Help For Furloughed Federal Workers

Lots of people have speculated on what a government shutdown will mean for the country in the long run. In the short term, one thing is clear: thousands of Americans could be without pay for some time.

About 4.1 million people work for the federal government and just over 800,000 workers – mostly civilian military workers – are currently furloughed without pay. Federal employees were last paid Sept. 30 and will next be paid again on Oct. 15 for work rendered. After that, it’s up to Congress when they’ll see they’re next paycheck.

Now, it’s true that the shutdown could be resolved any day now. The last government shutdown lasted nearly a month and when it was all said and done, government workers received back pay for their time on furlough. But, with no idea of when that will be, many federal employees are probably in danger of missing payments on their mortgages, credit cards and other important bills.

So what can they do to remain financially stable in their downtime? Well, if you ever needed an example of why emergency funds are necessary, this it it. Experts typically advise we save enough to survive for nearly six months without pay. Hopefully, those furloughed workers took that advice and have enough to float until the dust clears. If not, perhaps that can negotiate with their creditors.

Cooperating Banks

A few banks and lenders have announced specific plans to address the needs of furloughed customers and many  have policies to address hardship, arrange payment plans and help avoid any catastrophic consequences of salary shortfall. Fannie and Freddie have promised to not charge fees for late mortgage payments made during the shutdown. JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have both said that assistance is available to customer effected by the shutdown. Finally, TD Bank has created “TD Cares,”  program to help customers. It’ll will run from Oct. 10 to Nov. 2, or until the government shutdown ends. The bank will advance customers up to $1,000, waive credit card late fees, and adjust mortgage payments on a case-by-case basis.

Unemployment Benefits

Finally, while on furlough, federal employees may become eligible for unemployment benefits under the Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees (UCFE) program. UCFE is paid by the states under the same terms and conditions as regular state unemployment compensation. Information on where and how to file can be found on the U.S Department of Labor Web site at www.dol.gov.

Photo Courtesy, Glyn Lowe Photoworks.

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Fall Homebuying Tips

Over the summer, market watcher became nervous as mortgage rates crept up more than a full percentage point and home sales stalled. In mid September, however, the Federal Reserve announced  it would continue its efforts to keep rates down. It worked. The average 30-year fixed-rate home loan rate dropped to 4.32% last week, according to data from Freddie Mac. With the Fed’s plan likely to continue into the market stabilizes, it’s a pretty safe bet that rates will remain low for some time.

If you’re buying a home this fall, in the off season, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

Hold Out For Lower Prices

With the peak season passed, sellers with property still on the market will be eager to sell. In fact, according to National Association of Realtors, home prices fall by an average $7,000 after Labor Day.

Find a Fixer-Upper

Fall is a slow time for home sales but also for contractors, according to the Census Bureau, and home and garden stores. So when it comes to deciding to make an offer among fewer properties, remember that you can also get repairs at a discount. Consider that it might be worth it to buy a home that needs minor or aesthetic changes, like a kitchen upgrade or central air system, when home stores and builders will be discounting their inventory. The right repairs and changes could even end up adding value to the property.

Take Advantage of the Season

Summer’s a comfortable time of year, when houses and neighborhoods are primed for home sales. Shopping for a new home during the fall may not be as easy but it will present a unique opportunity to get a good look at a property. Want to know if the gutters work, how much you’re going to have to rake and if there are any drafts? Fall is the perfect time to view a house under those less than desirable conditions.

Photo Courtesy, Henrik Sundholm.

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Obamacare Exchanges Explained

New federal health insurance exchanges, the main component of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare,) are planned to launch tomorrow, Tuesday Oct. 1. While the policy has been a hot topic since its passage in 2010, how much do you know about the exchanges and how to enroll?

“On Tuesday, about 40 million more Americans will be able to finally buy quality, affordable health care, just like anybody else,” Obama said on Friday. The new health insurance exchanges, he said, “will be open for business on Tuesday no matter what — even if there’s a government shutdown. That’s a done deal.”

These healthcare exchanges are the first big step in Obamacare’s efforts. They are, in effect, online marketplaces where Americans can enter their information to search and compare health care options in their states. Also, by opting into the system, some consumers can become eligible for subsidies to help pay for the cost of  health insurance – depending on their income. The idea behind is that care becomes more affordable when more Americans are in the marketplace and can shop fairly. So, like Expedia.com for travel or Hotels.com for lodging, the exchanges are designed to be a one-stop shop to apply for health coverage, compare options, and enroll in a plan.

Again, the enrollment period begins October 1 and runs through March 31 but plans bought through the exchanges won’t start until January 1. Now, according to the law, by 2014 every American will have to have some form of health insurance or be fined. Those covered by their employers, Medicare or Medicaid aren’t obligated to do anything. But, for everyone else, Obamacare’s exchanges are the first step to getting covered.

While Obamacare is a pretty complicated law, it’s fairly simple to enroll. Here are the four steps:

1. Create an account – Begin by visiting Healthcare.gov to set up an account. You’ll be asked to provide some pretty basic information for the site. Then, choose a user name, password and set security questions. Your account will be ready to go.

