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Thomas Skiffington, CRS, GRI, CRB, ABR, ePro, CLHMS, SRES, RECS, CDPE, ECOBROKER
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Tom's Blog

Tips and Tricks for Planning the Perfect Halloween

October 2, 2013 6:48 pm

BPT—Planning the perfect Halloween can be pretty spooky, and it's not just because of the ghosts and ghouls that run from door to door. Coordinating Halloween activities, planning a festive party and pulling off the perfect costume for each family member can be frightening. But with a few technology tricks, you'll be rewarded with a lot of treats and plenty of fun to make this holiday one to remember.

Eerie e-vites set the tone for parties

Planning a Halloween party? Email invites are perfectly acceptable for a casual soiree. Send out e-vites a few weeks ahead of time to give friends and family plenty of notice. Be sure to mention that costumes are encouraged, and list any other important details, like if the party is potluck style. The best part of email invites is you'll receive RSVPs electronically, so you can track responses and get the perfect amount of party supplies for all attendees. And if you have an Outlook.com email account, you can flag RSVPs to the top of your inbox for easy reference, and instantly chat with friends on Facebook, Skype or Gmail to firm up last minute details, right from your inbox.

Scary inbox? Organize email easily

If your inbox is a scary sight, it's time to tap your magic wand for an organization transformation. With Outlook.com, it's easy to sort through hundreds of messages in a few clicks. You can use the "sweep" feature to get rid of outdated emails you don't need, like all those costume coupon deals that have expired. 

Frightful or friendly, find the perfect costume

Whether young or old, Halloween is a time to let imaginations run wild and play pretend for the day. Finding the perfect costume for each member of the family can be a difficult and costly process. Track sales from your favorite Halloween supply stores and subscribe to email newsletters to get the latest alerts on costume trends and discounts. After Halloween is over, you can use Outlook.com's one-click unsubscribe to get off all those emails lists with little effort.

Access the perfect trick-or-treat schedule

Hit the candy motherload and have fun with all the neighborhood kids and parents by plotting your trick-or-treat schedule ahead of time. Upload it to SkyDrive and everyone can access it while en route on any device. Then, all you have to do is get your flashlights, candy bags and giggles ready.

Share boo-tiful photos from the day's festivities

Whether you love your smartphone or are a diehard digital camera guru, there are bound to be plenty of fun photos the group needs to exchange. Use Outlook.com and SkyDrive together to share all your Halloween snaps in one mail - the file size doesn't matter - and they will arrive in slideshow format! There's no limit to the number of photos you can share and, since they're all stored on SkyDrive, you can access them on any device anywhere, anytime. Share with Grandma and Grandpa, or gather the kids and relive the Halloween fun over and over again.

 

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5 Fast Personal Finance Tips from GreenPath Debt Solutions

October 2, 2013 6:48 pm

As the U.S. government faces its first days of furloughs, many government workers are facing days off without pay. GreenPath Debt Solutions, a nationwide, non-profit credit counseling and education organization, with offices across the United States, reminds furloughed employees that they need to have a plan in place, when it comes to their personal finances.

Here are some steps:

1. Set Up a Budget - Many people think if they have money in their account at the end of the month, they are doing okay. "While this may work in some cases, individuals who may see a drastic cut in their income will need to prepare ahead to make sure their expenses are covered," said David Flores, GreenPath counselor.

A simple way to build a budget is list all income. Then, list all your major expenses (mortgage, car payment, insurance premiums and utilities, etc.) and subtract from your net income. From there, track other expenses, like groceries, gasoline and credit cards.

2. Maintain Your Budget – "Years ago, we taught our clients to place cash each month in an envelope system, for a certain expense," said Flores. "Nowadays, we teach the envelope system as a budgeting concept with the idea that you only spend what has been allotted, and once it's gone, you stop spending." Try to maintain each monthly allotment without borrowing from other "envelopes."

3. Track your Expenses - Tracking expenses is a key aspect of maintaining the budget that you have created. If you do not track your expenses, there is no way of knowing whether you are staying within the budget you have established. "The most basic tracking method involves writing down all of your expenses in a notebook every day," said Flores. "Another tracking technique involves saving receipts for purchases and documenting that information in a notebook or on your computer."

