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Friday
Jul172015

Selecting a Real Estate Agent

Real estate can be stressful. When buying or selling, consumers are making some of the biggest transactions they will make in their lifetime. When renting, you’re often making decisions under a tight timeframe. A real estate agent can help navigate local markets and help make the process a pleasant experience. Selecting a real estate agent is an important part of this process. Here are 6 steps to get you down the path to selecting a real estate agent:

  1. Interview - There were 422,000 real estate agents in 2012 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Picking a good one is an important first step in the process. There’s an adage, “people buy from people,” and the same is true with your real estate agent. You should make sure you have a chemistry and trust with the person. You need to know they are operating in your best interests. Interview the agent and establish your expectations.

  2. Licensing - Real estate agents are licensed (in Massachusetts, after a 40 hour course and exam.)  Research the person’s licensing and check for any disciplinary actions.

  3. Check references - Speak with current or former clients of the agent. Ask questions to make sure your considerations are met by the agent. For example, some sellers have specific concerns they need the agent to accommodate, such as avoiding showings after school. Some buyers/renters want to review a short list of properties, others want to visit a large number of properties.

  4. Check the website – Agents investing in a pleasant Web presence with automated feeds and updates are taking their business seriously. This attention to detail will often carry over to all other aspects of their business.

  5. Check listings – Active agents are generating business and referrals based on their activities.

  6. Ask about credentials – initials after an agents name can indicate further commitment to the real estate business. Some of the more common designations are:
    1. REALTOR® If the agent is a REALTOR with a capital “R,” they are a member of the National Association of REALTORS®. These are agents with additional training formally pledges to support the code of ethics
    2. Accredited Buyer’s Representative® / ABR® -  The Accredited Buyer’s Representative (ABR®) designation represents real estate buyer agents focusing on working directly with buyer-clients at every stage of the home-buying process.
    3. Certified Property Manager® / CPM® CPM designees are recognized as experts in real estate management. Holding this designation demonstrates expertise and integrity to employers, owners and investors.
    4. Seller Representative Specialist / SRS  The Seller Representative Specialist (SRS) designation is the premier credential in seller representation. It is designed to elevate professional standards and enhance personal performance. 
    5. Seniors Real Estate Specialist® / SRES®SRES® The SRES® Designation program educates REALTORS® on how to profitably and ethically serve the real estate needs of the fastest growing market in real estate, clients age 50+. 

A word on reviews

There are a plethora of sites where reviews can be found (such as Yelp, Facebook and Trulia/Zillow.)  Unlike Consumer Reports where independent test results are published, some of these services are vulnerable to manipulation. Many online reviewers have an agenda beyond providing valuable information. For example, many consumers try to leverage their negative reviews into getting free stuff from the place they are reviewing. Additionally, many companies pay people to leave reviews: either positive reviews for themselves or negative reviews for their competition.

Additionally, there are many inherent weaknesses in the review sites themselves. For example, Yelp can be paid to influence ratings, by hiding negative reviews and promoting positive reviews to the top of a company’s page. Also, “bad” Facebook comments can be simply deleted. Like anything on the Internet, take these “reviews” with a grain of salt.

As someone formerly writing reviews I was well aware of the need for quality, reliable reviews. My personal published restaurant reviews were always independent, while some services are paid to provide reviews.

With the right agent, you’ll be settled in your new home quickly!

Longtime area blogger Gary Kelley transitioned to real estate working as a REALTOR® in Massachusetts after running data center operations for major global retailers and financial services firms. 

Monday
Jul062015

Burlington, Vermont: Arts, Food, and Outdoor Fun

Perched on the shores of Lake Champlain — the largest freshwater lake in the U.S. after the five Great Lakes — Burlington, Vermont, is just 45 miles south of the Canadian border and offers a host of fun for families with children of all ages.

  The largest city in the state, Burlington boasts a long history of being a great place to live, offering an exceptional work/life balance for its 45,000 residents and many diverse activities. Originally a trading hub, today it’s home to the University of Vermont and much more.

  “The city has a vibrant food, arts and family scene,” says Miro Weinberger, mayor of Burlington, and the father of a 20-month-old and a 9-year old. “It’s a dynamic city with great food, arts, and culture in a uniquely beautiful natural setting and a great commitment to local companies and artists. Sustainability of the environment is key; the entire city is provided power sourced from renewable resources. “

 

Here are five must-sees, straight from the mayor:

 

Burlington Farmers Market

City Hall Park,

149 Church Street

Saturdays, 8:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

burlingtonfarmersmarket.org

Free

“On Saturdays, we put our 20-month-old in a bike trailer,” Weinberger says. “We ride down to the Farmer’s Market held in City Hall Park. There are dozens of vendors, with food, arts and crafts, music, and the kids play in the park. It is a great family scene.”

Island Line Rail Trail

Start point:  Oakledge Park, 0 Flynn Dr.

traillink.com/trail-maps/

island-line-rail-trail.aspx

Bike Ferry Day Pass: Adults: $8; 

Youth (7-17): $5; 6 and under: free. 

Trail is free

Head to the Burlington waterfront with your bikes or rent wheels from Local Motion (localmotion.org). The 14-mile Island Line trail includes a unique “bike ferry,” which transports cyclists and pedestrians across “the Cut” of Lake Champlain, a 200-foot gap on the Colchester Causeway. “You are riding with water on both sides and the Adirondacks to the west,” says the mayor, a frequent cyclist on the path.

