12 Ways to Commemorate Your Dog on Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day

Photo courtesy of AKC

As any dog lover knows, we always miss the dogs we’ve lost. So today, we want to focus on and celebrate the great lives of all our dogs, past and present.

Sometime in the 1980’s or early 1990’s, an unknown author wrote a story poem called Rainbow Bridge, in which he (or she) envisioned a place in heaven where our dogs run and play; healthy, young and strong. And where they wait to be with us again. This idea has taken root in many a dog-lover’s heart and it’s comforting to imagine your pet happy and content.

To honor this, author and blogger, Deborah Barnes, created Rainbow Bridge Remembrance Day, a day dedicated to remembering the pets who have crossed over the Rainbow Bridge. If you’ve been wanting to celebrate the life of your pet, here are some suggestions of ways to honor and remember him.

1. Donate. Why not give to a worthy cause in memory of your dog? Consider donating to AKC Reunite’s Canine Support & Relief or any other organization that is meaningful to you in honor of your pet.

2. Volunteer. A donation of time can be just as valuable as money. Maybe you could get involved with your local club and volunteer at one of their events.

3. Place a headstone or garden stone in the yard. You can purchase a headstone or garden stone ready-made and customized or decorate one yourself. You might want to place it your pet’s favorite outdoor spot.

4. Hold a memorial service. If you’re religious, say a prayer. Consider a family walk or hike to scatter your pet’s ashes in a favorite spot. This is a good way to include all family members, including children who may be struggling with the loss.

5. Plant a tree. One of the nice things about a tree-planting ceremony is that you’re you’re commemorating your pet with something that will live and grow. And as it does, it will be a beautiful memory.

6. Make a scrapbook. This is another way to include the whole family in making memories. Share your favorite stories and add photos or draw pictures to illustrate. You might want to include a favorite small toy, your dog’s collar or other mementos. Scrap-booking can be ongoing, too–picked up every now and then to add memories or to feel close to your pet again. You can buy a ready-to-use pet scrapbook or even download everything you need.

7. Add your dog’s tag to your keychain. This is a simple way to keep him with you wherever you go.

8. Make a Christmas tree ornament. Add a ribbon to your dog’s tags, favorite toys or collar and celebrate your dog’s memory during the holidays.

9. Frame your favorite photo. A beautiful frame makes a photo into a portrait. Buy a plain frame and decorate it yourself or buy a customized frame.

10. Create an online memorial. You can make a memorial page on your favorite social media channel or on websites that allow you to make your own online memorial.

11. Make a piece of jewelry. You can have a custom charm made to add to a bracelet or a personalized pendant to wear close to your heart.

12. Share something. If you have a special dog park or other place you and your dog loved, create an ongoing tribute by sharing his favorite treats or toys. Set up a bucket of tennis balls or Frisbees, place a container of his favorite cookies. This way other dog lovers can share something that brought happiness to your dog’s life.

Finally, remember all of the great times you and your dog had together! There is no greater bond than a person and their dog, so don’t be shy in celebrating your dog’s amazing life.

Article by Jan Reisen

Drink To This: 9 Ways To Use Vodka To Clean Your Home

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If vodka is your spirit of choice, you may prefer it on the rocks, in a bloody mary, or even in a Moscow Mule. This clear, mostly odorless, infinitely mixable liquor is a staple in any cocktail connoisseur’s at-home bar cart.

But it turns out, vodka can be used for more than just happy hour. It can also be used to degrease, deodorize, and disinfect your home!

“Liquor—and particularly vodka—is a natural disinfectant and can be used to clean a variety of surfaces in one’s home to help combat mold and mildew and kill germs,” says Mark Addison, TV personality, designer, and author of “Cocktail Chameleon.”

If traditional cleaning products’ harsh odors and chemicals are too much for you, the grain-based booze can be a good alternative since it’s easy on the hands and evaporates quickly. While we don’t recommend splurging on bottles of vodka for cleaning purposes, think twice before pouring any leftover vodka down the drain—unless you plan to clean the drain with it. (But were you really pouring vodka down the drain anyway?)

Note: There’s no need to shell out for premium vodka for this purpose either. Any type will do, although some experts recommend higher proofs for better cleaning power.

Here are some ways vodka can be used as a cleaning agent in the home. Cheers!

1. Clean kitchen appliances and surfaces

A filthy kitchen is enough to get anyone down. Put a mixture of equal parts vodka and water in a spray bottle, and spritz on grime and grease stains on your stovetop, backsplashes, and countertops. It can also shine your chrome faucets and cabinet hardware. You can also add a few drops of essential oil for a pleasant scent.

“The alcohol in vodka cuts through grease and oil,” says Leslie Reichert, author and green living expert. “Vodka is a great cleaner for stainless steel.”

But here’s a big, flashing warning notice: Vodka should not be used near open flames as it is flammable. OK?

2. Cut bathroom grime

Bathrooms get a lot of foot traffic so they can get awfully dirty, and bathroom fixtures can build up soap scum and hard-water stains. Just spritz some vodka on the mess, rinse, and wipe away the nastiness.

You can also get dark spots out of tile and caulk by spraying them with vodka, letting it sit for 30 minutes, scrubbing it away with an old toothbrush, and rinsing with water.

“Vodka can help with smells around the toilet, too,” says Reichert.

3. Make glass and mirrors cleaner

No one likes seeing streaks on the mirrors or glass. But with its solvent qualities, vodka can do away with even the toughest spots.

Combine equal parts water and vodka and add a quarter-teaspoon baking soda in a spray bottle. Spray and wipe.

“I’d recommend spraying glass or mirrors with the vodka, and then wiping with a fine woven microfiber cloth until completely dry,” says Reichert.

4. Remove sticky labels

Stubborn price stickers on items like toys and electronics are difficult to remove. Sometimes you manage to get the sticker off but the residue remains. Vodka can do wonders when it comes to dissolving sticker adhesive.

“Simply put a few drops of vodka on the sticker residue, let it sit for 10 minutes, and wipe it off with a paper towel for a squeaky-clean surface,” says Addison.

5. Clean jewelry

With everyday wear, jewelry can get dirty and start to look dull. But vodka can revive your favorite baubles.

“Another favorite use for vodka is to clean gold, silver, diamond, or other crystal gem jewelry,” says Addison. “Simply soak your jewelry in a watered-down vodka solution for 10 minutes, remove it, and brush the item with a toothbrush to get into the crevices.”

6. Refresh your laundry and more

Stinky clothes sometimes need a bit more of a punch to knock out those odors. Add a half-cup vodka to your load of laundry before running the washer.

It also works to deodorize other surfaces in your home. Get rid of sweat, cigarette, and other foul smells on your mattress, in your gym bag, or in your shoes. You can spray it directly on these items as the scent and moisture will evaporate and remove odors. (Proceed with caution before spraying anything on leather or other delicate materials.)

7. Remove stains from carpet

Accidents (and stains) happen. But when your normal carpet cleaner just won’t cut it, vodka can save you in a pinch. To get oil-based, grass, ink, or food stains out of your carpet using vodka, just soak, blot the excess liquid, and scrub.

8. Make a room diffuser oil

Vodka isn’t the first scent you gravitate toward when trying to freshen up the scent of your home. But we promise this recipe for a room fragrance won’t smell anything like a fraternity house.

Create an aromatic oil for your diffuser by combining a few tablespoons vodka with about 20 drops of your favorite essential oil and a quarter-cup almond or baby oil.

9. Repel bugs

Tired of getting eaten alive by mosquitoes? Put some vodka in a spray bottle, and spritz away those bothersome insects. The high alcohol content will keep them at bay.

Article by Anayat Durrani 

Parmesan spring chicken

BBC Good Food

 

 

 

 

Dish up an easy, delicious chicken dinner that’s full of spring flavours. The parmesan coating gives a satisfying crunch, and the meat inside stays tender.

Ingredients

  • 1 egg white
  • 5 tbsp finely grated parmesan
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 400g new potatoes , cut into small cubes
  • 140g frozen peas
  • good handful baby spinach leaves
  • 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp olive oil

Method

  • STEP 1

    Heat grill to medium and line the grill pan with foil. Beat the egg white on a plate with a little salt and pepper. Tip the parmesan onto another plate. Dip the chicken first in egg white, then in the cheese. Grill the coated chicken for 10-12 mins, turning once until browned and crisp.

  • STEP 2

    Meanwhile, boil the potatoes for 10 mins, adding the peas for the final 3 mins, then drain. Toss the vegetables with the spinach leaves, vinegar, oil and seasoning to taste. Divide between four warm plates, then serve with the chicken.

