December 1, 2011 9:42 pm
As December begins and the holiday season and spirit of giving move into full swing, why not make a few tax moves now that could give you added savings when you file your 2011 tax return? The year-end is an ideal time to lower your 2011 tax liability and increase the size of your refund when tax time arrives early in 2012.
There is still time for a final push to claim several tax benefits before 2011 winds to a close. Many taxpayers will be doing things like giving to charities and pre-paying January tuition, but the key is knowing how these and other common expenses may count as tax deductions if you qualify. There are five key considerations taxpayers should be thinking of before December 31 to reduce taxable income and increase deductions or credits to claim:
1. Save more for retirement – By increasing retirement plan contributions, you can reduce your income for tax purposes. Taxpayers can contribute up to $16,500 to a 401(k), 403(b) or Federal Government Thrift Savings Plan; those over age 50 can contribute an additional $5,500.
2. Prepay January payments in December – Taking care of your January mortgage payment, 4th quarter state tax estimate, or winter semester tuition now lets you claim these payments on your 2011 tax return.
3. Get to the doctor! – If you are holding off on a major medical procedure until after the holidays, stop procrastinating and make an appointment now to increase your 2011 medical expense deductions.
4. Give to charity – Giving cash and non-cash donations to charity can give back on your taxes. And volunteering time counts too, which means the more than 80,000 volunteers who lent a helping hand to the Joplin, Mo. tornado victims may be able to deduct their out-of-pocket expenses on a tax return.
5. Save energy, save $500 on your taxes – If you are planning to buy an energy-saving, hot water heater or install energy efficient windows or insulation to your home, do it now. Up to $500 in credit may be available for making energy-related home improvements.
December 1, 2011 9:42 pm
The International Window Film Association (IWFA) is educating the public about the harmful impact that strong winter sunlight has in the United States and it is urging consumers to consider installation of window film on their homes before the energy tax credit expires.
"People in northern states may not know that because of the low angle of the winter sun, more ultraviolet rays may come through a window into the living space than in the summer in Florida," says Darrell Smith, executive director of the nonprofit IWFA.
The IWFA is also making the public aware of the expected end of the government home improvement energy tax credit on December 31st, 2011. Consumers are eligible for up to a $500 home improvement energy tax credit for the installation of window film.
"Easily installed window film blocks up to 99% of harmful UV rays and reduces solar heat gain to save consumers on cooling costs in warmer months as well," says Smith.
"With unrestricted access to your home's interior, the winter sun's in-line position with windows can literally make a home's furniture, drapes and artwork a faded memory," adds Smith. "Now is the time to invest in window film. The purchase provides returns year-round by protecting furnishings from fading, creates a consistent home temperature and keeps you and your belongings safe from UV exposure."
The IWFA shares facts on UV protection, when comparing window film to alternatives:
• Single-paned normal glass blocks only 25% of UV rays
• Double-paned normal glass windows block 40% of UV rays and low-e glass windows block up to 75% of UV rays
• All quality solar control window films for residential use block 99% of UV rays
November 30, 2011 9:40 pm
For some people, a warm glass of milk or cup of chamomile tea is a soothing bedtime ritual. But what the human body really wants to do with the onset of sleep is to cool down. That’s why cooler temperatures are just what the doctor ordered when it comes to getting the best rest.
“A cool environment in your bedroom is one of the most important factors contributing to good rest,” says Dan Schecter, creator of SleepBetter.org. “Individuals vary, of course, but the consensus is that the best sleeping environment is between 60 and 68 degrees.”
Research shows that temperatures above 75 degrees or below 54 degrees can disrupt sleep. It’s not surprising that the arrival of cooler weather causes many people to want to hunker down on chilly mornings.
The following tips can help you make the most out of your sleep:
• Make sure your bedding is appropriate to the season; think about whether your sheets, blankets and pillows give you the right support and warmth.
• You don’t have to pile on heavy blankets; modern fibers and comforters can keep you warm without a lot of weight.
• When appropriate, open the windows and turn down the thermostat (you’ll save money, too).
