New Year, New Couple Ritual

The New Year has everyone thinking of ways to improve something about their lives. While New Year’s Resolutions are often focused on creating new individual routines, such as regular diet or exercise, couples should remember that enhancing their relationship routines is a great way to improve both health and life satisfaction. So, how might couples take the first step in enhancing their relationship routines?

First, it is important to understand why couple routines and rituals are an important focus. Research shows that couples benefit from establishing and participating in regular activities that add meaning to their relationship. When couples fail to make intentional efforts to spend meaningful time together, they tend to drift toward isolation from one another. This slow drift apart can be hard to detect amidst the noise and distractions of modern, busy family life.  

Below we are sharing some ideas to add in some positive routines or traditions into your couple relationship during 2023. There is no need to try them all at once. Start with a practice that feels attainable to you, given your unique situation. 

Photos from RawPixel.com.

Actions to try out

Daily Routines: 

  • Kiss each other hello and good bye 
  • Spend some uninterrupted time chatting at the start or end of the day
  • Enjoy something relaxing together in the evening (e.g., a leisurely walk, tea, hot chocolate, snuggling under a comfy blanket) 

Weekly Routines:

  • Engage in a hobby together
  • Connect to the world as a couple via time in nature, community groups, or faith groups  
  • Go on a date

Annual Traditions:

  • Decide as a couple how you would like to celebrate important events such as anniversaries, birthdays, holidays

Another great way to kickstart the enhancement of your relationship is to participate in a Couples Retreat hosted by University of Maryland Extension. The retreat is focused on business-owning couples, especially in the agriculture industry. The retreat will cover information like the content in this blog, as well as a variety of other couples enhancement activities. Furthermore, we will provide information on business financial planning and succession/estate planning for business-owning couples. All couples are welcome to attend. Click here to find more information about cost and registration.

This post contributed by UME Faculty Specialist Alex Chan.

Check Your Credit for the New Year

Why do I need to check my credit report?

There are two primary reasons to check your credit report. One is to ensure the accuracy of information and the other to monitor your credit reports to prevent identity theft. 

As a refresher, there are three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) that collect information about how you borrow and repay money. I wrote an information paper on Understanding Credit and Credit Reports for more information about credit reports. 

Credit scores can affect your ability to obtain loans. Image from pixabay.com.

The accuracy of information is important as it impacts our ability to obtain new loans and the rate we are charged for those loans. There is only one true source authorized by federal law to get your credit report. It is AnnualCreditReport.com. By federal law, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three major credit reports. Some states may have additional expectations, like Maryland which allows for an additional free copy from each of the credit bureaus. 

Ever since the pandemic, credit bureaus have allowed individuals to get a free copy each week, but the ending date for that continues to change. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau developed a nice tool / checklist to assist you in reviewing your credit report. 

The Federal Trade Commission reports 5.7 million cases of fraud and identity theft. Checking your credit report periodically can serve as a form of identity protection. The credit report contains a list of all active accounts reported to the credit bureau. You should make sure every account listed is an account that you opened. 

If you don’t plan on opening a line of credit any time soon, I suggest you freeze your accounts. This prevents someone from accessing the information in your credit report. Experian has good information about freezing your account. Remember you need to freeze the account with each credit bureau. And don’t worry, you can unfreeze or thaw your account at any time.If you become a victim of identity theft, FDC developed a website to guide you through the reporting and recovery process.

The 12 Days of Holiday Fitness (and Beyond)

Most of us don’t make fitness a priority during the holidays. We are busy, decorating, shopping, and preparing food for our jam-packed holiday calendar. We also look forward to spending time with family and friends, leaving little time for physical activity.

Instead of being a January 1st, ‘Fitness Resolutioner,’ delaying fitness/activity goals until the new year, why not start now? See my ‘12 Days of Holiday Fitness Tips’ for being active during the holiday and the new year:

Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.com.

Day 1: Develop a realistic plan and track you activity. Use a fitness tracker or write it down. Tracking progress motivates us to be more physically active and increase our activity levels.

Day 2: Commit to 15 minutes of daily activity of something you enjoy: walking, cycling, hiking, dancing, swimming, etc.