 

  And while you have the bikes out, don’t miss: 

Lake Champlain 

Transportation Ferryboat

King Street Dock

ferries.com

Admission (each way): Driver & Vehicle under 19 feet: $30; Adult Passenger: $8; Child (6-12: $3.10; Child (under 6): free; Motorcycle & Driver: $10; Bicyclist: $9.

Lake Champlain Bikeways

champlainbikeways.org/directions/

 

  The 70-minute Burlington to Port Kent, NY, ferry crossing gets you on the water with beautiful views of the mountains and Lake Champlain.

  “The Lake Champlain Transportation Ferry Boat takes you for a nice hour ride to Port Kent, New York,” Weinberger notes. “You can then return, or if you took your car or bike, continue to make a big loop. It’s a great way to see Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks.”

 

South End Truck Stop

400 Pine St.

Fridays, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.

artsriot.com/truck-stop/

Free

Enjoy a variety of food trucks, local artisans, and music. “This is a really funky, eclectic arts scene,” Weinberger adds. “There are a bunch of food trucks in parking lots surrounded by art stores and galleries. It is unique and fun.”

 

ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center

1 College St.

echovermont.org

Admission: Adults (18-59): $13.50; Seniors (age 60+) & College Students (with ID): $11.50; Children (3-17): $10.50; 2 and younger: Free

With a focus on sustainability, the center features more than 100 interactive exhibits and science education programs, including over 70 species of fish, amphibians, invertebrates, and reptiles. ”A great scene for families,” Weinberger says.

 

The Intervale Center 

180 Intervale Rd.

intervale.org

Thursdays, 5:30 p.m.-8 p.m.

Free

The Intervale Center’s mission is to strengthen community food systems, offering local food, live music, and children’s activities on Thursdays via its Summervale events. “The Intervale Center is one of those hidden jewels in the area,” the mayor notes. “It is like an urban oasis. Food, beverages, music, and educational sessions are all wrapped into one fun evening.”


Plan your trip:

From Boston: 3 hours, 20 minutes (216 miles)

From Worcester: 3 hours, 42 minutes (238 miles)

Lake Champlain Chocolates, Pine Street

lakechamplainchocolates.com/about-us/visit-our-factory/

Come for the tour of chocolate making, and stay to learn how to make chocolates. 

Tours are daily, classes are scheduled.

Admission Prices: Factory tour free, classes $25-$30.

 

Also in Burlington and nearby

 

Waterfront Park, College & Lake Street

enjoyburlington.com

Giant waterfront park with beautiful views of the area. “When you see pictures of Burlington the chances are excellent the pictures are from here.” There’s a fishing pier, boats, kayaks, paddleboards, with neighboring shops and restaurants.

Free 

 

Spirit of Ethan Allen, Burlington Boathouse, 1 College Street

soea.com

Narrated cruises on Burlington Bay, including lunch and dinner cruises aboard the cruises aboard the 363 passenger Spirit of Ethan Allen III.   

Admission: Scenic cruise - 1 1/2 hr: $19.21 Adults, $8.43 Children (3-11) 

 

Petra Cliffs Climbing Center, 105 Briggs St.

petracliffs.com

An extensive indoor climbing facility featuring a variety of educational programs based on experiential learning for all abilities.

Admission: Climbing & Bouldering Day Pass $ 16 $ 14 $ 12 Climbing Gear Rental Harness $3 Shoes $5 Chalk $2 Package $8

 

Ethan Allen Homestead

ethanallenhomestead.org 

Explore the homestead where Vermont’s founder Ethan Allen lived in the 18th century. Tours immerse participants in 18th century living, and include exhibit galleries on archeology and history. Walking trails on-site. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Admission: Individual: $8 Children 4-12: $5 Children under 4: free Seniors: $7

 

Shelburne MuseumShelburne Road, Shelburne, VT

shelburnemuseum.org

A museum of art, design and Americana including old carriages, perfectly preserved dentist’s office, the Ticonderoga, an old paddle wheel boat to explore, etc. Located on 45 acres, the museum has 38 exhibition buildings reminiscent of a New England village.

Admission: Adult: $24* Youth (ages 13-17): $14 Child (ages 5-12): $12

Adult Family Pass (2 adults and accompanying children, 5-17, per pass): $58

*Seniors (65+) and guests with AAA membership card or VAA coupon receive $2 discount.

 

Shelburne Farms, 1611 Harbor Road, Shelburne

shelburnefarms.org

Dedicated to sustainability of the earth and teaching young people to make informed decisions around sustainability. This attraction is a 1,400-acre working farm. Visit the dairy and see them make cheese.  

Admission: Adult: $8 Senior: $6 Children 3-17: $5 Children under 3: Free

 

Montana Philo State Park, Mt Philo Road, Charlotte, VT

vtstateparks.com/htm/philo.htm

A 168-acre park located atop  Philo (968’ elevation) with views of New York’s Adirondack Mountains and the Lake Champlain Valley. The mountain top is accessible by road or trail.

Admission: Varies

 

Vermont Teddy Bear CompanyShelburne Rd, Shelburne, VT

vermontteddybear.com/static/factory-tour.aspx

See how Vermont Teddy Bears are made in a 30-minute tour.

Admission: Adults: $4 Seniors: $3 Children (12 and under): Free

 

Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, Waterbury-Stowe Rd., Waterbury, VT

benjerry.com/about-us/factory-tours

Thirty-minute guided tour includes samples!  Try out new flavors on this informational tour.

