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Tom's Blog

Will You Use Your Tax Refund on a Dream Vacation Like Many Americans?

April 21, 2014 1:09 am

To get the biggest bang for your buck, here are some strategies you can use to turn even a lean refund into your dream vacation.

1. House Rules
Book a vacation house over a hotel to make your vacation bucks go the furthest. Houses typically hold more people with fewer fees. Living like a local in a unique vacation house can often be a priceless experience.

2. Do Not Seek Peak

Avoid peak season dates to save hundreds if not thousands. Peak season varies tremendously by location, so be sure to closely study rate lists.

3. Mom Was Right - It Is Best to Share
Even though it’s fun to make friends jealous by posting your sunny vacation pictures on Instagram, it’s much savvier to bring your friends along and split the tab. Sharing a house can double the fun and halve the cost. For the biggest savings, organize a beach getaway for the girls or a golf trip for the guys so that you end up with many friends staying together in a larger vacation house. Splitting with couples or another family is also a win-win.

4. Dine In, Not Out
Look for a full kitchen, dining area with plenty of seating and nice outside patio grilling area. Make sure there’s a grocery store nearby and also a variety of reasonable takeout options. Assign everyone a day to provide easy buffet-style meals or treat the group to inexpensive takeout.

5. Be Greedy about Freebies
Why pay sky-high fees for Internet, parking and resort amenities at hotels when most vacation houses offer numerous amenities for free? Look for vacation houses that include beach access, private pools, WIFI, parking, premium cable channels and welcome gifts at no cost. When you find an attractive vacation house scoring high reviews with loads of freebies, book it fast!

Source: Beach Bound Escapes

Published with permission from RISMedia.

BBB Says Beware of Online Computer Repair Services

February 24, 2014 6:51 pm

If you own a computer, this report is for you. I was just contacted by Howard Schwartz, Executive Communications Director for Connecticut's Better Business Bureau.

Schwartz suggests anyone having computer problems requiring expert advice should research online repair companies with BBB first, or proceed at their own risk when allowing someone to take control of any computer.

Better Business Bureau nationwide received 5,045 complaints about computer service and repair companies over the past 36 months. Schwartz says the complexity of computers puts consumers who lack tech-savvy at the mercy of unscrupulous operators.

Connecticut BBB recently identified a pattern of complaints within the online computer repair industry, including misrepresentation, ineffective service, additional technical problems after the service, destroyed files, questionable sales practices and delays in providing refunds.  

In addition, consumers said they were deceived into believing they were dealing with BBB Accredited Business when in fact they were not, and Schwartz says one company illegally used a BBB seal on its website.

Several consumers were also misled by ads and pop-ups, thinking they were dealing directly with manufacturers rather than a computer service company. Others said their computers no longer functioned after being serviced.

Consumers also complained that they were repeatedly contacted by online computer repair companies, in violation of Do Not Call Registry laws. And some businesses used scare tactics to get customers to buy service contracts.

One scammer technician told a Chesterfield, MI, woman calling about a faulty wireless router that her computer was " badly compromised that it was a matter of ... days before my entire identity would be stolen and I could end up 'blacklisted,' and that it would cost $650 to fix."

Another consumer in Riverside, CA, said one company scanned his computer, and "...restricted my antivirus program I've been paying for - so they could sell me their own."

BBB sent letters to a number of these computer service and repair companies asking them to address underlying causes of complaints, and has detailed those concerns in business reviews where applicable at


Deck Design: Bigger Is Better

February 24, 2014 6:51 pm

As homeowner's look ahead to warmer weather, many are dreaming of summer days spent on a brand new deck. So what is new in the deck design section of home building? Builders and manufacturers agree, the current big trend in decks is just that: big.

"People are wanting to extend the indoor living space to the outside," says Tim Stephens, owner of Archadeck of West Central & Southwest Ohio, who has built several decks in Dayton and Cincinnati that measure 1,500 square feet or more. "Inside, you have a dining room, kitchen, living room, and family room. We're designing the same things in the deck: an area for dining, a sitting or socializing area, and then a cooking area."

