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Are you completely stoked about your upcoming vacation, but dreading the travel-related hassles that await?  Never fear, we’ve found some nifty gadgets to help ease the pain of travel!

Expand-A-Bag from Beyond a Bag.  Have you ever returned from vacation with more items than when you left?  No need to check an extra bag if you have the Expand-a-Bag.  It’s a stylish cross-body bag when you want your hands free. Convert to a fanny pack and have zippered pockets close at hand. When you need to expand the bag, no need to empty it first – and you have a handy duffle to hold a day’s worth of fun.

Slim Sonic Toothbrush from Violife. Do you wish you could bring your electric toothbrush along on your trip, but hate how bulky it is?  The tiny Slim Sonic Toothbrush ensures you can easily take your electric toothbrush anywhere.  Its mascara-style vented cap means you can grab it from your handbag, backpack, or pocket to brush up anytime, anywhere.  With 22,000 brush strokes per minute and a choice of bright colors & patterns, you’ll look and feel fabulous every time you use your Slim Sonic portable toothbrush.  

Brita water bottle.  Squeeze your way to great-tasting water! Take this soft squeeze bottle anywhere and get fresh filtered water on the go, without the cost and waste of bottled water.  This will eliminate your post TSA scramble to buy a bottled water for boarding…just fill up at a faucet and go!

  • BPA-free

  • Dishwasher safe (top rack)

  • Recyclable bottle

Universal USB Solar Panel Charger.  It’s all good and well having some clever tech that you can carry around with you as you travel the world, but if you haven’t got a way of charging them up then it can render them useless. This is where this little beauty comes in. Solar panel chargers don’t take too long to power themselves up (especially when you’re in a hot country) and if you get yourself a universal USB solar charger, you can charge pretty much anything from it!

GorillaPod Flexible Camera Tripod. When you’re traveling through a variety of different terrain, taking photos and video can sometimes be a bit difficult. This tripod is lightweight, can grasp onto almost anything and will help you get some amazing shots. You can’t really ask for much more, can you? They come in a variety of sizes and can attach to high end SLRs all the way through to your iPhone.

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As you gear up for vacation season, do you find yourself dreading the luggage hassle: How many bags will I have to pay for?  Do I have to pare down my packing supplies just to fit the luggage weight guidelines?  How can I keep my clothes clean when I’m on the go?  These are just a few of the more stress filled questions that can rain on your vacation parade.  Thankfully, we’ve discovered a couple of alternatives you may not have thought of when it comes to your next travel destination.

luggage

Did you know that disposable clothing has been all the rage for international travelers for some time now?  It is the idea that you can buy cheap and cheerful clothing, wear it for a short period of time, and toss it (or recycle it) on your travels.  This is especially useful for those who are traveling to for long periods of time over several different climates–namely backpackers who haul everything on their backs.  For example, you can buy a cheap jacket while is Canada, then swap it out for tank tops in Thailand.  Even if you are not the avid backpacker or world traveler, having disposable clothing can make your traveling less stressful and even be easier on the environment if they are recyclable.  It is the alternative to hauling wet or soiled clothes and finding means to wash them or pay hotel laundry fees.  Companies like Onederwear are trying to market in the US due to their popularity in places like Europe and Asia.  They sell biodegradable cotton underwear you use once or twice, then toss, even great for jogging and hiking.

There are essentially two types of luggage: carry-on and lost. If you need to tote more than you can carry on, then simply ship your bags ahead to the hotel.  In addition to DHL, FedEx, and UPS, there are more than 17 other private courier companies that perform the same door-to-door, room-to-room service.  Check out  Luggageconcierge.com, Luggagefree.com, and Virtualbellhop.com.  It costs as little as $40 per bag.  You save an average of two hours of your life every time you fly by not checking bags. You don’t have to schlep, stand in line at the airline counter, stand in line at the TSA, and then, when you land, you don’t have to stand in that refugee circle around the baggage carousel, hoping against hope that  your bags were actually on the same flight you were.

Because of issues with customs, it’s not always a good idea to send your bags ahead when you are traveling internationally. In cases like that, if you must check your bags, practice some basic common sense: Always put an identification tag on the outside of each bag (but list only your name and cell-phone contact number), and do the same on the inside of each bag. Airline baggage conveyor belts can devour ID tags, but this way, if your outside tag gets ripped off, someone from the airline can still reach you.

We got a real taste of Spring these last couple weeks which may leave you itching to get out of the house! But while it’s still cool outside, there may be a few home maintenance tasks that need attending to that you may not have thought of:

  1. Wash your windows.  Did you know a cool day in early Spring is the perfect time for this? If you wait until Summer, the heat might dry the soap solution before it gets rinsed, leaving filmy streaks.
  2. Protect stored winter items with insect repellents.  The best natural moth repellent is a cotton sachet filled with Cedar chips. Tuck a few in your drawers or loop them around the necks of hangers.
  3. Change your smoke detector batteries.  Can you remember the last time you did this?? It is ideal to change them at least twice a year.
  4. Climb a ladder and survey your roof.  With all the temperature variation this last month, the freeze-thaw process can lift and warp shingles and also dislodge bricks from your chimney.
  5. Sweep or vacuum out garage.  It’s important to clean remove the surprising amounts of dirt that migrate in on your tires from driveways and roads where snowplows have deposited salt and sand.
  6. Troubleshoot the Grill.  If your gas grill has sat unused over the winter, carefully check the jets for clogging and obstructions, including insect and rodent nests. If one jet lights but the other clogs, gas buildup on the clogged side can cause an explosive combustion when the gas finally lights.

