Secure your banking and financial logins

With COVID more and more of us have turned to using online tools to handle our banking and financial tasks. These are some tips you should follow:

HTTPS and Multi-factor Authentication

Whenever you are using a web browser like Safari, Chrome, Explorer or Fire fox, make sure the website you are accessing use using a secure connection. The website should be Https not just Http, the “s” stands for secure. You should also setup multi-factor identification. This is a second code sent to you smart phone or using one of the authenticator apps. This adds a second layer of protection for you accounts.

Fraud Notification and Account Alerts

Your financial institutions that issue credit and bank cards should offer the opportunity to turn on notifications should your card be used. For example I turn on fraud notification every time my credit card is used. It’s a simple text that notifies me of the purchase. You can also usually setup balance notifications when your funds are running low.

Use A Strong Password for Logging In

You should do this for all your accounts, but especially for your banking and financial accounts. Make sure it’s long and uses special characters.

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Watch out for tax scams

  It's that time of the year again, the scammers want you tax refund so here's a few tips to help you recognize scammers.

Best advice I can give you is to just ignore them.  If you don't recognize the number or the person just don't answer the phone, don't return the text and don't respond to the email.  

Check the email, if the sender has a @gmail.com or @yahoo.com, they are probably not legit.  Most normal companies will have their business email like @apple.com.

Remember the IRS or Government will never send you a text but scammers will.  So if you get a text that like Reply Immediately to get your Tax Refund or $1200 Stimulus check.   It's not legit and from a scammer so be ware.  The link in this text will take you to a fake website where they'll ask for your personal information, social security number, maybe bank accounts, etc.  This is called phishing.

If this happens to you, report the website to phishing@IRS.gov.

1099G unemployment fraud.  In 2020 there was an unemployment scam.  Crooks were using peoples social security numbers to collect unemployment.  At the end of the year, you might receive a 1099G for the unemployment benefits paid on behalf of your social security number, but yet you didn't receive any unemployment.  Make sure you report this to your state unemployment office and get a corrected 1099G so you don't have to pay taxes on the unemployment that you didn't receive.

Hire only trusted tax preparers.  Make sure you hire someone you know or a legitimate tax prep service.  Looking on Facebook or Craigslist is a bad idea.  You may encounter a scammer who takes more of your refund then they should or charges fees much higher than you should pay.

IRS Impersonations. It never ends, scammers will continue to try and impersonal and pretend they are the IRS.  Remember the IRS will never initiate a conversation with you without first sending you a written notice in the mail.  Don't reply to texts, emails or phone calls unless you know it's legitimate.  If you receive a letter from the IRS, confirm the phone number is correct.  Remember scammers have access to many resources today that give them your personal information, this helps them seem credible even though they are not.

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Avoid these cash payment scams

My Mom is forever asking me questions about payment scams she reads about so I thought I would share a few of the latest cash scams you should be cautious.  If someone calls or text you looking for money with one of these, I'd be concerned and take some extra time to make sure it's a legitimate request.  Remember the IRS or other government agency would never do any of these.

There are many Money Transfer Apps like Zella, Venmo, Apple and even Pay Pal that enable you to easily transfer cash between your account and someone else's.  The intent is for you to easily transfer money to someone you know, not a stranger.  I frequently use Venmo to send and receive money with my kids.  I've also used it for some of my photography clients.  If a stranger or scammer contacts you and wants you to transfer money using a money transfer app, I'd avoid it.  Typically these services offer now protection and once you transfer you money, it's gone.  So stick to money transfers this way with people you know.

Wire Transfers have been around forever.  Back in the day Western Union was used to transfer money anywhere in the world.  Guess what, scammers love wire transfers.  Again once the money leaves your hands and is wired with MoneyGram or Western Unition, there is very little recourse to get it back.  So if you one a sweep stakes or someone asks for wired funds, you should probably avoid the temptation.

Another popular tool is Store Gift Cards.  A scammer will ask you to go purchase $100's in Store Gift Card from say Home Depot or Target and then call them back with the card number and PIN.  Again your money is now gone with now way to retrieve it.  So be leery of text or phone calls from what may seem like a legitimate organization if they are looking for card payments.