Recipe by BBC Good Food

Can You Take a Home Office Tax Deduction Due to COVID-19? A Reality Check

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2020 was the year of WFH: Working from home became a reality for countless Americans, as company offices closed down to curb the spread of COVID-19. And, as the time nears to file your 2020 taxes, you might be wondering: Does your home office add up to any tax deductions for you?

It’s a logical question: Since most WFH warriors shell out of their own pocket for internet, printer ink, and equipment upgrades if their laptop poops out, it’s understandable to hope you can recoup some of these expenses by claiming the home office tax deduction on your taxes.

But beware: The home office deduction has changed a lot over the years, so whether you can claim it will depend greatly on your circumstances. Here’s more on exactly who can claim a home office tax deduction—and who can’t—as well as how much certain people can save. For people who can’t claim this deduction, we’ve found some clever tax deductions to bring up with your boss that could still save you money—for now, and going forward as long as your WFH life continues.

Who can claim a home office tax deduction?

Even though the name of this tax deduction has the phrase “home office,” this doesn’t mean everyone who works from home can claim it, explains Paul Sundin, a CPA and a tax strategist at Emparion.

In a nutshell, the home office tax deduction can be claimed only by self-employed individuals—meaning freelancers, small-business owners, and anyone who works for themselves. That said, these workers still must meet certain conditions. (Read our next section for more details.)

What qualifies as a home office?

There are very strict rules on what constitutes a dedicated home office. To claim this deduction, you must use part of your home exclusively for business. That means an office that doubles as your bedroom or an occasional guest room does not qualify.

That said, an open area with a desk that’s used only for work qualifies just fine. So if your desk is in an open floor plan, simply measure the space you use for your office. And if you have an entire room dedicated only to work, measure the size of the room.

How to take a home office deduction

The easiest way to claim the deduction is to deduct $5 per square foot, up to 300 square feet, of office space, which amounts to a maximum deduction of $1,500.

If you think your deduction is worth more than $1,500, you can also try the more complicated method of tracking all the costs of your home office. Then allocate those expenses based on the percentage of the home you use solely as a home office. So if your office occupies 10% of your home’s total square footage, you can deduct 10% of what you pay to keep it running.

Here’s how that breaks down, according to Ben Reynolds, CEO and founder of Sure Dividend:

  • Business equipment: The IRS considers tangible equipment such as furniture, computers, electronic devices, and office machines as eligible.
  • Internet: You can deduct the amount used for business purposes. If you use your internet 20% of the time for work, you can deduct that percentage of your total internet bill.
  • Home expenses: These include rent, mortgage interest, real estate taxes, homeowners insurance, home repairs, electricity, and gas. If your home office takes up 10% of your home’s total square footage, you can deduct 10% of these expenses.
  • Depreciation: Computers and most office equipment can be depreciated over five years, while office furniture can depreciate for seven years. You have the option to deduct the full amount of the depreciation or gradually subtract the a portion of the total value each year.

Can W-2 employees claim a home office tax deduction?

If you are a W-2 employee, you cannot claim a home office tax deduction.

Why not? While in the past employees could claim a deduction for employment expenses over a certain percentage of their income, the 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated these deductions from 2018 to 2025. The act now prevents full-time, W-2 employees from deducting home office expenses on their 2020 taxes even when they worked from home more than they did in the office, says Reynolds.

There is one small exception to keep in mind: If you’re a W-2 employee with a side hustle, you can deduct eligible home office expenses for that particular side gig.

Are there any home office tax deductions W-2 workers can claim?

Unfortunately, most employees working from home can’t claim any federal tax deductions connected to being a remote worker during the coronavirus pandemic, says Sundin.

However, full-time remote employees who live in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania have a unique option for their state tax returns.

“W-2 workers living in these states can deduct business expenses their employer didn’t reimburse them for,” says Reynolds. These can include a portion of your rent, mortgage interest, internet/utility bills, a new computer monitor, desk, or even an ergonomic office chair. Just be aware the deduction may not cover all of your 2020 work expenses 100%.

The exact rules vary from state to state, so check in with a local tax professional. You can also find your state’s government website complete with links to tax information explained in greater depth at the IRS.

WFH tax deductions companies can take—then reimburse you

Even if you’re a W-2 employee who can’t reap any tax benefits from a home office directly, there are still some ways you can save money—by asking your employer to take some tax breaks on your behalf, then reimbursing you.

“There is something called Section 139 where the employer can reimburse pandemic costs for employees, at their discretion, tax-free,” says Jackie Meyer, CPA and founder of The Concierge CPA and TaxPlanIQ. “You can ask for reimbursements or special stipends directly from your employer.”

Section 139 defines those expenses as “reasonable and necessary” costs incurred by employees due to the pandemic. This can include everything from costs associated with establishing a home office (buying a desk) to maintaining a home office (upgrading to a faster internet). These payments are fully deductible for companies, offering a win-win situation for both employer and employee.

You can also ask if your company would consider an “accountable plan” for the 2021 tax year. Here’s how an accountable plan works: Instead of being paid $50,000, your employer could pay you $45,000 in wages plus a $5,000 home office expense reimbursement, making your salary the same—while saving you on taxes.

Finally, business meals from restaurants (including takeout) may now be deductible under the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, signed into law on Dec. 27, 2020. While still subject to clarification by the Treasury and IRS, it seems that food and beverages provided by an employer for virtual or business meetings will be 100% deductible. An employer could also deduct food provided for employee virtual happy hours.

So this might be a way to get your employer to start covering more of your WFH food if you order in, says Meyer. Simply point out to your employer working meals are a great tax deduction for them, and ask them to put delivered meals on their tab.

Article by Margaret Heidenry

Should You Buy a Home or Keep Renting? How To Decide in 7 Steps

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It’s a big question with no easy answer: Should you keep renting, or is it time to think about buying a home?

One of the major benefits of being a homeowner is building equity with each mortgage payment, instead of putting money into your landlord’s pocket.

But that doesn’t mean buying is always the best choice—as a renter, you enjoy more flexibility and avoid many of the costs that come with homeownership.

“This is an extremely personal decision,” says David Parsons, broker/owner of Re/Max North Professionals in Burlington, VT. “For those that want the flexibility to move quickly, have no desire to maintain a property, or need to save up money before making a purchase, renting is worthy of strong consideration.”

But there’s more to consider. We understand the magnitude of your rent versus buy quandary, and we’re here to assist.

Here are seven questions to ponder to help decide what’s right for you.

1. Will you even qualify for a mortgage?

Unless you have enough money in the bank to buy a house with cash, you’ll need a mortgage. Before you get too deep in daydreaming about your new home, reach out to a lender to see if you qualify for a loan. They can also tell you how much of a mortgage you qualify for, which is determined in part by your debt-to-income ratio.

“Job stability, credit history, and savings are some of the important factors used when qualifying for a mortgage,” says Tim Ross, CEO of Ross Mortgage Corp. based in Troy, MI.

If you qualify for a mortgage, buying a home might be a good next step. If not, you should first spend some time shoring up your finances.

“Qualifying for financing is a critical part of the home-buying journey. So if you have challenges in this realm, renting may be a good alternative,” Ross says.

You can also use the realtor.com® rent vs. buy calculator to see if the cost of homeownership is actually a better deal than renting given your location and budget.

2. Can you afford the closing costs?

So you’ve saved up enough for a down payment—congratulations! But beware: If you want to buy, there are more upfront costs involved.

“Buying a home involves more money out of pocket than just the down payment,” says Michele D. Hammond, a Chase private-client home lending adviser. “Closing costs are used to pay for items such as appraisals, inspections, and much more. These can amount to up to 3% or more of the final purchase price.”

When you’re buying a home with a six-figure price tag, 3% or more can mean many thousands of dollars that you’ll need to pay upfront, in addition to your down payment.

3. Can you afford the neighborhood?

Some costs—such as the down payment, closing costs, home inspection and appraisal—are just the price of admission to homeownership. But other real estate expenses depend entirely on where you choose to buy.

“When considering the overall cost of homeownership, the price of insurance and property taxes will vary based on community and location,” Ross says.

You can check with your local tax office or assessor to confirm the property taxes in your area and calculate what you can expect to pay based on a home’s assessed value. Keep in mind that property taxes vary widely by state and city.

4. How long do you plan to stick around?

If you’re buying a home, you should plan to stay there at least two to three years if you don’t want to lose money, Ross says.

“Remember, there is a cost to buy and sell a home,” Ross says.

