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Tom's Blog

Six Thanksgiving Food Safety Tips

November 15, 2012 5:38 pm

Many people have ceased to cook our stuffing inside our birds, like grandma used to do it. But what are some other food safety tips you can follow? The National Restaurant Association (NRA) estimates that more than 30 million Americans enlist the help of restaurants for their Thanksgiving feast by dining out or using takeout, but cooking at home remains popular during this holiday. Preparing that meal safely will ensure an enjoyable holiday with family and friends, so the experts at the NRA offer food safety tips for holiday meals.

"While we celebrate National Food Safety Month each September, food safety is a priority year-round," said Greg Beachey, senior academic relations and program manager with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. "Food and cooking are a big part of holiday celebrations, so putting food safety practices in focus this time of year will help ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Whether cooking at home or in a professional foodservice kitchen, basic principles like cleaning and sanitizing, and cooking to proper temperatures should be part of everyone's food safety knowledge base."

The food safety tips recommended by the NRA for preparing a Thanksgiving meal are:

Thaw your turkey in the fridge
. While you can thaw a frozen turkey under running water or in the microwave, the best way is in the refrigerator overnight (or longer). Be sure to follow the instructions on the package.

Store raw turkey away from ready-to-eat food. Make sure your raw turkey is covered and stored in a leak-proof container on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. You want to keep it away from foods that are ready to eat, such as desserts and salads, to avoid the risk of cross-contamination.

Clean and sanitize your sink and counters. After rinsing your raw turkey thoroughly, properly clean and sanitize the sink and surrounding area before starting to prepare any other food.

Cook your turkey to safe internal temperature.
Use a properly calibrated meat thermometer to check that your turkey has reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Insert the thermometer to the dimple on the stem in the thickest part of the breast and thigh for accurate readings.

Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.
Prep salads, cranberries and other colds items first and store them in the fridge until ready to serve. Then prep your hot dishes closer to serving time so they stay hot. Keep all food items outside the "temperature danger zone" (41 to 135 degrees) as much as possible.

Safely reheat leftovers. Whether from a meal prepared at home or picked up from a restaurant, leftovers are part of the holiday tradition. Store each dish separately in clean, sealable, leak-proof containers and reheat to 165 degrees when you're ready to enjoy round two of your Thanksgiving meal.


Tax Tips for Charitable Contributions

November 15, 2012 5:38 pm

With the holidays approaching in the wake of superstorm Sandy, many of us are feeling extra giving this year. This is terrific, but we can also get some love in return for our good deeds come tax time.

An estimated 117 million U.S. households gave to charities during 2011, according to Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy by the Giving USA Foundation and The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. On average, almost one quarter of charitable donations occur during the holiday season (also known as year-end giving).

"While taxes may not be top of mind when it comes to charitable giving, the ability to receive a deduction on taxable income for their generosity is a unique privilege to American taxpayers," said Mark Steber, chief tax officer, Jackson Hewitt. "However, not all charitable contributions are equal under the tax code. To be tax deductible, charitable donations must be made to a qualified organization, and for the purpose of taxes, there is a big difference between giving money, goods and time."

Steber offers four helpful tips about claiming charitable contributions on an income tax return:

What the IRS considers a charitable contribution –
A charitable contribution is tax deductible if the donation or gift is made to a qualified organization. Taxpayers can visit to view a list of qualified organizations. To be deductible, the donation must be voluntary and made without receiving anything of equal value in return. Charitable contributions can include money or property given to a qualified organization as well as certain out-of-pocket expenses accrued when serving as a volunteer.

Tax deductible contributions do not include the cost of raffle, bingo or lottery tickets, the value of donated time or services or the value of donated blood, even if given to a qualified organization.

What documents are required to deduct a charitable contribution – Taxpayers are required to keep records and receipts for all charitable contributions regardless of the amount or value. A bank record or a receipt from the organization is required for all cash contributions, and a separate, written acknowledgement from the qualified organization is also required to claim the deduction for any single cash or property contribution of $250 or more.

When charitable contributions can be deducted –
Charitable contributions can generally only be deducted for the income year in which they are made. Contributions sent by mail are considered made on the date they are postmarked. Some contributions that are not able to be deducted in the current tax year (because of adjusted gross income limits) may be carried over to future years.

How to deduct noncash charitable contributions – Clothing, toys, furniture or other household items donated to a qualified organization allow taxpayers to deduct the fair market value of the donated items. To qualify for the deduction, all items must be donated in good condition. The IRS does not provide a guide to determine fair market value; instead, taxpayers must survey thrift and consignment stores for similar items to provide an indication of fair market value. IRS Publication 561, Determining the Value of Donated Property, provides general IRS guidelines on noncash donations.