• If you’re waking up in the morning with aches and stiffness, maybe your mattress is not providing you with the correct lumbar support.
• If fall and winter sleeping leaves you with a sore throat and dry nose, consider whether a humidifier might help.
November 30, 2011 3:40 pm
Homeowners can help their families and guests get in the holiday spirit without going through the hassles of hanging outside lights. With easy holiday decorations for the entryway and windows, this is the ideal time of year to show off a home’s exterior.
Hanging Door Decorations:
• Design a heart-shaped wreath with miniature pine cones and dye them a brilliant shade of red.
• Mount an evergreen wreath or swag with glass ornaments or silver bells.
• Create a wreath with magnolia leaves and fresh fruit such as pears, apples and pomegranates.
• For a coastal home, consider a wreath of woven sea grass with sea shells or a brightly painted life preserver with lights and decorative glass floats.
• If your door doesn’t merit all the attention, consider wrapping it in bright paper with a large bow or framing it in lights.
• Hang a set of sleigh bells on the door knob, which will give a festive jingle every time guests pass through.
Accessorizing Your Doorway:
• Frame your entryway with a garland and lights. Add bows or pine cones for more decorative detail.
• Place pots or urns planted with seasonal greenery, poinsettias and lights on either side of the doorway.
• Put out a welcome mat designed with holiday accents.
• Hang matching wreaths in all of the windows.
• Never put nails or screws in a vinyl window frame to hold up decorative lights or holiday wreathes. Also, do not glue, staple or tape lights to a window frame.
• Do not place lit candles on a window sill, nor the edge or sash.
• Never decorate windows with anything that could impede opening your windows quickly, in case you need to use the window as an escape route during an emergency. For example, don’t wrap garland ropes or artificial pine branches around the window hardware.
• Do not place real pine branches or cones on the window frames or sill. Fresh pine sap can leave nasty stains after the holiday season is over. Realistic, artificial pine is usually available at craft stores around the holidays.
• Although tempting, do not spray “fake snow” from aerosol cans on your windows. The “snow” residue can be hard to remove after the holidays and can hamper the operation of your window if it sticks into the sash or hardware.
Santa-Approved Window Decorating Tips:
• Affix suction cups on the window glass to hang glass ornaments, plastic snowflakes or glass icicles so that light can come through the windows to enhance the decorations.
• Swags of garland or evergreen wreaths outside the home may be put up best by affixing to the siding of the house and not to windows themselves.
• Bay and bow windows are the ideal location to position a Christmas tree for maximum viewing, from both the interior and the exterior of the home.
• Make your curtain rods work during the holidays. Remove the curtains and hang ornaments from the existing rods on different lengths of fishing line or colorful curling ribbon.
• No curtain rods? Just add some inexpensive tension curtain rods to the top or middle section of your windows. Hang decorations from the rods with fishing line or garland. Decorate the rods themselves with holiday ribbon or fabric.
• Encourage children to help decorate the windows with static cling holiday window stickers. The peel-and-stick temporary decorations are ideal for putting your home in the holiday spirit.
Get into the spirit of the holidays while protecting your home at the same time. With these easy tips, you can forego the hassle of stringing a plethora of awkward, tangled lights and opt for simpler, yet dazzling alternatives.
November 30, 2011 3:40 pm
When submitting a claim to an auto insurance company, one of the most important people in the process is the insurance adjuster. This is the person who handles most of the major aspects of the claims process, from examining the damage on a vehicle to determining fault. After filing a claim with an insurance company, the claims department will assign the claim to an adjuster. Expect to hear from an adjuster shortly after filing a claim, as he or she will be the main contact at the insurance company throughout the process. Getting to know the insurance adjuster’s role and what you should expect from the adjuster helps make the claims process go smoothly.
The adjuster’s job is to determine whether the person making a claim is owed payment under the insurance policy. The adjuster will:
• Take a statement from the claimant and any witnesses regarding the accident.
• Examine the damage to the car.
• Determine the current value of the car.
• Review all statements and police reports regarding the accident.
• Determine fault.
• Review injury claims.
• Determine what benefits apply, if any.
