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Tom's Blog

No Backyard? No Problem - Yardless Gardening

August 1, 2013 1:50 pm

(BPT) - Backyard or back patio, it's time to get planting, no matter where you live. The number of American households engaging in do-it-yourself lawn and garden activities rose by more than 3 million in recent years, the National Gardening Association's National Garden 2012 Survey found. That can include you, even if you don't have an actual yard.

Yardless gardening is a popular alternative for people short on green space looking to flex (or find) their green thumbs.

Make a container garden
Small back patio? Window sill? That's all the space you need for a yardless garden. "You can enjoy a garden, no matter your space or place," says Certified Nursery Consultant Nick Blassman. "It's an easy project to take on in a weekend and can make a big difference in your home."

Step one: pick your plants
Edible plants like basil, oregano, parsley, thyme and rosemary are great choices because they're heavy producers and easy to grow in small spaces. The Home Depot's Bonnie Organic herbs are healthy options to have on hand when you're chopping, dicing and using fresh herbs in the kitchen. These herbs come in peat pots made of biodegradable material so if you plant outside, just drop the entire pot in the dirt - there's no plastic to throw away. Love tomatoes (or ketchup)? Heinz introduced Heinz tomato varieties this spring, which can be grown in a container or trained to grow up a wire cage or teepee of bamboo.

Step two: choose your vessel
A couple factors to consider when you're looking for pots and planters. First, make sure your plant is going to have enough room to grow and develop roots. A good rule of thumb is to use smaller pots for herbs and larger pots for fruits and vegetables. Next, flip the pot over - does it have a hole in the bottom? Planters should have drainage holes so your plant doesn't get waterlogged.

Step three: gear up 
Big tools in a small planter equal a potentially disastrous situation. Make sure you've got the right gardening tools for your job - a small spade, trimmers, gloves and a watering can or hose.

Step four: fill 'er up 
You want the fertilizer or potting mix that's going to nourish and help your herbs thrive. "Choose a potting mix with ingredients like sphagnum peat moss, vermiculite or perlite, and aged compost products to help retain moisture and control the release of water into the plant's roots," says Blassman.




Word of the Day

August 1, 2013 1:50 pm

Real estate investment trust (REIT). Entity that allows a very large number of investors to pool their money in the purchase of real estate, but as passive investors.  The investors do not buy directly.  Instead, they purchase shares in the REIT that owns the real estate investment.  


Q: What If I Am Turned Down for a Loan?

August 1, 2013 1:50 pm

A: Unless your credit is absolutely abysmal – with all kinds of judgments, liens, excessive delinquencies or non-payments, foreclosures and bankruptcies that show no attempt on your part to make progress – you can generally get a loan.

More and more borrowers are finding ways to become homeowners despite past credit problems, a lack of a credit history, or debt-to-income ratios that exceed traditional limits.  This is because a greater number of lenders are willing to take a chance with borrowers today that they once turned down for home loans.

If you are denied a mortgage, ask the lender for a full explanation. If you feel you are creditworthy, then appeal the decision in writing.



8 Ways to Slash Summer Energy Bills

July 31, 2013 1:22 am

When the mercury climbs, summer energy bills climb with them – primarily because we are using more water and air conditioning. U.S. News and World Report suggests eight easy ways to keep your energy bills in check:

  • Check the hot water heater – Most likely, it is set for 140 degrees. Turning it down to 120 degrees, sufficient for most water use, can save you 6 to 10 percent on your bill. But check your dishwasher’s manual first. Newer models may require 140 degree temps for optimal performance.
  • Don’t turn on the oven – Cooking meals with a toaster oven, electric skillet, slow cooker or microwave uses far less energy.
  • Turn off the ceiling fan when leaving home – Ceiling fans don’t really cool. They only circulate air. But they do use energy, so turn them off when you leave home and on again when you return.
  • Use electric fans – they use far less energy than electric air conditioning, and they may be all you need to keep cool, especially in the mornings and evenings.
  • Dust the fridge coils – when the coils underneath or behind the refrigerator are covered with dust, the appliance is working harder and costing you more money.
  • Check fridge and freezer temps – The ideal refrigerator temperature is between 37 and 40 degrees, and the ideal freezer reading is 5 degrees. Any colder, and you're wasting money. Also note that full refrigerators and freezers do not have to work as hard to stay cool.
  • Replace air filters – Clogged filters can lead to air conditioners and appliance break-downs. In any case, they make appliances work harder, using more energy and dollars.
  • Plant trees – Planted strategically near the house, trees will create more shade as they grow and help cool off your home. According to the U.S. Forest Service Center for Urban Forest Research, shade from two 25-foot tall trees -- one on the west side and one on the east -- will save a typical house $57 a year in energy costs.

