Walks Through the Neighborhood

Walktober is just around the corner; Governor Hogan’s month-long celebration of Maryland’s official exercise — walking.

When I was a kid, my mom used to take me on walks through our neighborhood, to the library, the ice cream shop, or the public pool, and sometimes just around the block. As a parent, I wanted to recreate that experience for my own kids.

When they were little, it was easy to get them to go for walks with me, but as they’ve grown, the call of electronics is like a siren song to my pubescent boys. So I’ve tried to get a little creative in encouraging them to go for walks with me. Wanting something that involved their phones, I found Pokemon GO, a game app based on the popular television shows and movies.

The point of the game is to walk around and catch the Pokemon characters on your phone as you encounter them, battle opponents at virtual gyms, and collect items necessary for in-game play. The best part is that kids must walk around to play the game; some goals can only be accomplished by walking certain distances.

So while I’m cognizant of how much screen time my kids are getting, sharing these walks where we hunt down Pokemon and battle rivals together is quality time I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Pokemon GO, developed by Niantic, is downloadable on iPhone and Android. The app is free, although it does offer in-app purchases, not necessary for game play. To learn more about Pokemon Go, go to https://pokemongolive.com/en/. To learn more about how to participate in Walktober, go to https://extension.umd.edu/resource/walktober.

Diggin’ into Plant-Based Diets

Following a plant-based diet is very trendy these days. Whether it’s an environmental reason (reduce your carbon footprint) or health goal (decrease the risk of some chronic diseases), many people, including myself are consciously reducing their consumption of animal products.

What does it mean to follow a plant-based diet?  That really depends. Some interpret it is being a vegan or vegetarian. Others view a plant-based diet as being broader, including more plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and grains, and also fewer animal foods, like meat, fish and dairy. It’s not necessary to give up all the animal foods you enjoy; however, you can consider decreasing the portion sizes so these foods are no longer the main attraction on your plate. 

Ever since attending a 2019 nutrition conference, I’ve been inspired to consume more plant-based foods. It’s unlikely I will give up my glass of cold, fat-free milk in the evening (with one cookie); however, I do consume at least three meatless meals per week, eat smaller portions of chicken, fish, and lean beef and pork, and I load up half of my plate with vegetables (see my grilled vegetable recipe). This summer, my deck garden provided enough delicious red tomatoes to enjoy almost every day on salads. Since making these changes, I’ve maintaining a healthy weight and blood pressure and feeling good about doing something for Mother Earth. 

Are you ready to ‘dig in’ and adopt a more plant-based diet? Here are some tips that helped me get started.

1. Go meatless one day a week. Beans, lentils, and nuts are great sources of plant-proteins and add fiber to your diet, which makes you feel full. Instead of adding meat to my pasta, I toss it with grilled vegetables. If you like chili, peruse recipe websites for a bean-based chili that appeals to your taste buds.

2. Combine vegetable proteins. Quinoa, is a perfect protein, meaning it contains the 9 essential amino acids your body needs daily. You can also combine other plant foods to get that perfect protein. Some of my favorite combos are black beans and rice, chick peas and pasta, and whole what bread and peanut butter (with some jelly).

3. Re-think your meat portions. You can still have meat at your meals, but in smaller amounts, like 3 cooked ounces (the size and thickness of a deck of cards). Many of meals like soups (winter) and salads (summer) are full of vegetables and whole grains, but I add a small piece of protein, like a leftover grilled and shredded chicken breast or a few slices of pork tenderloin.


Try this recipe for Easy Grilled Vegetables!

Selection of vegetables:

  • Red, yellow or green peppers – cut in half and seeded
  • Yellow and green squash – sliced length-wise, about ½ inch thick
  • Eggplant – sliced width-wise, about ½ inch thick
  • Mushrooms – whole cleaned
  • Onion – sliced width-wise, about ½ inch thick

Additional ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons, minced garlic
  • Fresh chopped or dried herb (parsley, thyme, basil, etc.) for garnish

Instructions:

1. Mix oil, salt, pepper, vinegar and garlic together.

2. Arrange vegetables on grill or in a grill pan (medium heat).

    Note: depending on the size of your pan you may need to work in batches.