The 200-square foot deck is increasingly looking like a relic of the past as homeowners push for more outside living space, and remodelers and builders line up to accommodate them.

Building a deck that's as big as a small house takes more time, planning, and designing than building a small one, notes Stephens. Even a big deck shouldn't have any wasted space. It's time-consuming to design each section of the deck so it caters to the homeowner's plan for using it.

Here are 10 ideas from deck builders and industry experts to consider when building a big deck:

1. Think in layers. Decks—large and small—used to be flat, square, single-surface spaces. But the larger the deck, the more it calls for curves, multiple levels, staircases, built-in seating, and railings.

2. Capture the curves. Flexible composite decking is a favorite among deck builders who are partial to curved surfaces, sidewalks, and staircases, which can create an eye-catching segue between two levels of the deck.

3. Move the eye along. Add a focal point or two to a large, empty span of deck by building a planter or fire pit in the middle and lining the perimeter with built-in seating.

4. Create drama. Accentuate curves, railings and fascia boards with a contrasting color to create a frame around the deck floor. Incorporate inset designs, like diamond shapes in alternate colors, to create something unique for each homeowner. And don't be shy about mixing materials on a big deck: faux stone columns, a metal roof, or a granite countertop on a built-in food preparation area will make the outdoor room look more upscale and custom-designed.

5. Proportions matter. An 1,800-square-foot deck on the back of a 2,000-square-foot home is probably too big to "go" with that house. Size up within reason.

6. Add some shade. A homeowner who springs for a 600-square-foot-plus deck is going to want to use it as often as possible. A pergola, awning, canopy, or roof over the deck will allow the client to cook, entertain, or relax outdoors even on hot, sunny days or during rain showers. Any shade structure should be as low-maintenance as the deck itself.

7. Prepare homeowner/clients for a long wait. It takes a long time to build a big deck. Especially if the outdoor room will be home to electric and gas appliances, the job will include an electrician, a plumber, and the local building inspector. If the deck includes multiple tiers, the builder might need to consult with an engineer or architect.

8. Consider the view. If the upper tier of a two-story deck is right over the lower one, take care with the placement of the posts so they're not too close to doors and windows, where they can block the homeowner's view and path to the yard. Also, build in an under-deck gutter to catch rain that falls on the upper deck so it won't soak the deck's lower level and its inhabitants.

9. Leave enough room. Even a big deck can run out of room if the design includes a hot tub. A typical 7-by-7-foot spa takes up at least a 10-by-10-foot space so there's enough room around it for a railing, a privacy screen or a path for bathers and maintenance techs to walk around it.

10. Make it useful. Include heat and light so the owners can use their deck after dark and during at least three seasons. Popular options: built-in fireplaces and fire pits and ceiling-mounted heaters. You'll have plenty of room for them.



Word of the Day

February 24, 2014 6:51 pm

Deed of trust. Document resembling a mortgage that conveys legal title to a neutral third party as security for a debt. Also called a trust deed or deed in trust.


Q: What Is the Best Way to Find a Real Estate Agent?

February 24, 2014 6:51 pm

A: Begin by asking someone that you know. Friends, relatives, co-workers, or neighbors who have recently purchased a home can give you a firsthand account and attest to the agent’s professional abilities. Sometimes an agent you contact will refer you to another one who works more closely with buyers and sellers in your neighborhood. Once you have a list of names, interview at least three agents and ask questions about their community knowledge, professional experience, and commitment—some agents work full time; others only work at nights and on the weekends. 


4 Retirement Survival Tips for a Volatile Stock Market

February 21, 2014 8:21 pm

More and more Americans – 28 percent in 2013 -- say they’re not at all confident they’ll have a comfortable retirement, according to an annual survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Even the wealthiest among us have concerns; 38 percent of U.S. multi-millionaires are not “very confident” about their retirement income, a 2013 U.S. Trust survey found.

“A ‘comfortable’ retirement means different things to different people,” notes Haitham “Hutch” Ashoo, co-founder of Pillar Wealth Management, (

“The first thing you need to determine is what ‘comfortable’ means to you to ensure you have what you most desire in retirement.”