Day 3: Take a daily lunch break walk with a co-worker. Map a route outside, around your worksite’s parking lot or inside, in the hallways. Use the stairs instead of elevators.

Day 4: Holiday shopping? Park the car a distance from the store or mall. Take a lap around the parking lot or inside the mall before you start shopping. This will provide you with added energy for getting your shopping done. Use the stairs instead of escalators and elevators.

Day 5: Feeling tired, stressed and unmotivated? Ironically, physical activity boosts energy and relieves stress,  Find an ‘activity buddy’ to keep you motivated. My running partner and I text each other weekly to get a 30-minute run (or walk) on our calendars. 

Day 6: Hydrate! Carry a water bottle during your activity, especially if your outside. Proper hydration can generate heat to keep you warm.

Image from RawPixel.com. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Day 7: You’re halfway there! Add 5 minutes (or more) of physical activity to your day. You can do it!

Day 8: Plan an outdoor family and friends social activity. Ice skating, skiing or snowshoeing, hiking, or participating in an outdoor game keeps you active and reduces holiday stress.

Day 9: Traveling? Airports, train and bus stations are a great place to walk. After flying home from the Thanksgiving holiday, I walked 20 minutes around baggage carousels, waiting for my luggage. Also, forgo the ‘moving walkways’. You’ll burn more calories and strengthen your legs.

Day 10: Take a walk before or after a meal. I encourage my family (some members more than others) to take a walk after Thanksgiving dinner, before we indulged in dessert.

Day 11: Sign up for a local holiday walk/run. Organize a group and make it fun and wear holiday attire. Participating in a New Year’s Day walk/run is a great way to start the new year.

Day 12: Try a free group fitness class at a local community center or check out a discount gym in your area. Some gyms offer holiday specials that can fit into anyone’s budget.

With a plan and motivation, you can be physically active through the holidays and still have time for festivities. 

Happy Holidays!

Budgeting Your Holiday Spending

The days are getting shorter and I am starting to get more and more creative with my Thanksgiving leftovers. For me, those are clear signs that we are getting into the height of the holiday season. Looking at my calendar for the next few weeks, there are gatherings with friends and family, gifts to buy, and special meals to plan. Unfortunately, all of these things can add up and stretch an already tight budget even tighter. So, I thought I would share some tips for staying on track with your budget this holiday season. 

Tip #1: Make sure you have an accurate budget

This may seem obvious to some, but I want to explain what I mean here. Many of us are feeling the pressures of inflation as prices rise for all kinds of things. What you may not realize is that many people also engage in “mental accounting.” This means that they try to keep track of their money in their mind. But when prices are rising and changing, your estimate of how much things cost might be off. Additionally, the busy holiday season can mean it is difficult to remember everything we will need to do and buy. This is a recipe for a budget shock. Essentially, it puts us in a position where things are likely to cost more than we expect and we are likely to forget about some things we need. Doing our best to get an accurate idea of what we will need and how much it will cost will give us a better idea of what we need to do to stay on budget. 

Tip #2: Consider modifying traditions, especially expensive ones

Tradition is a powerful force in many of our lives. It can feel comforting to know that some things will stay the same, even as time passes. Additionally, we may feel that others are relying on us to keep certain traditions alive. But if maintaining a holiday tradition means that you are going to have trouble affording things you need, then it makes sense to reconsider. Communication is key here. It can be difficult to talk about money, but it could help explain to family and friends why a particular tradition might need to change. For example, you might host a gathering with friends where you typically provide all the food. But you might be able to talk with friends and let them know that, especially with inflated food prices, that won’t be an option this year. Your friends might be willing to switch the tradition to a pot luck meal. That way, you can still spend time together without breaking the bank. I know thins year I will be thinking about why certain traditions are important to me and trying to get creative with finding ways to achieve the same goal, but at a lower cost. 