4. Have the Talk – Communication is key when it comes to personal finance. Flores said that individuals should sit down today with their spouse and family and have an honest discussion about money. "People have misconceptions about how they should use money in a household," he said. "Some view money as something they should spend freely each month, while someone else looks at money as something that needs to be saved." Furloughed employees need to talk now about what steps they will take today, in case the government shut-down goes on for an extended amount of time.

5. Ask for Help – GreenPath Debt Solutions offers free debt counseling and coaching sessions, in-person, over the phone or Internet, with no obligation. "We work with thousands of people each year in helping them build a budget and a work plan to prepare for the future," said Flores. "We provide impartial advice from an experienced, degreed professional credit counselor."

A GreenPath counselor will thoroughly assess household income and expenses, find places to save, and develop a customized budget and action plan for achieving personal finance goals. "We encourage any furloughed employee, who has questions around budgeting and expenses, to reach out to us today for free help," he said.

Source: www.greenpath.org.

 

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Protect Your Kids from Cyberbullying

October 2, 2013 6:48 pm

Cyberbullying is more than just "kids being kids." While it generally starts as a face-to-face encounter with someone the victim knows, texts and social media can quickly evolve the situation into widespread harassment and public humiliation. Digital abuse or "cyberbullying" can take many forms from sending mean messages or threats, spreading rumors, posting unflattering pictures or pretending to be someone else online. More than 80 percent of teens use cell phones regularly, and about half have experienced some kind of abuse through social and digital media.

"Cyberbullying is a growing issue and it's critical that young people understand the consequences of what they post online," says Ann Cosimano, General Counsel of ARAG®, a global provider of legal solutions.  "Even something intended as a joke could reflect badly on them later when they apply for college or a job. And if remarks are intended to hurt or harass someone, the sender could lose a cell phone or online account. As laws in every state become stricter, cyberbullies – and their parents – are more frequently facing legal charges for harassment."

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, an annual event created to unite communities and educate the public on how to protect children from the effects of bullying.  It's a good opportunity to talk with your children and find out more about their school and online experiences with cyberbullying. Consider these tips to as a way to start the conversation and stay safer online.

"Once your child has a personal phone or social media account, it's time to explain the consequences of what's posted," says Cosimano. "Set – and keep – boundaries that consider loss of phone or computer privileges if damaging pictures or messages are posted or forwarded."

  • Make sure teens know that what goes online, stays online. "Any electronic message is, or can be, made, public very easily," says Cosimano. "I remind my kids regularly: if you don't want everyone to know, don't send it online. Better yet, follow the old adage, if you'd be embarrassed if it was published on the front page of the newspaper, then don't write it."
  • Encourage your children to tell an adult if they see cyberbullying happen. Let them know they will not be punished if they are the victim and reassure them that being bullied is not their fault.
  • If your child is harassed, keep all cyberbullying messages as proof. Depending on the severity of the message, parents may want to involve the school or the police. While going directly to the bully's parents might provide relief, it is not always practical or possible. In this case, letting the school, the cell phone carrier or Internet service provider intervene may be an effective first step.
  • If necessary, block the person who is sending harassing messages. You may also need to get a new phone number or email address and be cautious about who receives the new contact information.
  • "Make sure teens never share passwords with anyone except a parent," says Cosimano. "Don't write it down or place it in a place where others could find it."
  • Parents may want to keep the computer in a shared space such as a family room and limit Internet access in a teen's room. "It's also important to have times when everyone simply turns off all the technology. It's tough when everyone is busy, but set boundaries at meal time or a certain time in the evening when everyone turns off cell phones, tablets and computers."

Source: www.araggroup.com

 

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Word of the Day

October 2, 2013 6:48 pm

Mortgage company or mortgage banker. Financial intermediary that offers mortgages to borrowers, and then resells them to various lending institutions, government agencies, or private investors.

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Q: Home Sales and Taxes: What about Repairs Made to Get the Home Ready for Sale?