3. Grill vegetables 6-8 minutes, brushing with oil, and vinegar mixture.

4. Remove vegetables from grill or grill pan and place on a platter. Drizzle remaining oil and

    vinegar mixture on vegetables. Sprinkle herbs over vegetables and serve.

Try Golfing – Or Anything New – This Month

August is National Golf Month and in honor of that, I thought I would share with you all a little bit about my own golf journey. Much to the surprise of many people who know me, I’ve recently gotten into golf. My husband has enjoyed playing for many years, but I had not played before. I starting walking the course with him as fun way to spend some time together and get in some physical activity. After walking along for a few rounds, I wanted to try it myself. So, I started going to the driving range to learn the skills I need to start playing. It’s been really enjoyable and a fun way to keep myself active, especially on a Saturday morning.

Like many other types of physical activity, there are mental and physical health benefits to playing golf. We’ll get to those in a little bit, but first, I want to talk about the growth that can come from trying new things. I think for many of us, life gets busy and we might not feel we have time to learn a completely new skill. I know for myself, there are times when I want to try something new but am worried that I won’t be good at it. But, this is where we can benefit from a change in perspective. Focusing on learning, growing, and small improvements over time can encourage us to think more about how many new things we are learning and how much we are improving. I’m by no means an expert golfer, but I can hit the ball further and straighter than when I first started, and I’m proud of that improvement!

Josh Sorenson (Carrie’s husband) on the course. Photo by Carrie Sorenson.

According to this NPR article, the process of learning a new skill and improving over time can be very important for brain health. When you challenge your brain to learn something difficult, you help strengthen the connections your brain needs. So even if it isn’t golf, challenging yourself to try a new (and difficult) activity could be great for your brain in the long run! My husband recently decided to learn to play ice hockey, and although it has been difficult to learn, he has a great time playing on a local recreational team and improving his skills. For me, learning golf has been challenging, but also a great way to relieve stress and get outside. Whatever your interest may be, stepping outside your comfort zone and learning a new skill is a great way to keep your brain healthy as you age.

Even if golf isn’t a new skill for you, there are still benefits to hitting the golf course. Walking the course, carrying bags, and hitting the ball are all forms of physical activity. If you walk an 18-hole course, that is usually five or more miles of walking (depending on the size of the course). Even folks who use a cart when they play end up walking a good amount over the course of a game. Additionally, the time spent playing is that much more time we are spending outside. In a previous post I explained many of the physical and mental health benefits of being outdoors, so check that out if you want more information about why time outside can be so beneficial. But in general, adding any physical activity and time spent outside is beneficial for our physical and emotional health. So, there are some great potential health benefits of getting into golf.

So, for National Golf Month, consider heading to your local golf course or driving range to try (or continue) playing golf!

Ready, Set, Go Tax Free Week!

People are starting to wind up their family vacations. With that comes returning to school. One of the pros of this time period is that many states offer a tax free week or weekend (that is if your state charges a state sales tax). So why should you care? It saves you money. People are finding it more and more difficult during this time period to make ends meet. Shopping during tax free week or weekend is one of those strategies you can use to save a little money.

Think about this. In Maryland, the sales tax is 6%. This means for every item of clothing you buy; you pay a 6% sales tax. For example, if I bought a shirt for $50, I would pay a state sales tax of $3. So let’s say, I bought $500 worth of clothes for my family during tax free week. I just saved myself $30. Some of you may think “that’s not much” but every little bit helps.

Now each state has its own set of rules when it comes to tax free week or weekend. In Maryland, it is a tax-free week that begins on the second Sunday of August. This year it begins on August 14th and end on August 20th at midnight. It applies to qualifying clothing and footwear under $100. It also applies to the first $40 of a backpack or book bag. If you are looking for a good summary, you may find this information sheet helpful. For detailed information about Maryland’s tax free week, visit the Maryland Comptroller’s website.

So, I mentioned that not all states offer a tax exempt week. That led me to look around on the internet to find out which states offered the incentive. I found two websites containing interesting information about state taxes. I am not endorsing either site. I am just sharing what I found. I encourage you to visit each state’s website for specific information. With that said, this website provides a list of states that offer tax exempt weekends or weeks. The other website I found interesting includes information about sales taxes for each state.