Generally, the deduction for property contributed is equal to the fair market value of the property at the time of the contribution. However, different rules may apply if the value of the property has increased or for vehicle donations.

"There are many rules and regulations surrounding tax deductions for charitable contributions," continued Steber. "A conversation with a trusted tax preparer, who is knowledgeable of the current tax codes, is the best way to maximize the deduction amount for charitable contributions made during the year."


Word of the Day

November 15, 2012 5:38 pm

Broker. Licensed individual who acts independently in conducting a real estate brokerage business; also a person who buys and sells for another for a commission.

Q: How Do I Get Help for Remodeling Following a Natural Disaster?

November 15, 2012 5:38 pm

A: The Small Business Administration (SBA) not only assists businesses after a natural disaster, civil disturbance, fires and other catastrophes, it also provides disaster loans to individuals – including homeowners and renters. The loans, which cover uninsured or underinsured losses – are issued after the President or SBA Administrator signs a disaster declaration. Homeowners can then apply for loans up to $200,000 to assist with the repair or replacement of their primary residences and receive loans up to $40,000 for personal property losses. The low-interest loans have terms up to 30 years. To begin the process, applicants must register first with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to obtain a FEMA Registration ID number.

What Is the ‘Right Price’ Formula for Real Estate?

November 14, 2012 5:34 pm

In our last segment, I examined scientific proof that setting the right price right out of the gate is the best way to sell your home fast. But getting that right price can be a challenge, without one important document - a thorough market analysis.

Recently, broker Bryant Tutas in central Florida was quoted as saying any property will sell if the price is right.

But is the right price “Market Value” based on the last 6 months of sales? Is it based on homes that have sold in the last 30 days? Or is it the “Appraised Value”?

Tutas says the “Right Price” is the price that will sell your listing in 60 to 90 days. In his market the right price is 5 to 10 percent below recent comparable sales.

He says when REALTORS® are searching the MLS they may have 70-100 homes that meet their buyer’s parameters. So in order to sell, his client’s property needs to be in the top 5 (preferably No. 1) of properties on the list (by price) and it needs to have a competitive or better co-broke.

If a seller in his region can achieve this positioning Tutas says there should be no problem getting the listing sold in a short period of time.

Tutas says seller’s need to know that when pricing a house they must look at the whole picture that includes active, pending, withdrawn, expired and recently sold listings. And he’s met with many sellers recently whose listings have expired and they have never even seen a “Market Analysis.”

A 2011 report at offering tips to sell your home faster, advises performing a good market analysis to help sell a property quickly.

It’s not always imperative to be the lowest priced home on the block, particularly when aesthetic and other significant improvements have been made. However, it is important that the listing price is not out of line with other comparable homes in the market.

Try to put yourself in the buyer’s shoes and then determine what a fair price might be. Investopedia even suggests you have friends, neighbors and real estate professionals tour the home and weigh in as well.

Be Festive but Frugal When Sprucing Up Your Home for the Holidays

November 14, 2012 5:34 pm

The holiday season is upon us - and with that, comes a growing yearning to “fix up the house for the holidays.” But if time is short and the budget is tight, getting it done with the least amount of stress may be less difficult than you think.

Veteran planners at suggest a six-step program for sprucing up your nest without stressing or spending too much:

Take a tour – Grab a notebook and take a tour of the public areas of your home. Begin outside and jot down everything you think needs to be done: wash the windows, clean the front door, replace the porch bench. Now step inside and note what you’d like to do in the living room, dining room, and kitchen…replace the sofa, clean the carpets, whatever strikes you as needing attention.

Set the budget – Resolve to spend no more than what you can reasonably afford. If that means not replacing furniture this year, cross those items off your list. Cleaning the sofa or painting the bench will have to suffice for now.

Be time conscious –
Cross off any chore on your list that takes more time than you have to spare. If that means not sewing new curtains or not painting the living room, so be it. Save the most ambitious plans for later.

Organize chores –
In many cases, what will be left on your list are cleaning and maintenance chores and a few “buy mes’. Break these down by order of ease and/priority, as A, B or C. ‘A’ items might include quickies like replacing missing light bulbs and dusting the knickknacks in the china cabinet. ‘B’ items should include cleaning the carpets, washing the windows, buying new guest room linens. ‘C’ items take a little more time and a few more bucks – like refinishing floors or painting the dining room.

Be ruthless – Cross off any items you think may be too costly or time consuming to achieve by holiday time. Decide which chores can be relegated to a family member and which need to be done professionally. Get the family’s buy-in to help and call to schedule service where necessary.

Post your list – Post the designated chores on the fridge. Crossing off items and watching your house take shape will help you forget those things you couldn’t afford.

