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Tom's Blog

How-To: Save Money on Gas

February 28, 2012 6:56 pm

With gas prices hitting an all time February high and the current national retail average price for a gallon of self-serve regular gasoline hanging at $3.65, many drivers are anxious about what to expect in the coming months.

"Every driver is impacted by the increased cost of fuel," says Marshall L. Doney, AAA National Vice President, Automotive, Financial Services and e-Business. "There are several easy things drivers can do to stretch each tank of gas and find the lowest fuel prices when it is time to fill up."

AAA provides these fuel-saving tips and advice to consumers:

Properly inflate tires
Only 17 percent of cars have all four tires properly inflated, yet the U.S. Department of Energy reports that proper tire inflation can improve fuel economy by up to three percent. It's important not only to check tire pressures at least once a month, but also make sure it's done correctly; a survey found 85 percent of motorists don't know how to properly check tire pressures. Check the pressures when the tires are cold and have not been driven recently. Tires should be inflated to pressure levels recommended by the vehicle manufacturer, NOT the pressure levels stamped on the tire sidewall. The proper pressure levels can be found on a sticker on the driver's side door jamb or in the owner's manual.

Be gentle on the gas and brake pedals

One of the easiest and most effective ways to conserve fuel is to change driving styles. Instead of making quick starts and sudden stops, go easy on the gas and brake pedals. If there is a red light ahead, ease off the gas and coast up to it rather than waiting until the last second to brake. Once the light turns green, gently accelerate rather than making a quick start. The U.S. Department of Energy reports aggressive driving can lower a car's fuel economy by up to 33 percent.

Let AAA find lowest gas prices

Drivers equipped with the AAA TripTik Mobile iPhone application can find the lowest gas prices close to home or on the road. Using AAA TripTik Mobile, the first free app to offer frequently updated gas prices, motorists can compare fuel costs at stations near to their location or in a specified area. The AAA app's GPS technology enables users to quickly locate stations on a map and see the price for all available grades of gasoline. Visit AAA.com/Mobile. AAA's TripTik Travel Planner also provides gas station locations and fuel price information.

Drive the speed limit

Slowing down to observe the speed limit is safer and can conserve fuel. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that each 5 mph driven over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas. Leave yourself plenty of time to reach your destination to avoid feeling rushed so you can arrive safely and with a little more fuel in the tank.

Plan errands in advance

When running errands, try to combine multiple tasks into one trip. Several short trips starting with a cold engine each time can use twice as much gas as a longer multipurpose trip covering the same distance when the engine is warm. Also, plan the route in advance to drive the fewest miles. Online mapping tools are available to help plan routes.

Lighten the Load
A heavier vehicle uses more fuel. Lighten your vehicle by cleaning out the trunk, cargo areas and passenger compartments. Also try to avoid using a car's roof rack to transport luggage or other equipment—especially over long distances on the highway. A loaded roof rack affects the vehicle aerodynamics and creates extra drag that reduces fuel economy.

Keep up-to-date on vehicle maintenance
Keeping a car running properly helps achieve maximum fuel economy. Be sure to follow the vehicle manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule, and do not ignore vehicle warning lights that indicate something is wrong. Warning lights can signal problems that will greatly decrease a car's fuel efficiency.

Source: www.AAA.com
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Use Leap Year to Get Financial House in Order

February 28, 2012 6:56 pm

If there’s one thing everyone wants, it’s more time, and that’s exactly what we have this year. A once every four-year phenomena of the calendar known as Leap Year is providing us with 24 extra hours today, February 29.

For some, the day will come and go with little to show for it. However, you can use the extra hours to make a difference in their financial lives. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) suggests that consumers dedicate this gift of time to tackling the financial tasks they may have been putting off.