When you’re buying, you have closing costs and a down payment. When you’re selling, you’ll need to factor in the real estate sale commission, which is typically 6% of the sales price. Considering that homes appreciate from 4% to 5% a year, he says, you might need to live there for a few years to cover the cost of a sale.

“If you’re confident you’ll stay in place for five to 10 years or more, that’s when you’ll find the prospect for meaningful wealth creation,” Ross says.

If you’re not sure you can commit to a home for at least 24 months, Ross recommends renting and setting aside any money you’ve saved for a down payment and closing costs. It’s better to save that money in the meantime and have it available when you’re ready to buy a home.

5. How important is the freedom to renovate?

If you’ve got the itch to tear down walls, try your hand at tiling, or experiment with a bold new wallpaper, you’re better off buying than renting (unless you have a very open-minded landlord). Owning a home gives you the freedom to renovate and decorate to your heart’s content.

“For those who greatly value the concept of ownership or plan on putting sweat equity into a property, ownership may be a better path,” says Rich Gardner, broker/owner of Re/Max North Professionals in Burlington, VT.

6. Are you up for the maintenance?

One major perk of being a renter is that your landlord is likely responsible for most of the maintenance and chores that homeowners have to deal with.

“When one goes from renting to owning, they are responsible for maintaining the property, which can be more expensive than many realize,” Hammond says.

From standard upkeep like replacing smoke detectors and shoveling snow to major issues like pipes bursting and foundation problems, homeownership comes with a long to-do list, and the maintenance can be as costly as it is time-consuming.

7. Are you comfortable with some market volatility?

The real estate market is hot right now, but it’s not guaranteed to stay that way.

“The housing market fluctuates, and although it has historically been an excellent investment in the United States, house prices do go down sometimes,” Parsons says.

“If you’re uncomfortable weathering inevitable ups and downs of any market, renting may provide more peace of mind,” he adds.

Article by Lauren Sieben

How to Dispute Medical Bill Errors

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Scrutinizing a bill from your health care provider or insurer is probably one of the last things you want to do after getting out of the hospital, but it can pay off.

Medical bill errors should be corrected so that you don’t have to pay for a service you didn’t receive, for example, or for medication that was ordered for you but you didn’t use while in the hospital, among other potential errors.

Here are some ways to dispute medical bill errors so that your insurance company doesn’t overcharge you:

Get an itemized bill.
Some medical providers may only send a “bottom line invoice” with a total amount due. Ask for an itemized bill that fully explains the charges. If you’re unsure what a charge is for, ask the provider.

Document and compare.
You or a family member should document what medicines you received and when during your hospital stay. It will help you dispute any unnecessary charges.

Once you have an itemized bill, compare it to the explanation of benefits from your insurance company or your medical chart. The explanation of benefits is sent to you by your insurer, and hopefully you’ve kept it. It may charge for a chart, which should match the services listed on the bill.

Notify the biller, then others for help.
Any errors you find should first be taken up with the healthcare provider’s billing department. It may audit the bill, asking you to provide evidence or documents to back your claim.

If it won’t correct the bill, ask your insurance company for help. You can also file a complaint with the state medical board or hire an attorney.

You can also hire a patient advocate who works on billing disputes. Such services include HealthCPA and Medical Bill & Claim Resolution. They can appeal erroneously denied charges and guide you through your insurance plan’s appeal process.

Companies such as Simplee offer free online services to gather your medical bills and insurance payments so its software can find if there are any mistakes.

Follow up.
Lastly, when you appeal a bill or are told a problem is being fixed, follow up with a phone call or letter to ensure it has been resolved. Upon first contact, ask for an estimate of how long it will take to fix the issue, and contact them on that date.

If you don’t understand something, ask. It’s your right as a patient to be involved in your billing just as you’re involved in your medical care.

Don’t Get Zapped by These Electrical Risks Inside and Outside the Home

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Pretty much everyone over the age of 5 knows never to stick their fingers in an outlet or poke a fork into a toaster, but beyond that, most of us don’t really expect to suffer a serious electrical shock at home. But there’s no doubt those risks exist, and it’s important to be aware of electrical hazards both indoors and outside.

Each year, more than 300 Americans die by electrocution, while thousands more experience nonfatal electric shock and burn injuries, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, a nonprofit organization in Rosslyn, VA, that promotes electrical safety at home and in the workplace.

Here are some of the most common electrical hazards and how to prevent them.

Understand electrical shock versus electrocution

It’s common to use these terms interchangeably, but there is a life-and-death difference between them, says ESFI President Brett Brenner.

“When you say ‘electrocuted,’ that means it’s fatal,” explains Brenner. “But you can be shocked or burned in many ways. People don’t realize that electricity is uniquely dangerous; it can really hurt you.”

Levels of shock depend on the energy power, he adds. For instance, 120-volt outlets are the norm in North America. If you touch a wire, it will cause a tingling sensation in your hand, but it probably won’t hurt you. But with 240 volts or higher, the situation can become more dangerous.

“Depending on how much energy is in the environment or the device you’re touching, that will cause some people’s bodies to lock up,” Brenner says. “Electricity can stop your heart or mess with signals to your brain. You can’t let go, because you can’t control your muscles anymore. That’s usually when you get electrocuted.”

Don’t overload or overuse extension cords

Extension cords are convenient, but many homeowners use them improperly, says Brenner.

“People think they last forever—they plug them in and forget them. But extension cords are only intended for temporary use, which means under 30 days,” cautions Brenner.

Depending on the amount of energy used, extension cords can heat up and deteriorate, he adds, so avoid running them behind sofas, underneath beds, or, worse, inside walls—which can be a fire hazard if you drive a nail through drywall and accidentally pierce that wire.

Power strips, on the other hand, don’t typically have a long cord and are more robust, says Brenner. But that doesn’t mean you can run multiple extension cords off a power strip and leave that plugged in, he warns.

Bradley Beck, owner of Alto Home Inspection in Buffalo, NY, recently found three 20-foot extension cords strung together and hard-wired to an electric garage door opener.

“They’d mounted it to the ceiling and plugged into an outlet. Another homeowner did the same thing for a wood-burning stove with a fan built in,” says Beck.

Bottom line: If you need another outlet, call a licensed electrician and get one permanently wired and installed properly.

Know the difference between grounded and ungrounded outlets

One of the most common electrical hazards Beck sees are ungrounded outlets. Grounding wires protects us from getting shocked.

“Ungrounded outlets pose a big risk, because certain equipment such as lamps can have wiring problems. If they do, the human body acts as a path for electricity instead of the grounding wire,” he explains.

Beck also finds three-prong outlets that aren’t actually grounded—a modern electrical plate hides the old setup behind the wall. He suggests spending a few dollars on an outlet tester, which can be found at most home centers.

“They have indicators that tell you if the outlet is wired correctly, and if there’s an open ground or missing ground,” says Beck.

You may have noticed that your bathroom or kitchen outlets near the sink have ground-fault circuit interrupters, or GFCIs. These outlets detect and prevent excess voltage by shutting themselves down. GFCIs can wear out over time, and Beck notes that most outlet testers also have a GFCI testing function.

Save your DIY skills for something else

Beck has seen lots of shoddy electrical repairs—often done by DIYers or local handymen—including reverse outlet wiring, where red and black wires were crossed instead of being paired.

“That could lead to metal objects or lamps being electrified, which is super dangerous,” says Beck.

Or you might think you’re being safe when installing a ceiling fan, but accidents can happen. If you switch off a breaker, tell everyone in your household so that nobody turns it back on, which can lead to your getting shocked.

And if you live in an older home with two-prong electrical outlets, don’t assume you can snap off the grounding pin from a three-prong plug.

“People assume that because you can plug it in, you should, and that’s just not the case,” says Brenner.

That’s true even if you’ve done it before.

“If you plug something into the wall and nothing’s ever happened, don’t assume that the next time you do it, nothing’s going to happen again,” he says.

One chore you can (and should) handle: replacing missing covers on electrical panels, outlets, and switches.

“When covers are missing, that invites little fingers to get in there, and that’s a big problem. It’s an easy and cheap fix to replace them,” says Beck.

Be extra careful around overhead power lines outside

Overhead power lines might be out of sight, but keep them top of mind so you don’t accidentally pull one down.

“When carrying things like ladders, people could run into power lines,” explains Brenner. “If you do, you’re dealing with a lot of energy and, usually, it’s a fatal electrocution.”

If you hear a loud noise outside and smell smoke, or you suspect wires have fallen down on your property, don’t investigate yourself; call the utility or fire department. Simply walking through your lawn near a live wire can be deadly, says Brenner.

