's top rug scholar, Mr. Peter Saunders. The tour was concluded with a tour at the city's oldest rug cleaning company, Rug Renovating.
Roberts and O'Connell offer tips to help rug buyers get what they pay for:
1. All wool is not created equal. "Scratch the rug's surface," Roberts advised. "If a little wool comes off, that's fine, but if a lot comes loose, move on."
2. Look at the back. "If you can't see the rug's pattern on the back, it's glued together and will have odor issues in the future," said Roberts. Only buy a rug if you can see the pattern all the way through to the back.
3. Beware of false sales. A store regularly advertising going-out-of-business sales or discounts of 50% or more is pulling a fast one, said O'Connell. Other rug sellers to avoid: traveling auctions and online auction sites. "Play it safe and buy from a rug dealer with a real storefront," Roberts advised.
For a more tips, click here.
October 25, 2011 6:14 pm
Every year brings with it new changes related to W-2 and 1099 forms and reporting requirements. Due to the government's increasing focus on the proverbial "tax gap," it's more important than ever for small business to understand the changing W-2 and 1099 reporting environment. Greatland, one of the country's leading providers of W-2 and 1099 products for business, wants employers to know some of the key changes that will affect small business this year.
Reinforced Compliance and Increased Penalties
The tax gap is the difference between the taxes owed and the amount the federal government actually receives in paid taxes. Most recent figures show this gap to be greater than $345 billion. One of the primary drivers cited as contributing to the tax gap is the underreporting of business income. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is facing increased pressure to close this gap and remedy the problems that contribute to underreporting. As Greatland noted earlier this year, in 2010 and 2011, the IRS has and will continue to be even stricter about enforcing compliance, and will implement new form changes and reporting requirements aimed at gathering more information.
The IRS has always imposed consequences for misfiled or late tax forms, but as of January 1, 2011, W-2 and 1099 penalties for failure to file correct and timely returns have increased. Penalties range from $30-$250 per incorrect return. Employers need to file on time and file correctly to avoid issues.
W-2 & W-3 Form Changes and New Additions
The recently passed Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 called for an extension of unemployment benefits, a two percent employee payroll tax cut, and allowed businesses to expense 100 percent of certain investments in 2011. When filing this year, employers recall that this act also has temporarily reduced the rate of social security tax withholding (for employees only) from 6.2% to 4.2% for wage payments made in 2011. Social Security tax withheld is reported in box 4 on the W-2 form.
Also new in tax year 2011: a portion of the W-2 (box 12-code DD) is now designated for employers to report the cost of coverage under an employer-sponsored group health plan. Part of the Affordable Care Act, this requirement is optional for all employers in 2011 in order to provide them more time to update their payroll systems before it becomes mandatory in 2012. The IRS provided further relief for small employers filing fewer than 250 W-2 forms by making the reporting requirement optional through 2012, and continuing elective treatment for smaller employers until further notice. This new reporting requirement is for informational purposes only and is not taxable. Roth contributions under a governmental section 457(b) plan are another new addition to this year's W-2 form (box 12-code EE) and the section designated to report HIRE wages in 2010 (box 12-code CC) is now obsolete.
To improve document-matching compliance, a 'Kind of Employer' option has been added to the W-3 form, which includes five new checkboxes for individuals to select if they are a state/local employee, federal government employee, etc. Filers are now required to check one of these new boxes or select the "None Apply" option if appropriate. The advance earned income credit payment was eliminated for tax year 2011; therefore, this correlating box has been deleted from all 2011 W-2 and W-3 forms.
In addition to the above W-2 and W-3 form changes, Greatland also noted several specific form updates to various 1099 forms. Below are several of the more prominent changes for 2011:
• All 1099s: The pilot program for shortening an individual's identifying number (TIN) on paper payee statements has been EXTENDED through 2012. The payees' identifying numbers that can be truncated are: Social Security Number, IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or IRS Adoption Taxpayer Identification Number. The identifying number can be truncated by replacing the first 5 digits of the number with either asterisks or X's and truncations can only appear on paper payee statements.
• 1099-K: Form 1099-K, for merchant card and third-party network payments, is new in 2011 and will be used by payment settlement entities to report merchant card payments and third-party network transactions to participating payees.
• 1099-SA & 5498-SA: Excess employer contributions (and the earnings on them) withdrawn from employee HSAs by the employer should not be reported as a distribution on Form 1099-SA or as a contribution on Form 5498-SA.