• Prepare federal income taxes. Gather all 1099s, W-2s, and receipts related to eligible deductions. Whether filing on your own or through a professional, these items will be needed to prepare an accurate return.
• Create or organize a home financial center. Since the financial documents are out, create files for each category. This step will help you stay organized all year long, and will make preparing next year’s tax return much simpler.
• Review all insurance policies. The time to become familiar with insurance policies is not when you make a claim. Insurance is not something to buy and forget, as life changes often dictate adjustments to the policy. Make an appointment with your insurance provider to confirm that your current needs match your coverage.
• Review retirement contributions. Due to the payroll tax cut, working Americans now have extra money in their paychecks. The best use of this money could be increasing the retirement contribution at work. Make sure to maximize the benefits of an employer match and age-related allowable contribution increases.
• Order your credit report and score. With good reason, people are very interested in their credit score. However, many do not realize that the score is based on the information in the credit report. In spite of it being free through http://www.annualcreditreport.com, the NFCC Financial Literacy revealed that 65 percent of Americans had not ordered their credit report in the last 12 months. The credit score didn’t fare any better, with 63 percent of respondents indicating they’d not ordered their score. Even though there will be a small fee charged to obtain the credit score, it will be money well-spent, as these three numbers dictate much of your financial future.
“Those who use the extra time afforded by Leap Year to accomplish these five financial moves will wake up March 1st with a well-earned sense of accomplishment,” says Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. “The efforts they put forth on this bonus day will yield rewards throughout the year.”
Source: http://www.nfcc.org
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Word of the Day

February 28, 2012 6:56 pm

Binder. Short purchase contract used in some areas to secure a real estate transaction until a more formal contract can be signed at a later date; usually accompanied by an earnest money deposit.
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Question of the Day

February 28, 2012 6:56 pm

Q: How can I finance work needed on a fixer-upper?

A: According to the Millennial Housing Commission, few lenders are willing to administer home improvement loans. Most prefer to make home equity loans or unsecured consumer loans because they are easier to manage. Home improvement loans usually require inspections and irregular draws on the loan amount as work is completed, which requires regional or national lenders to find local partners to provide oversight.

Financing repairs and improvements with home equity is okay for most homeowners, but it is difficult for many first-time buyers. They have lower-incomes, smaller savings, and have made lower down payments on their homes than first-time buyers a decade ago. So they have little equity to borrow against. Unfortunately, it is often lower cost older homes purchased by first-time buyers that need the most work.

Unless you have a cash reserve, you will have to shop around for the best borrowing terms. In addition to the options listed above, you can ask relatives for a loan. Borrow against your whole life insurance policy. Refinance your existing mortgage and take out cash. Get a second mortgage. Contact the government about home improvement programs. And – as a last resort – borrow from a finance agency, which generally charge high rates.
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8 Ways to Scam-Proof Your Next Vacation Home Rental Transaction

February 27, 2012 6:50 pm

It’s wintertime and the living is dreary. If you’re like many people, you’re coping with bone-chilling temperatures and gray skies by daydreaming of sandy beaches, emerald golf courses, and cool drinks sipped on warm, breezy balconies. Yes, it’s vacation planning season again. You’d love to book a charming seaside cottage or rustic mountain cabin for your spring or summer vacation—but recent reports of vacation home scams have you worried.

It’s true: Lately, there’s been a rash of news stories about would-be vacationers who went online, found the perfect house or condo, paid the rental fee—and showed up to find an occupied residence that was never for rent at all. Yet as scary as these stories are, they shouldn’t stop you from going the vacation rental route, says Christine Karpinski.

“There are many wonderful rental properties out there that are completely legitimate—and only a few scammers,” says Karpinski, author of How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner, 2nd Edition: The Complete Guide to Buy, Manage, Furnish, Rent, Maintain and Advertise Your Vacation Rental Investment.

“To reject the whole concept of renting a great home instead of a hotel room because someone else had a bad experience is like deciding not to have children because you saw the movie The Bad Seed.”

Karpinski says the benefits of staying in a vacation rental home far outweigh the minimal risks. These properties are more spacious and often less expensive than hotel rooms. They’re appointed with all the comforts of home (because, of course, they are homes). They’re private. They tend to be kid friendly. Often, they’re pet friendly as well.

Plus, by taking certain precautions, you can make the likelihood of getting scammed almost non-existent, she insists.

That said, here are eight tips to help you safely book your vacation home in today’s environment:
• Beware of super-cheap rates. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. The most common way scammers work is by enticing a large number of travelers in a short period of time. They do this by low-balling the rental rates.

“If one listing is, say, half the price of all other comparable ones for the same amount of time, beware,” cautions Karpinski. “Put yourself in the owner’s shoes: Why would he or she voluntarily forgo that much income? Five, ten, or maybe even fifteen percent off, perhaps, but fifty percent? No way.”