Twenty-Somethings Less Financially Independent

July 31, 2013 1:22 am

Financial independence is even more elusive than it was two years ago for 20-somethings coming of age amid global economic uncertainty. Millennials with at least some college education who claim to be "totally independent" decreased 26 percent in 2013 (17 percent) compared to 2011 (23 percent), according to the second nationwide survey by The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc.

"Many of my peers suffer from a failure-to-launch syndrome directly related to the surge in unemployment during the Great Recession and slow pace of recovery," says Mekael Teshome, economist at The PNC Financial Services Group. "It is not a lack of ambition we are seeing in these data. It is more about a lack of opportunity that has hindered many young adults' progress against their professional and financial objectives."

More than half (58 percent) of 20-29 year-olds with some college rate themselves behind where they expected to be in terms of financial success, a 26 percent increase since 2011. However, for many of these children of baby-boomers, optimism remains high; 60 percent of those who do not identify as "totally independent" are determined to be independent soon.

The second PNC Financial Independence Survey sought insights into the financial mindset of 20-29 year-olds who are establishing their careers in a highly competitive job market in the shadows of the global recession. The unique study compares responses both within the age group and among those with and without higher education.

Path to Financial Independence

The top three factors identified by 20-somethings as essential to achieving financial independence are:

  • Paying the bills (78 percent): While paying one's own living expenses is considered essential to achieving financial independence, only six in 10 (60 percent) of those aged 25-29 have achieved that milestone.
  • Obtaining full-time job in preferred profession (59 percent): Only one third (35 percent) of 25-29 year-olds surveyed described their current job as an established position in their chosen field while 71 percent had expected to hit this milestone already. Hard work (64 percent), experience (58 percent) and education (57 percent) are the factors that 20-somethings believe did or will help get that elusive, preferred job.
  • Moving out of parents' home (55 percent): Forty percent of all 20-somethings and more than one-fourth (28 percent) of 25-29 year olds still live with parents or other relatives. There are also more mama's boys (44 percent) than daddy's little girls (37 percent) when it comes to still living with parents.

"Twenty-somethings tend to have fewer skills than their older counterparts and generally earn less as well, which makes it especially difficult for them to cope with a competitive job market and steer their lives in the direction they hoped," Teshome said.

Findings: Achievement, Realism, Stress, Education

Better Off: Only 53 percent say they are better off financially than their parents were at this age. Hispanics are more likely than others to say that they are better off than the previous generation. Those with some college education are more likely to say they are better off.

Optimism Turns to Realism: While most 20-somethings tend to be optimistic about their future, a new element of realism sets in for many around 25 years of age as they display less optimism about issues like paying off debt, finding a career they love and their general financial future.

Great Expectations: Though more likely to be financially independent, those in their mid-to-late twenties are more likely to describe themselves as behind expectations than are 20-24 year olds. Females (64 percent) are far more likely than males (43 percent) to describe themselves as behind expectations.

Stress Factors: Twenty-somethings find financial issues most stressful, particularly a perceived lack of financial security (23 percent), followed by uncertainty of finding a job (17 percent).

The College Advantage: Higher education matters when it comes to identifying oneself as having a high level of financial independence. Only 36 percent with a high-school education rate themselves as financially independent compared to 50 percent of those with a college degree. Those with more education are more optimistic on every measure than are those with only high school, regardless of age.




Know Your Rights when You Fly

July 31, 2013 1:22 am

When volatile summer weather grounds a plane, it creates a domino effect of cancelled flights across the country. Add in that nearly 209 million people fly June through August, and you could easily find that part of your summer adventure may be spent trying to get a seat on another plane.

Just ask Marcy Baustian, a high school teacher who recently spent three weeks leading her French Club students through France, only to have the final leg of the journey back to Des Moines grounded in Detroit for 48 hours. "Getting rebooked was difficult because it's very tough to find 18 seats on a flight – especially to Des Moines since bigger planes aren't scheduled through there," says Baustian.

After spending the night in the Detroit airport, she spent the next day working with the airline to get rebooked on a flight to Kansas City, where parents were willing to drive and pick up their children. That flight was also cancelled due to weather. The group eventually rented a charter bus – after their travel agency called 30 bus companies and offered to cover the expense temporarily. (A claim to cover the cost of the bus is pending with the airline.)