Below are some important dates for filers to remember as they enter tax season:
• January 31, 2012 – Due date to send most 1099s and Copies B, 2, and C of form W-2 to each employee / recipient
• February 28, 2012 – Due date to send Copy A of form 1099 to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
• February 29, 2012 – Due date to send Copy A of form W-2 to the Social Security Administration (SSA) on paper
• April 2, 2012 – Due date to send copy A of form W-2 to SSA and form 1099 to IRS electronically (e-file)
For more information, visit www.greatland.com.
October 25, 2011 6:14 pm
Q: What is the first step to buying a home?
A: Make sure you are ready—psychologically and financially. Ask yourself the following questions: Do I have steady income? Is my debt lower than my total income? Do I have enough money to pay for the down payment and closing costs? Am I working hard enough to improve bad credit?
A house needs constant care and attention. Also ask yourself if your budget will allow for unexpected repairs and upkeep. Once you can honestly answer “yes” to these questions, you are several steps ahead of the game and that much closer to becoming a homeowner.
October 24, 2011 6:12 pm
Between regular bills and unexpected expenses—like that blown tire or the leak in the water heater—it sometimes seems that saving money is as impossible as pie in the sky. But while none of the savings strategies listed here will be new to you, say the money mavens at Walletwatcher.com, the secret to stashing needed cash is to make these old savings standards work for you in new ways.
• Paycheck deductions – You’ve heard it 100 times, but it’s true: having money deducted from your paycheck, or diverted to savings from direct deposits to your checking account, is the best way to save without “missing it.” But the deduction doesn’t need to be major. Start with a $10 per check deduction. Even that adds up. After six or eight months, increase the deduction by $10 or $20. Before long, you’ll have a comfy little cushion to fall back on.
• Cash only – It can be hard to wean yourself from the ease of using credit cards, even when you find you can’t pay the cards off each month. Ease off by declaring two or three days per week as, “cash only” days—and stick to your guns. No cash, no purchase—even it’s just a grande latte.
• Break bad habits – aside from health or other issues, smoking regularly, or stopping for a beer after work or a fancy coffee each morning are habits that really add up. Adjusting your lifestyle in small ways can put you on track to saving if you stash the cash you didn’t spend each day.
• Eating out – Cut out two or three restaurant meals each week and put the money you saved into an envelope. You may be surprised at how much it totals in a week. Packing lunch and cooking in a little more often can pay off big in savings.
• Saving coins – Empty your pockets or change purse each evening into a jar or piggy bank. You may be amazed each month to see how that change adds up!
October 24, 2011 6:12 pm
Halloween can be thrilling for little superheroes, zombies, and fairies, but it can be stressful for moms and dads concerned with their safety. And with tens of millions of kids trick or treating this year, that's a lot of worried moms and dads. Plastics Make it Possible®, an initiative sponsored by the plastics industries of the American Chemistry Council, offers some tips on how a little plastic can help make Halloween a little less scary – at least for parents.
• Time To Reflect – Add reflective plastic tape to costumes and trick-or-treat bags to make your kids more visible.
• Be Afraid (of fire) – Keep your little ones supervised and away from flames – candles, Jack-O-Lanterns, marshmallow roasts—and make sure all costumes, wigs and accessories are labeled flame resistant.
• Modify the Mask – Some Halloween masks can obstruct vision and breathing. Take scissors to the plastic mask to expand the eye and mouth holes so your little zombie can see and breathe.
• Dagger Danger – Make sure that your Grim Reaper's scythe or your Ghostface's dagger is soft and flexible plastic.
• Light the Night – Experts recommend that children carry a flashlight (use fresh batteries!) to help them see and be seen—or a glow stick or little flashing decorations, at least.
• Careful Contact – If your child doesn't carry an I.D., simply jot down name/ address/contact info, place it a small plastic zipper bag and slide it into a pocket. It's easy to find in an emergency, won't dissolve if wet and doesn't broadcast information to strangers.
• Phone Home – A cell phone adds another layer of safety —preset home and parent cell numbers in the phone. Although cell phones made with tough plastics hold up to rough treatment, soft plastic phone cases add further protection if your little ghoul fumbles the phone.
• Candy Care – Check all goodies before munching away. Most candy is wrapped in plastic wrappers to provide protection; treat the unwrapped treats with great suspicion.
"Halloween means costumes and candy to kids, but safety is top of mind for parents," saysSteve Russell, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council.
"Fortunately, there are many inexpensive, readily available products made with plastics that can contribute to Halloween safety and help parents achieve a bit more peace of mind."