“With power lines, if you are within 10 feet or so, the electricity can actually jump to you. Electricity is looking for the easiest path to ground possible, and you become the conduit,” he explains.

Even touching someone while they’re in contact with a live wire can electrocute you, he adds. “Electricity is unique because you can’t smell it, taste it, or see it, so it’s typical for one person to unfortunately get killed, and then the second person coming in to help also gets hurt or killed.”

And don’t ever handle the fat service entrance cable that goes from your electric meter to the utility, cautions Beck.

“Those were used for homes built in the 1960s and early ’70s, and were made of cloth,” he explains. “Cables of that era wear down, and I’ve seen the conductors inside of the cable exposed and visible. If someone were to grab it, they could potentially be shocked.”

Use common sense with outdoor electrical use

Often when the weather is nice, people want to be able to use electricity outside, for lighting and other amenities. But if anything, there are more risks.

“If you run an extension cord outside that comes in contact with the water, you can get what’s called ‘electrical shock drowning.’ There’s a current in the water, so when you jump in, your body locks up. You can’t swim, and you can drown,” says Brenner.

Beck cautions against another huge no-no.

“I’ve seen very long chains of extension cords for decorative lights on patios and decks—even over a pool or hot tub, which is megadangerous,” he says.

Just as you would indoors, make sure to have a licensed electrician set up proper electrical outlets for your outdoor needs.

Be on the lookout for abandoned wiring

Beck has seen live wires sticking out of a house that were still connected to a breaker, or forgotten wires sticking out of the ground from a dismantled hot tub or outdoor lights.

Take a look around the perimeter of your home, and if you see any abandoned wiring, call in an electrician to take care of it. Never touch it yourself, says Beck.

Many electrical injuries and deaths can be prevented by following basic safety practices. The ESFI has many helpful resources and checklists that will help homeowners understand how to use electricity properly.

Article by Wendy Helfenbaum

Why Your Credit Karma Score May Be Higher Than Your FICO Score

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Can you actually trust the credit scores provided by Credit Karma?

That’s the question many Twitter users have been asking, after scores of tweets about the personal-finance management company went viral. Many of these tweets centered on a common theme — that the credit scores Credit Karma presents are higher than what lenders see.

One Twitter user compared Credit Karma to “the enabling friend that sugar coats everything,” while others accused the company of lying.

Of course, not everyone had this exact experience. Some people noted that their score on Credit Karma was actually lower than the score provided to them by their credit-card company. How can this be?

It’s a common misconception that there is one, singular credit score for each consumer. “Most people would seriously be stunned if they knew just how many credit scores there are,” said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree.

In fact, there are two broad categories of credit scores: FICO scores and the VantageScore. Of the two, FICO is the more famous — it was created by a company originally known as Fair, Isaac and Co. in the 1950s. The base FICO score ranges from 300 to 850, although industry-specific scores can range from 250 to 900. Based on where a consumer falls in that range they will be considered to poor to exceptional credit, with higher numbers representing better credit.

VantageScore was created by the three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — as a competitor to FICO in 2006. While it uses a different algorithm than FICO, the information used to produce the score is the same. That’s because both FICO and VantageScore rely on consumer data from the credit bureau to produce their scores. Also like FICO, the VantageScore uses the same range, from 300 to 850, to gauge a person’s creditworthiness.

But it gets even more complicated than that. There’s not one single FICO score or VantageScore — there are multiple versions of each that have been released over the years. It can help to think of these scores like computers, said Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

“Some people have PCs and others have Macs,” Rossman said. “And even within PCs, for example, you might be running Windows 10 or Windows 8 or Windows 7, etc.”

Over the years, both credit-scoring firms have released new iterations of their scores in an effort to provide a more accurate, holistic picture of a consumer’s financial behavior.

Last year, FICO released two new credit scores, the FICO Score 10 and the FICO Score 10 T. Among the changes made to these new models were a different approach to weighting personal loans and the incorporation of so-called “trended data” to provide a sense of a borrower’s financial trajectory.


‘The credit score you see on financial tools and apps is what’s considered an ‘educational’ score.’

Sara Rathner, credit card expert at NerdWallet


Lenders don’t necessarily use the latest versions of credit scores. For instance, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has specific credit-score requirements for the loans that Fannie Mae and Freddie Macback. For these mortgages, lenders can only use FICO Models 2, 4 and 5. Plus, lenders will look at more than just your credit score — they’ll dig into your credit report to identify potential red flags or find explanations for why your score may have dropped or risen.

“Mortgage lenders usually pull FICO scores from all three bureaus — and like the Olympics, they throw out the highest and lowest scores,” Rossman said. “A credit card or auto lender, on the other hand, might just check one. Which bureau and which version can vary considerably.”

Credit Karma uses VantageScore 3.0 for the information it provides to its users, a company spokesperson said.

“The credit score you see on financial tools and apps is what’s considered an ‘educational’ score,” said Sara Rathner, credit-card expert at personal-finance website NerdWallet. “It’ll give you a general sense of where you stand, but don’t take it as gospel.”

As for why credit scores vary from version to version or lender to lender, that comes down to the underlying data used to produce the scores. The FICO Model 2 used in mortgage lending, for instance is produced based on the data from Experian that is sent by lenders on how much debt borrowers owe, whether they’re paying it on time, etc. But lenders don’t always report that information to all three bureaus.

Newer versions of FICO and VantageScore will also incorporate data such as people’s history of paying their rent and utilities on time. Again, not all landlords and utility providers send that information to the bureaus.

“The difference in scores can be really frustrating, because a lower than expected score can mean a more expensive loan,” Rathner said. “This is definitely something that makes it harder for consumers to make informed financial decisions.”

The good news is that the efforts people make to improve their scores should improve their scores across the board. Making on-time payments and avoiding maxing out your limit on credit cards are great starting points.

And in cases where two scores do differ substantially, that could be an indication of an error on your credit report. Consumers can get one free copy of their credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every year to keep tabs on what lenders are seeing. “A quick decrease for no apparent reason can be a sign of identity theft and is important to address in a hurry,” Schulz said.

Article by Jacob Passy

6 Situations When Breaking Your Lease Makes Sense

AntonioGuillem/Getty Images

While breaking a lease is generally a big no-no, sometimes there’s no way around it. Life happens, and certain circumstances might warrant getting out of your rental situation.

Breaking a lease can be complicated, and it can be costly,” says Dylan Lenz, CEO of Naborly, a modern-day property management software for landlords. “The lease agreement from your landlord and local regulations will have specific details around how to break your lease, what penalties you’ll be tied to, and which situations allow for it.”

Each state and city has its own set of regulations for terminating a lease, so do some research before moving forward. You should also read your rental agreement to see what it says about breaking your lease. Doing so will help you avoid a slew of issues, including a lawsuit by your landlord to recover outstanding rent, debt collectors, damaged credit, and problems finding new housing.

Is it really time to break your lease? Here are six situations where it may make sense to do so.

1. New job

Yes, relocating for a job is a fully legit reason to break a lease. But tenants should be well-prepared before they talk to their landlord.

Since you’re still legally on the hook for rent payments lasting the duration of your lease, broker Bill Kowalczukof Warburg Realty in New York says to minimize the chance of losing too much money,  tenants should try to find a new tenant on their own. And they should do so before telling their landlord they need to break the lease.

“I just had this happen with a property I represent,” says Kowalczuk. “The existing tenant found someone new to move in, who would pay $150 less than what they were paying. So the tenant who was leaving made up the difference for the amount of time left on her lease. Everyone was happy.”

2. Financial hardship

A significant change in your financial situation is reason enough to break a lease. The hope is that your landlord will take your circumstances into account and won’t charge you a penalty for breaking the lease—so documenting evidence of your hardship is important.

“The pandemic has rocked our economy, and we’re seeing a surge of layoffs and furloughs,” says Lenz. “People are in difficult financial situations right now and are making big decisions because of it, like moving back home or opting for a small, cheaper apartment.”

If you’ve experienced financial difficulties from unexpected job loss, you can always try to negotiate a deferred rent payment plan with your landlord instead of breaking your lease.

3. Bad landlord or unit

Several states have constructive eviction laws that allow renters to move out without penalty when a landlord does not provide habitable housing.

One example: “A tenant is entitled to break a lease where a unit is unwarranted (illegal) and does not have a certificate of occupancy on file with the city,” says Joseph Tobener, a tenant rights lawyer at Tobener Ravenscroft in San Jose, CA.

