Don’t Miss these Tax-Saving Tips

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If you have not yet gotten around to filing your 2016 taxes, below is a list of some of the most often overlooked tax write-offs. Use these tips to potentially cut your tax bill and keep more money in your pocket.

We’ll start with a Win Win favorite – charitable contributions:

Out-of-Pocket Charitable Contributions

It’s hard to overlook the big charitable gifts you made during the year by check or payroll deduction. But the little things add up, too, and you can write off out-of-pocket costs you incur while doing good deeds. Ingredients for casseroles you regularly prepare for a nonprofit organization’s soup kitchen, for example, or the cost of stamps you buy for your school’s fundraiser count as a charitable contribution.

For a list of local charitable non-profits, please click here to see the folks on our list.

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State Tax Write-Offs

This write-off is primarily for those who live in states that do not impose an income tax. You must choose between deducting state and local income taxes, or state and local sales taxes. For most citizens of income-tax states, the income tax deduction usually is a better deal. IRS has tables for residents of states with sales taxes showing how much they can deduct. But the tables aren’t the last word.

Union Dues

If you belong to a labor union and you pay dues every year, deduct them.

Student Loan Interest Paid by Parents

In the past, if parents paid back a student loan incurred by their children, no one got a tax break. To get a deduction, the law said that you had to be both liable for the debt and actually pay it yourself. But now there’s an exception. If Mom and Dad pay back the loan, the IRS treats it as though they gave the money to their child, who then paid the debt. So a child who’s not claimed as a dependent can qualify to deduct up to $2,500 of student loan interest paid by Mom and Dad.

First Jobs and New Jobs

While job-hunting expenses incurred while looking for your first job are not deductible, moving expenses to get to that first job are. And you get this write-off even if you don’t itemize. If you moved more than 50 miles, you can deduct 23 cents per mile of the cost of getting yourself and your household goods to the new area, (plus parking fees and tolls) for driving your own vehicle.

Costs associated with looking for a new job in your current occupations are tax-deductible. This includes fees for resume preparation and employment of outplacement agencies.

Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit

It’s easy to overlook the child and dependent care credit if you pay your child care bills through a reimbursement account at work. This is a tax credit which will reduce your tax bill dollar for dollar, so do not miss it.

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)

Twenty five percent of taxpayers who are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit fail to claim it, according to the IRS. Some people miss out on the credit because the rules can be complicated. Others simply aren’t aware that they qualify.

The EITC is a refundable tax credit – not a deduction – ranging from $506 to $6,269 for 2016. The credit is designed to supplement wages for low-to-moderate income workers. But the credit doesn’t just apply to lower income people. Tens of millions of individuals and families previously classified as “middle class” – including many white-collar workers – are now considered “low income” because they:

  • lost a job
  • took a pay cut
  • or worked fewer hours last year

If you were eligible to claim the credit in the past but didn’t, you can file any time during the year to claim an EITC refund for up to three previous tax years.

State Tax Paid Last Spring

Did you owe taxes when you filed your 2015 state tax return in 2016? Then remember to include that amount with your state tax itemized deduction on your 2016 return, along with state income taxes withheld from your paychecks or paid via quarterly estimated payments.

Refinancing Mortgage Points

When you buy a house, you get to deduct points paid to obtain your mortgage all at one time. When you refinance a mortgage, however, you have to deduct the points over the life of the loan. That means you can deduct 1/30th of the points a year if it’s a 30-year mortgage—that’s $33 a year for each $1,000 of points you paid.

Cleaning Up

Cleaning and laundering services when traveling are deductible as long as they aren’t reimbursed by your employer.

 

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Protecting Plants from the Return of Winter Weather

The Valley, and large parts of the country, have seen unseasonably warm temperatures this winter. As a result, many trees and plants are budding and blooming prematurely. Like spring, these much-enjoyed warm days will be interrupted by some frosty nights. And unfortunately, a dip in temperature will put new growth in jeopardy.

Luckily, protecting plants from cold damage can be accomplished in a variety of quick and easy ways. The key is to have your plants covered during the hours when frost develops. This critical period is from late night to early morning, when moisture on the plants can freeze. A good rule of thumb is to cover plants by 8 p.m. the night before a forecasted frost and uncover them by 8 a.m. the next morning.

Pots and plastic containers – they’re great for protecting plants on frosty nights.

Buckets and plastic plant pots are great for covering tender plants. Simply turn the bucket or container upside down and place it over the plant. (It’s a good idea to put a rock or brick on top of the container to keep it in place.)

Next time you get a large plant or shrub in a black plastic pot, save it. These large containers come in handy for those frosty nights.

Old bed linens – great for covering plants and protecting them from frost.

They’re great for cover use, since they’re lightweight and won’t crush the plant. Place sheets loosely over plants, and use a stone or brick along the edges to keep the sheet from blowing off. (Sheets are also great for draping over blooming shrubs.) Newspaper and burlap work well, too.

Don’t forget to remove your plant protection in the morning when the sun hits.