All the rage these days, Cryptocurrency.  Again used by scammers because it's untraceable.  Once you buy and transfer Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency and transfer it to the scammer, it's gone forever.

When shopping online or stick with credit cards, they all have fraud prevention and will work to get your funds back into your account.  For payments to legitimate government agencies or other payments, also consider using a check.  Again there are protected ways to get these funds back should you have made a mistake.

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Save money at dollar stores

Dollar stores are everywhere, so how can you save even more money by shopping at them.  Last year Family Dollar and Dollar Tree added almost a 1000 stores for a total of over 30,000 stores.  By the way both stores are owned by the same company. This is big business and they have a lot of purchasing power.  There costs can be lower than typical grocery or big box stores on many items.   Here are some tips to save money and make sure you're getting comparable goods.

Check the ingredients 

Read the ingredient labels on foods, make sure the dollar store foods have the same ingredients and nutrition as the name brands.

Do the size math

Package size varies so make sure you calculate the unit math and compare.  For example one package may be 12 oz the other might be 16 oz.  The first package is $1.00 while the second is $1.50.  $1.00/12 = $.083 per oz and 16/$1.50 = $10.7 so clearly the 12 oz package at the dollar store would be the better deal.

Use coupons

You can use in store and manufacturer coupons at both dollar stores so make sure you check their websites before shopping.

Try the no brand or store brand product

You many find that the store brand products work just as good as the name brand.  These might be half the price of the name brand.

Check expiration dates

With any shopping exercise caution and make sure the products you are buying haven't expired.

Return to Money page for more money saving tips


Tips for pulling a large trailer or 5th wheel

 I've been pulling trailers for years, started with a small popup camper trailer and eventually I pulled a 30' travel trailer to every state with the family.  Came across and article and thought it might benefit those who don't have much experience towing a trailer.

Remember trailers are heavy, pop ups can be 2-3000 lbs, boat on a trailer 5000-10,000 lbs and 5th wheels can easily hit 15,000 lbs.  This means everything happens slower.  It takes longer to accelerate and stop a trailer this large.  So take it slow, make sure you have plenty of starting and stopping distance.

Acceleration - It will take you longer to accelerate pulling a trailer, so make sure you have plenty of space before you pull out into traffic or make a turn.

Braking - Leave plenty of distance between the vehicles in front of you to ensure you have enough distance for stopping your tow vehicle and trailer.  If your trailer is equipped with trailer brakes, you should also make sure your your trailer brakes are working properly.

Turning - When you pull a trailer, you need to make wider turns to avoid dragging your trailer over a curb, through a ditch or into a pole.  The longer the trailer the wider the turn will need to be.  You'll also need to worry about the length of the trailer behind the wheels.  You back end pivots about the rear wheels and can swing into things, so be careful in gas stations where corners are tight.

It's Long - Remember when your driving you have a trailer behind you and it's long.  Leave more space before you merge or change lanes.  Use your turn signal to let others know your intentions.

Practice - If you haven't pulled a trailer start off slow and use less traveled back roads until you are comfortable.  Go to an empty large parking log and practice turns.  Set up cones and practice backing into spaces.  The larger the trailer, the more challenging this will be.

Up hill climbs - Use the right lane and make sure you vehicle is in Tow/Haul mode to help keep you vehicle in a constant gear.  Remember this is a lot of work for your tow vehicle.  Don't be afraid to take it slow.

Downhill - Again use Tow/Haul Mode, if it's a really steep grade, shift to a lower gear and let you vehicle engine help brake.  Try not to continuously apply the brakes, they can heat up and will not be as affective at stopping your vehicle.

Other Failures - You may encounter many other problems when trailering, I know I've encountered all of these except coupler failure.  Remember no sudden reactions or slamming on the brakes.  You will encounter high winds, large vehicles passing and causing a slight sway, blow outs, broken springs or maybe even you trailer decoupling from you tow vehicle.  