Tobener says another justified reason to break a lease is the landlord hasn’t provided repairs and the broken amenities are substantially interfering with the tenancy.

“To break a lease for substantial interference, the issues have to be serious, like no heat, sewage overflows, constant late-night noise issues, or cockroaches and rodents,” says Tobener.

4. Buying a new house

You’ve dreamed of owning a house since forever, but you’re stuck in a lease. Still, the promise of homeownership may be too good to pass up (hello, low interest mortgage rates!) and you have to break your lease. So what penalties would you face?

If you are thinking of buying a home, keep the lines of communication open with your landlord. You may be able to work out a cash payment to buy your way out of a lease. Some leases have “home-buying” clauses, which allow tenants to jump ship early for a small fee.

5. Divorce

Divorce can get sticky, especially when it comes to working out all the details, including living arrangements.

If living together to ride out the lease isn’t an option, experts suggest working with a legal representative to draft and sign a lease transfer agreement that places all the tenant obligations, such as full payment of outstanding rent, to the spouse still residing in the unit.

6. Military assignment

You just moved into a sweet pad, but three weeks later you receive orders for a new military assignment. Fortunately, a federal law called the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is on your side and allows active-duty members to break their lease for official military orders.

Active-duty members must provide their landlord with a written notice of their plans to vacate and a copy of their official military orders for a change of station for more than 90 days. They will typically have to continue to pay rent for the remainder of the month and the next month.

“The most important steps to take are to be aware of what’s in your lease agreement and spark an open line of communication with your landlord early to get the best result for both parties,” says Lenz.

Article by Anayat Durrani 

7 Tricks To Turn a Tiny Bedroom Into a Spacious, Relaxing (and Romantic) Retreat

Pekic / Getty Images

We’d all love a spacious boudoir fit for lounging in all day long, but let’s get real: This is just a pipe dream for many homeowners. Instead, we’re banging our shins as we struggle to straighten the sheets.

But you don’t need to feel constricted by the actual physical size of a bedroom. In fact, there are plenty of ways to create the illusion of more space—all by focusing on the right colors, lighting, and accessories.

For starters, make sure you’ve decluttered, since too much stuff is probably the No. 1 culprit when it comes to cramped sleeping quarters.

“All the square footage in the world won’t make a difference if your space is crowded with stuff, so keep your room picked up,” notes Marty Basher, a home design and organization expert with Modular Closets.

Multiple-use furniture and bare, spare windows are two more smart ways to create the feeling of a larger bedroom, say design pros. For more help, check out these seven ways to create an airy, open (and even romantic) oasis where you sleep.

1. Float the bedside tables

You have to edit your furniture ruthlessly in a cramped bedroom, so start by removing the bedside tables (they’re usually a big source of clutter anyway). If you can’t live without a special spot for tissues, lip balm, and your books, consider small floating shelves on the wall that act as bedside tables.

“There are also headboards on the market that come with drawers on either end, which can be used as bedside pieces, too,” notes Karen Gray-Plaisted of Design Solutions KGP.

Photo by Luca Andrisani Architect

2. Fake a headboard

A bulky headboard or bed frame takes up precious real estate. The fix: Mimic a real headboard with a row of pillows, a design painted on the wall, or stitched fabric.

Photo by Cherie Marcel

3. Use light paint and linens

The best paint colors for a smallish bedroom are light neutrals and whites, as these paler shades tend to make spaces look bigger, shares Basher.

The same goes for your bedspread and sheets.

“The lighter and more monochromatic the linens, the better for enlarging a space,” says Jaime Novak, an organizing pro and author of “Keep This Toss That.”

Photo by Hendricks Churchill

4. Add storage and clean lines

Small furniture with clean lines is a critical consideration when outfitting a tiny bedroom. (Banish anything overstuffed!) Chairs and other pieces made from Lucite are also worth a look as they take up less visual space and give the feeling of a more open room, notes Basher.

“Stay low to the ground with your furniture—and don’t pick a tall chair, as it’ll make the space feel smaller,” says Novak.

And try to go the extra step and consider pieces that have integrated storage. (Think ottomans and benches that open up to hold sweaters, extra pillows, and blankets.)

Photo by Prepac Furniture

5. Expose the windows

Let there be light!

“Leaving windows uncovered lets more natural light in and creates an airy, spacious feeling,” points out Basher.

Can’t ditch your drapes? Try sheer panels—you’ll still have some coverage around your windows while allowing some brightness in.

Photo by Woodmeister Master Builders

6. Mount sconces

Floor lamps take up floor space, and table lamps may sport wide shades that also fill a small room. The pros recommend that you skew higher with lighting by affixing sconces to the wall.

“The ones with swinging arms are perfect because they can be adjusted for reading, though pendants lights work well, too,” explains Basher.

Photo by MMO Designs

7. Play with art and mirrors

A wall gallery may seem like a pretty addition to your bedroom, but all those frames break up the space and tend to make it look cramped, says Novak.

“Opt for a large piece of art over the bed,” she suggests. And look to mirrors, which have long been used by decorators to aid a room with space woes.

“Mirrors let your wall hangings, furniture, and accessories reflect back into the room, and any natural light you get is also played off this glass, making the room brighter and lighter—and somehow bigger,” says Basher.

Photo by Rethink Design Studio
Article by Jennifer Kelly Geddes

Turkey Biscuit Stew

Turkey Biscuit Stew Recipe photo by Taste of Home

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup butter, cubed
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 can (10-1/2 ounces) condensed chicken broth, undiluted
  • 3/4 cup 2% milk
  • 2 cups cubed cooked turkey
  • 1 cup cooked peas
  • 1 cup cooked whole baby carrots
  • 1 tube (16.3 ounces) large refrigerated buttermilk biscuits

Directions

  • 1. In a 10-in. ovenproof skillet, saute onion in butter until tender. Stir in the flour, salt and pepper until blended. Gradually add broth and milk. Bring to a boil. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly, about 2 minutes. Add the turkey, peas and carrots; heat through. Separate biscuits and arrange over the stew.
  • 2. Bake at 375° until biscuits are golden brown, 20-25 minutes.

© 2021 RDA Enthusiast Brands, LLC

Did You Skip Mortgage Payments Last Year? Here’s What That Means for Your Taxes

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Amid the economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans opted to pause their monthly mortgage payments. That choice could have implications for their taxes this year — and in years to come.

In March, as COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on the job market and caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs as businesses shuttered, federal lawmakers and regulators took the extraordinary step of extending forbearance to mortgage borrowers. Being in forbearance allowed homeowners to pause making their monthly mortgage payments — originally, borrowers could request up to 12 months of forbearance, though that was recently extended to 15 months.

The measure was taken to prevent homeowners from going into default and foreclosure. So far the effort has been successful. In June, the number of borrowers in forbearance reached its peak, at more than 4 million. Nowadays, 2.7 million borrowers are still in forbearance, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Whether you’re still in forbearance now or resumed making monthly payments at some point in the past year, there could be implications for your taxes, especially if you plan to claim the mortgage interest deduction.

How forbearance affects your ability to deduct interest

Forbearance is not a new concept — the strategy is commonly used in the wake of a natural disaster to help affected homeowners get back on their feet financially. But usually forbearance requests are fairly isolated incidents, unlike what’s occurred this year.

“There’s not a lot of information out there that addresses interest during forbearance and how to treat it for tax purposes,” said Paul Axberg, a certified public accountant and president of Axberg Wealth Management, a financial planning firm based in Phoenix, Ariz. (The Internal Revenue Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Individuals typically use what’s called a cash-basis method of accounting, said Ryan Losi, a certified public account and executive vice president of Piascik, an accounting firm based in Virginia. That means you report income if you receive income. (Whereas businesses report income when they’ve earned it for doing a service, even if they have yet to receive payment.)

“The same goes on the flip side with a deduction,” Losi said. In other words, you can only deduct mortgage interest if you paid interest.

What borrowers in this position need to look out for is their Form 1098. This is the mortgage interest statement provided to borrowers by their lenders or servicers for tax purposes. The document will list how much they paid in interest for the previous year, which they can use to calculate whether they should take the deduction.

In many cases, borrowers entered into forbearance as a precautionary measure but continued making monthly payments. These individuals should pay especially close attention to their Form 1098 to ensure the amount listed is accurate. If it’s not, though, don’t just go ahead and report to the IRS what you think the number should be.

“If you put on your tax return a higher mortgage interest deduction than what’s on the 1098, that could easily them to get an automated letter from the IRS saying the numbers don’t match,” Axberg said.

Tax experts advised contacting one’s lender or mortgage servicer if the information on the Form 1098 appears to be incorrect for any reason.

