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Tom's Blog

By John Voket

February 11, 2013 2:52 pm

Sometimes, during the coldest, darkest days of winter, I like to see a flash of natural green to warm and brighten the surroundings. That brought me to a little lesson by Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor at the University of Vermont who writes about indoor topiaries.

Professor Perry explains that topiary, by definition, is the art of growing plants and training them over a frame to create a three-dimensional object. The word is also used to describe the finished product.

If you want to take a crack at creating one, he says start with a simple, open-frame style topiary.

Frames are available at garden centers, or shape your own out of a coat hanger, chicken wire, or similar material. Circle and heart-shapes are among the most popular shapes for these topiaries along with star or triangles.

You will need a clay or stoneware pot with a drainage hole (pot size would depend on size of desired topiary), potting soil, sterile sand, twist-ties or cotton twine, and creeping vine-type plants with tendrils.

English ivy is a good plant to use for your first topiary, and Professor Perry says as it's easy to grow, train, and is available in many varieties with different colored leaves..

To create a simple topiary, he says:
• Fill the bottom half of the pot with a mixture of half sand, half potting soil - the sand adds stability
• Stand the wire form upright inside and add potting soil all around it, making sure the form stays in place.
• Gently remove strands of ivy from the plant, being careful to include the roots and place in the pot, covering the roots with an inch or two of soil.
• Wind each strand of ivy separately around the topiary form, using twist-ties or soft cotton twine to loosely secure the ivy to the wire.
• Water thoroughly, fertilize every two to three weeks with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer, and mist with water periodically.
Train the ivy to encircle the form. and once the two ends meet, pinch the tips to encourage side shoots that can be trained to fill in empty spots and give your topiary a full, lush appearance.
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Q: Is It Best to Save for the Ultimate Dream Home or Begin with a Less Expensive Starter Home?

February 8, 2013 4:44 pm

A: It can take a long time to save for that perfect dream home. Meanwhile, the market has been flooded with some of the most favorable mortgage interest rates in years. Low rates make housing more affordable, which is why so many buyers have jumped on the home buying bandwagon.

Home-price appreciation has also been strong, making very solid gains in communities across the country. In fact, home prices are expected to increase 2.5 percent to 3 percent annually over the next five years.

If you purchase a starter home today, you can potentially begin to build value that can lead to the purchase of a larger, or more desirable, trade-up home in the future.
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Word of the Day

February 8, 2013 4:44 pm

Grace period. Specified period of time to meet a commitment after it becomes due, without penalty or default. For example, most lenders allow a two-week grace period after the due date of the mortgage payment before a late fee is imposed.
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How-To: Consolidate Debt and Credit

February 8, 2013 4:44 pm

No one likes to be in debt. But if you find yourself falling behind, don’t throw in your financial towel just yet. Through careful consolidation, you can get back on track. Read the following tips for help.

A smart first step is for you to define your goals. You need a clear understanding of what you want to achieve and how it will benefit you, in order to make the right debt consolidation choice.

Many different approaches exist to help you consolidate debt, so you need to do your homework. Only by weighing the pros and cons of each solution, can you know the best option for your situation. Think about which of the following goals is most important to you. Once you have chosen, you will know where to focus.

1. Improve Your Cash Flow: Reducing the size of your monthly payments frees up money you can use in a variety of ways.
2. Get Out of Debt as Fast as Possible: Becoming debt free allows you to focus on building wealth, establishing a rainy-day fund, or buying a home.
3. Protect Your Credit: You may need to weigh if it is worth harming your credit, in order to get out of debt faster.
4. Get Out of Debt at Lowest Total Cost: Reducing your overall costs to becoming debt free puts more money in your pocket to use for achieving other financial goals.
5. Reduce Your Debt Stress: Stress can come from fear of missing a monthly payment, repeated collection calls, or simply by the uncertainty of having no defined plan in place. Achieving greater peace of mind may be your primary goal.

Once you have a concrete goal in mind, get to work making it a reality. If need be, contact a professional for assistance.