Plan your trip - To avoid stress you may want to plan out your trips with stops an known locations where you have plenty of clearance and easy out capability.

Return to Travel Page for more information on camping and trailering


Checklist for Yearly Tax Preparation

 When it comes to tax time, are you prepared?  Make a file folder to track the items you'll need for next years taxes.  

Here's a check list for you and your tax preparer.  Put this list on the inside cover and check-off the items as you add them to the folder.

Personal Information

  • Social Security or Individual Tax ID Number
  • Bank account name, routing number and account number for your refunds
  • Property tax payments
  • Any estimated tax payments made

Income

  • W2 Forms
  • State tax refunds from last year
  • Social Security Benefits
  • 1099 forms
  • Rental Property Income
  • Unemployment Income
  • Pension Income
  • Investment Income
  • Retirement Income
  • Other income like Lottery or Casino winnings

Expenses and Deductions

  • Do you have any grand child care expenses
  • Educational Expenses
  • Medical Insurance including health care insurance and payments
  • Itemized Medical Receipts
  • Job and vehicle expenses related to any job you may have.
  • Mortgage Interest
  • Real Estate Taxes
  • Retirement Plan Contributions
  • Any Charitable Contributions

Other Tax Information

  • Are you self employed?
  • Do you have other business interests?
  • Do you have any home office expenses


Travel Insurance - Do You Need Coverage?

 Depending on your health, cost of your trip and your travel destination, you may want to consider travel insurance.  Make sure you shop around to understand all your options before you make any decisions.  Do this before buying or committing to any plane tickets, car rentals, hotels or other travel purchases.

My wife and I went to Italy last year so I did a bunch of checking around to see what the least expensive options were for the various aspects of the trip.

Credit Cards

First check with your credit cards, you may be pleasantly surprised that you already have some form of travel insurance if the purchase for travel is done with that credit card so call your credit card company.  I learned that my credit card offered travel insurance free of charge.  There were restrictions on what they covered so read the fine print.  Also see if your credit card company covers auto insurance for any rentals.

Home Owners Insurance

As you know, I'm into photography and so I travel with $1000's in camera gear and lenses.  I talked to my home insurance provider and learned that my homeowner's covered my camera's while traveling.

Buying Directly from the Service Provider

This is probably the most expensive approach, but they may offer a specific unconditional cancellation policy that you may be interested in.

Trip Cancellation

If you have to cancel a trip, insurance typically covers any nonrefundable costs.  Usually there are restrictions on when you can collect, for example medical, illness, loss of job, etc.

Trip Interruption

If for some reason you start a trip but can't finish it because of illness, death or other covered events, you will be reimbursed for trip costs.

Emergency Medical

If you become injured or sick, you may need medical care.  Medical insurance can get you to a location or maybe even fly you home depending on your coverage or the issue.  Emergency medical treatments are also typically covered.

Is Travel Insurance for You?

Your circumstances will dictate if you should add travel insurance.  Are you traveling with your grand children?  Do you wan coverage for lost or stolen bags?  Is it possible you'll miss a connecting flight?  How expensive was you trip?  Are you planning and international trip or cruise with significant up front costs?  All of these could move you into wanting travel insurance.


Are Your Finances in Shape - 8 Tips to Double Check Your Status

Check out these 8 tips to help you save money and get your finances in shape.

1) Life Insurance

You should be reviewing your life insurance every year.  As your family situation changes you'll want to adjust your life insurance accordingly.  As you approach retirement and get older the cost of your insurance increases significantly because the actuaries data shows the older you get the more likely you are to pass away.  You probably will also have less need for a huge life insurance policy so make sure you balance your needs.  I most recently retired and reduced my life insurance and will be considering just cancelling my plan as I move forward.  If I were to pass my wife's income would come form my pension, social security and disbursement from our investments. 

2) Savings Accounts

Beef up your savings to cover emergencies.  The experts say you should have 6 months to a years worth of savings to potentially protect you from a loss of a job or unexpected expenses.  Make sure you consider all expenses when thinking about how much you need to save.  Don't forget medical costs and unexpected house repairs.  Cut unnecessary spending to put more in your savings account.