• Deal with the other party’s insurance company, if applicable.
These are just a few of the tasks the insurance adjuster must handle in order to ensure a properly and fairly processed claim. When a claim is being processed, expect to hear from the adjuster regularly. The adjuster’s contact phone number will be provided, should any questions or concerns arise or if you simply want to find out the status of a claim.
Your insurance adjuster should:
• Provide update on the claim status.
• Address concerns regarding the claim.
• Represent the driver’s interests to the other insurance company if not at fault.
• Assist with all needs as covered in the policy, such as a rental car.
• Work towards a fair settlement and listen if any disagreement comes up with determinations, including fault and value of the car.
A good claims department should be one of the major factors in choosing an insurance company. When shopping around to compare car insurance rates, take a look at each company’s customer satisfaction ratings for claims processing. Good insurance adjusters are fair, work quickly and ensure everyone is satisfied. Don’t hesitate to question or voice concerns about a claim and if the adjuster is being unfair, ask to speak to someone in a senior position to address any concerns.
November 29, 2011 9:40 pm
The Food and Drug Administration has created a new Internet resource to help consumers recognize and protect themselves from bogus health products and scams. Their Health Fraud Scams website, located at www.fda.gov/healthfraud, pulls together videos and articles on how to avoid fraudulent schemes, and offers information about products that have been seized, recalled or are the subject of warnings from the agency.
The site also provides links to government resources on health fraud involving FDA-regulated products, such as drugs, dietary supplements, tobacco products, alternative medicines, medical devices and cosmetics.
Gary Coody, R.Ph., national health fraud coordinator at FDA, calls the site “one-stop shopping” for people who want to learn how to recognize and avoid health fraud scams. Anyone can search the site to see if FDA has taken an action against a product or company. However, just because a product is not listed does not mean that it is legally marketed or safe to use.
Consumers spend a fortune on products that “are either worthless or may cause harm,” says Coody. “Consumers can buy very dangerous products on the Internet and in stores that can cause serious injury or death.”
The waste of money is bad enough but using one of these unproven treatments can delay getting a potentially life-saving diagnosis and medication that works, he says.
The schemes can take many forms. “Some products billed as 'all natural' in fact have prescription drugs and other chemicals not listed on the label that could be dangerous,” Coody says. The most common categories of these tainted products include weight loss, sexual performance and bodybuilding.
Other products claim to be a cure-all for such serious chronic diseases as cancer, arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Seniors are particularly vulnerable to this kind of deception but consumers of all ages are taken in by fraudulent products, says Coody, adding, “Everyone is vulnerable.”
Health fraud is more pervasive today, says Coody, because “the Internet has opened up the world market to people from their personal computers.” If you're tempted to purchase any unproven or little known treatment, especially if it’s sold on the Internet, check with your doctor or health care professional first, he advises.
But shady products are also peddled by TV infomercials, radio, direct mail, word-of-mouth marketing and ads in newspapers and magazines.
“There are many ways that consumers are getting these messages,” says Coody. "They should view these ads with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
For more information, visit www.fda.gov.
November 29, 2011 9:40 pm
For kids, imagination is a skill that needs practice every day. Creative play is essential to children’s social and cognitive development, and toys can offer great opportunities to encourage it. But when it comes to encouraging imaginative play, not all toys are created equal. As the holidays approach, consider these tips for those looking for gifts that will encourage creative play.
1. Look for toys that can be used in a number of ways. There’s a reason the stick has made it into the Toy Hall of Fame. It can be a wand, a pencil, a dividing line, or a baseball bat. The best gifts for creativity are ones where you wouldn’t say: “You’re doing it wrong!” Building toys (not kits) are great. A set of magnets in various colors can be arranged to make thousands of shapes. A color-by-number set has one “correct” way to complete its task.
2. Look for toys that match your child’s developmental stage and skill level. It is wonderful to be challenged and to learn new skills, but if a toy has a standard for success that is very far out of reach for a child, it can be very frustrating. A cross-stitching kit can be a lot of fun for a child new to textile arts, but giving the materials and not a prescribed pattern offers a child without developed skills the chance to build their confidence.
