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Undeck the Halls: Tips for Packing Away the Holiday Decorations

by Alexandra Zega

boxes for storage Much like returning from a vacation, putting away the holiday decor just isn’t as fun as getting it all out. The following pointers from a trio of organizational experts can keep the seasonal clutter safely out of your way—and even make next November easier.

Pare down. “Don’t be afraid to get rid of the stuff you don’t like,” says Darcy Munzer, owner of Organize4U in Independence, Mo. “If you don’t love it, get rid of it.” If it’s broken, it doesn’t work or you haven’t used it, toss it, but donate what’s in good condition.

Consider the sentimental value. The half-melted choirboy candles have always been on the mantel at Christmas, says Mary Ellen Vincent, owner of OrganizeMe in Kansas City, “because they remind me every year of my mom.” For some items, though, you may be able to snap a picture to preserve the memory, Vincent says.

Take inventory. How many wreaths do you own? Strings of lights? Before you can organize and store, you need to be aware of how much of everything you have, says Noelle Micek, a San Francisco-based expert in residential organization and design.

Keep track. Munzer writes everything down, including special Christmas recipes and the gifts she buys throughout the year, in a notebook that she keeps in her home office.

Choose your storage space, and measure it. Most people will store holiday decor in the basement, attic, garage, storage shed or even under the bed. Just make sure it’s out of the way; you don’t want to fight those bargain rolls of wrapping paper for the next 11 months. “Let the space you have limit what you own and keep,” Vincent advises. Know the dimensions of your storage space, Micek recommends, so any containers you buy will fit.

Keep it together. Store all the Christmas items—ornaments, cookie cutters and everything in between—in one spot, if possible. The exception: Keep certain heirloom items, linens and high-risk breakables in a temperature-controlled environment in the main part of the house.

Up and away. Holiday dishes can go in that hard-to-reach cabinet above the fridge.

Color code your containers. Use see-through plastic containers with the same color lids for each holiday, Micek suggests.

Label. Never put a box away without a label. Write on the sides with a black marker, or list the contents on a 3-by-5-inch card or color-coded construction paper. “You don’t want to look through 50 plain white boxes to find the four with ornaments,” Munzer says.

Number your boxes. Number them in the order they should be opened. “You want the tree stand and skirt before you get the lights and ornaments,” Micek says.

Choose the right containers. Buy the best quality containers you can afford. You’ll protect against water damage, accidental breakage and even pests such as mice. Shop around to find what fits your needs. Cardboard can be recycled, but plastic offers a better defense against moisture and pests.


(c) 2009, D. Reese, The Kansas City Star.


Resolutions for a Financially-Healthy 2010

by Alexandra Zega

wealth_1228 As 2009 winds down and you plan for a more financially-healthy 2010, don’t forget this year’s key lesson. Free-wheeling, debt-hungry spending is out. Actively managing your personal finances is in.

That sea change in consumer behavior grew out of the worst economic recession since World War II, a prolonged downturn that ravaged savings and retirement accounts.

Granted, there are signs of improvement from a year ago. Some indications:
-Retail sales rose 1.3% in November 2009, prompting some to suggest consumers were ready to spend in earnest this holiday season.
-Americans’ net worth—the value of assets such as homes, bank accounts and investments, minus debts such as mortgages and credit cards—rose 5% last quarter to $53.4 trillion. It was the second straight quarterly increase.

But the recovery remains in its early stages. Since the recession began in December 2007, more than 7 million people have lost jobs, ballooning the unemployed to 15.7 million. And despite recent gains in Americans’ net worth, it remains far below its peak of $64.5 trillion before the recession began. That underscores the vast loss of wealth in the last two years.

Paul Goebel, director of the University of North Texas Student Money Management Center, says he thinks 2010 can be “a year of growth and opportunity for everyone” if we don’t forget the not-too-distant past.

Goebel offers the following tips for a financially-healthy 2010.

Examine your goals
What do you want to accomplish with your money besides just making more of it? “Financial issues are, at root, decisions about what is important to us and what is not,” said Thomas Murphy, a certified financial planner at TEMAA Financial in Dallas. “How we choose to spend our money should reflect things which are important and deeply felt, not whims or ego-supporting extravagances.”

Tracking your spending and analyzing your purchases will help you shift your resources to what’s important to you. Knowing where your money is going also will help you break wasteful habits. Murphy suggests documenting every penny you spend for three months. This exercise will create habits that will permanently change your behavior.

Set up a spending plan
“Give yourself an allowance with each paycheck,” said Michael Miller, certified financial planner at Miller Premier Investment Planning LLC. “Put your allowance in an envelope and spend it on discretionary items such as dining out, entertainment and shopping. Once the envelope is empty, you are done until the next paycheck.”