3) Pay Down Your Credit Card Debt

Review how much you spend on your credit cards.  How much did you spend last year?  How much have you spend this year?  Are you carrying a balance on your credit cards that's costing you huge interest charges every month?  Make it a goal to stop all unnecessary purchases on your cards.   Maybe move to a cash envelope budget where you budget a specific amount by category.

Review your credit cards if you have more than one.  Figure out which one charges the most interest and pay off that card first, then focus on the next highest interest card. 

4) Home Insurance

Make sure your homeowners insurance is up to date with the right level of coverage for your dwelling and all it's possessions.  You should have a log for everything in your house including electronics, jewelry, furniture and clothing.  I like to take a photography of all my rooms with closet and cabinet drawers open as a reminder on what I have.  Make sure to update you possession list with any new purchases or gifts you may have received in the last year.

Most of all shop around for a better insurance.  Make sure the coverage is the same from all insurance companies that are quoting.  Call and get four or five quotes, you'll be surprised at how much you can possibly save. 

5) Auto Insurance

Same thing for your Auto Insurance Policy.  Make sure you have the right coverage for the vehicles you are driving.  Consider your liability risks, do you need more or less coverage.  Now that you're retired, are you driving less miles?  This can lower your insurance.  Maybe you moved to a city or town with less crime, this can also lower insurance.  Hopefully your kids have moved out and aren't on your plan any longer, this can lower your auto insurance.

Same as for Home Owners, shop around.  Make sure to get quotes a combined policy which would include all your cars, boat, house, liability.  This can save money on your insurance.

6) Is your Income Stuck in Retirement

Maybe it's time to start a part time job to get your income back on track.  There are many jobs out there that are just looking for a reliable worker to help them out.  What are you willing to do do get your finances in order?  I have a neighbor in Florida who found a job working a help line from home so he could pay cash for a new firth wheel.  Be creative, you might be surprised at what you can find.

7) How Are Your Expenses

Simply stated, lower your expenses and safe up to pay cash for those big expenditures.  Can you change to a smaller or used car to save on auto expenses.  Cut vacation and travel costs, save up for the next vacation and don't pay for it on credit.  If you need a vacation, stay local and figure out how to lower your costs.  Put off any non critical home remodeling or renovations, consider painting instead of other more costly updates.  Do it yourself!  Avoid shopping sprees, stick with the essentials.  

8) Check Your Credit

Check your credit report on a regular basis.  Focus on transactions that will raise your credit score.  Make payments on time, only keep necessary credit cards.  Check to make sure you don't have any identity theft issues or transactions.  Make sure to freeze you credit reports on the three major credit bureaus.


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Ride Share or Own a 2nd Car in Retirement?

I've been asking myself this question, in retirement should I keep our second car or just rely on my eBike and ride sharing services for our second vehicle.  The intent here would be to save the cost of the car which in my opinion is pretty significant.  You could potentially save the payments, maintenance, repairs, tires, gas and insurance.  

In the end I think it's about how many miles you are driving the second card and of course the convenience for those rare times when you need two cars.  Ride sharing like Lyft and Uber certainly charge more per mile and so a per ride charge could be $10-$30 depending on how far you need to go.

I recently read and article from AAA where they said the average yearly cost to own a new car is a little over $7300 per year which works out to be about to be about $0.68 per mile based on about 10,000 miles of yearly driving.  If you were to Uber or Lyft 10,000 miles, it might cost you around $20,000, clearly in that example owning your own car makes more sense.

But what if you only drove your second car 3300 miles a year, that could be breakeven for using a ride sharing service.

Of course if you buy a lower cost car or a used vehicle, it probably will always make more sense to own your vehicle.

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Retirement - Are You Surprised!

Maybe you were thinking about retirement, maybe you made the decision, maybe through unforeseen circumstances retirement was forced upon you. In any case many Americans have to face retirement earlier then they had planned. Here are some steps you can take to help with your financials.

