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Bonding over Board Games - Family Game Night Is Back

by Alexandra Zega


RISMEDIA, March 28, 2009-Board games are making a roaring comeback during these turbulent economic times as families turn to affordable, healthy, family-centric entertainment.

According to Gail DeGiulio, founder and chief funster of SimplyFun, a company that sells board games, puzzles, and other family entertainment products through in-home parties, the average sales per party for the months of January and February were higher than any other January and February figures in company history. Compared to 2008, SimplyFun’s average party sales rose 7% in January and 5% in February this year. This success mirrors an overall surge in board game sales, which, according to NPD group, were up 6% in 2008.

“Families are wisely scaling back their entertainment budgets, choosing to stay home and revisit traditional family pastimes,” said DeGiulio. “Board games and puzzles can be enjoyed over and over, giving families more quality time to spend together, without breaking their budget.”

DeGiulio goes on to note that many families are also realizing that the fun afforded by SimplyFun can serve as a much-needed stress relief during these trying times. “People need to unwind, laugh and have some healthy fun, more than ever before in our society,” said DeGiulio. “Families want to bring down the noise, turn off the news, and enjoy some quality time together. They want to bring their family back to its center.”

“Families are taking this opportunity to revisit their priorities and to get back to the basics, devoting valuable time to the relationships that are most important to them, right now,” added DeGiulio. “Life’s most important moments come about when we play with our loved ones. We’re thrilled to provide wonderful products that make it easy to do just that.”

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Financial experts say recession ends by year's end

by Alexandra Zega

The recession will ease by the end of this year and companies will begin adding workers, signaling the end of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

It was the 64th day of the Obama administration and Chicago-based Dow Jones Indexes assembled a group of financial experts to assess the impact of government actions, whether they will work to stem the recession and what opportunities that might present investors.

The recession has affected every region of the country and nearly every sector of the economy, said Gus Faucher, director of macroeconomics at Moody's, which conducts independent research and provides economic forecasts.

"It's really unprecedented in the U.S. to have nearly the entire country in a recession simultaneously," he said.

The good news is there's an end in sight.

The economy will pull out of the recession at the end of this year, marking a duration of 24 months, about twice as long as the average post-World War II recession, Faucher said.

The unemployment rate is expected to peak at nearly 10 percent in the first half of 2010. Without the $787 billion government stimulus package, he estimated job losses would have continued into the second half of the year and peaked at about 12 percent.

"That would take what is now a severe recession and actually turn it into a deep depression," he said. "We think the fiscal stimulus package is vital in turning around attitudes toward the economy."

He said we are at or near a stock market bottom and stock prices should soon stabilize.

That certainly wasn't the case so far this week. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 498 points on Monday but dropped 115 points, or 1.5 percent, on Tuesday.

Home sales will turn around by midyear and home prices will begin recovering by the end of this year after bottoming out at 35 percent of their value from peak to trough. Home prices won't return to their values of a few years ago during the boom, but will recover from current lows, he said.

Banks will likely begin seeing improvement in capital as the government program to remove bad assets kicks in and the Federal Reserve provides more economic support. Faucher predicted major bank and financial services company failures will abate in the second half of this year and credit will begin to move again.

Those improvements and additional government spending will provide investors some opportunities in companies that own bridges, toll roads and utilities. It also will drive growth in areas of green energy production.

The stimulus package will spend $50 billion on roads, bridges, utilities and other infrastructure, said Craig Noble, portfolio manager, for Brookfield Redding LLC, a Chicago-based investment manager of global real estate and infrastructure securities.

He sees a potential sweet spot for investors in companies that own the assets that will benefit from the needed spending. He said the stimulus package is only a small portion of government spending on transportation and utilities. Congress must reauthorize this year a multiyear transportation bill that provides hundreds of billions of dollars in spending and sets priorities for the next five years or more.

"The infrastructure class currently offers a unique and compelling investment case with trillions needed to be spend across the globe in coming years," he said.

Stimulus packages rolled out in Canada, Europe, Australia, South America and China show the global nature of the infrastructure asset class, he said.

Obama administration polices that emphasize renewable energy such as wind power will also push billions of dollars into building electricity-carrying power lines and the towers to hold them. That construction is needed to carry wind power from expanding wind turbine farms in the Midwest to population centers in the Eastern United States.

Personal Finance Writer David Pitt reported from Des Moines, Iowa.

RISMEDIA, March 25, 2009-U.S. home prices rose for the first time in 12 months, showing an increase of 1.7% on a seasonally-adjusted basis from December to January, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s (FHFA) monthly House Price Index. December’s previously reported 0.1% increase was revised to a 0.2% decline, and for the 12 months ending in January, U.S. prices fell 6.3%, and the U.S. index is 9.6% below its April 2007 peak.