Pay down debt
“Credit cards are great conveniences, but credit card debt is evil,” said Mickey Cargile, a certified financial planner and managing partner at WNB Private Client Services in Midland, Texas. “You will never know personal freedom until you stop deficit spending.”

Get reacquainted with using cash. When you’re counting out dollar bills from your wallet, the price of an item hits home.

If you can’t break the credit card habit on your own, card issuers are leaving you no choice. In advance of new credit card regulations that will take effect in February 2010, issuers are raising interest rates, instituting fees and slashing credit limits. You can’t afford to max out your credit. It will harm your credit score and leave you without credit for emergencies, such as a job loss.

Boost your savings
“The lesson for 2009 is that the things that your mom told you turned out to be true,” Murphy said. “Spend less than you earn and put more money aside for a rainy day because a rainy day will come.”

One convenient way to do that is to set up an automatic savings plan—from your paycheck or your bank account—so you don’t get a chance to spend the money you’d save. “Make sure that you have three to six months’ worth of living expenses set aside in a separate account to take care of life’s unexpected moments,” Miller said. “If you are short, you should create a plan to restock your fund as quickly as possible.”

Have an emergency plan
“Jobs can end at any time,” Cargile said. “Plan for the contingency of losing your job and surviving an extended unemployed period.” Be specific in your emergency plan. “Plan for how you will immediately cut expenses as much as possible,” Cargile said. Cancel subscriptions and cable TV. Eat at home.

Tips for 2010
Here are some tips for developing a strategic plan for your finances in 2010:
-Set specific, realistic financial goals.
-Take control of your finances. Know how much money is coming in, how much is going out and where it is going.
-Create a spending plan for you and your family.
-Lay out a plan to shore up your savings.
-Manage credit carefully; pay down or pay off your credit card debt.


courtesy of (c) 2009, By Pamela Yip, The Dallas Morning News.

6 Tips to Avoid Holiday Debt

by Alexandra Zega

87694068 This year, Americans spent less and used less credit on “Black Friday,” a sign that consumers are moving in the right direction to avoid over-spending at the holidays.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), more shoppers hit the stores this year than last year, but they spent less per person. “Overall U.S. consumer spending is predicted to drop this year, but if you are a shopper who is used to putting holiday expenses on credit cards, this year–more than ever–may be the time to think twice before charging,” cautioned Andrew Housser, co-founder and co-CEO of Freedom Debt Relief (FDR).

The following are FDR’s top six ways to avoid holiday debt:

1. Budget. Know what you have to spend, and don’t go beyond your means. “This season, retailers are slashing prices. That can help shoppers stick to their budgets,” Housser said. “If you are unsure what to buy, search online for gifts under $20 to get some ideas. More shoppers might also be turning to eBay and other discounters to extend their dollars.”

2. Spend with cash. Cash is a growing trend: Just 28.3% of U.S. shoppers expect to use credit cards this holiday season, down from 31.5% last year, according to a survey released in November 2009 by the NRF and BIGresearch. In contrast, 25% of shoppers will use cash. These trends held true over Thanksgiving weekend, when 26% of shoppers used credit cards, 39% used cash, and the remainder reported using debit cards.

3. Do not buy for yourself. Stick strictly to your gift list. The only exception should be a great buy on an item you have planned to purchase, and for which you have dedicated cash in hand.

4. Resist store cards. Although they might offer introductory 0% interest rates, those rates will expire–and sooner than you expect. Many store cards carry regular interest rates of 20% or more. Additionally, your credit score may take a slight hit from opening a new card.

5. Read the fine print. Review all materials from your credit card issuer. Up to 50% of Americans say their credit card interest rates have increased in the past six months. Many lenders are raising rates before the Credit CARD Act’s reforms take effect in February 2010.

6. If you do use a credit card, choose wisely. Choose one card with the lowest annual interest rate, and only charge what you can afford to pay off when the bill comes. Be sure you will not exceed your credit limit. “Putting purchases on a single card helps you keep track of spending (check balances online or by phone if you are not sure),” Housser explained. “Be sure to check your current credit limits before you begin using credit cards, too. Many card issuers have lowered credit limits in the past year.”

Increasingly, American society focuses on spending as the centerpiece of holiday celebrations. That means many people will go into the red by racking up debt at this time of year. “Debt at the holidays is often just accepted, just as many people accept overindulging in food or drink as part of the celebrations,” Housser said. “But these actions have real repercussions. It is possible to avoid debt and holiday overindulgence by planning ahead- and using a few tricks to eke out extra holiday buying power.”