3. Listen to what your child takes interest in and select gifts that follow those interests. Ask your child what he or she finds interesting. If your daughter likes a sculpture in the park, ask why. If it’s because of the pigeons on it, she may have more compelling creative interests elsewhere. If it’s because of the way the artist created folds in the fabric out of stone, she may find 3-dimensional art fun to try.
For more information, visit www.highlights.com.
November 29, 2011 9:40 pm
Although the housing market struggled to maintain an even footing in 2011, gradual improvement is expected in 2012 and beyond, according to projections from the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR).
Lawrence Yun, chief economist of NAR, said home sales should be stronger. “Tight mortgage credit conditions have been holding back home buyers all year, and consumer confidence has been shaky recently,” he said. “Nonetheless, there is a sizeable pent-up demand based on population growth, employment levels and a doubling-up phenomenon that can’t continue indefinitely. This demand could quickly stimulate the market when conditions improve.”
Yun projects growth in Gross Domestic Product to be 1.8% this year, then rising moderately at a rate of 2.2% in 2012. With job growth of 1.7 to 2.2 million next year, the unemployment rate is expected to decline to 8.7% by the second half of 2012.
Mortgage interest rates should gradually rise from recent record lows and reach 4.5% by the middle of 2012.
“Housing affordability conditions, based on the relationship between median home prices, mortgage interest rates, and median family income, have been at a record high this year,” Yun said. “Very favorable affordability conditions will dominate next year as well, which will probably be the second best year on record dating back to 1970. Our hope is that credit restrictions will ease and allow more home buyers to take advantage of current opportunities.”
Existing-home sales are forecast to edge up about 1% this year, and then rise another 4-5% in 2012. Based on NAR’s current projection model, existing-home sales would total 4.96 million in 2011.
NAR presently is benchmarking existing-home sales, and downward revisions are expected for totals in recent years, although there will be little change to previously reported comparisons based on percentage change. There will be no change to median prices or month’s supply of inventory. Publication of the improved measurement methodology is expected in the near future.
New-home sales are expected to be a record low 302,000 this year, rising to 372,000 in 2012. Housing starts are forecast to rise to 630,000 next year from 583,000 in 2011. “Although a double-digit growth in new-home sales and housing starts sounds encouraging, the projections remain historically soft relative to long-term underlying demand,” Yun explained.
With falling inventory, the median home price should rise in 2012. “Home prices have yet to show a definitive stabilization pattern in most areas. Still, given an over-correction in prices, there likely will be moderate appreciation in 2012,” Yun said.
“Once home prices turn positive on a sustained basis, consumer confidence will rise and help the broader economy to improve,” Yun added. “If we could maintain sound and reasonable mortgage underwriting standards, the market would be able to avoid a future big boom and bust cycle, but mortgage standards remain overly stringent.”
For more information, visit www.realtor.org.
November 28, 2011 3:40 pm
Throughout the holidays and into the new year, consumers should be cautious when shopping online in order to protect all of their personal information. Cyber criminals are looking to take advantage of the high volume of users and transactions during this time in order to gain access to accounts, steal data and conduct other malicious activity.
The following tips will help you improve security and minimize risks while shopping online:
1. Secure your computer. Keep your operating system and application software updated/patched. Be sure to check that your anti-virus/anti-spyware software is running and receiving automatic updates. Confirm that your firewall is enabled.
2. Shop with trusted merchants. Limit your online shopping to merchants you know and trust. If you have questions about a merchant, check with the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission. Confirm the online seller's physical address and phone number in case you have questions or problems.
3. Secure your online transactions. If you submit your financial information through an organization's website, be sure to look for indicators that the site is secure. Look for the browser's status bar and be sure “https” appears in the website’s address bar before making an online purchase. The "s" stands for "secure” and indicates that communication with the webpage is encrypted.
4. Use strong passwords. If you need to create an account using a password with the merchant, be sure to create a strong password. Use at least eight characters, with numbers, special characters, and upper and lower case letters. Don’t use the same passwords for online shopping websites that you use for any other account. Never share your login and/or password.