Ultimately, borrowers who requested forbearance will likely have paid less on mortgage interest last year. That could make the mortgage interest deduction pointless for many people, if it wasn’t already. “With the increased standard deduction due to tax reform, this may not affect you because you weren’t going to itemize anyway,” said Tim Todd, an accountant and a member of the American Institute of CPAs Financial Literacy Commission.

Future considerations

With millions of Americans still in forbearance and not yet making payments, they should pay close attention to what happens when they exit forbearance. They will generally have a range of options to repay the debt they owe: as a lump sum, on a payment plan or at the end of their loan’s payment period.

Borrowers in severe distress may be able to modify their loans, to adjust the interest rate or other factors to make monthly payments less onerous. Some borrowers might even find themselves in a situation where they have some of their debt forgiven.

“Let’s say you go a year in forbearance, you’re say you can’t pay this back, and you get into some adjustment of the notes, then that’s when you can have cancellation of debt income,” Losi said.

Cancelled debt can be taxable — and when it is, it’s sometimes taxed like ordinary income, Losi said.

The Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007 excludes any discharged debt up to $2 million for people’s primary residences. As a result, most homeowners won’t need to worry about taxes on that forgiven debt. If for some reason they do, they will receive a Form 1099-C from the lender displaying the amount of canceled debt, which is then added to the borrower’s gross income when they report their taxes.

And if a homeowner ultimately loses their home to foreclosure or sells the home to the lender down the road, the situation is considered a sale for tax purposes. Capital gains or losses may apply, but borrowers in this scenario need not worry about forgiven debt.

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Presidents Day 2021: What’s open, what’s closed on Monday? Banks, UPS, mail delivery, stores

The statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are shown at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota in an undated photo.AP

Monday, Feb. 15 is Presidents Day, also known as Washington’s Birthday. It’s a federal holiday that is always celebrated on the third Monday of February.

The first incarnation of this holiday was in 1796 to commemorate George Washington’s birthday. As the years passed, it was an occasion marked with speeches and receptions. By 1971, it had been added to the roster of federal holidays, giving government employees a three-day weekend each February.

Here’s what you need to know about what’s open and what’s closed on Presidents Day 2021:

Are U.S. Post Offices open on Presidents Day 2021?

No, post offices will be closed Monday for the federal holiday, according to its website.

Will there be mail delivery on Presidents Day 2021?

No, there will be no regular mail delivery on Presidents Day.

Is FedEx running on Presidents Day 2021?

FedEx Ground, FedEx Home Delivery and FedEx Freight are all running on Presidents Day, but other FexEx services may be modified during the holiday.

Is UPS delivering packages on Presidents Day 2021?

UPS pickup and delivery services are available, according to the UPS website. UPS SurePost and UPS Mail Innovations deliveries will require one additional business day in transit due to the Federal (USPS) holiday. UPS store locations are open.

Are banks open on Presidents Day 2021?

Because it’s a federal holiday, most banks will be closed. However, some local or community banks or credit unions, or some drive-thru services at banks may be open or have limited hours. Check with your local bank for more details.

According to Banks.org, the following banks will be closed on Monday:

What stores will be open on Presidents Day 2021?

Big box stores and malls will be open on Presidents Day 2021, according to holidayshoppinghours.com. Local retail shops are all expected to be open on Monday, Feb. 15. Here are the hours for some of the most-searched stores:

7 Space Heater Mistakes That Could Burn Down Your House

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With winter in full swing, your home might not be as cozy as you’d like, especially if you have drafty rooms and chilly floors.

The fix? Plugging in a space heater. Particularly if you just need to warm up a small area, heaters can help you save energy—and money.

Yet using these appliances isn’t always intuitive, and setting them up incorrectly can be a recipe for disaster. In fact, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, portable space heaters cause 1,100 fires every year, injuring and killing dozens of people.

So before you plug in a space heater, learn how it works and commit these mistakes to memory of things to never do.

1. Leaving a space heater unattended

The biggest mistake homeowners make is plugging in a heater and then exiting the room.

“Leaving a space heater unattended could lead to a fire if there’s an electrical malfunction with a circuit or the cord, or another risk that combines electricity, water, and the heating elements,” says Josh McCormick, vice president of operations at Mr. Electric.

A sealed oil system means you never have to refill it. Amazon

If you leave the room where your space heating is working, turn it off first. Or consider a portable version with wheels, as shown abovee, which can slide into the next room. This device has different heat settings and a thermostat so you can control the level of output ($88, Amazon).

2. Buying an old space heater without the latest safety features

A quality space heater that carries the sticker from a testing lab or safety organization is key. (Look for UL, which stands for Underwriters Laboratories.)

“The best heaters are the newest models with the latest safety features—like an automatic shut-off if the device accidentally tips over—and no exposed heating elements,” says McCormick.

Older models or anything you pick up at a yard sale may not have the most up-to-date safety mechanisms.

3. Plugging a space heater into an overloaded circuit

Photo by Hammer Design Build Remodel

Ever trip a breaker because you’ve overloaded an outlet? Doing this with a space heater is another no-no.

“These appliances draw a lot of electricity and can easily trip your home circuits, so be certain each heater is plugged into a single circuit,” says McCormick.

And don’t reach for power strips or extension cords either.

“Space heaters must be plugged directly into a wall outlet as cords and strips could overheat and become a fire hazard,” he explains.

If you really need an extension cord to run a heater, ask an electrician for advice. And definitely call in a pro if you discover that the outlet, faceplate, or any part of the heater’s cord feels hot to the touch or is emitting an acrid, burnlike odor.

4. Using a space heater in the bathroom

Photo by Design Lab Home Design Center

Of course you know never to mix water and electricity, so forget the idea of warming up your bathroom with a space heater, even on frigid winter mornings. The same goes for using these appliances in the kitchen—it’s just too risky to bring them close to a sink, dishwasher, or other water source.

5. Using a spacer heater in kids bedrooms

Photo by JAC Interiors

Kids love to tinker with things—and they poke their army men and Lego bricks into tiny crevices, so you can imagine what might happen if they’re left alone with a space heater.

Along with a firm no-heaters-in-the-kids-room decree, establish the same rule with your family pet. Don’t leave your pooch or kitty alone with a running heater lest it get bumped or topple over.

6. Putting your heater in a cramped space

Photo by Houzz

A flat surface is important for space heaters, even though the risk of tipping is reduced with modern iterations. Still, keep your device on a hard, stable surface, away from stairs or slopes and off of thick pile carpets and throw rugs.

And speaking of fabrics, space heaters should always be surrounded by a 3-foot clearance to limit potential fire risk, says David Flax, vice president of operations at Window Genie. In particular, steer heaters away from such combustible materials as newspapers, books, bedspreads, curtains, throw pillows, blankets, and upholstery.

7. Expecting a space heater to make up for a drafty house

When used as intended, a quality space heater can take the chill off, making your space feel cozy and comfortable. Keep in mind, however, that these electrical wonders can’t work miracles, which means larger heat-loss issues should be addressed pronto.

“Very often leaky windows are responsible for letting out heat, so think about installing residential window film to insulate and reduce the need to constantly run your heating system or turn on portable heaters,” says Flax.

Article by Jennifer Kelly Geddes 

Keeping Your Credit Cards Out of Your Own Hands

Overspending is easy to do with a credit card – way too easy – and can often lead to debt.

Researchers have found that even for people who don’t carry a balance each month on their credit card, they overspend when using a credit card instead of cash. Credit cards can make people more willing to spend twice as much for something than they would when using cash.

A simple solution can be to keep your credit cards out of your wallet or purse so that you don’t conveniently have them at hand when you’re shopping. But there are other ways to keep credit cards out of sight, and hopefully out of mind:

Freeze them, literally

Put your credit cards in a plastic, ziplock bag, and then put that bag in another bag. Put the bag into either a bowl of water or another ziplock bag full of water, and put it all in the freezer.

To get your credit cards out, you’ll have to thaw the block of ice. That may give you enough time to reconsider your purchase.

Freeze usage

If putting your credit cards in a freezer is too extreme, consider freezing the usage of them through your credit card company.

Some credit cards can be turned on and off, such as through an app, allowing you to turn access to them off when you don’t want to use them for a while. This can help deter thieves, but also requires you logging into your account to turn credit card access back on. Again, the point here is to create another step before you can use your credit card, giving you time to think about what you’re about to buy.

Set a budget and carry cash

Having a weekly or monthly budget can help keep spending in control, but not so much if you use a credit card. If you want to be faithful to your budget, try for a month to only buy things with the cash you have on hand.