While Baustian and her students' ordeal was extreme, airline travel often comes with some sort of challenge. "It can be difficult to know when a situation that started as inconvenient has crossed the line into a violation of rights," says Ann Cosimano, General Counsel for ARAG®, a global provider of legal solutions. "Knowing when to be patient – or when to speak up – can take some of the stress out of travel." Here are a few reminders of the rights you have when you fly.

When Your Flight Is Delayed or Cancelled

If your flight is delayed or cancelled for problems beyond anyone's control, like weather or safety issues, most airlines will rebook you on the next available flight at no charge. They may even book you with another airline without charging you extra. Airlines are not required to provide any amenities, such as meal vouchers or hotel rooms, in this situation.

Similarly, if your flight is delayed or cancelled for something the airline could control, such as a maintenance issue, the airline will likely rebook you on the next available flight, either theirs or another airline's, at no charge. The airline is still not required to provide amenities, however, many will provide meal vouchers and even hotel rooms and grooming kits if your delay causes an unexpected overnight stay.

When You're Bumped from Your Flight

If you are "bumped" for a domestic flight that is oversold, you are likely legally entitled to compensation for a new flight. Generally, when the flight is oversold, the airlines will ask for willing passengers to volunteer to give up their seats in exchange for a later flight and compensation. They may also negotiate with free tickets or travel vouchers. If you accept one of these offers, be sure to ask some deal-breaking questions such as when the ticket expires or if it's only available certain days of the week or during certain seasons.

If no one volunteers and you're bumped involuntarily, you should receive a written statement from the airline that describes your rights and how the carrier decided which passengers were bumped. If you're not rebooked and scheduled to arrive at your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, then you are entitled to compensation in the form of a check or cash. The amount depends on the ticket price and length of delay. To be eligible for compensation, you must have a confirmed reservation and have checked-in with the airline within their deadlines.

If the airline must substitute a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, the carrier isn't required to pay people who are bumped as a result. In addition, on domestic flights using aircraft with 30 through 60 passenger seats, compensation is not required if you were bumped due to safety-related aircraft weight or balance constraints.

If you are delayed on the tarmac of a domestic flight before taking off or after landing, you may have rights if the delay is more than three hours. DOT rules prohibit most U.S. airlines to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless air traffic control or the pilot decides there are reasons related to safety, security or airport operations.

If you are delayed on the tarmac of a domestic flight, you are entitled to food and water no later than two hours after the delay begins. Lavatories must remain operable and medical attention must be available if needed.




Q: Should I Hire a Professional or Do the Job Myself?

July 31, 2013 1:22 am

A: It depends on the complexity of the project and your ability to do the job well yourself.  Really consider whether you have the time, skills, tools, help, and legal knowledge of local regulations to get the job done.  While you could save up to an estimated 20 percent of the project cost doing the work yourself – there are plenty of how-to books and workshops offered by home improvement stores to guide you – be aware that you could also end up spending more money and time if you botch the job or unforeseen problems arise.  Think, too, about resale value.  If the quality of your work is less than professional, your home’s value could drop.  So, unless you’re highly skilled or experienced, shy away from major home improvements that involve structural changes.  Stick to building shelves, painting, and other minor improvements instead.



Word of the Day

July 31, 2013 1:22 am

Real estate broker.  Individual who has passed a state broker’s test and represents others in realty transactions.  Anyone having his or her own office must be a broker.


It's Not Too Late to Dig into a Summer Garden Project

July 26, 2013 10:18 pm

So you are staring at that corner of your yard again and wishing you had the energy last spring to plant a simple vegetable garden. I have some good news for you.

In many regions across the country, July and even early August are fine for planting new veggies. In fact, according to Carl Wilson, of the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, ( squeezing vegetables in before fall frosts makes good use of garden space available from the harvest of lettuce and other spring crops.

Wilson suggests greens like cabbage, collards, endive or green onions can all go in the ground by mid July and be ready to harvest before average mid-October frost in the Denver area.

How about roots, and fruiting veggies?

Get your carrots and turnip in by late July, or consider beets by the first week of August, or radish as late as the first week of September. Hurry and get your cucumber, cauliflower and summer squash in by mid -July, or aim for planting broccoli by month's end.