2. Apply for Marketplace coverage – Next, you’ll begin applying for coverage by entering some information about you and your family (those you want covered.) To determine the plans that fits you and  your eligibility for a subsidy, you’ll  need to provide  your income, household size, and other information.

3. Pick a plan – Using that, the exchange will pull up all the health insurance plans and programs you’re eligible for and compare them side-by-side. You’ll also find out if you ‘re eligible for a subsidy and exactly how much.

4. Enroll – Finally, you enroll when you have a plan that best fits your needs. Coverage will start as soon as January 1, 2014.

If you need help with your application, you can visit LocalHelp.HealthCare.gov to find a trained specialist in your area. The government has also put together an informational site that’s pretty easy to navigate at healthcare.gov. It lists some of the most common questions about the process and has tons of graphics, calculators and other tools to show how it all works.

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Preparing for a Mid-Life Career Change

Whether it’s mid-career or after retirement, second careers and becoming more and more common. According to AARP, nearly 9 million baby boomers have found second careers, while some 30 million say they would like to make a change. And with a fluctuating job market, many younger workers are also exploring their career options, trying out two or three careers out before they settle down.

Moving from one job to the next – especially one career to the next – is a big step. It’s critical to plan for your second act and to get some insight into how it can be done effectively. I sat down with networking and communications expert Faith McKinney to get her first hand account of what it takes to start over. McKinney is the author of “Schmingling – The Art of Being Well Connected.”

Living in Indianapolis, she had been an employee of the United States Postal Service for 25 years when she decided to begin her second act. McKinney’s job at the post office  was “safe,” she says. It was stable, close to home and gave her the necessary income and benefits to support a family.

Nearly three decades in, however, she discovered she wanted more. “I can’t really say I had a career. What I had was a job,” says McKinney. She’d always had an interest in teaching, public speaking and media but McKinney says it wasn’t until her forties that she had the confidence to pursue a career that incorporated the three. After 25 years at the post office, she took stock of her skills, interests, goals and came up with a plan. “I knew I wanted to travel and that I’d have to do that with my family,” says McKinney. “I always loved teaching and sharing with others and I had a passion for connecting people and networking.  I had to figure out a career that would allow for my gifts but that also fed my needs.”

With that in mind, McKinney  set out to explore her options and discovered that her passion for networking could be captured and marketed. Within Indianapolis, she soon became known as  “The Great Connector” for her ability to bring people together to do business. Before long, she was serving as host and lead ambassador for the Successful Thinkers of Indianapolis, a professional networking organization with more than 800 members.

Today, Mckinney has parlayed her work with the Successful Thinkers into a career as an author and successful media personality, sharing her ideas about networking, branding and entrepreneurship. “It’s about creating the life that you want and working towards that,” McKinney says. “For me, the knowhow I needed came from my own studies – webinars and seminars that gave me exposure and knowledge to do the work. And along the way I gathered the skills I needed.” McKinney says the number one thing anyone pursuing a second act should do is reorient themselves to the work world and get brushed up on their chosen industry. She recommends online courses and continuing education programs. “They’re relatively inexpensive and typically very flexible,” says McKinney. “If you’re already an alumni of an institution, that helps and you can find just about anything on the internet.”

If you’re considering going back to school before starting your new career, consider this: Depending on your income, you might qualify for tax credits like the lifetime learning credit, which offers a break of about $2,000 each year for tuition, fees, books and supplies associated with career advancement.

McKinney’s one other tip? Get started as soon as possible. “Nobody gave me permission to get started,” says McKinney. “Sometimes we’re waiting to be in a good place or for life to slow down but don’t let too much time to pass without acting on your dreams. Finances can be the biggest hurdle but pace yourself. But unlike when you were in your twenties, you don’t have to jump right into anything. Make progress bit by bit. Take it slow and watch your career grow.” Photo Courtesy, miriampastor.

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Strengthen Your Network

When it comes to getting what you want out of your connections, how effective is your network?

The importance of a strong professional network can’t be overstated. It’s been said that your network is your net worth and, in fact, research shows that who you know can have a big impact on even something as big as landing a job. A recent survey of HR executives found that traditional networking was ranked as the most effective job search method – more effective than social media, online job boards and recruiting firms.

Now, we all have a network. It consists of the people around us, folks with whom we’ve worked in the past, former classmates, friends, etc. But with so much significance placed on a strong network, what are ways to build and harness your network? Not to mention, how to identify is yours is dead?

I spoke recently with Faith McKinneyan expert in connections and radical PR. Known in some circles as “The Great Connector,” she’s also the author of the upcoming book “Schmingling- The Art of Being Well Connected,” due out in the fall. From hosting years of “Successful Thinkers” networking events in Indianapolis, McKinney says she’s learned that the strongest relationships are built face to face and shared her tips to building a better network.

