2012 is now the warmest year on record for the contiguous United States, according to the data gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center. 2012 had a record warm spring, second warmest summer, fourth warmest winter and a warmer-than-average autumn. The average temperature in 2012 was 55.3 °F, 1°F warmer than the previous warmest year, 1998.
2012 was also filled with extreme weather, making it the second most extreme year on record for the contiguous United States. Precipitation was almost 3 inches below average, making it the 15th driest year on record. 2012 had 11 disasters that reached beyond $1 billion in losses, including Hurricanes Sandy and Isaac, and the tornado outbreaks in the mid-west.
How Does the American Taxpayer Relief Act Affect You?
On January 2, 2013, President Obama signed the American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) into law. This new law addresses many of the tax issues that were debated by Congress at the end of 2012, and which were referred to by many as the “fiscal cliff.”
Here is what the law addressed, and how it could affect you:
The “Bush-era tax cuts”
The new law permanently extended reduced tax rates on income and capital gains and dividends if you make less than $400,000 ($450,000 if you’re married and file jointly). If you make more than that, the marginal tax rate for income beyond the new levels rose from 35 percent to 39.6 percent.
This change also increased the top tax rate on long term capital gains and dividends from 15 percent to 20 percent and made changes to several other tax credits, the marriage penalty and education-related incentives.
The Estate Tax Rules
ATRA permanently extended the estate tax laws as they currently exist, except for the top tax rate, which was increased from 35 percent to 40 percent. Now up to $5 million of an estate’s worth is exempt from taxes.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 Tax Provisions
The child tax credit, some provisions surrounding the Earned Income Tax credit and an education tax credit, the American Opportunity Tax Credit, were all temporarily extended through 2017.
The Payroll Tax Reduction
There was a two percent reduction in the amount of money you paid through the Social Security payroll tax that Congress put in place in 2010. This tax reduction was not extended as part of ATRA. As a result, the tax rate reverted back to the original amount — 6.2 percent for employees and 12.4 percent for the self-employed. You may notice a change in the amount of your take-home pay in your first paycheck of the 2013 calendar year.
The ATRA also addressed several other issues, including unemployment, Medicare and other health provisions and the farm bill.
AnnualCreditReport.com is the only website authorized to give you the free annual credit report you’re entitled to each year. Checking your credit report regularly will help you spot any problems or may alert you if you’ve been the victim of identity theft.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women in the United States. Smoking is believed to cause 80-90 percent of lung cancer cases, but there are several additional risk factors.
You can reduce your risk of developing lung cancer by following this guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
Have your home tested for radon and take corrective actions if high levels are discovered.
Be aware of your exposure to radiation from medical imaging, especially images of the chest.
Follow health and safety guidelines when working with toxic materials such as asbestos.
Avoid diesel exhaust and other harmful air pollutants.
Different people experience different symptoms of lung cancer. Some symptoms may include shortness of breath; coughing that doesn’t go away; wheezing; coughing up blood; chest pain; and repeated respiratory infections.
If you have symptoms that concern you, see your doctor.
Green Marketing Claims: How to Tell Fact From Fiction
You have probably seen products with labels claiming that they are “eco-friendly”, “all-natural”, or “made from recycled materials”. The challenge with these statements is that there is no clear definition of these terms. Here are some tips to help you sort through green marketing:
Look for specific (ex. “contains 75% post-consumer recycled materials”) rather than vague statements about environmental impact.
Determine whether the green marketing claims apply to the packaging, the product, or both.
By Patti Poss, Mobile Technology Unit, Division of Financial Practices, Federal Trade Commission
Do your kids or grandkids use apps on your phone, tablet or e-reader? Of course they do. Many apps are fun, educational and engaging. But before you hand over your mobile device to a youngster, here are six things to know and do:
Try out the apps your kid wants to use so you’re comfortable with the content and the features.
Use the device and app settings to restrict a kid’s ability to download apps, make purchases within an app or access additional material.
Consider turning off your wi-fi and carrier connections using “airplane mode” to disable any interactive features, prevent inadvertent taps and block access to material that you think is inappropriate or just don’t want.
Look for statements about whether the app or anything within the app collects kids’ personal information — and whether they limit sharing, using or retaining the information. If you can’t find those assurances, choose another app.
Check on whether the app connects to social media, gaming platforms or other services that enable sharing photos, video or personal information, or chatting with other players. Then determine whether you can block or limit those connections.
Talk to your kids about the restrictions you set for downloading, purchasing and using apps; tell them what information you’re comfortable sharing through mobile devices, and why.
Want to know more? The FTC has released a new report on mobile apps for kids. Following up on a previous report, the survey found, among other things, that many apps included interactive features, or sent information from the mobile device to ad networks, analytics companies, or other third parties, without disclosing the practices to parents.