Hill Gardens of Maine ( says you can plant a crop of short-season sweet corn during early July for a really delicious late crop just before frost. They also offer thios tip for reducing raccoon damage to your corn:

As the corn seedlings break ground, inter-plant winter squash every few feet. Squash vines have sharp, needle-like spines all along their stems and leaves that repel raccoons. They very much dislike getting tiny, painful "stickers" in their paws...and will quickly learn to avoid the discomfort.

If you are not up for corn, Hill Gardens says Oriental greens and vegetables will grow and perform very well when sown even as late as six weeks before first frost.

Just remember, when all your neighbors' gardens are buttoned up, you need to plan for watering, cultivating, weeding, staking, tying, thinning, picking and bug-squishing well into October in most of the northern half of the country.



Will Your Beneficiaries Beat the Odds?

July 26, 2013 10:18 pm

Two-thirds of baby boomers will inherit a total $7.6 trillion in their lifetimes, according to the Boston College Center for Retirement Research -- that’s $1.7 trillion more than China’s 2012 GDP.

But they’ll lose 70 percent of that legacy, and not because of taxes. By the end of their children’s lives -- the third generation -- nine of 10 family fortunes will be gone. 

“The third-generation rule is so true, it’s enshrined in Chinese proverb: ‘Wealth never survives three generations,’ ” says John Hartog of Hartog & Baer Trust and Estate Law, ( “The American version of that is ‘shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”

There are a number of reasons that happens, and most of them are preventable say Hartog; CPA Jim Kohles, chairman of RINA accountancy corporation, (; and wealth management expert Haitham “Hutch” Ashoo, CEO of Pillar Wealth Management, (

How can the current generation of matriarchs, patriarchs and their beneficiaries beat the odds? All three financial experts say the solutions involve honest conversations – the ones families often avoid because they can be painful – along with passing along family values and teaching children from a young age how to manage money.

“Give them some money now and see how they handle it.” Many of the “wealth builders,” the first generation who worked so hard to build the family fortune, teach their children social responsibility; to take care of their health; to drive safely. “But they don’t teach them financial responsibility; they think they’ll get it by osmosis,” says estate lawyer Hartog.

If those children are now middle-aged, it’s probably too late for that. But the first generation can see what their offspring will do with a sudden windfall of millions by giving them a substantial sum now – without telling them why.

“I had a client who gave both children $500,000. After 18 months, one child had blown through the money and the other had turned it into $750, 000,” Hartog says.

Child A will get his inheritance in a restricted-access trust.

“Be willing to relinquish some control.” Whether it’s preparing one or more of their children to take over the family business, or diverting some pre-inheritance wealth to them, the first generation often errs by retaining too much control, says CPA Kohles.

“We don’t give our successor the freedom to fail,” Kohles says. “If they don’t fail, they don’t learn, so they’re not prepared to step up when the time comes.”

In the family business, future successors need to be able to make some decisions that don’t require the approval of the first generation, Kohles says. With money, especially for 1st-generation couples with more than $10 million (the first $5 million of inheritance from each parent is not subject to the estate tax), parents need to plan for giving away some of their wealth before they die. That not only allows the beneficiaries to avoid a 40 percent estate tax, it helps them learn to manage the money.

“Give your beneficiaries the opportunity to build wealth, and hold family wealth meetings.” The first generation works and sacrifices to make the family fortune, so often the second generation doesn’t have to and the third generation is even further removed from that experience, says wealth manager Ashoo.

“The best way they’re going to be able to help preserve the wealth is if they understand what goes into creating it and managing it – not only the work, but the values and the risks,” Ashoo says.

The first generation should allocate seed money to the second generation for business, real estate or some other potentially profitable venture, he says.

Holding ongoing family wealth meetings with your advisors is critical to educating beneficiaries, as well as passing along family and wealth values, Ashoo says. It also builds trust between the family and the primary advisors.

Ashoo tells of a recent experience chatting with two deca-millionaires aboard a yacht in the Bahamas.

“They both built major businesses and sold them,” Ashoo says. “At this point, it’s no longer about what their money will do for them -- it’s about what the next generations will do with their money.”

John Hartog is a partner at Hartog & Baer Trust and Estate Law. He is a certified specialist in estate planning, trust and probate law, and taxation law. Jim Kohles is chairman of the board of RINA accountancy corporation. He is a certified public accountant specializing in business consulting, succession and retirement planning, and insurance. Haitham “Hutch” Ashoo is the CEO of Pillar Wealth Management, LLC, specializing in client-centered wealth management. All three are based in Walnut Creek, Calif., and advise ultra affluent families.



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