Most retirees and pre-retirees will depend on income from their investments to maintain their desired lifestyle, says Chris Snyder, Pillar’s co-founder. Any dramatic negative market volatility that’s not fully understood can be devastating to their mindset and planning. “As wealth management advisers, we anticipate – based on historical patterns – an average 5 percent drop in the market about three times a year,” Snyder says. “Advisers should be planning for that. We tell our clients, ‘Don’t focus so much on the drop – we’ve planned and accounted for these predictable, recurring negative events. Instead, we should evaluate whether it will prevent you from reaching your life goals.’ ”

Ashoo and Snyder offer these tips for those worried about the volatility in today’s market:

1. Have a deep understanding of your retirement life goals. If you don’t have clear life goals, neither you nor a financial adviser can create a map to get you there, says Ashoo.

“Think about what kind of cars you wish to drive; whether you’d like one or more vacation homes; where in the world you’d like to play golf; whether you want to budget $10,000 a year for travel or $250,000,” he says. “You also need to think about your beneficiaries and/or charitable causes that are near and dear to your heart. What sort of financial legacy do you desire for them?”

2. Do you or your financial adviser have a reliable process for evaluating your progress toward your life goals? You need to know whether a drop or correction in the market is going to affect your ability to meet your life goals, so you can adjust for that, says Snyder. Simply measuring investment performance is not a reliable means of determining whether a person is on track to meet their life goals.

“We create a wealth management analysis that stress tests their retirement life goals through a simulation of stock, bond and cash activity from 1925 through 2013,” he says. “That includes recessions, depressions, catastrophes, bull and bear markets, and high and low inflation. We do this on a quarterly basis, since the market is constantly changing.”

The analysis produces a score that reflects the level of confidence their clients can have that they will meet their goals. If the score is not between 75 and 90 percent, the advisers consider “what if” scenarios with their clients.

3. Avoid destructive investor behavior. Human nature is counter-intuitive when it comes to investing, and that can lead to bad decision-making, Snyder says.

“Even the smartest, biggest institutional investors make the mistake of allowing their emotions to guide their judgment,” he says. “When the stock market goes up, people’s enthusiasm goes up and they rush to buy, which increases their risk. Then a correction occurs and they find themselves overweight in equities and they wonder what happened.”

This destructive behavior can have a devastating impact on their plans in retirement. Snyder says it is not worth assuming more risk if you have an analysis that shows you are able to achieve your retirement goals with less risk.

4. Once you’ve accomplished 1, 2 and 3, let your financial professionals do the work. It may be hard to turn a deaf ear when friends or family insist you should act or react because of something they’ve read or heard in the news, or because of an experience they’ve had. Let your professionals guide you, Ashoo says.


Mind Your B.I.S. - Tips to Jumpstart your Financial Well-Being

February 21, 2014 8:21 pm

(BPT) - In the next few months, high school seniors across the country will be anxiously checking mailboxes for college acceptance letters. With two-thirds of recent high school grads enrolling in college as of 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is the first step on a journey towards personal and financial independence for many Americans. Whether an incoming freshman, soon to be senior or recent grad, it is never too early to get financially fit. The key to success is to make the process fun and manageable.

Easy and enjoyable financial planning is the premise behind, a new website from Northwestern Mutual, intended to encourage 18-24 year olds to embrace the notion of F.L.C. (financial loving care) - or the importance of strong financial habits as an essential component of overall well-being. In addition to a wide spectrum of content on topics ranging from investing to interview tips, the site features columns by well-known financial bloggers and user-friendly interactive tools.

According to experts at, the quickest way to jumpstart a financial fitness program is to mind your B.I.S.:

Budgeting - According to a recent Gallup poll, less than one third of Americans (32 percent) put together a monthly budget. Learning to track income and expenses is essential to staying out of debt, especially for someone with limited means. Successful budgeting is similar to dieting. It is important to be realistic with goals and work towards incremental improvements. And like dieting, "cheating" once or twice will not undermine progress unless it becomes an excuse for abandoning the effort.