Admission:  Adult: $4  Senior: $3  Children 12 and younger are free

 

Article originally published in baystateparent magazine - July 2015

Sunday
Jun142015

Save Money & Energy with Free Mass Save Service

Take advantage of a service (you already pay a monthly fee for) and get some energy-efficient light bulbs on the spot and tips on bringing down your energy bill

 

 

Every month Massachusetts families are paying an energy efficiency charge on their power bills, but not everyone is taking advantage of the free benefits the monthly fee delivers. 

  Founded in 2010, Mass Save famously advertises its free home energy assessments, which in many cases result in a variety of on-the-spot, no-cost improvements for home owners, like new LED bulbs in every fixture in a home, upgraded thermostats, and water-efficient showerheads.

  “One hundred and six lightbulbs! My house has 106 lightbulbs!” exclaims Ashland’s Jed Dineen with unbridled enthusiasm. “All of them were the traditional, old-style incandescent bulbs dating back to Thomas Edison’s era. Now, my home has new energy efficient LED lighting for free.”

  Dineen and his family recently had Mass Save perform a no-cost energy assessment. An assessor came to the house and spent two hours doing a top-to-bottom inspection of the home, including:

• Attic & wall insulation

• Airflow

• Siding

• Thermostats

• Doors

• Windows

• Appliances

• Heating and cooling systems

• Hot water

• Surge suppressors

 

  Mass Save in-home assessments result in a personalized report outlining recommended energy efficiency improvements along with an estimate of the energy savings and low/no cost financing plans. In Dineen’s case, at the time of the assessment, Mass Save installed 106 LED light bulbs (replacing simple screw bulbs) and programmable (heating/cooling and time of day) thermostats for free. Had he done these improvements himself, he estimates the cost would easily have been hundreds of dollars.

  The payoff? The Dineen’s electric bill dropped $35 in the first month compared to the prior year.

  Prior personal attempts to try energy-saving approaches yielded mixed results for Dineen. For example, lighting improvements were unimpressive. “We tried compact fluorescent bulbs and they always fell flat,” he says. “The early versions had a rather harsh light we just didn’t like. And it always took too long for them to ‘warm up’ to full brightness. For example, when going to the basement to get something, the 2-minute warm-up time often exceeded the needed time in the basement, and we were not happy they had mercury in them. We have none of those issues with the LEDs.”

  Mass Save left Dineen with specific energy-efficiency improvement recommendations so he could make subsequent decisions on his schedule. He looks at the home energy assessment as a way to “prioritize” expenditures. “I have a Sub-Zero refrigerator-freezer. The Mass Save program will help fund a replacement refrigerator, and nothing like a Sub-Zero,” he says. “We need to decide if we want to keep the Sub-Zero (with its accompanying aesthetics) or replace it with a more energy efficient version.”

  Available Mass Save rebates and incentives vary over time.  Currently they include:

• 75% up to $2,000 toward the installation of approved insulation improvements

• No-cost targeted air sealing

• Rebates on qualifying energy-efficient heating and hot water heating equipment

• The opportunity to apply for 0% financing for eligible measures through the HEAT loan program.   

  In 2013, 9,000 heat loans were provided in Massachusetts.  Under this program, customers can apply for a 0% loan from participating lenders assisting with the installation of qualified energy-efficient improvements in their home.

  “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has made energy efficiency a top priority to help people manage their energy costs and improve the comfort of their homes,” says Dan Burgess, Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources acting commissioner. “I always recommend homeowners, renters, and business owners explore Mass Save’s Website to see what’s available for them at home and work.”

  The Massachusetts Energy Efficiency Advisory Council’s 2013 annual report supports Burgess’ statement in a compelling manner: “Mass Save helped customers save the same amount of electricity as all households in Lowell, Springfield, Taunton, and Waltham collectively use in a year. The natural gas savings are equal to heating nearly every single household in Framingham for a year. In 2013, the efforts generated $2.8 billion in benefits, slightly greater total benefits than projected, while spending 12% less than budgeted.”

  This pace was continued in 2014, according to Susan Kaplan, director of marketing and stakeholder engagement for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. “The 2014 savings were the equivalent of a 172 megawatt power plant, and this is ongoing. Massachusetts has been ranked #1 in energy efficiency for the past four years.”

  Kaplan points to the impacts being seen at ISO New England, the independent, not-for-profit company charged with grid operation, market administration, and power system planning: “Our Massachusetts programs are actually bending the demand curve down. You can see the benefits in action.”

  “Mass Save started as a program in 2010, without a headquarters or staff,” notes Jake Navarro, spokesman for National Grid US. “The programs are funded by the energy efficiency charge on energy bills across Massachusetts overseen by the Department of Public Utilities. For a typical 500 kilowatt-hour-per-month customer, the energy-efficiency charge is currently about $5 per month (1 cent per kilowatt-hour).”

  Navarro is quick to point out companies like National Grid do not generate power, they only provide transmission lines. Programs like Mass Save help companies such as National Grid plan better for infrastructure improvements.

  Everyone wants lower energy bills, which was evident in recent months. “This past winter drove a huge uptick in interest in these programs,” Navarro says. “November and December 2014 had a 69% increase in assessment requests over the same period in 2013. People saw large electric bill increases and this drove increased interest in conservation.”

  The increases in power generation costs are attributed to constrained natural gas, and “will be a regional issue going on a few years,”  Navarro notes.