If a plant is injured by frost, damage will be noticeable within a few days. The plant growth will turn black, drop off or turn into “mush.” Sometimes new growth will reappear after a week or two, but in a lot of cases, you’ll just have to start over.

What are your plans to protects plants from the returning winter weather?

Discouraging Break-ins

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One of the easiest crimes to prevent — burglary — is also one of the most common. Somewhere in the U.S. there’s a burglary committed every 15 seconds.

There are a lot of things you can do to boost home security and make your house burglary-resistant. Beyond tried and true advice like never (ever) leave doors or windows unlocked, and never hide a key to your house outside where it can be easily found, here are tips you can use to help you keep your family safe and your home and its contents intact.

Know Your Neighbors & Local Police

The best home security comes from neighbors who look out for one another. Make it a point to meet your neighbors so that you can ask them to keep an eye on things while you’re away. If your neighborhood does not already have a neighborhood watch program, consider organizing one.

Many local police departments maintain something called a “vacant house list” when you travel for an extended period of time. Police will drive by and check on your house when you’re gone. If a criminal knows the police are watching your house, most won’t want to take the chance of breaking in.

Make Your Home Unappealing to Them

The first thing a burglar looks for when choosing a house for a break-in is one with no one in it. If you make your house look occupied when you’re gone, most burglars will simply pass it by. Here are some ways to do that.

Use automatic light timers throughout the house and have them turn on and off in a way that simulates your normal patterns. Look for light timers that have battery backup so the timer doesn’t stop if there is a power failure. Using timers that have more than one on-off cycle can create the illusion of movement from room to room.

lightsmotion-outside-lights-detector-systemDon’t advertise new, expensive items, like a flat-screen TV or new computer, by putting out the boxes early. Keep all that stuff in the garage or inside until garbage day.

Don’t leave mail piled up in the mailbox if you’re away. Ask a neighbor to collect it daily.

Shrubs can make a great deterrent to getting into the house, but keep them low enough to make sure burglars can’t hide there, and that your neighbors can see what’s going on in your yard. Consider thorny shrubs or rose bushes to add an extra deterrent. Trim back or remove any shrubbery next to doors or windows.

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Close the blinds when you’re not home so they can’t peruse the items in your house and decide you have something worth stealing.

Consider Alarm Systems

Alarm systems are more expensive than the other tips, but if you live in a particularly vulnerable neighborhood you may still want to consider one. They are not a guarantee, but they can certainly give a potential thief reason to move on.

They are one of the best defenses, and you can get a system for about $50 to $100 a month. Check with the Better Business Bureau before picking an alarm company.

But burglaries don’t have to happen. Be smart and be safe. It isn’t a guarantee, but it can certainly be a deterrent.

 

 

The Time is Always right to do What is Right

black-historyFebruary is Black History Month, or National African American History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the important role of African Americans in U.S. history. The event grew out of “Negro History Week,” the brainchild of noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month.

In honor of Black History Month, I want to highlight some wonderful organizations serving the black community.

Booker T. Washington Foundation  A not-for-profit foundation that operates in five different areas: resource development, international development and cooperation, science and technology, telecommunications, and public policy research.

Jack and Jill of America, Inc.  A charitable group that provides educational, cultural, civic, and social programs for minority youth.

National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) This organization, based in Baltimore, MD, is the oldest black organization that fights for civil rights and equal opportunity.

National Urban League (NUL) The nation’s oldest and largest community- based movement devoted to empowering African Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream.

Rainbow Push Coalition This organization, led by Jesse Jackson, fights for equal rights for minorities, women, and gays/lesbians.

Southern Poverty Law Center  A not-for-profit organization whose primary task is the upholding of the legal rights of the poor in general.

                               

 

 

Making the Switch – Efficient Lighting

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The switch from incandescent light bulbs to energy-efficient light bulbs is inevitable – so why not start saving money now? In fact, the traditional incandescent light bulb is becoming increasingly difficult to find as they are no longer manufactured. While the initial price of energy-efficient bulbs is typically higher than traditional incandescents, newer bulbs cost less to operate, saving you money over the life of the bulb. This also means (a lot) less time spent changing bulbs around the house.

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An average household dedicates about 5% of its energy budget to lighting. Switching to energy-efficient lighting is one of the fastest ways to cut your energy bills. By replacing your home’s five most frequently used light fixtures or bulbs with models that have earned the ENERGY STAR, you can save $75 each year.

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You have many choices in energy-efficient lighting. The most popular light bulbs available are halogen incandescents, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

Halogen incandescents have a capsule inside that holds gas around a filament to increase bulb efficiency. They are available in a wide range of shapes and colors, and they can be used with dimmers. Halogen incandescent bulbs meet the federal minimum energy efficiency standard, but there are now many more efficient options to meet your lighting needs.

CFLs

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are simply curly versions of the long tube fluorescent lights you may already have in a kitchen or garage. Because they use less electricity than traditional incandescents, typical CFLs can pay for themselves in less than nine months, and then start save you money each month.

