How to Save Money on Holiday Meals

 

Family All Together At Christmas Dinner

 

While the holidays are a time for getting together with family and friends to be thankful for all that we have, unfortunately, they also often become the most expensive months of the year.  Big “get-togethers” mean big meals and that can mean big bills for whoever is playing host.

For most of us, gift giving, vacations, and time away for work can cause enough stress as it is on our wallets over the holidays; add the cost of hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas morning? Good luck. Therefore, it is extremely important to save where you can this time of the year, and luckily, cooking is an area you can really make a meaningful difference.

Here are three easy ways to help save your much needed money while prepping for holiday season and the expensive fun that comes along hosting.

Leverage Sales throughout the Year– Just like clothing, yard tools, and other “seasonal” products, certain foods considered to be part of typical holiday fare are often put on sale at off-peak times during the year. For example, Shopright’s “Can Can” sale is a great opportunity to get full cases of canned veggies, gravies, and other tasty items for as little as 20 cents a can!

These goods have long shelf lives, so why not stock up on the peas, corn, and of course, cranberry sauce for thanksgiving early in the Summer. Beef, turkey, and chicken stock can be used in everything from soups to sauces; these versatile ingredients should be in every pantry anyways, so again, leverage the major sales when they come up to continue to save big.

Plus, the variety of options during these sales are often greater as well; since the cost is so low, your family will enjoy trying out new products and different brands with very little financial repercussions for not liking them.

Do Your Own Baking – For many of us, the holiday season is a time for indulging in once a year sweets and desserts that we truly miss in the Spring and Summer. That means hundreds of cookies, dozens of pies, pan after pan of brownies, and endless batches of special breads and cakes.

If you can follow simple instructions (often on repetition if you have a big family), you can save significant funds by buying ingredients in bulk to do your own baking with as opposed to paying full price for the pre-boxed or store prepped versions.

Sure, the “pros” make delicious desserts, but why not try your own creation or kick start a tradition by bringing back an old family recipe again. Not only will it be fun for all, and add a lasting personal touch to an already meaningful holiday season, you’ll have that much more money for other family fun too.

Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help! – You know how everyone always asks “what can I bring?” whenever you invite them somewhere? Well, there is absolutely nothing wrong with actually requesting something off of your to-do list.

For example, and this is obviously dependent on the size of your party, have a few couples bring dessert and a few others provide side dishes while you prepare the main course and some appetizers. Let’s face it, Fall and Winter in general, let alone the holidays, are just great times to get together and enjoy good food and good company; unfortunately, that tends to add up if you’re consistently playing host and shouldering the bulk of the expense.

Even if you are the one who’s lucky enough to have the “party house” in the family, where it is almost expected to be the spot, that doesn’t mean you need to also be a professional chef with a never ending bankroll. Take your family and friends up on their offer to help, heck some of them may even be good cooks too!

 

Salary Negotiations Can Help Boost Your Income When Changing Jobs

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Whether you’re actively looking to make a move or being lured away by a recruiter, a new job offers many opportunities for growth. Discovering how different organizations run and tackling the learning curve during the first few months is part of the fun, and struggle, of making a change.

Switching employers can also greatly benefit your financial future. While staying at the same job could lead to a modest annual raise, you might be able to negotiate a much larger jump in pay when changing companies. Negotiating a job offer can be daunting, but consider what happens if you don’t negotiate – you might wind up earning less than a hiring manager was willing to offer.

Do your homework to find an appropriate salary range before negotiating. Whether you are a veteran or a novice negotiator, you may want to spend time researching before sitting down at the table. Keeping in mind that compensation can vary depending on location, look online for studies or personal accounts that reveal the salaries of someone in a similar role.

Several for-profit companies compile and share compensation information online, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics has pay data based on occupation and geography. You could also reach out to recruiters who focus on placing candidates in your industry as they’re accustomed to discussing compensation.

The more data on your profession’s compensation you can get the better, because you want to be able to make a fact-based request. Ask for too much and you risk being seen as unreasonable or out of touch. Ask for too little, and that might be all you get.

Job seekers often get stuck on who says a number first. While advice ranges, one thing is for certain – you don’t necessarily want to use your previous salary as a starting point. Especially if your research reveals you’re below the current market rate, you want your next offer to reflect the experience and talent you bring to the table. If you’re being pressed to respond first, answer with the salary range you’re aiming for during your job hunt.

Don’t get stuck on money – keep the big picture in mind. It can be easy to fixate on the cash portion of your compensation when negotiating, but sometimes there isn’t any wiggle room in the budget. Look at the big picture of your potential pay and benefits. Perhaps a lower-than-desired cash offer is offset by a generous retirement contribution matching program, great healthcare benefits, stock incentives or bonus opportunities.

When the total compensation doesn’t meet your expectations, try to think outside the box and give the hiring manager alternative options. You could request additional paid time off, the freedom to work from home one day a week or a professional development stipend. After all, flexibility and personal growth can be more valuable than money.