Tip #3: Manage impulse extras

This may not be true for everyone, but for me the holiday season encourages impulse spending. Since I am spending more time in stores where I am browsing for gifts, rather than shopping with a list, it makes it more likely that I will throw some extra things in my cart. But these small purchases can quickly throw my holiday budget out of whack. I have a few ideas for how I can limit this extra spending:

  • Know when I’m done shopping for each person. If I see something I think my dad would love, but I already have a gift for him, I need to encourage myself to leave it on the shelf. I could always take a picture and save it for his birthday or Father’s Day. 
  • Whenever possible, have a list. Instead of wandering from store to store and increasing the chances of buying random things, I am planning to go out when I have a list and an idea of what I really need. 
  • Avoid the “Buy Now” button. If I can give myself a day or two to consider purchases, it might help me avoid buying things I don’t really need. When I’m online shopping, adding something to my cart rather than buying it immediately will give me time to truly consider my purchases. 

Especially during the holiday season, there is pressure to spend money. We tend to feel like there are so many things we have to have so that we can make memories with family and friends. But I think there are ways to create memories and enjoy the holiday season without overspending and making life more difficult for ourselves in the New Year. So, this year I am going to give it my best shot and I hope you will too. 

Happy Holidays! 

Open Enrollment for Health Insurance and Medicare Is Happening Now

Guest post by Maria Pippidis, Extension Educator, University of Delaware Cooperative Extension

Are you spending too much on health insurance? It’s time to do a health insurance check up! 

Open enrollment for the Health Insurance Marketplace (November 1, 2022, through January 15, 2023) for those under age 65 and Medicare (October 15 through December 7) for those over 65 is happening now. Even if you have health insurance already, comparison shopping can help you save money and get better coverage. It is important to compare not only the premium costs but also other out of pocket costs like deductibles, copayments and coinsurance in relation to how often you use health care services. There are also options for dental insurance. Think back about how you have used health care services in the past to help you do an estimate of how much these other out of pocket costs might affect the choice of plans you consider.

Remember, for health insurance marketplace plans, prevention services like annual check ups with your primary care provider or gynecologist are covered at no charge.

For those under age 65, use the healthcare.gov website to see options for you and your family or for covering employees if you are a small business. Depending on your income and the state you live in you will have a variety of health insurance policy options and tax credits or tax subsidies. Here are some examples for a family of 4 with 2 children under 18 years of age in Delaware:

  • If your income is below $38,295/year you may qualify for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or Medicaid. 
  • An income range between $38,295 and $69,375/year will provide coverage with tax credits on premiums and reduced deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance.
  • An income range between $69375 and $111,000 will provide coverage with reduced premiums.

This is just an example and the income ranges will be based on your family size and your state. By going to the website and adding your specific information, you’ll get a better sense of the costs and coverage. I personally have seen farm operators save thousands of dollars by exploring the marketplace for health insurance options. Even if you have off farm employment covering your whole family, it might be worth exploring the healthcare marketplace options for those not working off farm and your children.

You can explore options online or you can get help by talking to a health insurance navigator. The healthcare marketplace website in your state will provide information about who are certified providers that can assist you in better understanding your options. These individuals have been trained to provide information about the plans. Note that some insurance brokers have been certified as well; these individuals can inform you about the marketplace plans and other plans for insurance organizations which they represent. There are also navigators/assistors who work with non-profit, government or health care organizations who are certified.

For those who are 65 and older, use the medicare.gov website to see which Medicare Advantage Plans or Medicare Supplemental (Medigap) plans are available in your area. You can comparison shop these plans very easily on the website. My advice is to ignore the TV commercials and the junk mail regarding Medicare plans. Rather use your State Health Insurance Assistance Program. You can find your local contact by visiting this website https://www.shiphelp.org/ and searching by your state. This program can assist you by setting up a free counseling session with a trained volunteer at a convenient site near you. Their goal is to empower people with Medicare to better understand their options and enable them to make the best health insurance decisions for themselves. The counselors can help you better understand your options to help you make the best decision for you related to Medicare, Medicaid, Medigap (Medicare supplement insurance), Medicare Part D, long-term care insurance and other types of health insurance. There is no charge for the service.  

Though it takes a bit of time, invest in yourself  because no matter what age you are, reviewing your health insurance coverage is one of the best ways to stay financially and physically healthy in the coming year.