The FHFA monthly index is calculated using purchase prices of houses backing mortgages that have been sold to or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

For the nine Census Divisions, seasonally-adjusted monthly price changes from December to January ranged from -0.9% in the Pacific Division to +3.9% in the East North Central Division.

Month-to-month changes in the geographic mix of sales activity explain most of the unexpected rise in prices in January. The January home sales reflected in the FHFA data disproportionately occurred in areas with the strongest markets.

While it is difficult to perfectly control for changing geographic mix in estimating house price indexes, the data suggest that if one were to remove those effects, the change in home prices in January, while still positive, would have been far less dramatic.

It also should be noted that sales volumes, in absolute terms, were relatively low in the month. Accordingly, the estimation imprecision associated with the January estimate is relatively large and subsequent revisions to the monthly figure could be significant.

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4 Ways to Protect Your Personal Data when Filing Taxes Online

by Alexandra Zega


RISMEDIA, March 24, 2009-(MCT)-As April 15 approaches and taxpayers scramble to complete their tax returns, it’s critical that they take extra care to guard their personal information. Consider what’s exposed and vulnerable: your Social Security number, address, name and financial information. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, “These numbers can be a gold mine for identity thieves. Your personal information can enable a thief to obtain a job, open up new lines of credit, access existing financial accounts or stock portfolios, get welfare, avoid a criminal history and generally create havoc in your life.”

So here’s how to protect yourself:

1. Run a full scan of your computer before doing your taxes. “You’ve got the best chance of finding something that somehow got past your antivirus protection and is lurking there,” said Ray Dickenson, chief technology officer at Authentium, which develops Internet security software.

“Remember that fraud issues aren’t necessarily contained within the website you visit. The so-called ‘malware’ (malicious software) may already be within your PC, which then exposes your personal and financial information to cybercrooks.”

2. Disable file-sharing software. “File-sharing programs such as LimeWire make files on your computer visible to other users on the Internet,” Dickenson said. “When you install a file-sharing program like LimeWire, the program automatically shares your music and almost any kind of file, including Word documents and Adobe PDF files with everyone else on the Internet.” Make sure your antivirus programs are up to date, but know that antivirus programs can’t find all the malware that may be on your PC.

3. Understand how electronic tax-filing products keep your information secure. “The privacy and security of customer data is a top priority for Intuit,” said Julie Miller, spokeswoman for Intuit, which manufactures the popular TurboTax tax-filing software. The online version of TurboTax stores your tax information on a firewall-protected server and can only be accessed using your user name and password.

If you use the desktop version of TurboTax, the information is downloaded and stored on your computer. “The data file saved to your desktop is automatically encrypted,” Miller said. “We also recommend that customers take advantage of adding a password to that data file.”

4. Take advantage of the Free File Alliance program. The Free File Alliance, a coalition of 19 private tax software companies, has partnered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to provide free, electronic federal tax preparation services to taxpayers with an adjusted gross income of $56,000 or less. You can access it only through the IRS’ Web site at

In the end, you shouldn’t depend solely on the government or any other source to protect your taxpayer information. You are your first and best line of defense.



© 2009, By Pamela Yip - The Dallas Morning News.

‘Tis the Season - With Spring Comes a New Savings Plan

by Alexandra Zega


RISMEDIA, March 23, 2009-(MCT)-The Government has calculated the savings rate within America as being close to zero for a number of years, but as we find ourselves in the throes of a recession, most Americans are taking a step back and cutting back on spending money, traveling and activities that we all took for granted. 

The savings rate of Americans today is now around 5%, compared to 0.1% a year ago. Most of this increased savings can be attributed to reduced spending.

The recession has put all Americans to the test as it’s easier to increase spending than reduce spending, but the folks at offer these eight tips to help you assess your spending habits and find places where you can save money.

1. Packaged drinks: Bottled water and soft drinks can easily be substituted. In addition, individual coffee cups at shops and gas stations are priced higher than home brews.
2. Prepackaged food: Ready-to-eat meals and snacks in individual servings are more expensive than buying ingredients individually in larger bags or bulk. You’ll get more bang for your buck preparing it yourself.
3. Fax service: If you need to fax a resume or document, avoid the copy centers, which can charge $1 to $2 a page. Instead, try an online service that allows you to use the scan feature on your printer and then fax the document over the Internet.
4. Car repairs: Shop for an independent repair shop by asking for references from friends and avoid the dealer’s repair shop unless the car is under warranty. Be careful in this situation as the dealer may have competitive prices that could be cheaper than an independent repair shop.
5. Extended warranties: It’s highly unlikely a new product will need to be protected for the long-term as either technology will need to be replaced in a few years or it will break in the first year while still under original warranty.
6. Bank and credit card fees: This is the easiest area to look to when trying to cut your expenses. It is crucial to pay your credit card bill on time and maintain minimum balances or move to a bank or account that doesn’t have minimums. Set up overdraft protection to avoid bounced checks. Also avoid ATM fees by using your own bank or finding a bank that reimburses fees.
7. Print publications: If there is a version online that contains most of the print version, there is no need to pay for it when you can get it for free unless you need it for the convenience of carrying around. That said, Sunday newspapers often have enough coupons to make it worth buying the print versions.
8. Flowers: Shop beyond florists by visiting your grocery store or an online flower delivery service.