At smaller companies, you could ask for a quarterly lunch with an executive in your department or your direct supervisor. A lunch won’t cost the company much money, but it could give you insight into the company’s future, let you know which skills to focus on developing and strengthen your personal relationship with higher ups.

Back up your request with valid reasons. Aim to reinforce each of your negotiation requests with a valid, relatable and quantifiable reason. When asking for more money, point to experience or skills that distinguish you from other candidates. Less traditional requests, such as meetings with an executive, could be justified by your dedication to self-improvement and desire to stay in touch with the company’s needs.

Bottom line. While changing jobs and negotiating an offer can be a challenge, moving to a new company could accelerate your salary’s growth. Before jumping into negotiations, take time to research the market, consider your overall wants and validate your requests. Presenting a coherent argument can help win over a hiring manager and set you apart from other candidates.

 

By Nathaniel Sillin

Leveraging the Internet for Your Next Car

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Buying or leasing a new car can be one of the most complicated and frustrating drawn out processes we encounter as we go through life. The very nature of the business makes it difficult to sift through the in your face advertising, hidden small print fees, and overly pushy salesman that litter the landscape of just about every car lot out there.

There are also seemingly two very different types of people in the world- those of us who love cars and go out of our way to know every small detail of what they are attempting to buy from engine to interior; and the rest of us who ultimately just want something spacious and reliable that won’t break the bank.

Regardless of if you are a car fanatic or someone just looking to fit the kids comfortably, however, obtaining a vehicle can be an equally expensive endeavor for all of us. That is why it is important to do all you can to approach the situation in an intelligent, prepared manner.

Researching and negotiating online has become a necessity when it comes to intelligent car buying in 2016. Rather than waiting to try and haggle with one salesman at a time across the town, why not make several dealerships work against each other to give you the best deal possible from the comfort of your own home?

First things first, you need to know exactly what you are looking for- a  grey 2008 Ford Escape with under 80,000  miles on it and a sun roof for example. Next, put a few feeler emails out there to different locations asking for best price while letting them know that you are speaking to several other dealerships for the best offer.

Experts suggest that there are three key areas you need to identify at this point- the credit for a trade in of your current vehicle (if that is even needed), the price of the car itself (including any needed financing rates, closing costs, etc.), and of course, the “bells and whistles” that come along with each deal in the form of incentive additions. Once you’ve identified your “winner” through a little comparison and requests for “last chance offers,” you get the luxury of walking into the dealership with everything basically done to the point of signature; hopefully ensuring a quick and painless closing process.

Here are a few more quick tips to remember while conducting your pre-purchase online research:

  1. Be sure to check a reputable publication like Edmunds for “true market value,” which reveals what buyers are paying for the same make and model as what you are looking at across the country
  2. For important mechanical, warranty, and incentive options, don’t forget to leverage the automaker’s website.
  3. Don’t forget to research the most important aspect of any car, its safety rankings. Check out both IIHS.org and SaferCar.gov amongst others.
  4. You can save by buy at the end of the” model year” and preferably at the end of the month when quotas may come into play.

Try to limit your financing applications to a 14-day period; all of your loan applications will only count as one inquiry, thus minimizing the impact on your credit, if everything stays within that timeframe.

 

Year-End Tax Moves That Could Save You Money

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The end of the year is approaching and between visiting friends and family and celebrating the holidays, your taxes may be the last thing on your mind. However, putting off tax preparation until later could be a costly mistake. While tax season doesn’t start until mid-January, if you want to affect the return you file in 2017, you’ll need to make some tax moves before the end of 2016.

You might make this a yearly tradition – while there may be slight alterations in the rules or numbers from one year to the next, many of the fundamentals behind tax-saving advice remain the same.

Sell losing investments and offset capital gains or income. Do you have property, stocks or other investments that have dropped in value and you’re considering offloading? If you sell the investments before the end of the year, you can use the lost value to offset capital gains (profits from capital assets). Excess losses can offset up to $3,000 from ordinary taxable income and be rolled over to following years.

Optimize your charitable contributions. Many people make an annual tradition of donating their time and money to support charitable causes. It’s a noble thing to do and could come with a tax benefit. The value of your donation to a qualified charitable organization, minus the value of anything you receive in return, could offset your taxable income.

Charitable contributions are deductible if you itemize deductions. However, most taxpayers find it best to take the standard deduction – $12,600 for married people filing jointly, $9,300 for heads of households and $6,300 for single or married people filing separately for the 2016 tax year. If it’s best for you to take the standard deduction for 2016 but you think you may itemize your deductions next year, consider holding off until the new year to make the donations.

Defer your income to next year. You might be able to lower your taxable income for 2016 by delaying some of your pay until after the New Year. Employees could ask their employer to send a holiday bonus or December’s commission in January. It could be easier for contractors and the self-employed to defer their income since for them, it’s as simple as waiting to send an invoice.

Don’t let FSA savings go to waste. Employer-sponsored Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) let employees contribute pre-tax money into their FSA accounts, meaning you don’t have to pay income tax on the money. FSA funds can be spent on qualified medical and dental procedures, such as prescription medications, bandages or crutches and deductible or copays.