  The Mass Save Website, masssave.com, is a common entry point for energy assessment programs. The Website also includes an Online Home Energy Assessment, giving a quick assessment of your energy efficiency and an improvement plan.

 

Article originally published in baystateparent magazine - June 2015

Sunday
May312015

The Evolution of Edaville: From For-Sale to Sodor

Edaville USA will be home to the only Thomas the Tank Engine-themed park, Thomas Land, in North America

 

Just five years ago, Edaville USA — more popularly known to generations as “Edaville Railroad” — was up for sale, its future uncertain.

  Yet this summer the nearly 70-year-old Carver attraction is ready to not only open once more but also celebrate its new role as home to the only Thomas the Tank Engine-themed park, Thomas Land, in North America.

  Edaville founder Ellis D. Atwood (whose initials EDA form the beginning of the attraction’s name) might not recognize his creation today given its transformation over the years. The train was originally installed to service an 1,800-acre cranberry plantation. Free rides gave way to nickel rides, and Edaville began evolving into a tourist attraction, adding kiddie rides and its famous Christmas Festival of Lights. The Edaville USAname was adopted in 2000.

  The 1990s where not kind to Edaville, with the operation floundering through three different ownerships and trains only sporadically operating.  

  One of the challenges to running it was fragmented ownership of the railroad and the land. In 2005, developer Jon Delli Priscolli emerged as the sole owner. While he had previously developed housing on a portion of the Edaville property, in late 2010 Priscolli put the remaining property up for sale for $10 million.

  “The person with the right vision never came along and Jon has a true love for Edaville,” says Samantha Johnson, Edaville USA communications director. “Truthfully, getting personal, Jon and his general manager looked at each other one day and both said, ‘We cannot let this magical New England tradition die. Let’s do it, all or nothing!’”

  Since then, the park has been undergoing a reconstruction effort, including adding new attractions and a new main gate.

  “One of the things Priscolli noticed was the popularity of the Thomas events,” says Savery Moore, an Edaville Railroad fan since 1956, when he rode his bike there regularly. “Thomas the Tank Engine visited Edaville for special ‘Day Out with Thomas’ events and was well received by families familiar with the Thomas books and Thomas and Friends television shows.”

  “Mattel, owner of Thomas the Tank Engine, loves New England and saw similarities between Edaville and Sodor [a fictional island in the Irish Sea used as a setting for the television series],”  Johnson adds. “Edaville is preparing to celebrate our 70th anniversary, and Thomas is celebrating his 70th. We just saw so many similarities.”

  Opening Aug. 7, Thomas Land at Edaville USA will feature a 20-minute, scenic train ride on a life-sized Thomas, roller coaster, drop tower, Ferris wheel, soft-play area and more. Favorite characters such as Thomas, Diesel, Toby, Cranky the Crane, Harold the Helicopter, and Sir Topham Hatt will be represented, and families can visit familiar destinations around the Island of Sodor such as Tidmouth Sheds, Knapford Station, and Brendam Docks. (The rest of Edaville will open weekends starting June 20.)

  There are only two other Thomas Lands worldwide, the first opened in 1998 at Japan’s Fujikyu Highland amusement park, 90 minutes from Tokyo.  The second, and Europe’s first, opened in 2008 at Drayton Manor Theme Park in the UK. 

  Priscolli intends to preserve Edaville’s retro feeling until guests reach the Thomas Land gate or the Dinoland gate (where animatronic dinosaurs roam), providing two entirely different areas. A retro arcade has been added and vintage rides will continue to be placed throughout the park. The Christmas Festival of Lights and Polar Express events will continue, as well.

“A new period section will be opening this year, called Dickens’ Village, with shops and other period pieces,” Johnson adds. “There are 235 acres here, and after Thomas Land’s 12-acre footprint is established, there are 50 acres remaining for growth.”

  “It’s been interesting to watch all the construction underway at Edaville this winter. Crews had to plow snow to build things, and as we New Englanders know there was a lot of plowing this winter,” Moore notes. “The crews are working hard at Edaville.”

  “Edaville has been here forever, and as a cranberry grower myself, we still look at them as a part of the cranberry industry. The Edaville train still goes through active cranberry bogs,” says Dick Ward, chairman of the Town of Carver Board of Selectmen. “Edaville is trying to go big and maintain the local connection. This is beneficial to the town, and we have many residents employed at Edaville. I’m looking forward to taking my granddaughters to see the improvements!”

 

Article originally published in baystateparent magazine - June 2015

Thursday
Apr092015

How Parents Can Evaluate Water Safety Skills and Choose a Swim Class

 When you’re standing near water and hear, “last one in is a rotten egg,” what goes through your mind?

  Are you and your child the first ones sprinting to the water or do one or both of you freeze out of fear?  With 71% of the Earth’s surface covered in water, embracing oceans, lakes, rivers, streams and pools, the ability to swim enables you to take full advantage of this natural resource and just might save your life. Evaluating your child’s water safety skills and choosing the right swimming program will help your child enjoy water fun and keep them safe.

  Sue Mackie, Executive Director of the United States Swim School Association, offers tips parents can use to determine if their children have the necessary water safety skills for the upcoming summer swim season. The skills progress from infants to older children and adults.

  “We recommend introducing children to water when the child is as young as 6 months old, with some programs starting as early as 4 months!” she says. “At this age, our objective is for the child to be comfortable in water and appreciate the experience. We want the child to know how to float on their back and tummy even before walking upright. Basic skills are not the breast stroke!  And I believe it’s important infant swimming (6 months to 12-15 months) is performed in a controlled swimming pool environment.”

