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Thomas Skiffington, CRS, GRI, CRB, ABR, ePro, CLHMS, SRES, RECS, CDPE, ECOBROKER
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Perkasie, PA 18944
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Tom's Blog

Almost Half of Americans Do Not Track Their Spending against a Monthly Budget

July 25, 2011 4:59 pm

A study released recently by Bankrate.com found that only 58% of Americans track their spending against a monthly budget. Bankrate's overall Financial Security Index fell from 97.8 in June to 95.6 in July, the lowest reading since April. Confidence in job security and savings dropped to 2011 lows. 

The new study was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International and can be seen in its entirety here: LinK: http://www.bankrate.com/finance/consumer-index/july-2011-financial-security-poll.aspx
Among the findings:
• Those with college degrees (66%) and those that are parents (65%) are highly likely to track spending against a budget.
• Least likely to track spending against a budget are those with a high school diploma or less (52%) and households with less than $30,000 in annual income (53%).
• Geographically, those in the Northeast (53%) are less likely to track spending against a budget than their counterparts in other parts of the country.
• 26% of Americans reported higher net worth than one year ago, whereas 25% reported lower net worth.

"A significant portion of the U.S. population would benefit from better budgeting habits," explains Greg McBride, CFA, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com. "For example, we recently found that only 24% of Americans have adequate emergency savings. Consumers who create a monthly budget and stick to it are much more likely to be prepared for unexpected emergencies and more routine goals. Regardless of one's income level, it's critical to manage monthly cash flow and to properly assign funds to specific buckets such as a rainy-day fund, groceries and retirement. It's not good enough to wait until the end of the month and see what happens." 

For more information, please visit www.bankrate.com.
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Word of the Day

July 25, 2011 4:59 pm

Contractor. One who contracts to do something for another. For example, in construction, a specialist who enters into a formal construction contract to build a real estate structure or handle renovations, improvements, and additions to an existing structure.
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Question of the Day

July 25, 2011 4:59 pm

Q: Should I avoid an adjustable rate mortgage? 

A: Because adjustable rate mortgages, or ARMs, fluctuate with the market, they offer less stability than fixed-rate loans. If an ARM is adjusted upward, monthly payments will increase, and for a lot of people that can be too big a risk to take. On the other hand, should rates drop dramatically, homeowners can reap the benefits of lower rates without refinancing, thereby saving thousands of dollars. 

Lenders first introduced ARMs in the 1980s when interest rates soared into the double digits, forcing many people out of the home buying market. They tied the rate to a variable national index, such as U.S. Treasury bills. 

Today, many first-time buyers who have difficulty qualifying for a home loan, still settle for adjustable rate loans because the initial, “teaser” interest rate of the mortgage is normally two or three points lower than a fixed rate loan. ARMs are particularly attractive if you plan to be in your home a short time. They tend to adjust yearly or every three years, usually within certain limits, or caps, that prohibit the interest rate from shooting up too high. Make sure terms such as these are spelled out in any ARM agreement you choose.
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5 Tips for Comfortable Summer Flying

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

Summer is the season of travel, and from June through August, many of us find ourselves snagging more in-flight time than usual. With extra-long security lines and overpriced airport eats, flying can be a real drag. But it doesn’t have to be. The following 5 tips will make your flight more comfortable. 

1. Bag it right. If you are making a connecting flight, it’s a good idea to cough up the cash (usually around 20 dollars) and check your large luggage. Rushing between flights with a roll-on in tow is stressful, and uncomfortable. Instead carry on a large shoulder bag or tote, big enough for all your essentials. Pack snacks and a water bottle (bring it through security empty and fill at a water fountain). Staying hydrated while flying minimizes jetlag!

2. Layer it up. In a heat wave, the thought of putting on a sweater might seem absurd. But airports and planes usually have the AC pumping—wear or carry extra layers to make sure you aren’t shivering all the way to your destination.