Just for Teachers: A Student Loan Forgiveness Program of your Own

Teachers, you are appreciated! Student loan forgiveness has been given much attention over the last few years, particularly Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). However, there are other loan forgiveness opportunities. One such program is Teacher Loan Forgiveness, which provides a path to either $5,000 or $17,000 of loan forgiveness for elementary, middle, and high school teachers. Like any other loan forgiveness program, there are several notable eligibility requirements.  

Time. To be eligible for Teacher Loan Forgiveness (TLF), you must complete five, consecutive and complete academic years of employment in a position considered to be full-time. Absences under military orders, the Family and Medical Leave Act and for certain post-secondary education create exceptions to this policy.

School. Loan forgiveness is for K12 teachers who work at a school or educational service agency designated as serving low income individuals. The Department of Education publishes a list of schools and agencies that meet this criteria. Removal of a school from this list does not disqualify the teacher from loan forgiveness, as long as one full year meets this eligibility criteria. 

Credentialing. To qualify for loan forgiveness, teachers must be considered highly qualified for the duration of their five qualifying years. This means they have at least a bachelor’s degree and have met their state’s certification requirements. 

Loan.  Loans must be Direct or FFEL Program loans made after October 1, 1998, and must have been made before the end of the five qualifying years discussed under the time requirement above. This means that new student loans obtained during these five years are eligible for forgiveness. 

Who gets the $17,000?  For teachers who meet the above criteria, there are two career paths to this higher benefit. One is teaching math or science at the secondary school level. The other is as a special education teacher at any level, elementary through high school.  All other teachers remain eligible for $5,000 in student loan forgiveness.  

What about TEACH grants?  The federal Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) program is a separate program from TLF and teachers can benefit from both.  TEACH offers grants up to $4,000 in annual financial aid to full-time undergraduate and graduate students who are enrolled in a teaching degree program.  Grant requirements include four years of service. TEACH and TLF service periods can run simultaneously. More information is available on the government student loan website. Here you can find additional details, application information, and links to the FAFSA. 

Fall is For FAFSA

October 1 of each year marks the date that the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) becomes available. Students who wish to receive any form of student loan or grant from the federal government must complete and submit it. Most states and colleges also require completion before schools offering aid and formulating a financial aid package.  Even some scholarship foundations and other private grantees will ask for the FAFSA.  

The financial aid process can feel somewhat mysterious for both students and their families.  The first step is to complete the form.  It is available on the StudentAid.Gov website and can be submitted online or mailed.  If sent in electronically, the Department of Education processes your application in about three days, and then makes the information available to all of the schools you chose to list on the form.  Each school then uses the information you documented on the FAFSA to determine how much aid you are eligible to receive if you attend that school. Aid can be a combination of subsidized loans, unsubsidized loans, grants, and scholarships. 

To determine a student’s financial package, the financial aid office evaluates a complex formula.  The parts of the formula are the cost of attendance (COA) and an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The outcome of this formula will determine the amount and mix of student financial aid. 

Cost of Attendance. The COA takes into account the variety of costs that the student will incur in order to reasonably complete their education.  This calculation includes tuition and fees, living expenses such as lodging and food, books and related resources, dependent care expenses if the student is a caregiver, travel to and from the school, costs of disability accommodation, and reasonable study abroad costs if applicable.  

Expected Family Contribution. The EFT is the portion of costs that the student and family are expected to pay toward the cost of attendance.  The EFT is also a formula, and factors in the size of the student’s family, the number of students attending higher education (for now), most forms of income, and certain assets. Whether home equity is considered or not can depend on requirements of some private institutions

Be careful with deadlines.  While the FAFSA can be completed and submitted any time between October 1 and June 30, many schools have earlier deadlines, especially for specific scholarships and grants.  Additionally, even some federal grants are available on a first-come-first-served basis, and the opportunity for those funds can close once the budget is used. 

Next year, there will be many changes happening to the FAFSA application.  These changes will not be in effect until the 2023-2024 application period, but they will be discussed in an upcoming post so families can plan accordingly.