It’s easy to get into debt. It’s much harder to get out of it.
Fortunately, there are credit counseling agencies that can help you get your finances in order. They can help you figure out a budget and stick to it while managing your debt and avoiding future financial pitfalls.
However, not all credit counseling agencies are the same. Some offer free or low-cost services while others charge high fees or might not be trustworthy. The following tips will help you choose the right credit counseling agency.
Look for Agencies with a Good Reputation
Most reputable credit counseling agencies are nonprofits that offer free or low-cost services. However, the fact that an agency is a nonprofit does not guarantee that it is affordable or that it has a good reputation. Here are some tips for selecting a credit agency you can trust:
Ask family members and friends if they can recommend an agency. It’s best to pick one that has been around for several years and has a well-established reputation.
Use credit agencies or credit counseling services referred by credit unions, banks, universities or military bases.
Once you have a list of agencies you can trust, the next step is to take a closer look at the services and costs they offer so that you can choose the one that best serves your needs. Be careful with credit agencies that charge high fees for services that you can get for free somewhere else.
Some of the most common services offered by credit agencies include:
Professional, person-to-person assistance with managing your money and debt.
Help putting together a family budget and sticking to it.
Free workshops and educational material.
Ask Lots of Questions
Before finally choosing a credit agency, it’s worth writing down a list of questions you might have so that you can avoid surprises such as hidden fees or limited services. Here are some questions to help you pick the right credit agency.
Are there different fees for different services? Some agencies might charge for initial consultations or a monthly fee. Be careful with agencies that pay their employees more depending on the services you sign up for.
Will you be signing a contract before getting counseling? If so, be sure to read the contract before signing it.
Does the agency have the right certifications to provide credit counseling? It’s best to use agencies that have been certified by independent organizations.
Just as medication errors can happen with humans, they can also happen when medicines are prescribed for your pet. In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine started taking a closer look at errors and ways to increase the safe use of medicines for pets.
Pet prescriptions are usually filled at human pharmacies, but veterinarians sometimes use different language than doctors, and something as simple as an abbreviation could cause your pet to receive a different medication than what was intended. The FDA suggests you ask important questions before leaving your veterinarian’s office, such as:
What is the name of the drug? What is it supposed to do?
How much of the medication should I give each time?
Symptoms can include blood in the stool, narrower stools, a change in bowel habits and general stomach discomfort. However, you may not have symptoms at first, so screening is important. Everyone who is 50 or older should be screened for colorectal cancer.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established new rules for the volume of television commercials that started on December 13, 2012. The new regulation, known as the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act, requires commercials to have the same average volume as the programs they accompany. The CALM Act requires TV stations, cable operators or other multichannel video program distributors to apply specific FCC practices to commercials they transmit.
If you hear a commercial louder than the TV show it accompanies, you can file a complaint with the FCC by providing detailed information about the commercial.
The Federal Trade Commission offers this advice on prepaying for funeral arrangements:
Millions of Americans have entered into contracts to prearrange their funerals and prepay some or all of the expenses involved. Laws of individual states govern the prepayment of funeral goods and services; various states have laws to help ensure that these advance payments are available to pay for the funeral products and services when they’re needed. But protections vary widely from state to state, and some state laws offer little or no effective protection. Some state laws require the funeral home or cemetery to place a percentage of the prepayment in a state-regulated trust or to purchase a life insurance policy with the death benefits assigned to the funeral home or cemetery.
If you’re thinking about prepaying for funeral goods and services, it’s important to consider these issues before putting down any money:
What happens to the money you’ve prepaid? States have different requirements for handling funds paid for prearranged funeral services.
What happens to the interest income on money that is prepaid and put into a trust account?
Are you protected if the firm you dealt with goes out of business?
Can you cancel the contract and get a full refund if you change your mind?
What happens if you move to a different area or die while away from home? Some prepaid funeral plans can be transferred, but often at an added cost.
Be sure to tell your family about the plans you’ve made; let them know where the documents are filed. If your family isn’t aware that you’ve made plans, your wishes may not be carried out. And if family members don’t know that you’ve prepaid the funeral costs, they could end up paying for the same arrangements. You may wish to consult an attorney on the best way to ensure that your wishes are followed.
We hope our holiday tips help you celebrate within your budget, keep your family safe, protect the environment and more! If you’re celebrating with kids, make sure to check out the holiday tips from Kids.gov.
Make sure that everyone gets to enjoy the holiday season by keeping the four-legged members of your family safe this December. It’s easy to get distracted at this time of year, so if you have pets, try to keep these ideas in mind:
Avoid tinsel and clean up strings and ribbon right away. Swallowed decorations can seriously damage internal organs, leading to a painful and dangerous situation.