Little things like these are simply and effective ways to change our shopping habits which will benefit our savings and help us survive during these tough economic times.



© 2009, By Dan Serra - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Man’s Best Friend Deserves Nothing but the Best

by Alexandra Zega

dog-webRISMEDIA, March 12, 2009-(MCT)-No one wants to cut back on spending for their pet- and only one out of seven of us does, according to an Associated Press survey conducted in December. But a recent Consumer Reports article suggests that expensive pet food is not necessarily more nutritional.

“I think it’s safe to say that not all inexpensive brands are bad, but there are some that pet owners should stay away from,” says Iveta Becvarova, a veterinary nutritionist with the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

Here are her tips for finding a nutritional food at the best price:

Stick to the correct life stage. Both dog and cat foods will be labeled for life stage. Puppies and pregnant animals need extra calories and fat for growth. Becvarova warns pet owners to stay away from food labeled “for all life stages,” because those blends often include too many calories for a healthy adult dog or cat. “Obesity is such a problem for animals now. Normal adult dogs really don’t need the same nutrient and calorie intake as puppies,” she says.

Look for wording about feeding trials. Every pet food package will have an American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) statement. This regulatory group tells consumers how the food is formulated. The statement on preferred foods will include wording about feeding trials, which means that the food has been tested on animals for digestibility and nutritional balance.

The order of ingredients matters. Labels are required to list the ingredients in weight order. The first ingredient is the one that constitutes the most weight in the formula. Becvarova says the first or second ingredient should be a protein source- water will always be first for canned foods. Quality protein sources include whole meats and chicken byproduct meal. Organ meats, such as liver, are also good. Pet owners should stay away from foods that list meat and bone meal and meat meal tankage as main ingredients.

Be careful when making your own pet food. Homemade pet food is a growing trend, but Consumer Reports experts and Becvarova warn that it’s difficult to plan a balanced diet. “There are 40 specific nutrients that your dog needs in order to have a balanced diet. Making your own food is very elaborate. It takes time, and the food is harder to store because there are no preservatives,” Becvarova says.

If you would like to make your own dog or cat food, you should work with your veterinarian and a nutritionist to set up a balanced plan. Becvarova warns that simply consulting Internet and magazine sources can be dangerous because most of the recipes do not contain all of the nutrients the animal needs. The veterinary school at Virginia Tech will work with local veterinarians to plan balanced homemade meals. To participate, ask your veterinarian to call the school at 540-231-4621. Nutritionists at the school will need to speak to the veterinarian directly to discuss the animal’s medical history and current conditions.


© 2009, By Nicole Paitsel  Daily Press (Newport News, Va.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Perfect Pancakes - Strategies to Make the Hottest Hot Cakes

by Alexandra Zega


RISMEDIA, February 26, 2009-(MCT)-The secret to making perfect pancakes is obvious, according to Carla Connett: “The very simple way to put it is that they’re not made from a box or a mix,” explained Connett, owner of Hotcakes Cafe in Wilmette, Ill., and Green Bay Cafe in Winnetka, Ill. “The perfect pancakes are definitely made from scratch with fresh ingredients.”

Connett gets asked all the time how to make great pancakes. Perhaps that’s because people are wild about pancakes and it’s her business. Or, maybe, there’s a sort of unease surrounding pancake-making, as though the production of this ancient quick bread is more a secret art than a teachable craft. Yet the experts are willing, eager even, to share their tips for working ’round a griddle.

Raise your expectations

“I think most people grew up with pancake mixes or pancakes served in coffee shops or short-order houses,” said Dorie Greenspan, a well-known baker and cookbook author. “They are always bigger and higher than the pancakes you make at home.

“Sometimes, I think that’s what people are striving for: a big, fat flapjack the size of a plate,” she added. “It’s pretty high, and there are three to a stack, and you can just imagine it with dripping pats of butter and maple syrup.

“That’s not my idea of a great pancake.”

