Gunning Daily News

Q: Are There Ways to Save Money when Using a Contractor?

December 20, 2013 5:33 pm

A: Be an educated consumer: aggressively shop for the most reasonable bid, not necessarily the cheapest. Inexpensive, but shoddy, work will only cost you more money in the long run. After you find a contractor, insist that trade discounts on materials be passed on to you, or buy materials yourself. Root out any unnecessary costs written into the contract, and compare payment alternatives – flat vs. hourly rates, for example – and negotiate the more reasonable of the two. Also, do part of the project yourself. Disassembly and prep work can save you hundreds of dollars.


Tips for Managing Your Year-End Taxes

December 20, 2013 5:33 pm

(BPT) - The close of every year seems to bring its own uncertainty from a tax-planning perspective. Last year featured the expiration of certain temporary tax provisions and the commencement of automatic federal government spending cuts. In October the President and Congress temporarily agreed on funding the government and increasing the national debt limit. But these issues may reappear in 2014 and could result in tax law changes that affect income-tax and financial planning.

For now, the best approach is to focus on how to limit your exposure to the many new or increased taxes in 2013 and beyond.

1. Manage higher taxes

Many taxpayers will be faced with higher tax bills in 2013 as a result of:

* The temporary reduction in the Social Security tax from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent that expired at the end of 2012. This means an increase of $2,000 in taxes for $100,000 of wages.

* The tax rate on wage income that increased from 35 percent in 2012 to 40.5 percent in 2013. The tax rate on interest income that increased from 35 percent to 43.4 percent and the tax rate on capital gains and dividends that rose from 15 percent to 23.8 percent for high-income taxpayers.

* The Affordable Care Act, which was passed in 2010, that increased the Medicare tax from 1.45 percent to 2.35 percent for high-income taxpayers starting in 2013.

Strategies that can help minimize these taxes:

* Avoid a transaction, such as selling stock, which would push you into a higher tax bracket.

* Accelerate any deductions that you control, for example, pay your January mortgage in December to get the interest deduction in 2013.

Note that tax considerations are only one factor when determining whether to buy, hold or sell an investment.

2. Understand the new investment income tax.

The new 3.8 percent tax on investment income was created under the Affordable Care Act and became effective in 2013. The income threshold for this tax is $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for joint filers.

For those affected, there are short-term and long-term strategies that can help minimize this tax burden.

A short-term strategy involves trying to manage your tax position to keep below the threshold for the 3.8 percent tax or to minimize investment income in any year where you will exceed the threshold.

A long-term strategy is to consider investment options that avoid the tax or change the types of investments you hold to include more that are not subject to the tax.

People who think they cannot be affected by high-income thresholds need to understand that the income amounts are not indexed for inflation. Over time, more and more taxpayers will be subject to the tax - even if their real or inflation-adjusted earnings are the same.

3. Consider converting retirement assets.

Recent increasing tax rates created a unique opportunity to accelerate gain and pay taxes at lower rates. Individuals who converted assets from a traditional before-tax IRA to an after-tax Roth likely benefitted.

After-tax Roth IRAs generate tax-free income, subject to you holding the account for five tax years and reaching age 59.5. If you have a traditional 401(k) or IRA, you can convert that asset to a Roth IRA by paying the tax on the gain or before-tax value of the asset. While any conversion tax liability in 2013 will need to be paid with your 2013 income tax return, it may make sense to convert some funds to a Roth IRA and diversify your retirement assets from a tax perspective. In addition to possibly paying tax on the gain at lower rates, a Roth IRA offers other benefits, such as not being subject to age 70.5- required minimum distributions, and limiting the impact of Medicare surcharges and the 3.8 percent investment tax.

4. Contribute to an IRA.

Many individuals do not realize they can contribute to an IRA each year regardless of their income or whether they have a retirement plan at work. The only requirements for making a contribution to an IRA are that you have earned income of at least the amount contributed and you have not reached age 70.5.