Display and dispose of holiday plants safely. Poinsettias, mistletoe, and holly are toxic to cats, dogs, and horses, leading to bad gastrointestinal upset if eaten.
Be careful with pet treats. Your lucky dog probably loves his biscuits, rawhides, or jerky sticks, but if he eats them whole - or too many at once - he may not be able to digest them. Unchewed treats can get stuck in the windpipe or gastrointestinal tract.
Human food. Don’t feed your cat or dog people food. Food with bones (choking), chocolate, or xylitol (both toxic) can hurt your pet right away. Fatty holiday people foods can cause the painful and life-threatening disease pancreatitis in the long term.
The holidays symbolize family, friends, food, festivities, and it is a season of caring and giving. This holiday season, you can give back to yourself, your community, and your environment with one small act – reducing the amount of food you waste.
Wasted food is the number one material that goes into municipal landfills and incinerators. All this wasted food generates methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 20 time more potent than carbon dioxide. Much of the “waste” is not waste at all, but is actually safe, wholesome food that could be donated and potentially feed millions of Americans.
And here’s the whipped cream on the pumpkin pie - by reducing the amount of food you waste, you’re ultimately giving a meaningful holiday gift to yourself, your family and your community. With this intangible gift of mindful action, you’ll do far more than simply reduce food waste; you’ll save money, protect the environment, and help neighbors in need. Now that’s a gift that packs a punch.
Take a stand and rethink your food. Take these 10 simple steps to make your holidays happier, your wallet fatter, and your environment cleaner.
Shop your refrigerator first. Take a peek in your fridge and freezer before heading to the store, and plan a meal around what you already have before buying more. Presto- money saved without leaving the house!
Take time to plan your menu before you go shopping. Once in the store, buy only items on your list. If it’s not on the menu, it either won’t get eaten or will replace something that’d been planned- either way will waste food and money. You’ll save money and waste less food by shopping smart.
Buy only what you will realistically use. Buying in bulk only saves money if you can use the food before it spoils. Will you really use that industrial-sized cereal box or gallon jug of soy sauce? If not, return it to the shelf!
Choose produce that may not be cosmetically perfect, but is perfectly edible. Seasoned cooks know that those slightly bruised apples taste just as yummy in that pie, and misshapen potatoes taste smashing when mashed. This sends signals to the grocer that cosmetic flaws are okay and means that blemished produce doesn’t need to get trashed before reaching store shelves.
Know when food really goes bad- you may be surprised. Most food products indicate a “best by” date. This isn’t an expiration date, but a time in which the contents will be best to consume. Ask your grocer or contact the product manufacturer for more details before you toss out those canned goods, cake mixes or bottled condiments.
Act like a top chef and use all the edible parts of the food. Stale bread can be used to make croutons, beet tops can be sautéed for an inventive side dish, and green onion tops make an even more flavorful broth.
Freeze, can or preserve surplus fruits and vegetables. Don’t know what to do with all those apples? Homemade applesauce is a cinch to make. Plus, did you know the secret to freezing most vegetables is simply to blanch them in boiling water first?
Eat or share all your leftovers. Put leftovers in reusable containers, and share with family, friends, neighbors. Everyone knows ham, turkey and cranberry sauce tastes even better the next day!
Donate whole, untouched food from parties to your nearby food bank or homeless shelter. In fact, plan a get together with friends and neighbors for a food packing party the morning after that big event. Uneaten, nourishing food will go to a good cause, and it gives you yet another excuse to gather with friends and family in support of a meaningful cause.
Compost food scraps rather than tossing them in the trash. Your garden will benefit from the added nutrients, and your kids will learn an invaluable lesson in environmental protection. Don’t know where to start? Check out EPA’s composting website for easy, quick tips.
This holiday season, and throughout the year, rethink your food and Feed Families, Not Landfills.
How to Mail a Message of Condolence to Newtown, CT
The U.S. Postal Service has established a unique Post Office Box to which the public may send condolences to those affected by the December 14, 2012 tragedy in Newtown, CT.
Those who wish to send expressions of comfort should address them to:
Messages of Condolence for Newtown PO Box 3700 Newtown CT 06470
“We understand that there is an outpouring of support for everyone in the Newtown area, and we hope to make it easier for those who wish to send encouragement and messages of compassion to those affected,” said Kimberly J. Peters, Connecticut Valley District Manager for the U.S. Postal Service. She added, “Through letters and cards, families will be able to hold that friendship in their hands and to read those kind words at a time and place that supports their pace of healing.”