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Get these tasks done now while you have that Pre-Spring pent-up energy.  Here’s to Spring!

April is National Stress Awareness Month, and that means learning more about how stress affects the whole family. Its uncomfortable to admit, but children experience stress more often than parents realize. Thankfully Lori Lite, founder of Stress Free Kids, says that reducing stress can be as easy as ABC for you and your family. This ABC list makes it fun for children to pick a letter, read, and implement a tip that will reduce stress for the day. When children step through the academic door to learning they also open Pandora’s Box of stressors. Preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, or college. It is never too early or late to fill your child’s backpack with the ABCs of decreasing stress. Parenting expert Michele Borba suggests: Print this out and place on your refrigerator. Have the kids choose a letter each day and focus on the tip!

A- Affirmations = Positive Statements= Less Stress

B- Be aware of over-scheduling

C- Counteract stress with relaxation and stress management techniques

D- Deep breathing will decrease anger and anxiety

E- Exhale and say ahhhh….

F- Focus on relaxation and sleep will follow

G- Go for a slow family walk

H- Hope will decrease anxiety and fear

I- Imagine a positive outcome

J- Juggle less

K- Keep it simple, keep it fun

L- Laughter is a stress reducer

M- Music calms, soothes, and uplifts

N- Negative thoughts can be replaced with positive

O- Organizing eliminates chaos and frustration

P- Playing is essential

Q- Quiet time is part of life

R- Relaxation can be incorporated into each day

S- Stop the chatter in your head

T- Teens or toddler. We all need downtime and coping skills

U- Understand that a stressed life means something is out of balance

V- Visualizing increases creativity

W- Waste time and be happy about it

X- XOXO kids, teens, we all relax with a hug or a kiss

Y- Young or old can learn stress management

Z- Zap stress, anxiety, fear…Live in joy, hope, balance

One sure way to decrease stress is to introduce your family to relaxation music. Homework, bedtime, carpool… anytime you want to de-stress. Try Stress Free Kids’ line of Relaxation Music CDs or their stories for children that incorporate stress management techniques and get ready to feel good!

Is your kitchen table covered in tax clutter?  Did you promise yourself this disorganization wouldn’t happen AGAIN next tax season? …and here you are buried up to your eyeballs in paperwork.  Kick the “pile it and file it later” approach: It doesn’t work.  The Motley Fool suggests following a three-folder system — a basic organizational method — which is just as easy to manage year-round. Your taxes are most likely finished, so get a handle on your files now to prepare for next year!
Folder No. 1: Income
What goes here: Every penny you earn that is reported to the IRS (salary, dividends, earnings, distributions, even that paltry $3.42 in checking account interest) comes with a paper trail. To keep it all straight, write all income sources (and amounts earned) on a single sheet in your “Income” folder as they occur. (Yeah, it’s easier to do as the year progresses, so vow to start doing it for the rest of the year.)
IRS prep work: As corresponding records of interest, earnings, distributions, and dividends arrive (e.g., 1099s and W-2s), verify their accuracy and check each off on your income cover sheet. These official docs (for everything from freelance work, jury duty payments, and nearly every investment transaction) should have everything you need to account for income when you do your taxes. (Note: Some 1099s will be reported to the IRS immediately after a taxable event, such as savings bond redemptions and gambling winnings. Don’t forget those come April 2014; the IRS certainly won’t.)
Folder No. 2: Expenses and deductions
What goes here: The amount of deduction detritus can quickly dwarf the Manhattan phone book. Take lots of deductions? Create separate files for the major categories (e.g., charity, medical, business) where canceled checks, utility bills, statements, and receipts go. If that’s more than you need, establish a single catchall envelope for records related to the current tax year. Here you’ll keep mortgage statements, investment-related expenses, medical bills, child-care costs, and non-reimbursable/employment-related gas, food, and lodging receipts.
IRS prep work: Uncle Sam offers a “standard deduction” to most taxpayers. Many states, however, are not as generous. Before you bother itemizing, eyeball your biggest potential deductions and see how close you come to the state and federal standard deduction allowances. (Many taxpayers itemize on one and not the other.) Not even in the ballpark on either? Take Uncle Sam’s offer and call it a day. Though be sure to note any itemized deductions that can be carried over to future returns, such as capital losses that exceeded the limit last year.
Folder No. 3: Investments
What goes here: If only the year-end statement were a sufficient record of annual account activity! Alas, it’s not always. That’s why we get monthly/quarterly/annual statements, purchase receipts, sale confirmations, year-end overviews, dividend notices. Oh my! To add to the confusion, the IRS isn’t even interested in certain records until you dispose of the investment (which could be decades for some investors).
The easiest way to segregate investing paperwork is by how it’s taxed. Create separate folders for:

  • Deductible/tax-deferred investments — records that prove your annual contributions to qualified retirement plans; Roth contribution records (so you aren’t taxed twice); and distribution records (1099s) once you start taking distributions.
  • Nondeductible investments — records for IRA contributions that aren’t eligible for preferential tax treatment.
  • Taxable investments — statements (or confirmation slips) that prove the cost basis of your investment (reinvested dividends, capital gains, capital losses, mergers, 1099s, and K-1 forms). Thankfully, most brokers issue combined 1099s for those with multiple brokerage accounts. Note for long-term buy-and-holders: Create separate folders for each stock. Your tax pro (if you use one) will cry tears of joy — reflected in a lower tax-prep bill.

IRS prep work: Purchases, losses, interest, dividends, sales — all stock-related activity — will generate corresponding 1099s (or K-1 forms for certain trusts or partnerships) that the IRS will get, too. Keep proofs of purchase, such as trade confirmations or annual statements; dividends paid; split/merger/buyout notices; deductible investment expenses; and proof of security received as a gift or inheritance until you sell.

According to the General Accounting Office, the average taxpayer overpays the IRS hundreds of dollars every year by overlooking deductions and missing chances to itemize — opportunities that get buried in the forest of W-2s, 1099s, and quarterly and year-end statements each family generates throughout the year.
Stop letting the dollars slip through your fingers and into Uncle Sam’s pockets. Use this streamlined, simple, easy-setup, quick-bake system to once and for all get it done and get organized for the IRS.

When it comes to locating an important family document, do you dig furiously through a disaster of haphazard files to get to it?  Do you wish you had an easier way to file your home’s documents without reinventing the wheel?  There is no way to tell you exactly how to create and organize files for your home, since your filing system will be unique to your family.  But there is a guide from Home Storage Solutions 101 to help you get started.Some typical home file categories to consider making files for include:

  • Medical file for each family member
  • Home maintenance file, with receipts of major expenditures
  • Real estate documents
  • Insurance policies (create a file for each one, and label each year’s policy separately, to know what years you were covered with what policies)
  • Automobile documents (separate file for each car)
  • Credit card documents (this is different than the file for credit card bills, and should contain the agreement, privacy policies, etc. that you get in the mail) (one file for each card)
  • Banking records (one file for each account at each bank)
  • Loan documents (one file for each loan)
  • Investment records (one file for each investment, 401(k), IRA, etc.
  • Vital documents (such as birth and marriage certificates, will, etc.)*
  • Personal home inventory (another copy should be kept outside the house too)
  • Tax documents (instructions for organizing these found in the personal home organizer and receipt organization challenge
  • Monthly bills and receipts (instructions for organizing these found in theorganize bills challenge
  • Warranties and manuals (more information on organizing warranties and manuals here)


* Vital documents may also be stored in a safe deposit box at a bank, instead, if you wish. Seriously consider this if you don’t, at least, have a fire resistant file cabinet or storage system for these papers.

Once you’ve created your file folders, go ahead and organize files for each of the categories, adding things as you go. Over the next couple of weeks sit down with a shredder and go through your papers, putting them into the correct files or shredding them if you no longer need them.  Don’t go too overboard trying to create the perfect system– avoid fancy printable labels you have to replicate every time you create a new file.  Just make friends with your Sharpie and that will be easier in the long run.

It will take a while, but a little at a time while listening to the radio or watching a movie on your computer will get the job done and then you’ll just have to deal with papers as they come in, not huge stacks ever again!

Tension

Another Valentines Day is fast approaching filled with candy hearts, boxes of chocolate and red roses–the symbols of the romantic season.  If you’re like us, and you prefer to seek out alternative symbols of affection to give this holiday new life, take a look at some of our favorite Valentine crafts and activities, DIY style!
Here are a few kid-friendly activities:

These Heart Stamps by Rust and Sunshine are the perfect activity for even the littlest valentine in your life.  All you need is a toilet paper roll, a scotch tape, red paint, and paper in order to make a home-made sweet surprise for any family member!
For the older kids, these Valentines Day Mad Libs by My Sisters Suitcase can be a fun gift to exchange at school.
If your honey has a sweet tooth, try these printables to make the occasion unique:
DIY Valentine Treat Bags by Twig and Thistle
For the more rustic Valentine, check out the You and Me and a Carved Tree idea from The Dating Divas.  It’s a romantic, yet “manly” way to show your affections!We also came across some wine cork art to stimulate your crafty side!

Wine Cork Heart from My Uncommon Slice of Suburbia
Wine Cork Heart The Corner Apartment.  The nifty thing about this collection of corks is that they didn’t require any paint!  The purple progression comes from the natural tint of the variety of wines that stained them.  If you don’t already have a collection going, maybe you can start stocking up corks for next year!Valentines Day doesn’t have to be cliche…spice it up this year!