  The common theme in early swimming lessons is learning “the safer place” as demonstrated in the following progression, also useful for evaluating where your child is with his or her swimming skills:

• 6 to 12 months: breath holding, attempts to pull self from pool/step unassisted, back floating, minor propulsion through water.

• 13 to 24 months: child experiments with play on steps, will put face in without being prompted, may swim off the step or edge without cue, can kick on back and tummy.

• 25 to 36 months: can swim using arms and legs, rolling over or popping up to take a breath, can get themselves back to the wall or step safely.

• 4- to 6-year-olds learn various strokes and work on some endurance.

For 6- and 7-year-olds, the concept of “reach or throw, don’t go” for helping others in need must be understood: Reach out to another with an arm or other device, throw a floating object, but don’t go jumping into the water.

  With those basics in hand for getting to safety, evaluate endurance — swimming for distance — and efficiency. “If your child is flailing in water at 5 or 6, the child would benefit from lessons,” Mackie says.

  She cautions your child’s success may be formed watching how you behave around water: “Children often learn behaviors from parents, and if the parent is afraid of water, children will see it.” If this is you, she recommends you get lessons first; it is never too late to learn.

  Evaluating a swim program takes a little time. “There is often a financial commitment parents make to a swim program, and parents want their children to benefit from staying in the program,” she says. “You must know the personality of your child. Would they benefit most from a fast-paced or more nurturing program?”

  Swim schools often have different learning styles, and many offer private and semi-private lessons. Preview a session before enrolling. This lets you watch how the teacher interacts with the children and their parents. You want to get feedback on what to work on after each session.

  Expect classes for the under-3 crowd to be typically 30 minutes with a parent in the water (unless it is a private session) focused on skills such as:

• Acclimation to water

• Rolling over

• Jumping in

• Going to the side

• Getting face wet, and holding breath

• Kicking and arm movements

  Mackie recommends CPR-certified instructors with constant supervision and compares learning to swim to piano lessons: “Piano lessons are not one-time events. They are an ongoing commitment where children progress until proficient. In swimming, children can continue to swim team, junior lifeguard or lifeguard.”

  Swimming also offers benefits beyond the water. It is helpful for general exercise and social skills. There’s also emerging research from Australia suggesting children who swim at an early age and swim consistently are smarter because the movement helps the brain develop.

  While Mackie offers a great deal of insight into the benefits of swimming, she turns serious when discussing potential effects of not learning to swim:

 “Our research discovered 511 media-reported drowning incidents involving a child under the age of 18 in the United States between Memorial Day and Labor Day 2014.”

  Proper education, she says, is vital to preventing these deaths. As summer approaches, now is the time for evaluating your child’s swimming skills and getting proper education. 

Article originally published in baystateparent magazine - March 2015

Sunday
Mar012015

How to Keep Money from Wrecking a Marriage

It’s February, the month of love. Are you feeling the love or have your finances taken away your loving feeling? Many find the mid-winter doldrums particularly challenging as the holiday end and increased heating bills arrive.

“Money is funny,” mused Scott Post, vice president of Strategy and Delivery, Hanscom Federal Credit Union in Bedford. “It makes the world go ’round and is the root of evil. And while love is blind, marriage is an eye opener!”

Scott sees marriage beyond just a coming together of emotions, and he recommends conversations before the ceremony establishing an understanding around money. He even offers to have couples come into his office to review each party’s credit score.

“Understanding the elements and contributing factors of the credit score can often be the starting point in a financial conversation,” he said. “In the end, communicating to each other is very important.”

Once in a relationship, it is a matter of understanding the inflow and outflow of money to the relationship. Post recommends couples maintain separate checking accounts for personal expenses and establish a joint account for paying common expenses, with contributions to the joint account based on proportional income.

“Having your own account lets you save and spend for items of your personal interest, without building resentment for the other person,” he said.

Technology is a resource for better finances, with a myriad of financial tools available to consumers today, including those such as Quicken and online banking from your financial institution. Even simple things like balance alerts and identity theft protection are easy, effective ways to oversee your financial transactions. More sophisticated resources can be used to aggregate accounts providing a consolidated view of the entire financial picture and general health.

“Even with a wealth of tools at your disposal,” Post cautioned, “don’t move money without talking first. It really becomes a model of trust and verify.”

At the Northampton Center for Couples Therapy, Director/Founder Kerry Lusignan cautioned that money can be a manifestation of other issues in a relationship. The issues around money are often really around values, freedom, autonomy and power, and thus the reason some couples sign a pre-nuptial agreement.

Both Post and Lusignan agreed that getting ahead of issues is important.

“Talking openly about specific issues around money [like debt and income challenges] is almost a taboo of society. Couples often have tensions for six years before getting professional assistance. Frankly, they wait too long. All couples have perpetual and solvable ones,” according to Lusignan, a licensed mental health counselor

For example, a couple may have one person who is conservative and a saver, while the other spouse believes in spending it all before they die. Those opposing views may never be reconciled. However, during open discussion, couples can gain a better understanding of each other’s viewpoint.

“In a perfect world, we would all receive a partner’s manual…just like an owner’s manual….helping us understand the other person better,” Lusignan said.

Children up the ante and further stress financial resources. “Couples have less money due to paying for daycare, often causing couples to work more and making seeing each other even harder. Little things can become major items quickly!” she added.