Cut Your Spending

As soon as you can cut your spending on everything and anything. Start now and cut as deep as you can, remember you can always add services and nice to haves back once you’ve figured you steady state income stream.

  • Can you trade or sell your car for a lower cost more economical model?
  • Cancel any monthly subscription services like Netflix, Cable TV, Magazines, etc?
  • Can you lower your cell phone costs and or data plan?

Do everything you can to lower your monthly out of pocket costs.

Lower Medical, Dental and Other Health Care Costs

What can you do to find the lowest medical cost between now and when you turn 65 where Medicare kicks in?

  • Visit healthcare.gov for medical plans that may be more affordable.
  • If you are employed or were recently employed you could check out keeping your current Medical plan. This is known as COBRA. Check with your employer.
  • If you are over 65, enroll in Medicare.

Do You Have a Retirement Savings Account (RSA) 401k

If you are financially strapped, you can tap into this for funds until social security and/or your pension kicks in, but you should do this as a last resort. For me I’ve been fortunate to save my 401k and plan on deferring my pension until I’m 62 years old, when I get a slight bump in pension plan. I’m also hoping to leverage my pension and 401k until I’m 70 or older before I start taking social security. Remember you social security benefit continues to grow every year until age 70.

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Prevent Water Damage in Your House

Water damage can be a very costly problem. Here are some ideas on how you can mitigate or al least get early notification of a potential problem.

Clean Your Gutters

Clogged gutters and downspouts can cause water to back up into your house. They can create ice dams or cause erosion around your foundation. You should clean your gutters in the spring and in the fall after all the leaves have fallen from the trees. Be careful on your roof and ladder or take the easy answer and just pay a handyman to do the job.

Use Sensors for Early Notification of a Problem

You can use water sensors to alert you of a leak. These devices should be placed at common leads culprits like washing machines, water heaters and dishwashers. They make really simple devices or you can get water alert sensors that connect to wifi and can send you messages if there is a problem.

Test Your Sump Pump

Every couple of months, I put water in my sump with a garden hose and I make sure the sump pump turns on and off and drains properly. You may also want to consider a battery back up system for your sump pump.

Turn Off Your Water for Extended Vacations

I had a neighbor leave for Florida in the winter. While he was gone, one of his small 1/4" water lines to a sink on his 2nd floor failed. Water ran for weeks and flooded his whole house, causing ceilings to drop all the way down to his basement.

If they had turned off the water, this wouldn’t have been a problem.

Turn off your water!

Replace Your Washing Machine Hoses

Overtime your washing machine hoses can become brittle and crack. You should think about replacing these every few years.

I just returned from a month long trip and got home to a leaking water heater. Water can cause lots of damage to your house.

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Is the RV Lifestyle Right for You?

With Covid 19 in the air, my wife and I feel very fortunate that we’ve had our RV to get away on weekends and visit our property in Florida. With the RV we’ve been able to maintain social distancing, cook all of our own meals in the RV and use our own bathroom. Really no different then being at home.

If you are open minded this can be a really low cost way to to travel. You’re not necessarily restricted to to campgrounds either. Menu venues have open camping such as county fair grounds, orchards, wineries, casinos and more. I often spend the night in Wal-Mart parking lots if I’m just looking to sleep for a few hours on my journey.

Most modern RV’s have all the conveniences of home and with a good cell phone and data plan you can always stay connected. You can use your phone or a use it as a hot spot for your iPad or computer. It’s easy to research best places to stay or how to make a repair to your camper.

With Covid I’ve come across many families traveling with their families and home schooling along the way. Earlier last year my daughter and I went to Florida where she taught her classes and I worked from the RV.

Unlike your neighborhood the campground is very social place, just keep your distance. Build a camp fire, take a walk, explore the area. So many different things to do then maybe around your house. Being from Michigan we go up north or to the westside of the state to enjoy the great Michigan beaches in the summertime.

