Walktober Comes to Maryland

Despite the recent weather, October is the perfect time to get outside and celebrate Maryland’s official state exercise — walking! Officially, yesterday was Walk Maryland Day with events planned across the state, but all month offers opportunities to get outside and enjoy the fall.

Walking offers many health benefits, and among them getting out in nature can improve your mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, spending time outdoors can lead to improved attention, lowered stress, better moods, and even increased empathy and cooperation.

Maryland offers ample places to get out and spend time in nature, from state parks to local trails, and we’ve collected a list of localities where everyone can work on improving their physical, mental and emotional health, just by taking a walk amongst the trees.

To find the list of walking trails by county, go to https://extension.umd.edu/resource/walktober and click on “County Walking Opportunities.” Also find more information about Walktober, how you can become a walk leader, or join in next year’s celebration.

Roll Out the Mat and Try Some Yoga

Here at Breathing Room, we are all about helping people find ways to improve their lives and reach their goals, whether they are physical, nutritional, mental, financial, or any other type of goal. One way to work on both the physical and mental or spiritual side of wellness is through the practice of yoga. Yoga, which has been gaining popularity in the U.S. lately, focuses on movement, breathing, and often meditation. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, yoga can help:

  • Reduce stress
  • Improve sleep
  • Manage anxiety
  • Improve balance

For more information about the benefits, check out this article https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga-what-you-need-to-know

I got into yoga in high school because I was having a hard time getting to sleep at night and my doctor suggested it as a way to relax before bed. I bought a book that came with a DVD (I know, its been awhile since I was in high school. We had DVDs then) and started practicing some basic yoga movements before bed. For me, slowing down my breathing to match the movements helped me to relax my body and calm my mind. I still find it to be an effective way to get to sleep if I’m having a hard time.

For me, one of the hardest parts of yoga is convincing my dog, Dakota, that I am on the floor to exercise and not to play with her.

After college, I would occasionally go to yoga classes at a local gym with my mom and sister. I really enjoyed exercising with them and felt my balance really improving from the exercises we did in class. But as life got busier, it became more and more difficult to get to the gym for the in-person classes. My sister then introduced me to some online resources where you can find free videos to guide you through many different types of yoga practices. One of these YouTube channels, Yoga With Adriene, has become very popular. The channel currently has 11.4 million subscribers!

For me, yoga has been an on and off journey. Some months, I will do several classes or workouts and some months I might not do any at all. While doing it more consistently is a goal of mine, I really appreciate that I can always find a way to jump back in when I’m ready. There are so many different options out there, so I always feel like I can jump back in without it being too difficult to get started again.

So, if you’re interested in seeing if yoga might be a tool you can use for reaching your wellness goals, give it a shot and check out some of these resources to help you get started!

  • https://www.doyogawithme.com/ – Do Yoga with Me is a website where you can sort yoga videos by length, type, and level of difficulty. It is really helpful for finding something that meets you where you are.
  • https://www.youtube.com/c/yogawithadriene – Yoga with Adriene has a ton of different videos and options, but I like her monthly playlists. There is a different video for each day of the month which range in length and focus. They are a great way to get started with building a habit of practicing yoga.
  • Senior Centers and Recreation Centers – If you check with your county or city, you might have a local center with free or low-cost classes available. They are usually led by a professional who can help you learn the movements. Also, it can be fun to workout with others in your community!
  • Local Gyms – Many gyms offer yoga classes similar to those offered at Senior Centers and Recreation Centers. But you might even have a local gym or studio that focuses exclusively on yoga. This can be great if you are looking for something more advanced or specific to your needs.

As with any exercise, it is a good idea to check in with your doctor before jumping in to a new exercise program (especially if you have any health concerns). But even if you are a total yoga beginner, there are some great benefits to incorporating yoga into your life. So, roll out the mat and see what yoga can do for you!

Selecting an Insurance Plan

Open Enrollment for Marketplace Health Insurance plans is right around the corner. In fact, this year it runs from November 1, 2022 through January 15, 2023. For information about Marketplace plans visit Healthcare.gov. For this blog, I want to discuss items to consider when selecting a health insurance plan. The Smart Choice workbook provides guided steps to selecting an insurance plan.

One of the first items to consider when selecting a health insurance plan is how you are currently using your health insurance. Do you have a primary care provider? Are there specialists that you work with? Sometimes we are connected to the medical professionals we currently visit. If that is the case, when selecting a new plan you want to know if those providers are in the new plan’s network.

You should also consider how you plan to use the insurance in the coming year. For instance, are you planning a surgery or considering expanding your family (having a baby)? If so, you want to review the Summary of Benefits document provided by the insurance company, which explains what, and how much is covered. This information can be found on the health insurance company’s website.

Another item to consider is the costs. Plans will have monthly costs (known as premiums), out of pocket costs, deductibles, and out of pocket maximums. Typically, lower monthly costs mean a higher deductible. Just make sure you pay attention to the overall costs, not just how much it will cost you monthly. Keep in mind that if you have the higher deductible, you need to have money set aside to cover it. I just shared a few items to consider and there is much more. The Smart Choice workbook can walk you through the process of selecting an insurance plan to meet your specific needs. The fillable workbook asks important questions that assist you in comparing insurance plans. It includes definitions of terms used with health insurance that can be confusing. The workbook is one of many tools offered by the Health Insurance Literacy Initiative (HILI). Additional resources are available on the HILI website. There will also be a fall series with workshops on choosing a health insurance plan, understanding your health insurance plan benefits, and healthcare options in your senior years.

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!