Source: Bills.com
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Productivity-Boosting Improvements for Your Home Office

February 8, 2013 4:44 pm

(BPT) - Let's face it - not everyone has a home office that inspires productivity. But if you work from home at all - and the Bureau of Labor Statistics says 24 percent of people employed outside the home do at least some of their work at home - having a comfortable, organized and appealing home office can make your job easier.

Home Business Magazine says there are around 38 million home-based businesses in the U.S., and 34.3 million to 36.6 million households with active home offices. That's a lot of home offices - and a lot of ugly desks, dim lighting and clutter, too.

Many home offices are less the product of careful planning than something that evolves from a spare bedroom, bonus room or an extra corner in the basement. Even if your home office is more of an after-thought, it's possible to make some simple improvements that will enhance its appeal - and your productivity.

Here are four improvement and design choices that can help make your home office a hub of good business:

Begin with the basics


Renovating any room should start with the simplest investment that also provides a big payoff: paint. Repainting is one of the cheapest, easiest ways to completely change the look of a room. A fresh coat of paint, no matter what color, imparts a sense of freshness and energy to a room - just the kind of effect that can enhance your productivity.

When choosing a color for your home office, keep in mind that the hue should serve as a backdrop, not a distraction. Red may be your favorite color, and one you love in your bedroom, but home workers often spend eight hours a day or more in their home offices. Will the color you choose hold up to that kind of intense togetherness?

Invest in storage

Clutter in your home can range from simply annoying to downright depressing. In your home office, it can spell disaster - in the form of lost paperwork, missing projects and even lost business.

Plenty of storage and an organizational system that makes the most of it are essential for your home office. Whether you opt for open shelving, locking file cabinets, a desk with ample drawers or a combination of storage types, it's important to find solutions that work for you and fit your home office space.

Emphasize natural light

Of course you're aware of the importance of good lighting in an office setting, but did you know that ample natural lighting can boost your productivity? The mood-boosting effects of natural light are well documented, with many studies showing that office workers exposed to daylight throughout their work day are happier, healthier and more productive than those who function only under artificial light.

In your home office, ample natural light from sources such as a skylight can help reduce Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), eyestrain and stress - all ailments that stand in the way of productivity.

"Adding a skylight to your home office can be a cost-effective way to ensure you get plenty of natural light during office hours," says Ross Vandermark of VELUX America, makers of Energy Star-qualified skylights. "What's more, a properly installed, energy-efficient skylight can help you control heating, cooling and lighting costs in your home office. If you opt for a fresh air skylight, it can also help enhance the air quality in your work space."

Even if your office is on the ground floor, you may be able to add a skylight. Products such as VELUX's Sun Tunnel tubular skylights allow you to bring natural light to virtually anywhere in your home.

Still not sure of the benefit in a home office setting? Add the latest solar powered fresh air skylight and an energy-efficient solar powered blind to your home office and the products, as well as the installation, will be eligible for a 30 percent federal tax credit as a green home improvement. That's good business! Visit www.veluxusa.com or energystar.gov to learn more about energy-efficient skylights.

Sound it out

Noise can be a huge distraction, whether you're on deadline for a major project or on a conference call with a new client. Simple soundproofing steps can help you reduce noise in your home office - without costing you a mint.

Start with a good quality, thick carpet, which will help dampen sound. Next, add thick drapes and fabric surfaces such as an upholstered chair - fabrics help reduce the movement of sound waves.

With more Americans working from home, creating an inviting, inspiring office space is more important than ever.
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Snow Safety! Tips for Staying Safe with Snow Blowers

February 8, 2013 4:44 pm

Each year about 5,700 people in the United States visit an emergency room due to an overlooked seasonal health risk: snow blower-related injuries. These include fractured bones, cuts to skin and soft tissue, and serious bruises or sprains. In more than 10 percent of injuries, the snow blower amputates the user's hand, fingers or both.

"Snow blower injuries tend to happen when someone stops paying attention for even a few seconds," says R. Michael Koch , M.D., assistant professor of Surgery at New York Medical College, Chief of the Microsurgery and Replantation service at the Westchester Medical Center, and a surgeon with the New York Group for Plastic Surgery. "Even after the snow blower is turned off, tension is stored in the rotor blades. A hand or finger stuck in to remove wet snow or ice is at risk for being cut, mangled or even amputated."