Go to your bank and withdraw the amount of cash you have budgeted to spend that week. Once that cash is gone, you’ll have to come up with creative ways to do things. Walk instead of taking a taxi. Empty out your refrigerator to make lunch instead of eating out.

If you prefer not to walk around with a load of cash in your pocket, then put the money in a checking account and use a debit card to withdraw it as needed.

Hope you found these tips helpful! Contact me for more insights and info.

THE BEST CLASSIC CHILI

The Wholesome Dish

The Best Classic Chili – This traditional chili recipe is just like mom used to make with ground beef, beans, and a simple homemade blend of chili seasonings. Recipe by AMANDA FINKS

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion -diced
  • 1 pound 90% lean ground beef
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper* -optional
  • 1 1/2 cups beef broth
  • 1 (15 oz.) can petite diced tomatoes
  • 1 (16 oz.) can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce

Instructions

  • Add the olive oil to a large soup pot and place it over medium-high heat for two minutes. Add the onion. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Add the ground beef to the pot. Break it apart with a wooden spoon. Cook for 6-7 minutes, until the beef is browned, stirring occasionally.
  • Add the chili powder, cumin, sugar, tomato paste, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and optional cayenne. Stir until well combined.
  • Add the broth, diced tomatoes (with their juice), drained beans, and tomato sauce. Stir well.
  • Bring the liquid to a low boil. Then, reduce the heat (low to medium-low) to gently simmer the chili, uncovered, for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Remove the pot from the heat. Let the chili rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.

 

 

How to Dispute Credit Report Errors

If you’ve checked your credit reports lately for errors, congratulations! That’s a smart first step to improving your credit score, which can make getting approved for home loans and credit cards, along with getting the best interest rates, a lot easier.

Errors can be as simple as a misspelled name, wrong phone number or address, or as serious as an account wrongly reported as delinquent.

The next step is to fix them. Here are some ways to resolve errors on your credit reports:

Write the Credit Bureaus
Write a letter to the credit reporting bureau where you found the mistake. Equifax, Experian and TransUnion are the three major credit bureaus, and you can write to them online or by mail.

Include your contact information, and explain the error you found and why it’s wrong. Include supporting documentation, such as a copy of an email verifying the status of an account that has been reported incorrectly.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has sample letters on its website for disputing credit reports. Be sure to keep copies of any letters or documents you send, and if sending anything by mail, use certified mail with a return receipt.

Alert Creditors
Banks and credit card issuers that provide information about you should also be notified of errors, unless it’s an identity-related mistake made by the credit bureau—those should be sent directly to the credit bureau.

Also known as furnishers, companies that provide information to credit bureaus will often have their address listed on your credit report so you can contact the company directly.

Allow 45 Days
After reporting errors, allow up to 45 days for them to be fixed. The credit bureau generally has 30 days after receiving your dispute to investigate and verify the information with the furnisher. The credit bureau must report the results back to you within five days of completing its investigation.

If you dispute an error with the furnisher, it typically takes 30 days to investigate and they must report their findings to you.

If you’ve submitted incorrect or incomplete information, or have tried to contest the same item multiple times without any new information, then the bureau or furnisher may decide your dispute is frivolous. They must tell you this within five days, along with providing their reasoning. Once this is done, they don’t need to investigate further. You can resubmit a dispute with updated materials if your original dispute was labeled frivolous.

Even if the furnisher insists the dispute information is accurate, you can ask the credit bureau to include a statement in your credit file explaining the dispute.

Check Back
Credit report updates may take a while to appear, depending on when new information is sent and a bureau’s update cycle. If you don’t see a change in a few months, contact them again to verify that your account information is being reported and updated.

Can a Home Seller Under Contract Still Accept a Higher Offer?

BrianAJackson / Getty Images

Congratulations, you sold your house! The buyers fell in love and made an offer, and you let out a great, big sigh of relief when the contract was signed.

Then it happens—another offer comes in, and a better one at that. What now? Can you take the highest bid? Here’s what home sellers need to know.

When is a sale a sale?

While laws vary by state, in general, up until that contract is signed by both parties—even after counteroffers have been sent out—all new offers can be considered and accepted. Once both parties have signed it, however, the seller is pretty much locked into the deal.

That’s why it’s so important that sellers are confident that they want to accept an offer before signing.

“As a seller, make sure you are willing to accept an offer and know that you may not be able to get out of the deal,” says John Meyers, a real estate agent with Myers and Myers Real Estate in Albuquerque, NM. “It is absolutely critical that, as a seller, you understand the purchase agreement and any counteroffers you sign.

“Read the agreements to find out if you have any outs in the contract,” says Meyers. “Purchase agreements are legally binding agreements, and sellers need to understand their commitments and their ability to get out of the contract.”

Think you can get a higher price for the property? Then you need to make provisions before signing the contract, says Bryan Zuetel, a real estate attorney and broker with Esquire Real Estate in California’s Orange County.

You could, for example, insert terms in the purchase agreement that allow you, as the seller, to continue to accept offers and for the buyer to be allowed the option to match or exceed any higher offers. Buyers can also take backup offers (more on these options later).

“The process is not really over until escrow closes,” Zuetel says.

There are also things that can and do happen between the time a house goes under contract and the closing that may give a seller options. For example, the buyer has specific obligations called contingencies, which include things such as loan approval, home inspection, and a home appraisal. If the buyer fails to meet these contingencies by a designated date, the seller can cancel the agreement and then accept another offer.

Also, various states have different rules regarding contracts. For example, in New Jersey, even after the offer is accepted and the contract is executed, it’s not fully binding until an attorney review period is completed. Attorney review allows both the buyer and the seller to have a lawyer read the contract within three business days (or extended period based on the agreement between both buyer and seller attorneys) after it is signed and to disapprove the contract or to make changes to it.

“As a seller in this case, you can still accept the other or better offer as long as you are still in attorney review,” says Lukasz Kukwa, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Westfield, NJ. “Although this will cause some pushback and sometimes isn’t looked at as the most ethical, a seller can legally still accept any other offer up until attorney review conclude as the deal isn’t officially under contract.”

For the most part, though, buyers more commonly back out of contracts rather than sellers. In most cases, the sellers may have to accept the initial offer, even if they receive a better contract.

“Breach of contract could lead to a lawsuit that still results in the sale to the initial contracted buyer, except with the costs of going to court reducing the profit,” says Barry Richards, a real estate agent with EXITRealty Garden Gate Team in White House, TN.

Can home sellers accept backup offers?

The one type of offer a seller is allowed to accept while under contract with a buyer is a backup offer. A backup offer puts that buyer next in line if for any reason the original contract falls through.

A backup offer puts sellers in a good position, and they should communicate to the buyer’s agent that they have one, particularly if the offer is substantially more than the original offer accepted, says Richards. He says it gives a seller leverage to, say, refuse certain requests from buyers, who might ask sellers to pay for repairs after the home inspection, make price adjustments based on the home appraisal, or allow for an extension of the closing date because of lender issues.

Should home buyers bother making a backup offer?

So, if you’re a buyer and you find your dream home but it just so happens to be under contract, should you even bother to look at it? Experts say while you shouldn’t hold your breath, you don’t have to write it off completely.

“It never hurts to have your buyer’s agent inquire about the contract and how it is progressing,” Richards says. “Occasionally, when a contract falls through, a seller will prefer to negotiate with someone who has already done some due diligence on their property rather than going back on the market and dealing with more showings.”

Whether or not to write a formal backup offer is up to the client, but Ryan Gable, CEO of StartingPoint Realty in Chicago, says in most cases they don’t suggest it, as it ties a buyer’s hands and stalls their home search.

“In our market [Chicago], it is generally better to continue the home search than to make a one-sided commitment to a seller who already accepted an offer. But it never hurts to keep following up on a first choice that is under contract. You’ve got nothing to lose, and the time investment can pay off.”

But back to sellers: Yes, having more than one offer on your property is always a good problem to have, but that doesn’t always mean you can take the highest bid.

Sometimes you may have to leave a few dollars on the table, but if you work closely with your real estate agent and carefully consider an offer before accepting it, you can still celebrate the fact that your property sold, and take pride in the fact that you honored the commitment you made when you accepted the original offer.

Article by Julie Ryan Evans

8 Tips for Throwing the Ultimate Super Bowl Party

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Trying to figure out how to throw a Super Bowl party in your apartment? The good news is all you really need is a TV and a guest list to get things started.