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Around the Home – 10 No-Cost Tips for Saving Energy

by Alexandra Zega

Looking for fast, free ways to save on energy around the home this winter? According to Tom Kraeutler, host of thenationally-syndicated home improvement radio show, The Money Pit, there are many common-sense things you can do everyday in your home to lower energy bills.

Tip #1 – Lock your windows. Don’t just close them, but lock them to create an airtight seal that keeps out air leaks and drafts.

Tip #2 – Plug power-draining computers and electronic equipment into a power strip with a switch, so they can all be easily turned off when not in use.

Tip #3 – Turn off lights when leaving a room.

Tip #4 – Get free solar heat by opening the blinds and shades during the day.

Tip #5 – Chill out and do your laundry in cold water.

Tip #6 – Add a sweater and lower the thermostat. For every degree you lower your thermostat, you may be able to save 5% on heating costs.

Tip #7 – Run only full loads in your dishwasher.

Tip #8 – Remove lint often from your clothes dryer and its outside vent. And, run your dryer in the evening, when the extra heat helps warm your house.

Tip #9 – Close the doors (and the heating vents) in rooms with minimal use, like walk-in closets, laundry rooms and guest bedrooms, to reduce heat use in those areas.

Tip #10 – Snuggle up under more blankets at night and turn your heat down lower to reduce energy costs.

“Small things can add up to big energy savings in the home,” says Kraeutler. “You’ll be surprised to find your energy bills dropping by 20, 30 or more dollars each month when you consistently make the effort.”

road_trip TripAdvisor, one of the world’s most popular and largest travel communities, has announced the results of its December holiday travel survey of more than 1,200 travelers. Despite the economy, the number of Americans traveling for the holidays has increased slightly in each of the last three years: 45% of Americans are planning to travel for the December holidays this year, up from 42% one year ago and 39% in 2007.

New York and Los Angeles are the top two major U.S. cities travelers plan to visit during the holidays, according to the survey. Since September, these destinations have seen an approximately 100% increase in flights search activity on TripAdvisor. Honolulu and Las Vegas are the cities people wish they were visiting this holiday season. These “dream” destinations saw an approximately 50% increase in flights search since September.

Tightening Santa’s Belt a Bit Less
Sixty-two percent of travelers will be more budget conscious with their travel this December holiday season than last, down from 68% who answered the same one year ago. Among those planning to save, 50% plan to do so by staying at or near home instead of traveling, 20% plan to take a shorter trip than usual, and 15% will drive rather than fly.

Only Relative-ly Joyful
Eighty percent of travelers plan to see relatives over the December holidays, almost identical to 81% last year. Nearly 40% of travelers said they often feel pressure to spend the holidays with their families, and 22% said they often see family for the December holidays out of guilt.

Fifteen percent admitted they were not very excited about seeing their family over the December holidays this year, and 25% of those staying with their relatives over the holidays confessed they’d rather stay somewhere else. Nineteen percent even said they’ve cut a holiday family trip shorter than planned because they were “family-ed” out.

Travelers Confess to Holiday Stress
Nearly 50% of travelers said they often find the holidays stressful. As for the best remedy, 22% responded that taking a trip somewhere is the best holiday stress-reliever. Getting more sleep and avoiding crowds came in second and third, respectively.

A Holly Jolly Houseguest
With family crowded together for the holidays, there’s bound to be a glitch or two. The top faux pas committed by travelers when staying with or hosting family during the December holiday season are:

-Arguing with a family member: 31%
-Accidentally insulting a family member: 17%
-Forgetting to bring a present for someone: 13%

Santa vs. Scrooge
Given that the holidays can be a stressful time for travelers, it may not be surprising that 39% of respondents admit that when traveling for the holidays they identify more with Scrooge (”Bah humbug! Traveling for the holidays is a pain, not to mention expensive”), than the 61% who identify more with Santa (”I love traveling for the holidays!”).

Holiday Headaches
According to travelers, the least enjoyable parts of traveling for the December holidays remain the same as last year: airline delays and cancellations (25%), inclement weather (20%), and price of transportation (14%).

All I Want for Christmas is a GPS
Thirty-eight percent of travelers are hoping to receive a travel-related gift this December holiday season, while only 23% of travelers plan to buy one.

“Whether travelers identify more with Santa or Scrooge when it comes to holiday travel, the majority will be spending time with their families this December,” said Christine Petersen, chief marketing officer for TripAdvisor. “With more people hitting the road, travelers should just try to relax and embrace the spirit of the season when faced with the inevitable stress of holiday travel.”

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