FSA funds that you don’t use by the end of the year could get forfeited. However, employers can give employees a two-and-a-half month grace period or allow employees to roll over up to $500 per year. Check with your employer to see if it offers one of these exemptions, and make a plan to use your remaining FSA funds before they disappear.

What can wait until after January 1? Procrastinators will be pleased to hear that there are tax moves you can make after the start of the new year.

You have until the tax return filing deadline, April 18 in 2017, to make 2016-tax-year contributions to a traditional IRA. The money you add could offset your income, and you’ll be saving for retirement – a double win.

The maximum contribution you can make is $5,500 ($6,500 if you’re 50 or older) for the 2016 tax year. However, the deductible amount depends on your income and eligibility for an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

Bottom line. Don’t wait for the tax season to start to take stock of your situation and get your finances in order. While there are a few tax moves that can wait, what you do between now and the end of the year could have a significant impact on your return.

By Nathaniel Sillin

Crock-Pot® Serves Dinner to Hackers

 

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In case you are annoyed that you cannot control your slow cooker after you have set it and left it for the day, your savior has arrived. WeMo now makes it possible for you to control that needy Crock-Pot® device with an app on your smartphone. Yes, it’s true. Now you can adjust your thermostat without getting out of bed, can flush your toilet from another room, can turn your lights off if you forget and leave the house, and thanks to WeMo technology, you can adjust your slow cooker temperature from your desk chair.

While all of this is great, having smart devices like these on your wireless network comes with risks. Those include opening up yet another way for hackers to get inside your home. Remember that with every entry point, it makes it just that much more likely that someone will make themselves at home in your home and on your computer where you probably store a lot of sensitive and confidential information. This doesn’t mean it will happen. It just means it’s another way for them to get inside and get right to your information or perhaps use your computer as a bot or to perform distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) as happened recently on several websites including Twitter, Amazon, and Netflix as well as many other large and small companies. They could also plant ransomware and try to extort money from you before they will give you a key to decrypt the files.

Make sure you really want or need those smart devices before hooking up items in your home to wireless. Take some time to think about how much risk you want to take. Do you really need to your refrigerator to tell you that you’re out of milk or can you open the door and look yourself? Do you need to be able to spy on your dog when you’re at work all day? Do you need to be able to control your Crock-Pot® after you’ve left it to cook up dinner for you? What benefit will it give you to have all of these devices and entry points opened up to the Internet? If the answer is little or none, perhaps you should skip them. It’s not so hard to push the “on” button on the Crock-Pot® after all. Those are meant to set and forget anyway. You probably already have enough to remember throughout the day anyway. At least you can forget your dinner.

© Copyright 2016 Stickley on Security

Stop! Can you REALLY Afford That?

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Don’t buy what you can’t afford. Simple, right? Well, sort of. While restricting spending to the finite boundary of a paycheck is the foundation of sound money management, actually doing it can be extremely difficult. The reasons are manifold, but primary among them is the popular idea that living in debt is not only unavoidable, it is acceptable. However, this is a very dangerous way to view your finances.

The widespread availability of credit has made not having cash to pay for both necessary and discretionary items inconsequential. Currently about 227 million Americans hold at least one credit card, each card equipped with a typical $3,000 limit. Having immediate access to such a sum inspires many to quickly charge their way into impenetrable arrears. Though the average per-household consumer debt currently exceeds $7,300, balances in the six-figure range are not unheard of. Credit cards have morphed from their true purpose as a convenient payment tool to instant emergency account, holiday bonus, vacation fund, and salary increase all rolled into one.

It’s not just plastic that makes descending into debt so easy. Payday loan institutions have exploded onto our landscape. We can now tap into our future earnings just by writing a check. Many who use these businesses become enmeshed in a never-ending balance cycle, complete with interest rates that would make a loan shark gasp.

Having consumer debt is generally not fun. It causes stress and worry. It may also undermine your ability to save for such things as retirement and higher education.

How do we reverse the trend? Here are some ways:

  • Refute the idea that maintaining debt is inevitable and just another way of managing money.
  • Redefine yourself as a “saver” rather than a “consumer.”
  • Relish the feeling of living within, rather than beyond, your income parameters.
  • Accept that you may not be able to have everything you want (or even need) today, and that a quick cash fix won’t really bail you out of a bad situation; it will just make the following month more difficult.
  • Borrow only when you are absolutely certain you can repay the entire balance when the bill comes in.
  • Reject the idea that it is your responsibility to keep the economy rolling. It is not. You need to save for (rather than borrow from) tomorrow, so you and your family can be financially independent, prepared and secure.

If you are unable to cover your expenses, don’t get a loan—get help. We at BALANCE offer free, high-quality assistance. If you are contemplating a purchase that is outside of your means (and if you don’t know what your “means” is, you are not alone, but once again, contact us. We can work with you to develop a spending plan.), stop and think hard before you borrow for it.

Don’t buy what you can’t afford. Sometimes it really is that simple.

BALANCE, Revised January 2016