Investing - Though investing may not be an immediate priority for recent grads focused on meeting daily living expenses, starting early on a small scale can have significant advantages. Consider the rule of 72 - the number of years needed to double your money at a given interest rate, which is calculated by dividing 72 by the interest rate. For example, money invested at 10 percent will double in 7.2 years. Contributing to an employer's retirement plan, like a 401(k), as soon as it becomes available is another good opportunity to jumpstart investing. Not only does a contribution decrease taxable income, but some employers also offer to match a portion, which is an added bonus.

Saving - With the average student debt load topping $29,000 for the class of 2012 (CNNMoney), the idea of saving may be easier said than done. However, having a safety net has numerous benefits. More than half (53 percent) of the respondents in Northwestern Mutual's 2013 Planning and Progress Survey between the ages of 25 and 54 feel that starting to save early is the best financial decision they can make. The sunny side of having a nest egg is added flexibility in professional and lifestyle choices. It can provide the luxury to pursue hobbies and passions. The trick is to set an achievable goal, even if it's just a few dollars every month be disciplined and consistent in sticking to it. For example, $40 each month (or a few lattes less per week) can become $480 in savings by year end.

While the topic of financial planning is intimidating at any age, it truly is a case of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Minding your B.I.S. is the foundation for a sound financial strategy that can adapt as income grows and goals evolve.

For more information, interactive tools, and other resources to get started, visit


Word of the Day

February 21, 2014 8:21 pm

Eminent domain. The right or power of government to acquire private property for public use without the consent of the owner, provided fair compensation is provided.


Q: What Is Title Insurance?

February 21, 2014 8:21 pm

A: Title insurance protects the lender against unclear title to the property you are buying. It is almost always a requirement for closing on a home. If you desire coverage as well, buy an owner’s policy, which will protect you against any title-search errors and losses that arise from disputes over property ownership. The cost of title insurance is usually a set value per thousand of dollars of the total loan amount.


Add Home Value with Smart Spring Home Improvements

February 21, 2014 8:21 pm

(BPT)—Snow, blizzards, Arctic winds and damaging ice storms have wreaked havoc across the country this winter. While it may feel as though spring will never come, building experts suggest that now is the time for homeowners to consider spring home improvements that add value and comfort to the home.

The push toward energy conservation and sustainable materials has introduced homeowners to a greater range of affordable options that can add true value to a home. Green options such as roof-mounted solar hot water systems, gray-water recycling systems and high-efficiency window systems are just some of the options available to homeowners that not only help contribute to a greener environment but also help save money each month.

Some of the most valuable "green home" improvements are able to facilitate reduced utility bills, as well as provide year round comfort. Before beginning a home renovation project, homeowners should assess their wants against the needs of their home. Building professionals will say that a home's envelope, or the exterior-facing surfaces of the building, is typically regarded as the weakest link since it is constantly exposed to the elements. Reinforcing a home's envelope can have a strong positive impact on how efficient and comfortable a home can be.

One area of the building envelope that can be boosted is the insulation. While traditional insulation materials provide thermal comfort, they fall behind sealing against air leaks, and therefore do not create a greener home. Modern insulation options such as spray foam insulation can help homeowners reduce energy consumption by adequately air sealing the home to stop any air leaks.

Air leakage can limit the effectiveness of heating and cooling systems. Floors, walls and ceilings can account for up to 31 percent of air leakage in a home, according to Spray foam insulation, which can help combat air leakage, is growing in popularity amongst homeowners since it is an energy-efficient material that delivers year-round benefits. Spray foam insulation works well in all types of homes across the country, regardless of climate.

Spray foam insulation performs for the life of the property, ensuring that homeowners can enjoy comfortable indoor temperatures all year round without overrunning their heating and cooling equipment. Insulation experts from Icynene note that quality spray foam insulation can noticeably reduce heating and cooling costs, in some cases by up to 50 percent. Additionally, spray foam insulation helps minimize random airborne moisture and pollutants from entering the home, ideal for allergy sufferers making an ideal home improvement investment that adds true value to a home.



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