In some counseling sessions, Lusignan even uses heart-rate monitors and works with couples to have “soft startups” to conversations. “The first three minutes of a conversation will often determine the outcome,” she said. “When issues are brought up harshly, 96% of the time an argument ensues. We encourage questions to seek clarity and encourage short breaks if the discussion is too intense. Often, one partner simply wants to be heard and validated, and we help make it happen.”

Mark Fantasia, vice president/financial advisor of Retirement Planning & Investment Center of Workers Credit Union in Fitchburg, echoed these sentiments and uses a financial plan or budget to foster communications and get a couple to align their thinking.

“Couples should develop a financial plan for both short- and long-term needs,” he said. “Before investing for the long term or making big purchases, they should have three to six months of living expenses in an easily accessible account. This safety fund may be needed for unexpected emergencies.

“Couples should also design a realistic budget for both short and long term needs both parties agree upon,” he continued. “Early warning signs can be seen in the budgeting process. If both parties strongly disagree on what items are important, a plan will never get developed.”

Most people don’t know exactly what they spend on a monthly basis for various items — important knowledge for developing realistic budgets. Couples should save all receipts for a few months to identify what they are spending on food, clothes, entertainment, transportation, etc. First they need to look at securing their basic living needs, such as what percentage of income they allocate to housing. (Fantasia recommends no more than 25% of gross income be spent on housing.)

Once a couple has identified what disposable income is left, they need to agree upon what will be saved for long-term needs such as retirement and childrens’ education savings. These figures vary greatly for each couple depending upon what is already saved and what employer pension plans may be in place.

“Once all the basic living needs and long-term savings have been secured, we can identify what disposable income is left for discretionary items such as vacations.”

“Couples should also take 30 minutes a month to review income and expenses,” Fantasia added. “Review credit card and bank statements together so both are well aware of what is being spent and where it is going. Don’t wait until it is too late to have these discussions with your spouse. If you find one spouse is not agreeing to the budget plan or is just not good at finances, agree to have the more financially capable spouse in charge of the budget.”

With planning and ongoing communications, it’s clear couples can brighten their financial outlook and keep the loving feeling year round.

Tips for successfully navigating challenging financial times:

• Communicate early and often.

• Set common goals.

• Have a common checkbook for shared expenses.

• Let technology be a resource.

• Make a budget and stick to it.

• Monitor progress along the way.

• Keep the conversations upbeat.

• Make this fun.

• Get professional help along the way as needed  (for an unbiased opinion).

• Stay engaged in the process —understand where your money goes.

 

Originally published in baystateparent magazine - February 2015

 

Monday
Dec222014

What is Christmas Anyway?

Yes.  I said Christmas.  At my house, that’s what we celebrate and the gist of this post.  If your customs are around other holidays – FABULOUS.  Happy/Merry and all to you.

In chatting with someone at work this morning, we had the following observations:

Losing favor:

  • Holiday parties– while company parties seem to be back with style, neighborhood and friend parties are off.
  • Christmas cards – Yes, I sent Christmas cards this year with an annual letter.  Most of the people I know are connected to me on Facebook, so the handful of people staying away from social media is few.  Finding unique things to write about was problematic!  Are Christmas cards becoming extinct?
  • Big gifts – When divorcing my kids got the “guilt” Christmas of around $1000+ each.  This year my limit was around $125 each (includes grandkids and the in-laws) – still substantial enough for a nice holiday.  When my kids “need” something I tend NOT to wait for the holiday.
  • Baking – it seems the home-baked goods are off this year
  • Outdoor lighting displays – far fewer in neighborhoods.  In a bike ride from Bedford to Cambridge on the Minuteman Trail, NO outside displays were observed.

Gaining favor:

  • Family gatherings – getting together with family has never stopped, and in my family are now often multiple day events.
  • Charitable donations – As the year comes to a close looking at events in life where I have connection drive my donations (things like the Mark Fidrych Foundation & my fraternity) and organizations always there helping (includes church, the Salvation Army kettle, and the Girl Scouts.)
  • Believing – I just “may” be good friends with Santa, a good enough friend to often hear what he hears.  The size of the requests has dropped considerably over the years and in one case this year touched my heart, “I’d like Mom and I to have a house so we don’t have to sleep at different houses.”
  • Amazon – The poor UPS man is a huge part of my holiday.

In taking a giant step back from the list, I started to wonder what this all meant.  Part of me says perhaps we are returning to some of the key elements of the Christmas holiday and shedding some of the materialism.  Part of me says this is an offshoot of the great recession….the results of a new economic reality.

What are the realities in your family?

Wednesday
Nov262014

Holiday stress: Practical tips for worrying less and enjoying more

  Describe your holidays.

  Are your holiday memories scenes right out of a Norman Rockwell portrait? Strolls down the walk singing Christmas carols, sights of happy people bustling about in merriment, and the slightest hint of cold nipping at your nose as you enjoy the unique and welcoming tastes of the season.

  Or are your memories more of logistical nightmares? Driving between family homes in blizzard-like conditions, gulping down quick meals as you get to the next event with concern over:

• Everyone getting along.

• Food preparation of entrees/sides/desserts cooked only once a year.

• Gifts….and their size, color, features and cost.

  The holidays can be stressful; no one knows this better than parents. Dr. Charles Wolfson, a psychologist at Active Counseling Associates in Westborough, had one overarching message when it comes to avoiding holiday pressure: “Preserving the most important relationships around you is far more important than any holiday ‘fun’ you’re trying to have.”