Fortunately, advances in microsurgery often enable surgeons to reattach, replace or patch injured hands and fingers. A microsurgeon uses specialized tools with microscopes to select and lift tiny blood vessels, nerves and tissue like skin or fat from a healthy part of a patient's body to repair the wounded area.

Dr. Koch offers tips to keep limbs safe during snow blower season:
• Keep hands and fingers out of the snow blower mechanism whether it's running OR turned off – tension stored in the blades may cause them to release and turn when a stuck object is removed.
• Take advantage of safety devices built into most new-model snow blowers -- do not disable them. Take time to review the key safety features in the owner's manual.
• PAY ATTENTION! Snow blower accidents often happen when thoughts and focus are elsewhere. Many people seriously injured from snow blowers simply got distracted, or rushed and skipped important safety steps.
• Wear thick gloves when using a snow blower. They may not offer complete protection from injury, but can lessen the impact and are preferable to thin gloves or none at all.
For most people, pushing a snow blower is not an activity they do routinely. So pay attention, and focus on clearing snow thoroughly, but safely.
Source: The New York Group for Plastic Surgery
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Expecting? Money Advice for New Parents

February 8, 2013 2:44 pm

(BPT) - Have you ever heard the saying that "babies don't come with owner's manuals"? It's true that no matter how many books you read, classes you take, or experienced parents you talk to, you can never be completely prepared for the challenges and joys of parenthood. You can, however, prepare yourself for the costs of a new baby - by looking after your finances before your bundle arrives.

New parents don't always prepare for the expenses associated with having a baby. One survey by Redbook Magazine and VISA found that less than 50 percent of expectant parents create a new budget that includes baby expenses. And while 76 percent of parents-to-be felt financially prepared for a baby, after the tyke arrived, 41 percent of new parents said they weren't as prepared as they had thought.

Taking steps like clipping coupons and buying secondhand clothes can help new parents save cash, but other important financial considerations - such as protecting their credit scores - require advanced planning. Here are some tips to help expectant and new parents to look after their finances:

Before the baby arrives

* Review your health insurance and what it covers. The full costs of pre-natal care, maternal care and delivery are not always covered by all insurance plans. As soon as you know you are pregnant - or when you make the decision to conceive - contact your insurer and ask for a detailed explanation of benefits. The Redbook survey found that unexpected hospital costs - things that couples thought their insurance would cover - cost one in four new parents more than $2,000 from their own pockets. Knowing what's covered, and what's not, can help you determine how much cash to set aside for hospital expenses.

* Review your credit.
One way or another, you will be spending money - a lot of it - when the new baby arrives. Whether you need to tap credit to buy nursery furniture or need a good credit score so you can get a better auto policy that costs less, it's important to understand this aspect of your financial well-being. Enrolling in a product such as freecreditscore.com can help you understand your credit score and status, which can help you make informed decisions about how you will use credit during this potentially financially challenging time.

* Create a spending plan. Your overall spending plan should not only include a budget for day-to-day costs like diapers, but a long-term plan for larger expenses such as nursery furniture, day care, and college savings. It's important to estimate not only how much you'll spend but when you'll spend it, too. For example, your short-term budget may include the cost of a crib - an item you will need immediately - but you may be able to postpone other furniture purchases like a dresser or changing table.

When you're new parents
* Buy wisely and frugally. From clipping coupons to buying off-brand names or purchasing from second-hand stores, it's possible to equip your baby with everything he or she needs at a fraction of the cost of buying brand new, brand-name retail products. It's normal to feel pressured to buy new, top-of-the-line luxury items for your baby, but used items and off-brand products can be just as good. Check out online ratings for a used item's durability before you buy it, and see what other consumers have to say about cheaper brands of diapers, baby wipes and clothing.

* Continue to keep an eye on your credit; it's a key element of your financial health. Good credit directly affects your ability to buy that bigger house you need as Junior starts to grow, get an auto loan for a minivan, or secure a new job in some cases. The Internet can help. For example, freecreditscore.com offers a Score Planner that lets members and nonmembers see for free how their financial behaviors can affect their credit scores.