• Do some digging to make sure the owner really is the owner. Many states make it easy to look up property tax records. Google the property appraiser in the county where the property is located to make sure the person you are renting from actually owns the property. You might also Google the homeowner’s association and look for a phone number on the website. Call the HOA and ask if the owners really are the owners.

“Now, some of the tax records might show that the property is owned by an LLC or trust. But that information actually serves as an extra barrier against being scammed,” says Karpinski. “The rental agreement should mention the LLC or trust. If it doesn’t, call the owner and ask. He or she should be able to tell you the name of this legal entity without hesitation.”

• Cyber-stalk the owner. Do some cross-referencing across various websites: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and so forth. Make sure the place of residence (where the owner lives—not where the vacation home is located) is the same as the information the owner provided.

“If, for instance, you were renting one of my vacation homes in Florida, you’d see that I always provide my guests with my home and cell phone numbers,” says Karpinski. “My home number is a 512 area code. Now, if you looked me up on LinkedIn, my public profile says that I live in Austin, TX, which would match the info I provided.”

Also, she suggests Googling the phone number listed on the advertisement. Many property owners and managers list their homes on many different websites. If you Google the phone number listed on the ad in this format XXX XXX-XXX (area code, space, first three digits, dash, last four digits) many other websites that the property is listed on should show up in search results.

• Look for clues in the reviews. When you are reading the reviews of the property (either on the vacation rental website or on other sites such as TripAdvisor.com), there are sometimes references to the owners’ names. A review might say something like: “Thanks, Tom and Christine, for allowing us to rent your lovely home…” If the names in the reviews do NOT match the name of the person renting the home to you, it could be a sign that something is not right.

“Also, a lot of times the owner’s name and/or the housekeeper’s name will be in the review,” notes Karpinski. “If you see several reviewers thanking Mary for her wonderful hospitality, and the woman you’re dealing with is named Mary, it’s probably a legitimate listing.”

• Speak with the owner via phone. Sure, it’s possible to be scammed over the phone. However, it’s usually easier to fool someone when you’re communicating via type. If the owner sounds warm and engaging and seems to know her stuff, you’re probably okay. If she sounds guarded or uncertain, you might have reason to worry. Also, says Karpinski, when you get someone on the phone, you can ask specific questions—and listen carefully to the answers.

“Ask about the local area,” she suggests. “Ask about the best restaurants, the most unusual attractions, and so forth. If you get quick, natural answers, it’s probably not a scam. If the owner hesitates, or if you hear the sound of her Googling furiously, you would likely be suspicious.”

• Pay only by credit card. Don’t use PayPal, don’t send a personal check, and NEVER, EVER pay by wire transfer, advises Karpinski.

“Scammers are less likely than legitimate property owners to have a credit card merchant account set up,” she says. “And even if you were to still get scammed, you’d be able to call your credit card’s fraud prevention center and report it.”

• Go with one of the major vacation rental websites. You’re probably safest choosing a site like HomeAway, VRBO, FlipKey, or Airbnb. Of course, a respected name doesn’t guarantee a 100 percent safe transaction—there have been instances of owners having their e-mail accounts hijacked by scammers—but the major websites tend to have better safeguards in place.

• Listen to your gut…it’s often right. Do your research. Call the property owner. Listen carefully to everything he or she has to say. If something just feels “off,” move on to another property, advises Karpinski.

“Scammers usually count on people not paying attention, not heeding their intuition,” she says. “That still, small voice exists for a reason. Listen to it.”

Renting a vacation home is like anything else, insists Karpinski. It’s not risk-free, but when you take these steps to mitigate the risk, you can feel 99.9 percent confident that you’re not getting scammed—and these are pretty good odds.

Christine Karpinski is the author of How to Rent Vacation Properties by Owner, 2nd Edition: The Complete Guide to Buy, Manage, Furnish, Rent, Maintain and Advertise Your Vacation Rental Investment and Profit from Your Vacation Home Dream: The Complete Guide to a Savvy Financial and Emotional Investment.
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Tips to Close the Income Inequality Gap

February 27, 2012 6:50 pm

The memes for the current economic recession have been “income inequality” and “the 99 percent versus the 1 percent” as the 106 million Americans earning $45,000 or less each year feel the most pain from job loss, foreclosure, underwater mortgages and inflation.