  Spending quality time with people, whether folks you see daily or only once a year at the holiday, is the key to relationships. When completely focused on a task, and the task doesn’t go perfectly, tempers can surface, he notes. And when this happens, people need to remember why they are getting together. 

  The objective is spending time with the special people in our lives. People should not fray relationships over a contrived event or task intended to bring friends and family together,  “whether it’s putting up decorations, attending gatherings or baking a particular goodie.” 

  April Hatfield of Florence shared techniques for helping her family look forward to holidays with her young daughter. First, she tries to stay out of the stores by shopping extensively online.

  “Mall shopping is too crazy for me,” she says. “This year I am putting together an Amazon Wish List and an overall shopping list for my daughter.”

  She’s also very aware of how the holidays can drain family funds, creating an unpleasant lingering holiday memory: “I’m going to try to stick to a budget this year, as well.”

One concern Hatfield still has is working the logistics of getting everyone together at the holidays.  “I’m hoping not to spend all the holidays on the road driving my daughter around, and it might be tough to get everyone together. I haven’t thought that through yet.”

  Westborough mom Michelle Travis has a suggestion passed down from her family: “We really want to get together with people, and doing so on the exact holiday is just too much, especially when juggling multiple families. We plan a big family dinner and hold it on a non-holiday day.”

  Knowing that getting people together is the goal, Travis’ family uses planning to help spread the responsibilities and not create a burden for any one family.

  “Rather than hold a random pot luck, we make it a planned pot luck,” she says. “Everyone with ‘specialties’ gets selected to bring them, and it becomes a ‘best-of’ holiday meal!”

  Another suggestion Travis offers centers around gifts and budget: “People just go overboard with gifts.  It’s almost becomes a contest on who can give the most, and it takes away from the real holiday spirt.”

  With that in mind, she established a rule to deal with that reality.

  “We limit gifts to a single gift for every year of life,” she says. “So if the child is two, holiday gifts are two.”

  She laughs when challenged about how this strategy will hold up in later years: “I suspect by the time the child is nearing 10 we’ll have modified the rule, and for now the simplicity works.”

  Like many moms with young children, Travis lives in a ‘tight space’ and has developed strategies for holiday entertaining.

  “Using Space Bags or plastic containers, I make a point of putting off-season clothes and toys away,” she notes. “For example, all summer clothes and toys are put away for the winter holidays. When the seasons change again, I rotate the summer clothing and toys out, and put winter things away. This makes our home feel less cluttered and makes it more inviting for guests.” An added bonus: “It also helps with determining toys and clothes for passing along.”

Remembering Wolfson’s prime goal of preserving relationships is key as families strive to enjoy the holiday season thanks to a little upfront planning.

  “Even with all our planning, we still have things come up we didn’t anticipate,” Travis says with a smile.  “We can’t let those ‘opportunities’ become disabling.  We try our best to roll with changes, and make the best of them.  I always remember in those stressful times, when things are at their worse, we can always smile and have some egg nog. In the end, it’s all about the egg nog.”

 

Tips for enjoying more, stressing less

• Avoid stores, shop online when you can.

• Use an online wish list to streamline gift-buying.

• Limit gifts to one for each year of a child’s life.

• Make a gift budget and stick to it.

• Move your celebration with extended family or friends to a day other than the actual holiday.

• Make your holiday celebration a planned pot luck.

• Rotate your summer clothes, toys and gear out to make room for fall/winter.

• Expect and roll with the hiccups.

 

Article originally published in baystateparent magazine - November 2015

Friday
Aug292014

How do you Keep Memories?

With the arrival of our granddaughter, there’s been renewed interest in capturing, sharing and storing memories.  How you do so has changed through the years, and provides an interesting perspective on family.

My daughter has been taking pictures of her new niece and putting them into a collage using a smartphone app called Pic Stitch.  Using a monthly photo with Hobbes (of Calvin and Hobbes fame), a real sense of her growth is emerging looking at the collage.  It’s fun to look at, and fun to share on Facebook.  I look forward to the collages; one is included in this post.

A couple decades ago we did things differently.  We didn’t have smartphones, we had dial phones used for talking (with real dials, no buttons.)  We had cameras, and you would take the film to the drug store or photo store to be developed.  Prints were pricy, so were used sparingly.  Friends wouldn’t see the photos unless they came over to the house or a handmade physical collage went “on the road.”

We kept track of our children’s growth by holding a pencil to the top of a child’s head and marking the wall.  When growing up, my parents made marks on a wall behind a furnace so they would not be disturbed.  The problem is inevitably someone moves, and those memories are lost.

When we had children, we wanted to do the same thing.  We were the second owners of a house where the previous family kept their heights on a garage wall.  When finishing and painting the garage, we preserved the height chart by not painting over it.  In fact, we just added to it.

In contemplating this post, my thoughts kept running to the house with our childrens’ heights in the garage.  “What ever happened to all those?”  We moved out 14 years ago, certainly they were not there.

Curiosity (and a confluence of events) had me driving to our former home.  Would the current owner think I was nutty, or intruding?

“What luck,” I exclaimed to nobody.  “The garage doors are open and there is someone in the garage.”

Introducing myself to the owner and asking about the wall, he smiled and assured me the wall was intact.  He even offered to move his car to help with pictures.

Sure enough, the wall was very much intact. (See photo.) The only change was the addition of other children’s heights over the 14 years since we lived there.  The history was on the wall!