Traditional Networking is Still the Best

Networking over social media platforms is on the rise but McKinney says, as of now, it’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction. If you’re currently in a situation where you’re not meeting people in your industry or forging deep connections, it’s probably because you’re spending too much time online. That doesn’t mean give up on your online efforts but ramp up on events, mixers, seminar, conferences and other opportunities to meet and engage likeminded people. Remember, there are still tons of social and professional organizations that – because of their scale, history and name – will be able to connect you with in meaningful ways with the folks you want to meet.

Figure Out What You Want

“One of the main reasons our networks don’t work is because we’re not clear on what we want and haven’t shared that with our network,” McKinney says. Whether it’s a cocktail mixer, a conference or meeting of your professional organization, her advice before entering any networking opportunity is to first write down the goals you want to achieve out of the opportunity. That goal will become your mission and it’ll help direct your conversation and interaction.

Find The Right Organization

Another important reason to define a networking goal is so you can identify the appropriate networking event and organizations. “Certain types of groups service certain needs, McKinney says. “There are social groups without much structure that serve to just bring people together. Those are often best for young professional who just want to meet people. Then there’s larger, more regimented groups that provide business-to-business support. These are typically industry-specific groups. Lastly, there’s referral-based where there’s only one professional from each industry in each organization. These types of groups are smaller, selective and typically for more seasoned professionals.” McKinney suggest once you’ve identified the group that’s best for you, talk to organization leadership to share a bit about yourself. “A good leader will help you find your place in an organization and help you get what you need out if it,” she says.

Photo Courtesy,  SAPStartups.

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Best Things to Buy in September

The last days of summer can feel a little weird. Fun in the sun is ratcheting down. It’s a time marked mostly by back-to-school sales, but there are deals out there that aren’t just for the students.

Experts over at DealNews.com have combed through their archives of sales and coupons to put together a list of best buys for the month of September. Check it out.

Labor Day Sales

Along with being a day to celebrate the American worker, Labor Day is also great opportunity to put your hard-earned money to work. Sales typically run on summer apparel and that’s where you’ll see the biggest discounts. According to DealNews’ analysis of previous years,  high-end brands including Brooks Brothers, Williams-Sonoma, Restoration Hardware, and Anne Klein are expected to have hefty sales that generally end near the holiday.

Outdoor Items

With summer winding down, retailers are also ready to clear out their inventory of grills, outdoor furniture, etc. That means a bargain, so now’s the time to load up on things you’ll need next summer. Outdoor items make up the majority of Labor Day sales and prices will begin to drop at the beginning of September. For the best deals, check with big retailers like Target and Sears. They took up to 60% off their stock last year, According to DealNews – not to be outdone by Kmart. last year, the company took up to 90% off its outdoor items.

New Mattress

Is your mattress lumpy? Do you sometimes wake up feeling tried and cranky. Odds are you’ve probably worn your mattress out past its  30,000-hour life span. Good news: mattresses also see steep discounts during Labor Day sales. Expect up to 50% off from major retailers including US-Mattress and Sears. Another perk is that many will also offer free shipping, saving you even more.

Bonus: Maybe A New iPhone?

Finally, have you heard the rumors about Apple’s new iPhone 6? Well, according to most sources, the tech giant is planing to unveil its latest smartphone in September. No one is exactly sure how much the new phone will be. Apple is toying around with the idea of implementing a new trade-in program for customers who want to upgrade models, something that could help offset the price and help in environment. Whatever happens, one thing that’s for certain is that a new iPhone on the market will drive down the price of previous models, perhaps making a new phone more accessible for some. If you’re looking to finally replace that phone with the cracked screen or go from a iPhone 4s to iPhone 5, September could be your month.

Photo Courtesy,  Alan Cleaver.

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Obama’s Higher Ed Proposal

President Obama unveiled a new plan Thursday that he says will make higher education more affordable. It includes a rating system that will link federal funding to the cost and performance of institutions.

Before a crowd of more than 7,000 at the University of Buffalo in Upstate New York, the President said, “A higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future.”

For many Americans, however, the rising cost of college and almost-inevitable debt has made that investment pretty questionable. The cost of tuition at four-year public universities, for example, has risen 250% over the last 30 years as the average family income has risen just 16%. Today, the average student loan borrower graduates with more than $26,000 in debt.

“It is time to stop subsidizing schools that are not producing good results and reward schools that deliver for American students and our future,” Obama said.

President Obama has asked officials at the Department of Education to put together a rating system based on factors including: a college’s percentage of students eligible for Pell grants, affordability of schools and how well schools prepare students for post-graduate study and careers. Ratings are set to be released before the beginning of the 2015 school year and Obama is asking Congress to dispense federal student aid based on those ratings starting in 2018. By awarding larger Pell grants and more affordable loans to students at the arguably high-performing schools, the President hopes to encourage competition among institutions.

For Americans that still struggle with federal student debt, he’s also asking Congress to cap payments on loans at 10% of monthly income – an expansion of the administration’s existing income-based repayment program.

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