Some say the solution is for the government to redistribute the wealth, perhaps by taxing the top money-makers at a higher rate. Real estate businessman Trevor Bolin, author of Take Charge and Change Your Life Today, says there’s a better way and it’s one that will make more people happier—and wealthier.

“I went from the bottom 10 percent at age 17 to the top 2 percent at 28 by making some changes in my life,” says Bolin, who owns three realty companies in British Columbia.

“The system is very simple, but not all of the steps are easy. It requires self-discipline and changing bad habits, but it’s all possible if you follow the steps. And I promise, following through on just one will dramatically affect your life.”

Some of Bolin’s strategies:
• Commit. Vow right now that you will follow through 100 percent on every step you take toward changing your life, whether it’s making more money, losing weight or becoming a better parent. Commit to succeeding, not just surviving. Know that luck has nothing to do with it – it’s hard work, attitude and giving back. Committing 100 percent means that, if you decide to read a book on investing, you won’t quit after three chapters. If your goal is to drop 20 pounds, don’t stop after 10.

• Change your attitude. Just as negative thoughts have the power to negatively affect outcomes, so do positive thoughts. Start each day with positive thoughts, and change negative thoughts to positive ones throughout the day. This may be hard at first, but the more you work at it, the easier it gets. Rather than wake up cursing the rainy day, be grateful for it. Water is one of our most valuable natural resources, and rain is cleansing. Remind yourself each morning of all the good things in your life—your health, your home, your spouse. Tell yourself that your meeting today is going to be engaging and productive, or your job interview is going to go well.

• Figure out your “Y.” Your Y is your reason for everything. It’s shaped by the past, formatted for the present and goal-formatted for the future. It’s reflected in every decision you make. If you don’t know your Y, your decisions will be made on the basis of habit, what you learned growing up, and what your immediate needs are. But if you’ve decided your Y is that you want the peace and security of financial success, you’ll be guided by that every time you make a choice.

• Set goals. On a piece of paper write down all of your goals, short-term and long-term. Next, number them 1, 3, 5, 10 or 20 based on how many years it should take to achieve them. Losing 20 pounds? That might be a 1. Buying a new car? That could be a 3. Now, take your top five 1 goals and write down why you want them and how you plan to achieve them. Do the same thing for each set of goals. Having goals is vital and keeping them in front of you will help keep you on track toward achieving them. Most important – be sure to cross each one off as you achieve it. Take it from me, there’s no better feeling.

Paying yourself first—saving a portion of every check—and giving back to society, whether through service or philanthropy, are also key to Bolin’s roadmap for changing your life.

“It’s all about having a plan,” he says. “You can create success as long as you’re putting a plan into motion.”

Trevor Bolin owns three realty companies in British Columbia.

For more information, visit www.bolininternational.com.
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Use Tax Season to Organize for the Future

February 27, 2012 6:50 pm

Tax season is the perfect time to stash all your financial records, making future financial matters much easier. But what records do you keep? Many people are confused about what records they need to keep and for how long. They hold onto tax returns, bank records, brokerage statements and other financial information simply because they don’t know if they’ll need it again.

“Most people are going through their records to get ready to file their return,” says financial planner Rick Rodgers, author of The New Three-Legged Stool: A Tax Efficient Approach To Retirement Planning, “This is the time to get smart about what you need to keep and then set up a system to store it efficiently going forward.”

Rodgers suggests these five steps to help you effectively organize your finances for 2012 and beyond:
1. Out with the old – Discard the records you no longer need: Tax returns older than seven years; bank records and credit card statements that are not related to the tax returns you’re keeping; brokerage statements that aren’t related to purchases of current holdings. Be sure to shred all your old documents before throwing them out.
2. Go digital – Convert the documents you plan to save into digital images that are stored on your hard drive. Invest in a good scanner and scan as you go through your paperwork, shredding and tossing the hard copies as you go. On your computer, file by tax year, so your 2011 folder will contain your tax return for 2011 and all pertinent bank records and receipts. Organize the previous six years the same way. Next year you can delete the oldest folder when you add the 2012 folder.
3. Save a forest – All of the financial institutions you deal with would prefer to send your statements electronically. Stop receiving paper statements. Instead, download your statements electronically and store them in your new filing system. Most banks and credit card companies keep at least a year’s worth of statements available. You need to download these files only once a year to complete the year’s file.
4. Save backups in case of emergency – Make backup copies of your files on a CD. Choose a CD-R (recordable) as opposed to a CD-RW (rewriteable), because CD-R cannot accidentally be overwritten. Depending on your computer operating system, you may be able to continue adding data to a CD-R each year, until the CD is full. However, some operating systems won’t allow that, so you’ll need a new CD for each year.
5. Go paperless – Your new electronic filing system can be expanded to include all your financial records, from car maintenance receipts to pay stubs. Wills and insurance policies can also be scanned and stored but, of course, keep the originals of those in a safe deposit box or fireproof safe.