5. Avoid scams and fraud. Don’t ever give your financial information or personal information over e-mail, text or by phone. Be aware of unsolicited communications purporting to represent charities. Always think before you click on e-mails you receive asking for donations and contact the organization directly to verify the request.
6. Do not use public computers or public wireless to conduct transactions. Public computers may contain malicious software that steals your credit card information when you place your order. Criminals may be monitoring public wireless networks for credit card numbers and other confidential information.
7. Ignore pop-up messages. Set your browser to block pop-up messages. If you get an e-mail or pop-up message that asks for your financial information while you’re browsing, don't reply or follow the link. Legitimate companies won’t ask for financial information in a pop-up message. Close out of the pop-up message by closing out of the browser.
8. Pay by credit card. Pay by credit card rather than debit card, as credit cards are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act and may reduce your liability if your information was used improperly.
9. Keep a paper trail. Print or save records of your online transactions. Carefully review your credit card statements as soon as you receive them to confirm that all charges are legitimate. Contact your credit card company immediately if you have unauthorized charges on your account.
November 28, 2011 3:40 pm
This holiday season, seniors and aging adults are urged to stay active in order to enjoy good health during this year's festivities. While nonagenarians, a person whose age is in the nineties, may not be able to go “dashing through the snow” as fast as they did in their youth, they can make an effort to see friends, do volunteer work, play a rousing game of Scrabble or even knit holiday sweaters for their nieces and nephews. Extra servings of pumpkin pie, however, are best avoided.
Each of those actions during the festive season can lead to a better quality of life for seniors, according to studies of elders in Okinawa, which boasts more centenarians per 100,000 people than anywhere else on Earth. To ensure older adults throughout North America can benefit from the findings of these studies, Americans should observe the five components of healthy longevity identified among the Okinawans:
Physical activity: Taking a walk after a hearty holiday meal is a good idea for those of any age, but it is particularly beneficial to seniors. Even aging adults who are less ambulatory can take part in some form of exercise, whether it is lifting their feet repeatedly while seated in a sturdy chair, or raising their arms skyward several times in a row.
Healthy diet: Comfort foods drawn from family or ethnic traditions are especially enjoyed by seniors during the holidays. However, the recipes for these dishes should be adapted to the palates and dietary needs of aging adults. Lean meats, such as turkey breast, are readily available during this time of year and serve as a healthy alternative to red meat for seniors. Also, limit the intake of sweets and desserts that accompany celebrations – except perhaps for antioxidant rich dark chocolate. Other “super foods” for seniors that are beneficial to include in holiday meals are blueberries, flax seed, carrots, eggs, nuts and salmon.
Sharp minds: While dementia and short-term memory loss are common among seniors, mentally-stimulating activities can help them delay, or possibly even prevent, the onset of these conditions. Designing holiday festivities around skill-based games, such as Scrabble, checkers, backgammon or Boggle, not only makes the event fun for party-goers, but these activities can also help seniors maintain cognitive function. Engaging in pattern-following crafts like knitting or needlepoint also stimulates the brains of older adults in ways that can help keep them mentally fit.
Social ties: Though the holiday season can bring back memories of lost loved ones, this time of year also offers numerous opportunities for seniors to engage with other people, whether through social gatherings, phone calls, email or greeting cards. Research shows that social ties keep people healthy by providing emotional support, limiting stress levels, and helping seniors maintain an irreplaceable level of independence. While group activities in family homes or senior centers can be the centerpiece of holiday celebrations, aging adults can also benefit from receiving a daily phone call or email because it helps them feel connected to those they care about.
Calmness and Purpose: For some seniors, participating in a religious service helps them maintain a calm center and focus on their life purpose, while others may prefer practices such as yoga or meditation. The holidays also offer ample opportunities for older adults to fulfill a purpose by volunteering at local organizations and nonprofits. Sharing personal stories or reading special holiday stories to younger family members and friends can also help seniors maintain a sense of connectivity to those around them.
For more information on how seniors can remain healthy and happy, visit www.homecareassistance.com.