Explore the different types of RV’s

Motor Homes, Travel Trailers or 5th wheels can all satisfy your need from small to big. Most of these have slides in the side that expand to really give you a bunch of space. If you opt for a 5th wheel or larger travel trailer, you’ll need a truck with sufficient towing power and capacity for your trailer. Depending on the size, you might even be able to move into full time and sell your house. My Mom and Dad were full time RV’s for 15 years.

If you’ve never camped or traveled before, think about renting and motorhome or RV before you dive in.

How much does an RV cost?

Unfortunately with Covid, the demand for RV’s has increased significantly in the last year. You may have to wait more then a year to have a made to order one built. Nothing wrong with looking for a more affordable used camper where the depreciation was already paid down by the previous owner.

The cost a a trailer can start at $25,000 for a new one, plus the cost of the truck to tow it. Motorhomes start at around $80,000 and go up from there. The more amenities you get in the RV, the higher the cost. Hitches are also expensive.

Buying an RV isn’t cheap! Plus you have the cost of gas, lodging and eventually repairs. So before you buy, think again about renting and trying camping first. I think it’s a great way to get out and see the country.


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Nikon Programmable User Settings U1, U2 and U3 Camera Presets

I’ve had several Nikon cameras with U1, U2 and U3 presets on the top mode dial, but haven’t really used these to often. Guess I’m getting smarter in my old age.

For my wife, I’ve trained her use the Green Auto Mode when she picks up my camera. It’s a fully automatic preset mode that gives a pretty good picture in most situations. It’s simple and you don’t need to understand anything else about the camera.

But for more serious photographers that want to more precisely control an automatic setting, the programmable U modes are a great with to go. What I’ve learned is that these modes can be fast and convenient to have the camera ready to get a great shot 90% of the time. They are also a known starting point every time the camera is turned on or the mode is changed. This is Way better than me trying to fiddle with every control and setting to get the shot.

Here’s what I’m currently using the U1, U2 and U3 Modes for:

U1 is set for things that typically aren’t moving and I want the colors to Pop U2 is set for people that aren’t moving to quickly, casual family shots for example U3 is set for things that move faster, this could be for moving animals or sports

The great thing about the User presets is they return to your settings when the mode is change or if the camera is turned off and then back on. So you can use them for a baseline and make some quick adjustments if the particular shooting situation changes.

I should also note that it works for Camera and Video settings for each User Mode

Now I quickly grab by camera and select User 1, 2 or 3 and I’m ready to shoot! Here are the main differences in my User Settings between the three modes. If I need to tweak something and think that this is really my preference, I’ll change to that User Mode, make the single setting change, then save the User Mode. If you’re not careful with this, you can save a whole bunch of settings to a mode that you didn’t want.

I use these settings in all modes

Mode P > Let the minimum shutter be driven by settings below 

Auto Focus > Continuous 

Fn 1 Button (on front of Nikon Z6 or Z7)) > I set this to be Auto Focus Control so I can easily change it 

Fn 2 Button (on front of Nikon Z6 or Z7) > Set this to My Menu 

Image Quality > JPEG Normal * White 

Balance > A1 Matrix Metering 

Active D-Lighting > Auto 

Vibration Reduction > On (Normal) - this is for Nikon Z series cameras

Here are my User 1 Settings

Picture Control > VIVID 

    Saturation > +3 

    Sharpening > 9

Auto ISO Maximum ISO > 25,600 Auto ISO 

Minimum shutter speed > AUTO (or AUTO Slower with VR)

Here are my User 2 Settings

Picture Control > STANDARD 

    Saturation > +1 

    Sharpening > 9 

Auto ISO Maximum ISO > 25,600 

Auto ISO Minimum shutter speed > 1/125

Here are my User 3 Settings

Picture Control > STANDARD 

    Saturation > +1 

    Sharpening > 9 

Auto ISO Maximum ISO > 25,600 

Auto ISO Minimum shutter speed > 1/500

Backup Camera Settings

Once you have everything set, you can make a back-up of your camera settings and save them to your computer. They can be reinstalled if you need them.


Backup Computer Settings link [LinkL]

Add to this post on some of the settings [LinkL]

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