Well that’s my tip for the month. Enjoy the rest of the summer. Take advantages of the time now before you start your busy fall schedule.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness: Temporary Waiver and an Oct. 31 Deadline

As the “Breathing Room” name implies, this blog is intended to offer you a break from life’s deadlines, stressors, and workloads, and give you a chance to take a breath, focus on yourself, and enjoy.  But, if you….

  1. Have federal student loans
  2. Are employed by any type of government or nonprofit organization
  3. Want to qualify for loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, and
  4. Want to make sure you receive maximum credit for your participation,

don’t take a break quite yet.  Now is the time act before the October 31, dare we say it, deadline.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), was created to increase the applicant pool for government and nonprofit jobs. PSLF is a federal program designed to provide an incentive to attract job seekers to employment in much needed, but often lower paying, service work. A component of the 2007 bipartisan College Cost Reduction and Access Act, PSLF promised to forgive the outstanding federal student loan debt for qualifying workers once they have made 120 monthly payments. However, the program was created without a clear, long term plan for implementation. With legislative and executive branch turnover, problems arose.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness had strict qualification requirements (which you can read about here,) and required specific action steps (which you can read about here,) to maintain that qualification.  However, once eligibility began in 2017, many individuals had their PSLF application rejected because of missed requirements, poor guidance, and misunderstandings. Many fixes were implemented over the ensuing years.

PSLF Waiver. In late 2021, the US Department of Education announced a short term PSLF Limited Waiver. As the name implies, the Waiver, which is set to expire on October 31, 2022, waives many of the original qualifying requirements. For a limited time, payments made under the wrong loan type, payments made late, and payments made prior to a new consolidation all count.  Additionally, educators who receive teacher loan forgiveness can count their qualifying time towards PSLF, and active-duty service members can count months of deferral or forbearance toward their 120 qualifying payments.

What, specifically, has changed for the Temporary Waiver until October 31? Here are a few of the major items:

Consolidated loans. Previously, consolidating student loans restarted the 120 payment count. Under the Waiver, payments made prior to the new consolidation loans now count.

Loan type. Under normal PSLF requirements, only payments for Direct Loans counted. Through the Waiver, borrowers receive credit for payments made on FFEL or Perkins loans as well. But, they MUST be consolidated into a direct loan before the October 31 deadline.

Teacher Loan Forgiveness. Teachers have their own loan forgiveness plan which provides limited dollar forgiveness after five years. Normally, outstanding loan balances would then also be eligible for PSLF after another 120 months. The Waiver allows those two time periods to run concurrently, and payments made during the teacher forgiveness window now count toward the 120 PSLF months.

Payment Plan. Payments made under graduated or extended payment plans are now accepted under the Temporary Waiver, but the loans must be consolidated into an income-driven payment plan prior to the October 31 deadline.  

Late and Partial Payments. Previously not counted toward the required 120, late and partial payments are now being retroactively added to the total needed to qualify. This should be done automatically, but borrowers should check. Similarly, certain periods of forbearance or deferment now count. This is a particular benefit to active duty military members.

This post is not a comprehensive list of changes under the Temporary Waiver. Check with your servicer, read through the government-provided information at StudentAid.Gov, complete the required forms and other actions by the October 31 deadline.

Then, breathe!

Dealing With Inflation!

How do we deal with inflation? The cost of goods has increased around 8% over the past year. The income for most has remained constant or only slightly higher during that time. If you are not careful, you will find yourself spending more than your income. Unfortunately, many people don’t notice as they use their credit card to make up the difference or don’t notice until they receive their credit card statement. I want to share a few simple strategies to offset some of the increase.

The price of gas is one of those areas with the largest increase and therefore the first tip is to drive less. This is accomplished by planning your trips. We like the convenience of getting items when we want them. Consolidating trips can reduce the amount of gas used as well as the wear and tear on your car.

Have you ever used coupons? Maybe now is the time to start. Using coupons can reduce cost and in some cases provide you with free items. Look around coupons are out there. A simple search on the internet can provide you with a list of sources. You also get them in the mail or newspaper.