However, you can raise the bar and create a winning guest list, decor, snacks, and games. That’ll turn your Super Bowl party into a new annual tradition!

Whether you’re a Chiefs or Niners fan, or just love to be the host, here’s everything to consider when planning the ultimate Super Bowl party.

1. Who to Invite

The sky’s the limit with your Super Bowl party guest list. That is, until you consider the pros and cons.

Inviting a mix of fans from rivaling teams may lead to scuffles and arguments that your apartment can’t contain. Or, it could provide fun camaraderie all evening long.

Meanwhile, inviting your friends, colleagues, family, and neighbors can provide a festive mix of guests. Or, it could mean your Mom is sharing baby pictures of you to your boss.

Remember to keep the size of your apartment in perspective, too. Inviting over dozens of people to a one-bedroom with a small common area is going to get crowded fast.

Invite a handful of people that you enjoy spending time with. Then, meet up at a bar for a post-game drink with the rest of your crew.

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2. Set the Stage

Flipping on your television may get the game going. However, it also requires some finessing.

A great quality picture to watch the game is a must. You can consider upgrading your TV for the occasion.

You could also think about what you could easily enhance with a few add-ons. Install some external speakers or a soundbar. That’ll make your Super Bowl party feel larger than life!

Your guests are going to need to stretch out and lounge. Add some extra seating to your room. That can include folding chairs, old trunks, ottomans, or stools.

Including some oversized throw pillows to the mix can help soften up the room. It also provides comfortable seating in a pinch.

3. Super Bowl Decor

Get festive with your Super Bowl party decor and make it a memorable event! Grab mason jars and add white tape to resemble football laces. Then, add tea, beer, or soda to turn them into footballs.

A  tablecloth that looks like a football field makes snacking fun. You can also dress up your apartment with your favorite team colors. Find everything you need on the cheap at your local party supply store.

Complete your Super Bowl look by reaching for the football beer cozies. You could also get an ice bucket that resembles a football and cupcakes that look like footballs.

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4. Delicious Drinks

Unless you’ve been living in a bubble, you already know that beer is a prerequisite for any Super Bowl party. Instead of passing out an endless stream of beer bottles, tap a keg and keep it flowing throughout the game.

Or, try something different this year with a vodka, beer, limeade and club soda Super Bowl Punch. Add in some fresh fruit to make it that much better. Nothing says party like a punch bowl! Just remember to have beverages for your sober guests.

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5. Satisfying Appetizers

Appetizers are a must-have for a Super Bowl spread. Opt for easy crowd-pleasers that you can warm up in minutes. Top picks include wings, pigs in a blanket, egg rolls, and chicken tenders.

Cheese and onion dips are also popular. Many people also enjoy vegetable platters to nibble on nervously during a play.

Have you ever heard of trash can nachos? Pile your nachos on top of each other until you have a tower of cheesy goodness.

For something less ambitious, fresh guacamole and salsa pair perfectly with tortilla chips for a game-pleasing snack.

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6. Eat-’em-up Entrees

Appetizers just scratch the surface of what to serve at a Super Bowl party. Cook up hearty entrees to fuel your guests throughout the party. Just make sure nothing you make requires slaving around in the kitchen all day.

Focus on slow cooker recipes like chili, pulled pork, and macaroni and cheese. Those are options can stay warm for hours.

Beef sliders and bratwursts are also well-received. With those, you can do all the prep work in advance before sliding them into the oven on cookie sheets.

Throw in pizza, meatballs, and sub sliders. That’ll round out your Super Bowl entree list!

7. Super Bowl Party Games

Keep spirits high with Super Bowl-inspired games in your own apartment. A friendly wager is always a good place to start, as is squares.

If you’ve never played, you probably need a quick tutorial for Super Bowl squares. It involves an empty 10 x 10 grid and assigning one team to the columns and the other to the rows. It’s essentially betting on the score after each quarter and takes literally no skill. The perfect friendly gambling game!

Include Super Bowl commercial bingo to your game list. That’s a fun activity for guests during the endless commercial breaks. You can find Super Bowl Bingo cards for purchase online or get ideas to make your own.

Some of the options might include famous actors, beer companies, sodas, and chip brands. Add a smartie, pretzel, or M&M to the card when you see the commercial. Then, see who wins first!

8. Send Everyone Home Safely

A Super Bowl party has a way of lowering inhibitions and breaking your policy on how many drinks is too many. Make sure everyone gets home safely by arranging for rideshares like Uber, public transportation, or free public shuttles.

Encourage everyone to ditch their car from the start. That way, there’s no temptation to drive home.

You can always meet up for a boozy brunch and discuss the game the next day. That’ll give people the chance to retrieve any stray cars.

A successful Super Bowl party is all about keeping things fun, festive, and having a few surprises. From snacks to games, keep your guests guessing about what’s next. The party may end up being better than the actual game!

Article by Justin Chaplin

THE ULTIMATE CHICKEN FRIED STEAK RECIPE WITH GRAVY

 

The Ultimate Chicken Fried Steak is fried to golden perfection and topped with the creamiest gravy you can imagine, sure to quickly become a family favorite. It’s hard to imagine a more quintessential Southern meal than Chicken Fried Steak and Gravy. The hard part is deciding whether you want to make it for breakfast or dinner. My family can’t get enough of these tender steaks with that delightful crispy, crunchy coating. And the gravy? Heaven!

HI, I’M TRISH!

Welcome to Mom On Timeout where I’m serving up real food for real families! Dinners, desserts, and everything in between!

 

Ingredients

  • 4 cube steaks (about 1/3 lb each)
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp fresh ground black pepper, divided
  • 2 tsp kosher salt or sea salt, divided
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 tsps TABASCO® Sauce (original)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup vegetable oil

Chicken Fried Steak Gravy

  • 4 tbsp grease
  • 4 tbsp flour
  • 2 to 3 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • In a shallow bowl, whisk together flour, one teaspoon black pepper, one teaspoon salt, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside.
  • In a separate shallow bowl, whisk together buttermilk , TABASCO® Sauce, and eggs. Set aside.
  • Pat cube steaks dry with a paper towel, removing as much moisture as possible. Season with one teaspoon of salt and one teaspoon of pepper. Let sit for 5 minutes and pat dry again with paper towel.
  • Dredge the cube steaks in the flour mixture, shaking off excess, then dredge in the buttermilk-egg mixture, letting excess drip off, and then once again in the flour mixture, shaking off excess.
  • Place breaded cube steaks on a sheet pan or metal rack and press any of the remaining flour mixture into the cube steaks making sure that the entire steak is completely coated. Let sit for 10 minutes.
  • Preheat oven to 225 to 250 F.
  • Meanwhile, heat vegetable oil in a heavy skillet or large cast iron skillet over medium high heat. How much oil you need depends on the size of your skillet. You want it to be about 1/4-inch deep. We aren’t deep frying the steaks, just shallow frying.
  • Test the oil by dropping a bit of the breading into in. The oil should sizzle and bubble around the breading. Look for the oil to be glistening but not smoking – about 320-340 degrees F. Now we’re ready to fry.
  • Place two steaks into the pan at a time and fry for 3 to 4 minutes on each side or until golden brown. Do not flip more than once or the breading will fall off. Do not fry more than two steaks or the pan will be too crowded and the breading will fall off.
  • Remove steaks from pan and drain on paper towels. Place in preheated oven. Turn skillet heat to medium.

Chicken Fried Steak Gravy

  • Pour the remaining grease into a heat safe bowl or glass measuring cup (I used my Pyrex). Do NOT scrape the skillet clean. We want all of those bits of yumminess to remain in the skillet so they can flavor the gravy.
  • Add back in 4 tablespoons of the grease to the hot skillet.
  • Whisk in flour and continue whisking for two to three minutes or until nice and golden brown.
  • Combine the cream and milk and slowly drizzle in about 2 1/2 cups into the skillet, whisking constantly. It might look a little crazy right at the beginning, but it will all come together.
  • Continue whisking and bring the gravy to a simmer. Cook until the gravy is smooth and creamy, about 5 to 7 minutes. If the gravy gets too thick, add in a little more milk. Season with salt and pepper to taste. (Mine didn’t need any salt but LOTS of pepper!)
  • Serve chicken fried steak with gravy and mashed potatoes and your favorite green veggies. ENJOY!

Nutrition

Calories: 956kcal | Carbohydrates: 53g | Protein: 51g | Fat: 58g | Saturated Fat: 28g | Cholesterol: 280mg | Sodium: 472mg | Potassium: 1017mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 10g | Vitamin A: 1025IU | Calcium: 346mg | Iron: 5.8mg