For more information, visit www.plasticsmakeitpossible.com.
October 24, 2011 6:12 pm
It is easy for car buying consumers to fall in love at first sight with the sleek styling and attractive exterior of their dream machine. In most American households today, a vehicle purchase is a major financial expense, so a second look and an extensive test drive is time well invested.
AAA Automotive experts recommend that consumers start that test drive at the computer keyboard. Valuable information about vehicle safety features, performance data, and purchase pricing and resale value can be researched online. AAA can assist consumers shopping for a vehicle by providing information they need to make an educated decision at AAA.com/AutoBuying.
"In today's economy, consumers have additional factors to consider when purchasing a vehicle, often making the selection process more difficult and extensive," says John Nielsen, AAA Director of Automotive Repair, Buying, and Consumer Information. "There is no substitute for quality research and an in-depth test drive tailored to your personal driving needs, to help make a sound financial car buying decision."
The physical test drive is the next step in the car buying research process. An extensive test drive can reveal many important factors not immediately obvious at first blush.
AAA recommends the following test driving tips:
Before You Drive. Walk around the car. Is it the right size for the needs of your family? Check the quality of the assembly and the tightness of the body panel alignment. Check for bubbles and pitting on the paint and chrome. Open and close the tailgate or trunk and doors. Does it sound solid and well made? Will the design allow for easy loading of luggage, sporting goods, and groceries?
Be a Backseat Test Driver. Ask the salesperson to take you for a preliminary test drive. You can focus on the ride without the distraction of driving, and you're more likely to notice noise and overall comfort. And, of course, you can evaluate backseat room for future passengers.
Find Your Fit. Get in and try the car on for size. Check the leg room and visibility. How easy is it to adjust the seats? Are the controls easy to read, reach and use? Try all of the accessories and options, such as air conditioning, the sound system, and navigation aids.
On The Road. Drive the exact model of the car you want to purchase. Pick your own route for the test drive. If possible, pick a route that mirrors your daily driving routine. It's a good idea to test the car's ride quality and handling on a number of different road surfaces: city streets, hills, freeways, and winding roads.
Power. Test the engine's responsiveness in real-world conditions. Is there a smooth and constant delivery of power? Try merging onto the highway, passing, and stop-and-go city driving. Spend part of the test drive with the air conditioner on to see if it drains power.
Transmission. Look for smoothness and ease of operation. Listen for hesitation or straining.
Handling. Check steering responsiveness. Practice long turns and sharp turns. Safely practice sudden swerves and gradual lane changes.
Brakes. Your life could depend on your brakes, so put them to the test. Brake both softly and decisively to gain an accurate idea of the car's stopping distance.
Noise Level. At various speeds, listen for excessive engine, road, and wind noise. Check for squeaks and rattles coming from the interior and bodywork. Listen with the windows open and closed.
Parking. Parallel park to discover any blind spots or potential difficulty in identifying the corners of the car.
For more information, visit AAA.com.
October 24, 2011 6:12 pm
One of the best ways to protect a family's financial future is with a term life insurance policy. Renewable life insurance is affordable, can provide a lump sum to the beneficiaries, replace income, pay off credit card debts, cover housing expenses, medical costs and funeral expenses, in addition to covering the cost of a child's higher education. With a wide range of plan options, TermLifeInsurance.com offers money-saving tips for cost-conscious consumers.
TermLifeInsurance.com recommends five ways to save money on a term life insurance policy:
1. Buy as a young adult. Whether a person is just starting a family or wants to in the future, one can save money by locking in low rates when they buy as a young and healthy adult.
2. Choose the appropriate length of coverage. Term life insurance policies are flexible and can generally be purchased in increments anywhere from five to 30 years. One should consider their unique situation. An individual with young children and a home mortgage might consider enough protection to cover their mortgage and send the kids off to college.
3. Buy the right amount of coverage. When choosing between policies, think about how much coverage is actually needed to maintain the family's lifestyle and cover final expenses. Many recommend a policy amount about six to ten times the policyholder's gross annual income; however, one should only buy a plan that is affordable in their current situation.
4. Be healthy. This may seem obvious, but the savings are surprising. Some companies charge twice as much for high-risk individuals who smoke. Being smoke-free and maintaining a healthy weight can add up to hefty savings.
5. Shop around and compare rates. Get multiple quotes from competing life insurance agents and companies in order to save the most on a policy.
For more information, visit www.TermLifeInsurance.com.