For Greenspan, author of “Pancakes: From Morning to Midnight,” that kind of pancake has an artificial lightness of texture and lacks the full flavor that comes from using high-quality ingredients.

And Greenspan is not sold on the notion that the best pancakes are light as air.

“I think there are some pancakes that should be light and others that shouldn’t,” she said. “I don’t think there’s one texture that fits all. For instance, if you’re making an oatmeal pancake, I think you want a little texture and maybe even the pancake version of heft.

“Nobody wants a tough pancake,” she added, “but you want to be able to chew it and know what’s in it.”

Follow a recipe but be adaptive

Even a professional such as Greenspan reaches for a recipe when making pancakes. She wants to get just the right proportion of liquid and flour. That doesn’t mean she won’t improvise on a recipe. Greenspan will sometimes replace some of the flour with cornmeal or whole-wheat flour for a different taste and texture.

Go for the lift

The pancake is basically a batter bread cooked speedily on a griddle, in a skillet, even a hot stone in prehistoric times. No matter the recipe, you want an element of bubbly lift in each pancake. That can come from a number of sources: baking powder, baking soda and beaten egg whites. Potato starch is Ina Pinkney’s pancake secret. “We use some potato starch to stabilize the batter, and it’s lighter than flour,” confided Pinkney, known as Chicago’s “Breakfast Queen.” She calls her pancakes “heavenly hots” at her restaurant, Ina’s.

Make the batter at the last minute

All recipes for pancakes call for “dry” and “wet” ingredients. Pancake experts such as Greenspan recommend combining the dry ingredients in bulk in advance so you always have your own house pancake “mix” available. Stir in the wet ingredients right before cooking. If the batter sits too long, the flour will absorb too much liquid and thicken the batter.

Don’t overmix

“A couple of lumps are OK,” Greenspan said. “If you’ve done a good job of mixing the dry ingredients, you won’t have many lumps.” Too much mixing results in tougher pancakes.

Choose a good pan

Pans or griddles with heavier bottoms tend to heat more evenly and lessen the risk of burning the pancake. Greenspan prefers a nonstick pan so less oil is needed.

Use oil to grease the griddle

A flavorless oil in the pan will let the flavor of the pancake shine through, Pinkney noted. Butter has a tendency to burn. Also, don’t use too much oil, as it will create splotches instead of uniform browning. The first few pancakes on the griddle absorb most of the oil; the second batch is better.

Regulate the heat

Be flexible here, Greenspan warned, lowering or raising the heat depending on how hot your pan is.

“You have to play with the heat,” she said. “You want the griddle hot enough so when you ladle on the batter it will spread. But if the griddle is too hot, the pancake will set too quickly without spreading.”

Keep ‘em small

“The trick is to make the pancakes small and use one of those flexible spatulas to turn them,” Pinkney said. “It’s better to make more of them and make them smaller because you’ll have better control over the turning.”

Turn at the right time

“Flip when you start to see several little bubbles in the batter,” advised Carla Connett, owner of Hotcakes Cafe in Wilmette and Green Bay Cafe in Winnetka. But be careful; the second side cooks more quickly. It’s OK to lift up the edges to peek at browning progress.

Be sparing with toppings

“When I see people drowning pancakes in syrup before tasting them, I can tell they are IHOP people,” Pinkney said. She prefers her customers to try their pancakes plain first so they can see how little syrup they really need.
Nor is Pinkney a big fan of maple syrup. She thinks the maple flavor overwhelms her heavenly hots pancakes. She serves a fruit compote instead.

Share pancake joy

“Pancakes are fun in every way,” Greenspan said. “They’re fun to eat. They’re fun to make. People love them.”

31 Ways to Dress Up a Pancake

1. Butter
2. Maple syrup
3. Confectioners’ sugar
4. Whipped cream
5. Creme anglais
6. Grand Marnier
7. Raspberry jam
8. Strawberry jam
9. Orange marmalade
10. Apricot jam
11. Major Grey’s chutney, pureed
12. Flaked coconut
13. Fresh mint
14. Fruit compote
15. Lemon curd
16. Sour cream and cornichon pickle
17. Caviar
18. Cranberry-orange relish
19. Hot fudge sauce
20. Rum-glazed bananas
21. Berry-cardamom sauce
22. Tomato salsa
23. Hoisin sauce and green onions
24. Bourbon-glazed bacon
25. Chopped peaches
26. Peanut butter and jelly
27. Applesauce
28. Honey
29. Broiled rum-glazed pineapple
30. Cocoa powder
31. Cinnamon

Bon Appetit - Alexandra Zega, Realtor - Keller Williams

© 2009, Chicago Tribune.By Bill Daley
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Displaying blog entries 1-7 of 7

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