3. Socks and shoes. Make sure your shoes are easy-on, easy-off to avoid a hold-up in security. While flip flops are ideal for summer traveling, be sure to pack socks! This way, you won’t have to walk around barefoot on the dirty airport floor. Plus, an optional extra layer for your toes will keep you comfy throughout the flight.

4. Earplugs. Between the engine humming and the noise of your neighbors—crying babies included—bringing earplugs will allow you to relax, and maybe snag some sleep, on your flight.

5. A blanket. Blankets are no longer offered on every flight, and if they are, they aren’t always laundered in between. Pack your own lightweight throw for extra comfort and warmth.
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Homeowners Save Time, Money and Headaches by Calling Home Improvement Pros This Summer

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

It's peak home improvement season and many homeowners are itching to roll up their sleeves and tackle a home improvement project. However, before embarking on a home improvement or renovation project this summer, homeowners need to understand just what they're getting themselves into. 

Cutting costs on big projects by doing-it-yourself —or "DIY"—can actually cause huge problems down the road. Homeowners should educate themselves on what is best to leave to the professionals who are knowledgeable about what to consider when embarking on a home improvement project, including materials, sizing, project pitfalls, code requirements and permitting. Power Home Remodeling Group, a home remodeling company, offers homeowners tips and resources to assist them in making the decision when not to DIY. 

"As a remodeling enthusiast, I personally understand a homeowner's desire to tackle projects on their own. The feeling of pride that results from improving your own home is a wonderful sense of accomplishment, but it's also important to know your limits," says Power co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Kaliner. "Some home improvement projects can be complex and benefit from a professional's expertise, such as window and siding installation, electrical wiring and plumbing. If such projects go awry, it could end up causing the homeowner quite a headache or additional costs that could have been prevented by consulting a professional." 

Power offers several key tips for homeowners considering a DIY project:
• Do you have the time? This important question can easily aid your decision to complete a home improvement project. Take an honest evaluation of the time you can allot to the project. Diving into a project on a weekend without a realistic timeline can leave your house in shambles for weeks as you complete the project in your spare time. 

• Do you have the right tools? Window, siding and door installation projects require very specialized, expensive tools to produce a quality result. Cutting corners with improvised tools will produce a less than stellar final product that can negatively affect the home's resale value. Less obvious tools such as permits, licenses and insurance are required to complete several projects. Without these, homeowners could face fines or zoning issues that can affect their taxes. 

• Do you have the experience? For homeowners, their home is typically their biggest investment. Projects that change a home's structural integrity, energy efficiency and even visual appeal can drastically change its value. Before investing time and money in trial and error, homeowners should consider calling a professional to guarantee a high quality result.

Simpler projects such as landscaping, painting and shelving are great do-it-yourself opportunities for homeowners looking to save money. Green projects like 'upcycling' a piece of old furniture or caulking a leaky drain can also satisfy a desire to DIY on a smaller scale. These projects can be completed with less risk of doing any major damage to the home. Botched projects can even jeopardize the homeowner's ability to sell down the road. 

Kaliner added, "Homeowners should also consider starting with a smaller DIY project that won't take a lot of time, they can see to completion, gain some confidence and get a better understanding of what's involved for future home improvement projects." 

For more information, please visit PowerHRG.com.
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Tips for Electricity Conservation

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

With hot and humid weather predicted to continue throughout the region, FirstEnergy Corp.'s utility companies are offering tips to help customers save money, keep cool and conserve electricity. 

• Consider setting air conditioners a few degrees warmer on hot days. Every degree you add to your interior temperature in the summer can reduce your energy usage by up to 3 percent. 
• Close drapes or blinds on windows that receive direct sunlight. Blocking the sun's rays reduces the temperature in your home, which means your air conditioner has less work to do.
• Close air conditioning registers in unused rooms and keep the doors to those rooms closed. This will reduce the amount of energy your air conditioner will use to maintain your home's temperature.
• Don't position heat-producing appliances near wall-mounted thermostats. Doing so will make your air conditioner run longer than necessary to maintain your preferred temperature.
• Turn off electric appliances and equipment that you do not need or are not using.
• Postpone using major electric household appliances, such as stoves, dishwashers and clothes dryers until the cooler, evening hours.
• Cook with the microwave instead of the oven. Traditional ovens require far more energy than microwaves, and they produce substantial heat inside your home, making your air conditioner run longer.