LEDs

Light-emitting diode, or LED, lights are a newer option for residential lighting. They are significantly more energy-efficient than either incandescent or CFL bulbs and last 8 to 25 times longer than halogen incandescents.

LED bulbs are currently available in many products such as replacements for 40W, 60W, and 75W traditional incandescent bulbs. LEDs work well indoors and outdoors because of their durability and performance in cold environments.

Today’s energy-efficient bulbs are available in the wide range of colors and light levels you’ve come to expect. New lighting standards took effect in 2012, and money-saving options such as halogen incandescent, CFL, and LED light bulbs are available today. For high-quality products with the greatest energy savings, choose bulbs that have earned the ENERGY STAR rating.

Do you use energy-efficient lighting in your home? Have you noticed a difference in your electric bill or how often you are changing bulbs?

Quick, Easy, & Inexpensive Home Upgrades

Looking to add a little value to your home? It doesn’t need to be a cost-prohibitive undertaking to add up to some valuable changes. Invest a few hours of sweat equity, a few bucks (generally under $100), and you’ll be surprised at the results.

All of these projects can be done over the course of a weekend. Several actually, if you are highly motivated.

Frame out your bathroom mirror

Know how to use a saw and have some understanding of how to calculate angles? You can make your builder grade bathroom look more custom by creating a quick and easy frame. According to DIY Network, this easy project should cost about $25 in materials and take approximately four hours to complete and that’s using cedar boards. MDF molding may cost even less. Give it a quick splash of paint or stain to make it your own.

Change your chandelier

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How old is that dining room light fixture? Was it inherited from the previous owners or part of an outdate trend? A quick trip to your local home improvement store can seriously amp up your style. This trendsetting, Kenroy Home Anemone 7-Light Bronze Chandelier will make a huge impact in your space, and, at just $96.25, will have friends and potential buyers (if you’re planning to sell) thinking you spent much more.

Change your light bulbs

Burned out light bulbs may seem insignificant, but they can easily lend the impression of a dark and dreary or, even worse, untended home. How many light bulbs are actually functioning in your house right now? Fresh bulbs can lighten up your home, and your mood. Bulbs are available in a range of options – from soft white to bright, bright daylight to suit any home and any room. Don’t limit yourself.

 Buy a new fan

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Winter is a great time to buy ceiling fans because stores are looking to move inventory that might sit until spring and summer. Swap out or install a fan that will add a new element to your rooms. From the very modern to classic, choose a style that fits your home’s personality. Or the personality you want it to cultivate.

Mulch your yard

Mulch is cheap, easy to install yourself, and can add valuable curb appeal that makes your home look fresh and well-taken-care-of. A two-cubic-foot bag will cost you $3–4 a bag, but watch for sales at Lowe’s and Home Depot, when they go on sale for two bucks each. Mulches come in many colors to compliment your house and yard.

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Add a backsplash

You can give your kitchen a little love and make it look more updated easily by adding a backsplash. Subway tile is an easy choice because it’s classic and neutral and has been the favorite backsplash option for several years.

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If you want a bold option that doesn’t require grouting, opt of a peel and stick glass tile. With a multitude of colors and designs to choose from, you can add the look of the real thing with minimal effort.

Freshen the Front Door

A freshly painted (or brand-new, if needed) front door is repeatedly counted among the best updates to make to your home. This is a task you can easily tackle yourself in just a few hours. Not sure what color to pick? This quick and fun HGTV quiz can help you decide. You can also change out the hardware to add a new element to an existing door.

What are some of your favorite, inexpensive home upgrades?

Meet our Newest – The Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship

steward-1Last year, several new organizations were added to the list clients can choose to receive a Win Win for a Cause donation in lieu of a traditional closing gift. I am pleased to announce that The Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship is one of these very worth local organizations, offering visitors a plethora of opportunities to explore the area, hike and camp, and study the land’s history and environment.

The Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship is a place where farming, nature, and history converge to show the connections between people and the natural world. The center is home to deep woods and streams, a working farm, wildflower meadows, historic farmsteads, a farm market, wildlife and farm animals.

Nature

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The center hosts a tremendous variety of activities ranging from community farming to archaeology. The over 900-acre tract provides amazing opportunities for nature enthusiasts – walk the trails, pick your own flowers, help on an archaeological dig, buy farm fresh & eggs veggies, or attend a workshop.

A visit to the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship begins with rolling farmland and a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains rising unbroken to the west. The trails gradually move into older and denser deciduous forest and by walking up the power line, you can access the Appalachian Trail. Hike the trails or wander the open fields and discover an amazing variety of wildlife native to the Appalachians.

History

In the early 19th century, prior to the Civil War, the Blue Ridge Center lands were heavily settled. The most visible reminders of the once thriving settlement along Piney Run are the buildings.  In all, 33 sites have been identified.  There are many stories to tell and even more to discover.

The Blue Ridge Center uses all possible resources, from historic texts and documents, oral histories, to archaeological methods, to discover each story, how it relates to each of us and the land we tread each day.

Have you visited the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship?

Please share your experiences.