From Clearer Skin to a Stronger Immune System: 5 Hidden Benefits of Exercise

November 14, 2012 5:34 pm

With more than a third of Americans classified as obese, everyone from first lady Michelle Obama to TV news anchor Katie Couric is advocating exercise to maintain a healthy weight.

That’s great, says Dr. Eudene Harry, author of “Live Younger in 8 Simple Steps,” but the benefits of exercise go far beyond fitting into those skinny jeans.

For one, it will give you younger looking, more blemish-free skin.

“The increase in circulation and perspiration that occurs with exercise delivers more nutrients to your skin while allowing impurities and waste to be removed,” says Harry, who combines years of emergency-room experience with holistic medicine in her private practice. “The result? A healthier complexion!”

She adds four more hidden benefits of a good workout:
• Natural “feel-good” chemicals: Exercise releases endorphins, the brain chemicals that boost your mood and make you feel happy, as well as relieve stress, and enhance your self-esteem and self-confidence. Exercise has also been shown to increase neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which gives us a natural high and allows us to sleep better.
• Constipation prevention: Exercise increases the contractions of the wall of the intestine, helping to move things along through the intestinal tract more easily, and decreasing the time it takes to pass through the large intestine. But wait an hour or two after eating before exerting yourself: Exercising too soon after a meal can divert blood flow away from the gut and toward the muscles, weakening peristaltic contractions (and slowing down the digestion process).
• Prevents brittle bones: Walking, jogging, dancing, weight training and yoga are all weight-bearing exercises that help strengthen bones. Swimming and bicycling are exercises that are considered non-weight bearing. During weight-bearing exercises, bones adapt to the impact of the weight and the pull of muscles by building more bone cells, increasing strength and density and decreasing the risk of fractures, osteopenia and osteoporosis.
• Enhanced immunity: Physical exertion increases the rate at which antibodies flow through the blood stream, resulting in better immunity against sickness. The increased temperature generated during moderate exercise makes it difficult for certain infectious organisms to survive.

Don’t overdo your exercise, or you won’t see all of these benefits, Harry says.
“Check with a physician who can advise you on the right activities and intensity level for your individual needs,” she says.

“For all the benefits of exercise, there are down sides if you go at it too vigorously for your physical condition. For instance, you can actually increase stress hormones, which can make you more vulnerable to illness, rather than building your immunity.”


Word of the Day

November 14, 2012 5:34 pm

Breach of contract. When one party fails to live up to the terms and conditions of a contract, without a valid, legal excuse.

How-To: Improve Your Child's Education

November 13, 2012 5:34 pm

Most parents want their children’s to have access to the best education possible. In fact, a new study of the American family's "passion points" from Just Kids, Inc. reveals that most families (45 percent) agree schools and education are their top priority. And while many parents are committed to supplementing the education their kids receive in school, parent involvement is currently at an all-time low.

According to studies by the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education, students whose parents are involved in their education are more likely to:

  • Earn higher grades and test scores.
  • Enroll in higher-level programs.
  • Pass their classes and be promoted.
  • Attend school regularly.
  • Adapt well to school, have better social skills, and even show improved behavior.

Graduate and pursue postsecondary education.
While parental involvement during the elementary school years is fairly strong, it tends to drop off dramatically when those children go on to middle and high school. There are several reasons for this:

Many parents feel that their children should do their homework alone, or that if parents aren't experts in a subject matter, they shouldn't try to help.

Middle and high schools tend to be bigger than elementary schools, and less personal.

The structure of the school day can also be a problem for parents -- instead of one teacher that parents can contact, students have multiple teachers who don't know them that well.

"Of all the choices we as parents will make in our lifetime, decisions about our children's education are among the most important," says Rose Fernandez, parent advocate and founder of the National Parent Network for Online Learning. "Schools need to do more to get parents involved and parents need to raise the bar on what they expect of their schools, the teachers and themselves."

Fernandez says schools that succeed in engaging families from diverse backgrounds share three key practices:

Focus on building trusting, collaborative relationships among teachers, families and community members.

Recognize, respect and address families' needs, as well as class and cultural differences.

Embrace a philosophy of partnership where power and responsibility are shared.

"If a school district doesn't establish parental involvement as a priority, if it doesn't define what it means, then parents need to take action," suggests Fernandez.

The ABCs of Parent Involvement

If you want to be more involved in your child's education, but aren't sure how, try implementing these ABCs.

Ask - Ask children specific questions about the school day. What projects are they excited about? What did they learn in a particular class? How did they feel? What were the highs and lows of the day? Ask, and then really listen to their answers.

Advise - You can't do homework for them, but you can help them establish a study routine, figure out how to use their time wisely and organize their notes, papers and supplies. Show them how to break large tasks into smaller ones so they won't be overwhelmed. And you can help them figure out how to research and get answers for themselves.