For more information, please visit www.firstenergycorp.com.
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Most Americans Are without a Financial Back-up Plan

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

If the unexpected happens and a major life crisis occurs, most Americans today would be unprepared to handle the impact. These findings are detailed in the new State Farm® "Financial Plan B" survey. In the study, while 81 percent of all adults say having a back-up plan is very important, only 45 percent say they've actually planned ahead and are ready to weather a life crisis. 

"People naturally think the unexpected happens to somebody else. But setbacks can hit anyone and people need to be ready. Regrettably, most are not," says Joe Monk, senior vice president and chief administrative officer, State Farm Life Insurance Company. "With the economic downturn and concerns about continued slow growth, it's critically important that people take a clear-eyed look at their financial situation and develop realistic options they can have in place should unexpected financial difficulties pop up." 

The survey also shows that the pressure to have back-up plans is intensifying because whatever "rainy-day funds" people once had are now challenged in the wake of the economic downturn. In the survey, 35 percent of Americans say they have funds on hand to meet financial needs for just three months or fewer, with 15 percent lacking funds to meet commitments beyond a single month. Not surprisingly, in the event of a job loss, many respondents say they would accept a large salary reduction simply to restore household cash flow. Fifty-four percent indicate they would accept a lower paying job if they were out of work for six months or fewer. 

The telephone survey, conducted for State Farm by Harris Interactive®, asked people to consider their financial readiness in the face of a major life crisis such as loss of a job, a divorce, the unexpected death of a spouse or partner, or a catastrophic illness that leaves someone unable to earn an income. The survey was conducted from May 6, 2011 to May 16, 2011 among a nationally representative sample of 2,017 U.S. adults aged 18 and older. 

Not Ready, Not Realistic
The survey also found that many people may have a false sense of security when it comes to the adequacy of the plans they have embraced to prepare for the unexpected. In the survey, 69 percent say they feel well prepared or somewhat prepared in the event of a major life crisis. Yet in looking at the actual elements of people's back-up plans, many "go-to" options create just as many problems as they solve. 

• Sixty-one percent indicate they would take money from a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement savings vehicle as part of their Plan B. Thirty-four percent would downsize their home and 22 percent would move in with family.
• Sixty-eight percent of people 55 or older say it is likely that they would take on an additional job if necessary.
• Fifty-eight percent of adults who have a financial back-up plan say it is not written down and only exists in their heads.

"For many people, their current Plan B's don't provide the kind of safety net they ultimately need," says Monk. "Taking money from a 401(k) creates more vulnerability later in life, homes are not the piggybanks they once were, and not all people are in the position to take in extended family.
"Working multiple jobs also is not realistic for many Americans as they age," adds Monk. "Most sobering is the fact that most people don't have back-up plans that are written down and documented, which means they often come up with solutions in the midst of a crisis—seldom the best time for clear, stress-free thinking." 

Plan A's Suffering Too
The survey indicates many assumptions about retirement once thought to be unshakable also are coming under pressure. When asked, just fewer than a quarter of future retirees think they will be able to retire at age 60. Nearly one-quarter doubt they'll ever be able to retire. Additionally, slightly more than six in 10 Americans say they will not be able to retire without Social Security and/or Medicare being available as they exist today. 