While you have until the due date of your income tax return in April of 2014 to make your 2013 IRA contribution, delaying the contribution until then results in you losing some of the opportunity for tax-favored growth. So consider making your 2013 contribution now and your 2014 contribution in January 2014. Depending on your income, you may be able to contribute directly to a Roth IRA and enjoy tax-free growth. Even if you earn too much to contribute directly to a Roth IRA, you can fund a traditional IRA and then convert some or all of the funds to a Roth IRA.

Prudential Financial, its affiliates and their financial professionals do not render tax or legal advice. Please consult with your tax and legal advisors regarding your personal circumstances.


Stop Bickering and Stay Connected Through the Holidays

December 20, 2013 5:33 pm

Do you and your partner clash more than usual during December? If so, you’re not alone. Some couples find Christmas and Hanukkah to be festive minefields that explode into arguments sometimes followed by icy silences. Paul resents Sandra for spending too much on the kids, again. Chloe is upset over Jeff’s insistence on spending Christmas Day at his mother’s—once more. Ann doesn’t understand why David finds the holidays hard. She gets impatient when he is sullen and withdrawn during times that she wants to celebrate and enjoy with others.

It’s true that the holidays can be tough on couples. Yet it’s important to note that most holiday issues are rarely just about the holidays. They tend to be symptoms—signs of unmet needs or unresolved relationship issues. And once the two of you begin to realize the arguments and bad feelings are signaling deeper misfires between you, the sooner you can start to address them together.

Well-researched negative patterns of communication and ensuing roles that partners take are a large focus in our new book, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy For Dummies®. This book—written for couples and packed with rarely revealed in-session counseling examples and activities—helps readers identify their own unique patterns of arguing and disconnection…patterns that can be exacerbated by the holidays.

One reason couples can feel blindsided by holiday blow-ups is that this time of year is “supposed” to be all colored lights, childlike wonder, love, and gratitude. This is, of course, setting yourselves up for failure. Depending on your holiday expectations, they can bring a unique set of pressures—forced family togetherness (with those you’d rather not be together with), ramped-up financial pressures, and jam-packed schedules just to name a few (fill in your own).


These pressures can bring predictable conflict patterns roaring to the surface. For example:

Holiday Trap 1: Extended Family Drama. There are many differences in people’s needs and expectations: Who will we see? How long will we stay? How will we give “fair” time to both families? These differences trigger couple conflict patterns. Plus, old relationship patterns refine with age, so dysfunctional ties with siblings or parents can add to the turmoil.

Holiday Trap 2: Finance Friction. Couples can have different values about money. For one party, an expensive gift is a sign of affection and sacrifice, a way of communicating value. But if the other party sees money as a form of security, such a gift is imprudent and wasteful, seen not as a token of love but as a financial threat.

Holiday Trap 3: Business. Between work parties, social gatherings, school events, family visits, and shopping demands, the holidays can create a frenetic pace. It can be tough to prioritize events and manage time. Couples need to coordinate and work together. In a relationship that may already be time-starved, competing needs can be stressful.

Partners have different needs and expectations. Often one person feels more responsible for organizing events and plans. The pressure falls disproportionately on them, and the inevitable stresses play themselves out between the couple. Partners can slip into predictable roles that heighten the tension when a sense of fairness is lost. Little things become symbolic, like how Susan seems to be with her sister 24/7 while Chris can’t get her to answer his calls. This emotional tension can conflict with the expectations of holiday joy.