Advocate - You know your child better than anyone. If you see that your child is struggling—or isn't challenged enough—you can talk with teachers and counselors to get the help or additional resources they need.


Balance - Schoolwork is important, but it's equally important that students learn how to lead a well-rounded and balanced life. Encourage your child to join a club or sport, or participate in other extra-curricular activities. After-school activities can help their academic and personal development.

Be Proactive - Getting involved early in the school year can help head off some potential problems. But if problems do arise, don't wait to take action. Initiate dialogue with your child and with the teacher or counselor so that together you can find the best solution.

Build Relationships - Get to know the teachers and administrators at your child's school. Build relationships with other parents, and get involved on committees that affect the school. You can be a much stronger advocate for your child if you have relationships with the people involved in their education.

Create Space - Make sure your child has an appropriate place and environment in which to study. There needs to be room to spread out books, good lighting, and necessary tools such as dictionaries or calculators. Some students need a very quiet environment while others do better with some background noise. Suit the study space to your child.

Challenge - Don't let your child settle into "cruise control" and do just enough to get by. Find out what he or she is interested in and challenge them to stretch their minds in that subject. If your school doesn't offer a subject your child would like to study, or if the classes aren't sufficiently challenging, consider other options such as an online course for enrichment or extra credit. For example, K12 has a wide range of individual courses including foreign languages and college-level AP classes.

Communicate - Keep the lines of communication open with your student and your school. Make sure your child knows your expectations -- and when you are proud of his or her efforts and achievements. Stay on top of school communications tools such as newsletters and bulletins. Go to parent-teacher conferences, and make sure you have contact information for teachers and counselors at the school.

Other Options to Help Your Child Succeed
Traditional brick-and-mortar education isn't always the best fit for every student. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that school districts across the country had an estimated 1,816,400 enrollments in online education courses for the 2009-2010 school year.

Whether it's for a single course or full-time enrollment, there are several reasons parents choose online learning for their children:

  • The option to take AP and Honors courses.
  • Filling an academic void with art, music or other vital subjects not offered locally.
  • Resolving scheduling conflicts.
  • Retaking courses to catch up with peers, build self-esteem, and graduate on time.
  • Taking language classes not available at the local school.
Ask the Right Questions

  • Find out about teacher expectations of student performance. What percentage of the grade comes from tests, homework and class participation?
  • Find out about the school's stance on communication with parents. Are there regular check-ins with your child's teacher, either in person or via email? Is parental involvement in the education process welcomed or discouraged?
  • Find out how individual learning needs are met. Are there individualized education plans for students who struggle? How are the needs of gifted students met? Are there paraprofessionals available in class?

Choosing a Bank: 4 Things to Consider

November 13, 2012 5:34 pm

(BPT) - Life is full of everyday choices, from what you wear to where you shop. One of the most important choices you can make is where you choose to bank. Your bank is more than your corner market or mall - it's should provide ample choices to help you to make the best decisions for your lifestyle.

A bank is more than a place to withdraw and deposit money; it should be a financial partner. If you're unsure of whether your bank is truly committed to you as a partner, consider these questions: Are you paying additional fees for making an in-person transaction through a teller? Do you prefer mobile banking or need access to a branch? Look for a bank with expanded conveniences and financial choices, so you get exactly what you need.

If you're in the market for a bank that fits your lifestyle, here is a list of items to consider:

On-the-go choices
Aside from product and service offerings, it is important that your bank is available when and where you need it. Online and mobile banking are convenient ways to manage your financial accounts. Access to information like balances, pending transactions and banking history allows you to conveniently assess your account activities.

Convenient locations
Most banks' checking products include unlimited access to their branches, but consider how often you use another bank's ATM instead of your primary bank's ATM. Your bank should provide convenient locations and easy access to your money, no matter where you are. If you prefer having easy access to a branch, look for a bank with extended store hours, so you are able to visit it in the evenings or on the weekends.

Checking with choices
Of the products offered by a bank, a consumer's checking account is often the cornerstone of their banking relationship and you should get different checking account options. Your checking account can open the door to a larger relationship with your bank as you reach milestones in life, like buying your first home or preparing for retirement.

When deciding on a checking account, consider what you value in a bank. To find the best checking account for your lifestyle, consider the minimum monthly balance you will keep in your checking account. Some banks have minimum balance requirements as low as $100.

Choose change
If you're unhappy with your bank's options, the process of switching is not complicated. Some banks will even offer services to make the process hassle-free and help customers move their banking activity.

No matter the state of your current banking relationship, don't be afraid to talk to your bank and do your research about your choices. Your bank should make you feel valued and committed to help you make the best choice to fit your lifestyle.

Source: TD Bank

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