While nothing can really prepare you for the agony of sleepless nights with a newborn or the joys of seeing your baby take his or her first steps, it is possible to prepare for the financial responsibilities associated with becoming a parent.
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Top 25 Most Romantic Dining Cities in the U.S.

February 8, 2013 2:44 pm

A candle-lit table for two is the epitome of a romantic evening. While we may typically think of our largest cities as magnets for romance seekers, romance thrives in cities and communities of all sizes. A recent OpenTable study produced a list of the most romantic cities in the U.S., calculated using three variables: the percentage of restaurants rated "romantic" according to OpenTable diner reviews; the percentage of tables seated for two; and the percentage of people who dined out for Valentine's Day last year.

"Just as every diner has a different idea of what makes a meal romantic, each of these cities has a diverse dining culture," says Caroline Potter , Chief Dining Officer of OpenTable. "The commonality lies in the proportion of diners seeking a romantic dining experience - and the number of area restaurants providing just that. If you're looking for love, you just might find it in any of these locales."

The following cities, listed in order, comprise the Top 25 Most Romantic Cities in the U.S. The complete list may also be viewed at http://www.opentable.com/RomanticCities.

Top 25 Most Romantic Dining Cities in the U.S.

1. San Antonio, Texas
2. Austin, Texas
3. Providence, Rhode Island
4. La Jolla, California
5. Columbus, Ohio
6. Salt Lake City, Utah
7. Nashville, Tennessee
8. Louisville, Kentucky
9. St. Louis, Missouri
10. Houston, Texas
11. Dallas, Texas
12. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
13. Richmond, Virginia
14. Raleigh, North Carolina
15. Tampa, Florida
16. San Diego, California
17. Baltimore, Maryland
18. Honolulu, Hawaii
19. Indianapolis, Indiana
20. Brooklyn, New York
21. Pasadena, California
22. Las Vegas, Nevada
23. Phoenix, Arizona
24. Santa Monica, California
25. Portland, Oregon

Source: http://blog.opentable.com.
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No More Sick Days: Beat that Stomach Bug

February 8, 2013 2:44 pm

As seasonal flu trends begin to decrease, cases of a fast-spreading stomach bug known as 'Norovirus' continue to spread across the country, creating serious complications for patients, and continued demand on health care organizations.

Norovirus is a contagious virus that can infect anyone, and can be spread by an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus causes an inflammation of the stomach and intestines, leading to severe stomach pains, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. Unlike seasonal influenza, there is no vaccine to prevent the spread of the Norovirus.

"Following this year's strong influenza season, the Norovirus has the potential to create greater complications in infants and the elderly, leading to severe dehydration," says Bill Lewis , M.D, Senior Vice President of Medical Operations at Concentra. "The easiest way to reduce the risk of catching and spreading the virus is through thorough and frequent hand washing, and routine cleaning."

However there are some simple precautions each person can take to reduce the transmission of the virus, and stay healthy and safe:
Wash your hands often – Wash your hands carefully with soap and water, especially after using the toilet and changing diapers, and before eating, preparing, or handling food.
Rinse fruits and vegetables before eating – Carefully wash fruits and vegetables before preparing and eating them.
Cook foods thoroughly – Cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating them. Noroviruses are highly resistant, and can survive quick steaming processes and temperatures as high as 140 degrees F.
Clean surfaces and wash laundry – Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces with a chlorine bleach solution or other disinfectant. Machine wash contaminated clothes or linens in warm or hot water.
Don't prepare food for others when sick – Do not prepare food or attend to the health needs of others while you are sick, and for at least two to three days after you recover.
Noroviruses are the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the United States, and contributes to about 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths each year. Many may know it as the "stomach flu" or "food poisoning," but it is not related to the influenza virus and there is no vaccine to protect against the spread of the virus.

Concentra Urgent Care offers accessible and affordable health care services through its 330 national medical center locations, treating a wide range of illnesses and injuries, at times when many physicians' offices are closed. As a leader in consumer health care, Concentra is improving the standard of health by sharing vital health information, and providing patients with a welcoming, respectful, and skillful health care experience.

Source: www.Concentra.com.
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Q: What Is the First Step to Buying a Home?

February 8, 2013 12:44 pm

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.
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