To help ease the stress, try these tips:

  • Be real about what you feel. This will allow you to head off recurring holiday issues. Most people can predict their partner’s problematic behaviors based on past experience. This year, instead of biting your tongue and then blowing up after the fact, speak up. Not only can you prevent the issue from occurring, you’re taking a step toward a healthier relationship.
  • Identify your limits. Watch out for overscheduling. Make choices together about where to invest your energy and your time. Figure out which events mean the most and let some things go. Otherwise you are sure to spend all of your time stressed, resentful, and snapping at your spouse.
  • How you choose to spend your time really matters. It sends a very clear signal about where they fall in the grand scheme of things. If your entire holiday season revolves around your family, your friends, and your coworkers, of course your partner will feel that they are your last priority!
  • Look for rituals that have lost their meaning and eliminate them. Ask yourself, Where are we just going through the motions? Maybe you’ve always driven partway across the country for the holidays because that’s where your partner’s parents live. But if you’re approaching the visit with a sense of dread rather than anticipation and joy, why not change it? You can always visit them mid-summer instead.

    The difference between ritual and routine is the meaning you give to the activities. Couples go to ridiculous lengths and spend large amounts of money on events and activities that they don’t really want to do. But if they can sit down and discuss the subject with an open mind, they’re often shocked to find that their partner doesn’t really enjoy the ritual anymore either! It has become a routine, or worse, a dreaded obligation.
  • Make plans to do something together as a couple—just the two of you. There are more than enough mandatory events around the holidays. If at all possible, plan an outing—just the two of you—to show each other that your couple time is a priority. Take a short road trip to a special out-of-town restaurant that you both love, or go to the best neighborhoods around for looking at Christmas lights.

    In fact, if you have a great time, you might make this an annual holiday ritual. Strong relationships thrive on rituals—as long as they remain meaningful.
     
  • Recognize the warning signs. Emotional reactions often serve as an alarm to important issues in relationships. Watch out for warning signs like these in yourself or your partner:

• increased “volume” in conversations—i.e., more intensity than normal, little conversations become big ones

• doing more for your partner in hopes that it will change their experience

• pulling away and not sharing issues you have concerns about

• keeping your distance physically and emotionally

• pushing or prodding your partner to do something after you have already asked them

• not asking directly for your needs or not naming your expectations for fear of your partner’s response

  • Failing to take heed by ignoring or minimizing signals of relationship distress will increase the likelihood of having to face more significant problems in the future.
  • Being aware of your emotions and sharing them initially can keep you on track—like an emotional GPS. Small corrections may be needed to navigate the increased expectations and demands couples face at this time of year. Taking the initiative to stop a destructive pattern before it takes hold—to invite a partner to share previously buried emotions in a way that’s safe—is a true act of love.
  • Look for chances to make an emotional connection. Letting your partner know that you notice them during the holidays can go a long way toward averting negativity and helping you stay connected.  

Word of the Day

December 20, 2013 5:33 pm

Lessor. Someone who rents to another party through a lease; the landlord.


Q: What Factors Should Determine whether I Decide to Move or Remodel?

December 20, 2013 5:33 pm

A: Your personal needs, preferences and finances are all factors. If you’ve lived in your home awhile and prefer to stay in your school district or neighborhood, improving your existing space may work best for you. If a second bathroom is what you desire, it may also be cheaper to convert existing space than to relocate to another home. According to the American Homeowner Foundation, you can expect to spend 8-10% of your current home’s value when you move. Ask yourself if that money could be better spent on a remodeling project instead. Chances are you’d increase your home’s value, derive more pleasure from your home than you did previously, and save yourself the time, expense and headache of a move.


Keep Wintering Pests Out of Your House

December 20, 2013 1:21 am

I recently talked about keeping cold from freezing your pipes, but there's something else that could be invading your home. The National Pest Management Association says many pests enjoy spending winter inside a warm house, and rodents alone will invade an estimated 21 million homes in the U.S. this winter.

More than just a nuisance, there are real threats posed by many of the pests that like to share our homes the NPMA says. Mice and rats can spread diseases like salmonella and hantavirus and can contaminate food.

Rodents can also bring other pests like fleas, ticks and lice indoors and can cause serious structural damage to a home by chewing through wood and electrical wiring.

Beyond rodents, other winter pests include ants, spiders and cockroaches, which can trigger allergies and asthma attacks, spread disease, transmit bacteria, contaminate food and in some cases, bite.

Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the NPMA says an infestation by one or more of these pests can lead to serious health and property concerns if they go undetected or are left uncontrolled.

Fortunately, the NPMA has a few tips to prevent pests from coming indoors on firewood, foliage and family pets - or gaining entry through small crevices in a home's exterior:

  • Seal cracks and holes on the outside of the home.
  • Store items that are kept in garages, basements and attics in plastic, sealed containers rather than cardboard boxes to prevent rodents from nesting inside.
  • Keep branches and shrubbery trimmed away from the home.
  • Store firewood at least 20 feet from the home and five feet off the ground.
  • Install door sweeps on exterior doors and repair damaged screens.
  • Screen vents and openings to chimneys.
  • Store food in airtight containers and dispose garbage regularly.
  • If you suspect an infestation, contact your local pest professional.

For more information or to find a pest professional visit: www.pestworld.org.


Get 'Tired' for Winter

December 20, 2013 1:21 am

When it comes to staying safe on the road, your tires matter. Upgrading to sturdy winter tires for the icy months is a surefire way to improve your safety—and mobility—on the road.

"Winter driving is all about preparation, and the key to being ready for winter is taking the necessary steps to be safe before getting behind the wheel," says Ian Law, chief instructor of the ILR Car Control School in Ontario, Canada.

Beyond properly equipping vehicles, he offers advice for motorists who will be faced with potentially slippery driving conditions this winter:

  • Match your driving speed to the current conditions. If conditions are challenging due to a slippery road surface or reduced visibility, decrease your speed. A slower driving speed allows more time for a necessary response.
  • Additional factors to consider when adjusting speed are the condition of the vehicle, its tires and your driving abilities. Always keep the posted speed limits in mind, and understand that those limits indicate the maximum speed when weather conditions are good.
  • Plan ahead and try to anticipate potentially dangerous situations. When approaching a curve or potentially slick area of the road, use the brakes effectively. The brakes should be applied only before a curve and on a straight section of the road.
  • Be alert to other vehicles. Maintain enough distance between your vehicle and the one ahead of you. If someone else seems to be following too close to your vehicle, perhaps slow down to allow them to pass – rather than speeding up to achieve a safe, distance between vehicles.
  • If visibility is poor, remember to use your lights. This helps other drivers to see you when approaching or when following. You should always turn your lights on when your windshield wipers are on.
  • Set the vehicle cabin to a comfortable temperature. This can be a challenge during winter, but it is imperative to be comfortable when driving. Cabin comfort includes keeping the windows free of frost, ice and snow.
  • Avoid overconfident driving, and avoid overestimating the vehicle's capability simply because it is equipped with anti-lock brakes, four-wheel drive, traction control or other safety devices. Do not allow good judgment and smart driving to be overtaken by a false sense of security provided by vehicle technology.
  • Before driving in inclement weather, be sure that your vehicle is properly maintained. Make sure your windshield wipers work properly; have the correct level of antifreeze for heating and defrosting the vehicle; keep plenty of gas in the tank; and always use required safety devices such as seatbelts.

Source: www.goodyear.com


Word of the Day

December 20, 2013 1:21 am

Lease. Contract that conveys the right to use property for a period of time in return for a consideration, usually rent, paid to the property owner. 


This Winter, Avoid Home Heating Fires

December 20, 2013 1:21 am

Home heating fires are the second leading cause of home fires. According to an October 2013 report from the National Fire Protection Association, "More than one-third (37 percent) of reported home heating fires began in and were confined to a chimney or flue."

Using the Pine Mountain Creosote Buster every 40 fires helps prevent dangerous chimney fires by reducing creosote buildup. Creosote will often build up FAR UP in the chimney... far enough that you generally won't see it in the darkness. So even if you keep a tidy fireplace, the creosote danger can be there lurking out of sight.