Use your merchandise cards. The gas station I use has a merchandise card. I scan the card and instantly get 3 cents off my gasoline. It also provides me with a free doughnut and coffee on occasion. Many grocery stores offer them as well.

If you are purchasing large items like a refrigerator or even a car, think about delaying those items for a few months. When it is time to purchase, compare prices. The recommendation is to compare prices at three different locations. You would be surprised how stores mark up prices on certain items to reduce prices on others. Their goal is to get you in the store. Your goal is to save money!

Think about a household audit. You don’t realize how many items you have drawing power that you are not using. Unplug it! What about those lights? Turn them off when you leave the room. Now your thermostat, adjust it a little higher in the summer and a little lower in the winter. Remember, little things add up.

I also need to emphasize the importance of a spending plan. You need to know where your money is going. Analyzing your spending plan will inform you of the habits you developed like buying coffee every morning. It may not seem like much, but every trip costs you $2-$10. 

These strategies may seem simple, but little things add up. Be savvy and save!

Confused About Crypto?

If you find cryptocurrency confusing, you are not alone. Cryptocurrency, “crypto” for short, is a form of money, or currency that only exists digitally. Crypto got its name because transactions are encrypted with complex digital codes sent over powerful computer networks. It is used very differently than other common currencies, such as the dollar, euro, and peso. However, comparing crypto to a common currency, such as the dollar, makes it easier to understand. 

Consider what gives a US dollar value. A dollar has value because it is an accepted means of buying and selling, particularly in the United States. A dollar buys a dollar’s worth of goods because the government says so. This is called fiat. The government supports the dollar’s value, and our Central Bank, the Federal Reserve, helps regulate the value. A dollar bill is simply a piece of paper that represents the ability to buy, but has almost no value in itself.

Cryptocurrency, on the other hand, is a peer-to-peer version of cash. Presently, it is not issued by a government and is primarily unregulated. Like paper dollar bills, the units of cryptocurrency have no value by themselves. It is a way for money to be sent between individuals without it going through a bank. The people that own it, use it, and trade it, determine its value, and the major cryptocurrencies have their value reported daily in financial news sources.

There are many available cryptocurrencies. Some of the more familiar names are Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin, and Tether. Bitcoin has the highest value in circulation.  Ethereum is second in total value.  At the time of this article, each Etherium unit has a much lower value than Bitcoin but there are many more in circulation. Dogecoin started as a joke between a couple of friends, and quickly became popular sue to social media. Tether is considered a stablecoin and named after its mission to tether its value to a standard currency.

Currency is what makes trading easy. In the US, we trade dollars for the items we buy. Using money to buy things means we don’t need to barter, and it is easy to determine value. We understand what it means when a box of mac-n-cheese costs $1.00, a book is $15.00, and a car sells for $15,000. 

The best way to explain how cryptocurrency works is with a simple and fun illustration. 

Suppose there are three individuals, Lamar, Olivia, and William. Lamar sells llamas, and wants to buy oats to feed them. Olivia sells oats, and wants to buy a wagon to carry them.  William sells Wagons, and wants to buy llamas to pull them. Instead of trying to barter or using their government’s established currency, they decide to create a new cryptocurrency among themselves that they can use to pay each other over the internet. They name their new currency “logancoin,” after their product types, and decide at that time that each logancoin is worth one llama, or 20 wagons, or 100 bushels of oats. As the value of llamas, oats, and wagons change, or new products are added, the value of logancoins would change. Then each can decide how many logancoins, or fraction of a logancoin, each product is worth to them. That is the general idea behind cryptocurrency.

Why is cryptocurrency so frequently in the news? Crypto is a relatively new form of currency. New currencies, and the technology that supports them, are constantly being created and rules are changing.  Crypto’s appeal has risen and fallen many times since it was introduced in 2009. The more people and business accept these digital coins as payment, the more popular these currencies become. Demand increases what people are willing to pay for each digital coin. The opposite is also true. Events such as scams, hacking, and illegal activities diminish demand as investors sell their coins and leave the networks. Cryptocurrency has quickly evolved into more of a speculative investment than a means of exchange. It will be interesting to see what the future holds.