Gone are the days of saving your financial documents in box and shoving it into the attic. Technology advances have made organizing your personal finances easier with minimal cost. Make 2012 the year you get organized by moving your finances into a 21st century filing system.

Certified Financial Planner Rick Rodgers is president of Rodgers & Associates, “The Retirement Specialists,” in Lancaster, Pa.


For more information, visit www.TheNewThreeLeggedStool.com or www.rodgersspeaks.com.
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8 Ways to Boost Your Metabolism

February 27, 2012 6:50 pm

Whether you want to lose a few pounds or just stay fit, speeding up your metabolism will help you burn calories more efficiently and make the best use of the fuel that goes into your body.

Nutritionist Heather Bauer recommends nine tips for achieving these worthwhile goals:

• Stay hydrated – Even if you’re tired of hearing it, drinking eight glasses of water a day will help your body function best. Steer clear of diet sodas and alcohol, which tend to bog down your metabolism. An acceptable substitute, if you crave some bubbly, is seltzer.
• Snack often – Starving your body can derail diet efforts. Keep hunger in check by snacking often on low-fat cheese, fiber crackers, fruits, veggies, Greek yogurt, and other high fiber, low fat foods. Bonus: if you’re not so hungry, you will eat less at mealtime.
• Keep up calcium and vitamin levels - Obesity research shows that a dip in calcium levels can trigger the hormone that causes the body to hold onto fat. Increase calcium intake with low-fat dairy, cheese, yogurt, salmon, tofu, and oatmeal. Key vitamins are B, found in small amounts of nuts, seeds, lean meats and legumes, and C, which helps the body absorb and make best use of calcium.
• Drink green tea - The polyphenols in green tea have properties that rev up your metabolic rate – but to get greatest benefit, you should drink at least 4 cups a day. Second choice? Oolong tea, recommended by Chinese medicine experts for its calorie-burning properties.
• Avoid high fructose corn syrup – It’s in many prepared foods, so read labels to avoid this culprit, which can make the body insulin-resistant.
• Soak up some sun – Research suggests spending too much time indoors or in darkened circumstances can trigger the same physiological functions as gaining weight or sleeping too much. Taking a brisk walk in the early afternoon is a good way to rev up your heart rate as well as your metabolism.
• Ditch the stress – Stress raises your cortisol level, which tells the body to hang onto fat. Try yoga, meditation, or whatever it takes to reduce your stress level.
• Work out smartly – Weight-bearing exercises and working out in the cold can maximize the benefits of exercise.
• Catch enough ZZZs – Getting seven to eight hours of sleep every night is crucial for a healthy metabolism.
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Word of the Day

February 27, 2012 6:50 pm

Balloon loan. Mortgage loan in which a larger final payment becomes due because the loan amount was not fully amortized.
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Question of the day

February 27, 2012 6:50 pm

Q: What is a bridge loan?

A
: It is a short-term bank loan of the equity in the home you are selling. You may take out a bridge loan, or interim financing, to help with a knotty situation: closing on the home you are buying before you close on the property you are selling. This loan basically enables you to have a place to live after the closing on the old home.

The key to a bridge loan is having a qualified buyer and a signed contract. Usually, the lender issuing the mortgage loan on the new home will write the interim financing as a personal note due at settlement on the property being sold.

If, however, there is no buyer for the property you have up for sale, most lenders will place a lien on the property, thereby making that bridge loan a kind of second mortgage.

Things to consider: interest rates are high, points are high, and there are costs and fees involved on bridge loans. It may be cheaper to borrow from your 401(K). Actually, any secured loan is acceptable to lenders for the down payment. So if you have stocks or bonds or an insurance policy, you can borrow against them as well.
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