Given these rising uncertainties, State Farm recommends people consider the following tips to ward off the damaging effects that unexpected life events can have on savings and retirement plans: 

• Start the conversation with loved ones. Financial planning conversations can be difficult and uncomfortable, but it's important to start them before you're faced with a crisis. Planning ahead for the unexpected can alleviate some of the stress you would otherwise experience.
• Work with someone you trust. Talk to your insurance agent or financial advisor about your Plan A—and your Plan B. If you don't know where to turn, ask your friends or family members to recommend someone they trust.
• Put your plan in writing. By committing a step-by-step plan to paper, you can prepare in advance and make more rational choices. And if something unexpected happens to you, others will know your wishes.

For more information, please visit www.statefarm.com.
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Word of the Day

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

Contract. A legally enforceable agreement between two or more parties. To be valid, a real estate contract must be dated, in writing, include a consideration, have a description of the property, the place and date of delivery of the deed, and spell out all terms and conditions that were mutually agreed upon. It also must be executed (signed) by the buyer and seller.
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Question of the Day

July 22, 2011 4:59 pm

Q: Why do most homebuyers prefer a fixed-rate mortgage?

A: Long-term, fixed-rate mortgages are preferred by most homebuyers because they offer security and stability. The interest rate does not fluctuate over the life of the loan, so the total amount of principal and interest always remains the same. The monthly payment can change, however, if local property taxes, which are normally part of the monthly mortgage payment, increase.

Because the life of a fixed-term loan is usually long – anywhere from 15 to 30 years – you have plenty of time to repay it and there is no call provision written into the mortgage. A call allows the lender to demand the balance of the loan be paid in full before the actual payoff date.

On the negative side, the interest rate on a fixed mortgage is usually two or three full points above the current rate on an adjustable rate loan, at least initially. But for buyers seeking security, the comfort of knowing what their payments will be year after year, and no plans of selling their home in the foreseeable future, this is a small price to pay. If rates drop, they may be able to refinance their home loan and get a lower rate.

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5 Ways to Achieve a Stress-Free Vacation

July 22, 2011 2:59 pm

A stressful vacation should be an oxymoron. But, for those of us who are traveling with a large family, running behind on packing, or have seriously overstuffed our itinerary—again!—sometimes we need to remember to breath. The following 5 tips will ensure a more relaxing vacation, whether you’re traveling abroad or making a short local trip.

1. Plan ahead. There are some things that can be done way ahead of your trip, like making reservations, taking the car for a tune up, and letting neighbors know you will be away. Even packing can be done earlier than most people think. Getting your bag ready on Tuesday for your weekend at the lake will be less stressful than packing it on Friday, with your family in the car honking the horn. Most items you will be taking—bathing suit, casual clothes, reading material—won’t be used in the preceding few days anyways. Leave a little room in your bag to add your toiletries last-minute before heading out the door scramble free. 

2. Delegate. Scrambling around to get everything ready for your trip? Dole out tasks to lighten your load. Tell your kids to clean out the car before piling in for that road trip. Ask your teenager to look up good restaurants in the area you’re staying. Have your husband or wife contact the kennel to make reservations for your four-legged friend. 

3. Unplug—everything! Leave your laptop at home, turn off your blackberry and stow away your iPod. Designate 20 minutes a day for catching up with work related emails only if necessary. We are so focused on technology today we forget what it is like to be away from it. While at first you might feel, well, naked, after a few hours of connecting with your family, friends, or just nature, you will feel liberated and care-free. Your emails will be waiting for you when you get home.

4. Do nothing. Pencil in time to do nothing. Whether this is two days on your weeklong vacation, or an afternoon of a long weekend, section of a block of time where you have nothing planned. This will allow you to plan your activities based on how you feel at that moment—a true luxury in this fast paced world.

5. Smile. This may seem like a given, but often we get hung up on the small stuff-even while on vacation. Don’t freak out if a friend bails last minute, or your hotel room is smaller than it seemed in the picture, or you forgot to pack your kid’s bathing suit. When you look back on your trip, these inconveniences will be forgotten, so don’t let them ruin your time in the moment, either.
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