October 2, 2013 6:48 pm

A: If you realize a taxable gain after you sell your home, even with an exclusion, you can reduce your gain with selling costs.  These selling costs may include items that are otherwise considered to be repairs – such as painting, wallpapering, even planting flowers – if you complete them within 90 days of your home sale and provided they were completed to make the home more saleable.

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Home Furnishings Month Reveals New Trends, Ideas

October 1, 2013 6:42 pm

Since September was National Home Furnishings Month, I want to take a look at some of the hottest trends in home furnishings for the fall and winter.

Lifestyle blogger Amy Henderson says keeping things eco-friendly is a growing trend as more people look to reduce their carbon footprints. Henderson says look for furniture composed of repurposed materials to limit the amount of waste you’re contributing to the planet.

She notes that the farmhouse look is falling back into style among many homeowners, but combining different decor is still a popular theme among professional interior designers. Whether you want to go more rustic in your contemporary kitchen or insert vintage decor into your modern bedroom, Henderson says take this concept to heart as you work.

Then there is the color - she says the right hues can instantly transform your space from looking dated to fresh. That being said, bright and vivid colors are the name of the game.

Specifically, she says, these tones are being seen in furniture – not just wall paint – which gives flair and visual interest to living areas that could use it. Henderson says before you dismiss paint swatches in bright blue or mellow yellow, think about what these hues could do for your home.

When it comes to furnishings, the folks at Stony Creek Furniture say smaller scaled furniture is very hot right now. And while it’s small on size, it’s huge on style and functionality. 

They are also loving accent chairs - and advising clients to go a little wild on the pattern – maybe a dramatic black and white graphic. Designer Comer Wear of Century Furniture told Furniture Today magazine earlier this year that today's market offers an accent chair for every setting.

"Chairs are a perfect way to include a fabric that you don't want to show in a big way," he said. "We style and put together our showroom settings so our dealers feel comfortable with mixing and matching, but we also push the envelope at market to show unusual pairings of fabrics and frames."

Office furniture and desks, are also very popular since so many people work at home need a functional and stylish desk. The marketplace has answered with myriad choices in every style imaginable.

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Most Common Fall Home Improvements for Homeowners This Season

October 1, 2013 6:42 pm

With over half of all homeowners planning to make some type of improvement to their home this year, the question is, what exactly are they changing? Homeowners are choosing to wait until the high temperatures break and cooler weather hits to begin outdoor work, and home improvement companies are looking to unload new products to prepare for the new season, allowing homeowners to grab some great deals as autumn begins.

The most common fall home improvement projects include fencing, interior and exterior painting, window work, flooring, and roof repair, all of which are in preparation for the cold winter weather when home improvement projects are not at the top of your priority list. By getting these projects done before winter, you can put your home improvement projects to rest until spring without worrying about leaky roofs, cold air coming through cracks in the windows, and maintaining the value of your home with fencing and a fresh coat of paint.

"The cooler autumn temperatures make for the perfect time to focus more on the home and any remodeling projects," says Jeremy Floyd of Fence Center. "Such projects like adding in bamboo or aluminum fencing, not only increases your family's security, but the value of your home. Now that autumn is officially here, people are likely beginning to get these home improvement projects rolling."

According to Floyd:

  • Projects such as flooring, such as wood, can only be done during certain months of the year because certain types of flooring employ adhesives that need temperatures inside the home to be within a certain range, usually between 70 and 80 degrees. Attempting to employ these types of flooring in the winter can make it difficult for the flooring to dry and bond, which will prove problematic down the road.
  • Fall offers the perfect time to increase the security of your home, particularly for fencing, as the ground is not too hard to work with.
  • Painting provides a pungent scent and sometimes toxic fumes, making fall the perfect time for painting. Without the humidity, paint can dry quickly, keeping the aromas of the paint to a minimum.
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10 Great Dollar Store Buys

October 1, 2013 6:42 pm

If you are pinching pennies, a dollar store can be your best friend. Not everything there is truly a bargain. But consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch recommends 10 dollar store purchases that offer good quality as well as big savings:

  • Cleaning supplies – According the Good Housekeeping Research Institute, most dollar store cleaning supplies work just as well as name brands at a savings of 30% or more – and that includes sponges, mops, and scrub brushes.
  • Food containers – Plastic food containers in all shapes and sizes cost a fraction of the name brands at retail stores and will keep your food fresh just as well.
  • Gift wrap and bags – They will probably be of lesser quality than what you find at the party store. But they are just as attractive, and since most bags and wraps are discarded anyway, why pay so much more than you need to?
  • Greeting cards – Cards may cost as little as fifty cents at the dollar store. You may not find a great selection, for many occasions you will find them a worthwhile buy.
  • Holiday items – From Halloween centerpieces to Christmas décor and Valentine’s Day items, you will find a huge selection of holiday items and candy at the dollar store.
  • Party supplies - You can find paper plates, napkins, and plastic utensils in a variety of colors at the dollar store for about a third of the cost at party supply stores and less than half what you’ll pay at the grocery store. Also look for streamers, plastic tablecloths and helium balloons at great prices.
  • Personal grooming items – Hair bushes, tooth brushes, tooth pastes and deodorants are significantly less expensive at the dollar store.
  • Picture frames – You may be amazed at the variety of picture frames in all sizes available for a buck at the dollar store. Look like a hero and frame your children’s artworks for practically nothing.
  • Scented candles – You can find these in a variety of sizes and colors for a dollar, compared to three bucks or more at other stores.
  • Shampoo and conditioner – Unless you are loyal to one particular label, you will probably find that most shampoos and conditioners from the dollar stores do as good a job as their name-brand counterparts.  
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Q: What Is a Second Mortgage?

October 1, 2013 6:42 pm

A: It is a loan against the equity in your home.  Financial institutions will generally let you borrow up to 80 percent of the appraised value of your home, minus the balance of your original mortgage.

You may incur all the fees normally associated with a mortgage, including closing costs, title insurance, and processing fees.

Home improvement loans are often written as second mortgages.  And sometimes you can get a college tuition loan by using a second mortgage.

In case of default, the loan is paid off from the proceeds of the sale of the property, after the first mortgage has been paid off first.

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5 Sure Ways to Waste Your Money

September 30, 2013 6:42 pm

No matter how careful we are with money, everyone has holes in the budget: small indulgences or careless mistakes that end up costing big dollars. The finance experts at Kiplinger’s point out six common money-wasters it makes good sense to avoid:

Carrying a balance – This can cost hundreds of dollars each year in interest – and also costs you down the line in the form of lower credit scores that trigger higher interest rates on loans. If you can’t pay off balances each month, at least keep your balance to less than 25 percent of available credit.

Paying late fees on missed deadlines – It’s easy to miss a payment occasionally. But if you miss a credit card payment by even one day, you will pay a late fee of $25 ($35 if it's the second time in six months) – and your credit score could also take a hit. A history of on-time payments accounts for 35 percent of your FICO credit score -- more than any other factor. If you have a good payment record, you should call your card issuer and ask that a one-time late fee be waived.

Buying insurance you don’t need – Unless you have people financially dependent on you, you may not need as much life insurance as you are paying for. You can also probably do without credit-card insurance (use the premium to pay down debt), rental-car insurance (most auto policies carry some coverage) and mortgage life insurance (a regular term-life insurance policy is more comprehensive).

Overspending on gas and oil – Most cars do fine on regular gas. Be sure tires are properly inflated for best gas mileage – and most cars today require oil changes every five or six thousand miles, not every 3,000 as they once did. Check your owner’s manual regarding regular maintenance – and opt for a fuel-efficient car.

Keeping unhealthy habits – The average price per pack of cigarettes in the U.S. is $6.03, but health-related costs per pack are $35, according to the American Cancer Society. Over a year, those added costs can amount to $12,775 for a pack-a-day smoker. Another habit to quit: indoor tanning. There is a 10 percent  tax on indoor tanning services – and as with cigarettes, the true cost of tanning -- one of the most dangerous forms of cancer-causing radiation -- is higher than the price you pay per session.

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