Some home-heating fire statistics:

  • In the U.S., there are 27 million households with wood burning fireplaces and 7 million households with wood or pellet stoves.
  • Fifty-nine percent of consumers who burn indoor fires believe their chimney should be cleaned at least once per year, but less than half (41 percent), actually do so.
  • Top three reasons for NOT having their chimney cleaned: expense (58 percent), time (51 percent), and laziness (48 percent).
  • Of those who have cleaned their chimney, 69 percent used a professional chimney sweep. Thirty-eight percent used a chimney cleaning log.

Chimney Fire Facts from the National Fire Protection Association
 

  • Home heating fires are the second leading cause of all home fires in the U.S., with 38 percent of those involving the fireplace or chimney.
  • More than half (57 percent) of home fireplace, chimney and chimney connector fires involve failure to clean as a factor contributing to ignition.
  • Leading factors for fire deaths in fires involving fireplaces, chimney and chimney connectors are: heat source too close to combustibles (51 percent), unclassified misuse of material or product (36 percent), unclassified operational deficiency (17 percent), and leak or break (16 percent). These sum to more than 100 percent because fires can be coded with multiple factors contributing to ignition.
  • Fireplaces, chimneys and chimney connectors accounted for 16,160 injuries (not limited to fire or burn injuries) reported to hospital emergency rooms in 2012.

Warning Signs of Chimney Fires

  • A loud crackle, pop or rumbling sound like a freight train.
  • Shooting flames or dark smoke billowing from the top of the chimney, that can be seen outside.
  • Smoke inside the home and an intense, strong smell.
  • A chimney fire can occur without your knowledge due to creosote being built up high in the chimney. Some fires can burn slowly in the chimney at incredibly high temperatures and can cause severe structural damage.

Chimney Safety Tips from the National Fire Protection Association

  • Burn only dry, well-seasoned wood.
  • Use artificial logs according to manufacturer's recommendations.
  • Use only newspaper and kindling wood to start a fire.
  • Never use flammable liquids, such as lighter fluid, kerosene or gasoline to start a fire.

Pine Mountain adds:

  • Supervise children around an open fire.
  • Never leave a fire unattended.
  • Make sure there are working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in every bedroom and on each floor of the home.

Source: Pine Mountain


Does a Diesel Generator Make Sense for Your Home?

December 18, 2013 9:54 pm

I recently added a new organization to our massive pool of resources - the Diesel Technology Forum. This non-profit educational organization is raising awareness about the economic value and essential uses of diesel engines.

For example, diesel-powered generators provide emergency power to protect supplies of food, water, medicines and fuelduring natural disasters, days of peak grid demand and in remote or isolated locations.

According to the Forum, today's prime power diesel generators emit 26 times less particulate matter than their predecessors a decade ago, greatly reducing air quality implications for diesel-powered generators use in communities looking for clean energy alternatives.  

The Forum promotes numerous attributes of diesel fuel backup generators, including:

  • Quick start-up 10 seconds or less: Other fuel sources may take up to two minutes, which may be too long in many emergency situations and out of compliance with state and federal laws.
  • Power density/fuel efficiency: Due to diesel fuel's chemical structure, more energy is released per unit than any other source of commonly used power. For the same size engine, a diesel can produce twice the kilowatts of a gas generator.
  • Continuous strength: Diesels provide a steady supply of power and can handle wide swings in power use. A diesel generator does not "flicker" or dip in output when appliances like a large air conditioner turn on. Gas and turbine engines can slow when strained, causing failure of the electrical equipment. To compensate, users may install unnecessarily oversized generators, causing significant inefficiencies and fuel consumption.
  • Disaster utility: When a disaster like an earthquake strikes, the first fuel source turned off by utilities is natural gas. Diesel generators have their own storage for clean diesel fuel, which is generally available and replenishable.
  • Portability: In addition to stationary units, diesel generators of various sizes and capabilities are highly mobile.
  • Durability: Some high quality engines last 20,000 - 30,000 hours before their first overhaul - the equivalent to 1.5 million miles in an automobile.

Learn more at www.dieselforum.org.