Here was a house, built in 1955…holding nearly 60 years history preserved over four owners who never communicated about saving a section of the garage.  Four sets of families respecting their predecessors and preserving for perpetuity (or at least for now) the memories of those children.

I know the original owners of that house are gone, with their name preserved on a stone marker somewhere.  Would they believe their children’s height markings lovingly scribed on the wall would still be there?

How you preserve memories is something you and your family need to consider.  Family albums are in my basement for others to look at years from now.  Ancestry.com lets you look up public records after they become public!  Facebook seems to hold all recent history of my family, and I wonder if Facebook will have my grandchild’s photos in 60 years.

How are you preserving your family memories?

Saturday
Jul192014

Coddle Much?

There is something I have to get off my chest.  This post is not a rant; it’s a non-scientific observation about what we’re doing to our children with recommendations.  I hope you’ll make a comment with your thinking.

Coddle is a verb meaning to treat in an indulgent or overprotective way.  In our attempt to make our childrens’ lives as rich and safe as possible, we’re taking away the opportunity to learn some of life’s lessons. 

We’re coddling too much.

To start, I am not advocating placing our children in harm’s way.  Some of the things we do with our children make lots of sense.  For example, let’s look at car seats.  While I grew up without car seats (and without seat belts) it’s clear the benefit of a car seat outweighs the fun of being in the back of a station wagon “untethered.” 

Here’s my starter list of things to encourage this conversation:

  • Watch Baseball - This came to me while watching the Major League Baseball All Star Game.  This summer classic pits the “all stars” as selected by the fans.  This summer classic was always something we looked forward to every year.  It generally marked the halfway point of summer and was a great excuse to stay up late and hang with friends.  Today?  The previous day has a “Home Run Derby” singling out players who can hit the most home runs.  Arguably the Home Run Derby has eclipsed the All Star Game.  
    • Recommendation: Skip the home run derby and encourage watching the All Star Game.  Lesson: Value team activities over singular activity.  The good news is team sports are available for enjoyment nearly everywhere.  Attend the game in person (high school?) rather than watch it on TV.
  • Let kids play – kids used to go outside in the morning, and return to home at sundown (and or dinnertime).  Every family had a way to “gather” the children (one friend’s mom had a large bell, my dad has his “famous whistle.”  Events were not organized.
    • Recommendation: Turn off the screen (TV/Video/smartphone) and let the kids play outside.  Sure, you need rules on what is acceptable behavior and boundaries (don’t cross Ruggles Street.)  Lesson: Great life lessons were learned this way.  We damned a drainage ditch behind some of the houses when I was, ahem, younger.  We learned about water, how to build a basic dam, crayfish & tadpoles/frogs, and how neighbors react to a damned drainage ditch.  This two week effort was quite elaborate, harmless, and when the inevitable dam breaking occurred we learned about the power of water.
  • Encourage team sports – I was always an overweight kid and as the neighborhood kids selected teams I was rarely (aka never) at the top of the list, and always got selected.
    • Recommendation: Let kids self-select teams.  Lesson: In life, you won’t always get selected first.  Be patient.  Relax and have fun.  This lesson also carries over later in life at work.
  • Bring back kickball – the baseball-like game played with an inflated (red) rubber ball has gone by the wayside because the ball is painful when it hits you. 
    • Recommendation:  Bring back kickball.  It’s something requiring minimal eye/hand coordination and can be played by anyone.  If outlawing a sport is required, outlaw either Dodgeball (where the same balls are used to “hit” someone) or Soccer (how can you “acceptably” use your head to hit a ball?) – concussions are evil!  Lesson:  Pay attention when the ball is in play.  This lesson also carries over later in life at work.
  • Stop giving out trophies to everyone – This is pet peeve of my trainer Joe (who I see regularly as I continue battling weight.)  We give out trophies to everyone, whether they “won” or not.
    • Recommendation – trophies are for winners.  Lesson: life is hard, and trophies are not awarded in life unless you win.  That’s a lesson going back to the cave dwellers – the successful hunter ate while the unsuccessful went hungry.  Survival of the fittest.  The lesson is to develop your skills to be on the winning team.
  •  Drink from the Hose – I’ve already indicated my belief some dirt is a necessity in life.  Over and over I see examples of taking this to extreme. 
    • Recommendation: My granddaughter can’t be touched unless you sanitize first.  In the hospital sanitizing made sense (and that’s where this behavior was learned.)  In life, unless you’re filthy or haven’t washed in a while touching someone is OK.  

      As a child, we drank from hoses all the time (rather than go in the house.)  Now, hoses are dirty and leach chemicals into the water.  While that’s true, kids run the water in hoses until it’s cold (more refreshing and better taste.)  Some of our houses have pipes soldered with lead.  We all know lead is bad.  So what do we do?  Run the house water until it is cold.  So if running the house water until it is cold minimizes the concerns about lead leaching into the water, does the same logic apply when considering a hose? 

      Lesson: While protecting your child from known bad things, use common sense!
  • Teens should workworking for someone else gives an appreciation for the value of a buck.
    • Recommendation:  Let teens work.  Child labor laws protect them from bad occupations and overwork.  This is something where parents often need to make the initial connection for the job.  Lesson: if you want the nicer things in life, you need to work for them.  Teens also learn acceptable work practices.

Let’s get back to basics and let kids be kids.  Since I am writing this on a beautiful summer Saturday, I’m going to take my own advice and ride my bicycle, saving the Harley for another day!