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Financial Fitness Blog

A clean chimney is a safe chimney.

(Insurance) Permanent link

Mark Blog PhotoThere’s nothing like a roaring fire in the fireplace to cozy up the house on a chilly day or to add ambiance to a holiday gathering. Before you strike the match, answer this question. When was the last time you had your chimney inspected and cleaned?  It is recommended that you have your chimney, fireplace, and vents inspected, and cleaned as needed, once a year.

Annual chimney maintenance removes flammable creosote, the major cause of chimney fires. Creosote is a residue created when the smoke from a fire condenses and builds up in your flue over time. It is responsible for the most intense and destructive fires that occur in homes.

Even if you don’t use your fireplace much, an inspection can reveal other issues such as animal nests in the flue or structural deterioration that could make the chimney unsafe to use.

The good news is that chimney inspections are relatively inexpensive, costing between $50 and $100. A sweep may run a couple hundred dollars depending on your chimney size and condition but it’s worth the price.

Approximately 27,000 chimney fires will damage or destroy homes this year if historical averages persist. Make sure yours isn’t one of them. 

Mark Dannehl, Personal Insurance Consultant

Don't let Black Friday put you in the RED

(Money Management) Permanent link

Michelle Blog PhotoIn 2011, 20% of men and 14% of women said they blew their holiday shopping budget. Here's a few tips to stay on track this year.

  • Make a list of items you are shopping for and the maximum amount of money you're willing to spend. Then, stick to it.
  • Shop with cash and leave the plastic at home. Consumer Reports has consistently found that shoppers who use credit cards spend more on holiday gifts than those who don't.
  • Just say no to credit card offers at the check-out line to avoid a debt hangover later. One possible exception to saying yes to a store credit card and its one-time extra savings is if you're buying something expensive and know you can pay the balance on time and in full.
  • Skip the warranty. Most warranties on electronics and household appliances just aren't worth the money since they usually don't break within the warranty period.
  • Free shipping offers are abundant at this time of year, so take advantage of them. Many are listed at
  • Haggling can save you money, even online via the phone, email or chat. Nearly three of five Consumer Reports survey respondents were successful in scoring a price break when they haggled.
  • Beware of getting drawn into "herd mentality", especially on Black Friday. Retailers hope you will be an impulsive shopper, which can lead to poor buying decisions. You may be able to save even more money by waiting until later in the season.
  • Avoid the temptation to earn rewards and bonus points on credit cards. Card issuers are increasingly attaching spending requirements to these offers, which may influence some consumers to spend up in order to receive their reward. Some credit card companies are also sending out blank checks to use just in time for the holidays; however, interest rates on these check can run 20% or more if you don't pay them off right away.

Remember, most people also enjoy a little creativity on the part of the gift giver. Consider a gift of service or an experience together instead of stuff. You can create some good memories by planning an outing, sharing a home-cooked meal, or volunteering together at a shelter or nursing home. Sometimes the best gifts are free.

Michelle Slawny, CFP®

Reduce taxes with flex spending accounts

(Money Management) Permanent link

Michelle Blog PhotoFlex spending accounts are one of the most under-utilized benefits offered through employers with only 14% participation among eligible employees. Flex spending accounts allow you to put away pre-tax dollars—thus lowering your taxable income—to pay for qualified out-of-pocket medical and dependent care expenses.

In addition to reducing taxable income, money set aside in a flex account avoids the 7.65% Social Security and Medicare tax. So if you’re in the 15% income tax bracket, contributing $5,000 to your flex plan (the maximum for many employers’ plans) would cut your federal income tax bill by $1,133 next year.

Contributions to your 2013 flexible spending account are limited to $2,500 for medical expenses (each spouse with access to a flex spending account can contribute up to $2,500 to their individual account) and $5,000 per household for dependent care expenses.

Open enrollment season is often near the end of the calendar year. Check with your district’s business office or human resources department for deadlines specific to your benefit plan.

Michelle Slawny, CFP®

Celebrate education!

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Kelly Blog PhotoDid you know that, every day, 50 million K-12 students attend public schools in the U.S.? American Education Week, November 11-17, is an opportunity to honor all individuals who are making a difference in the lives of our children and working hard to ensure every child receives a quality education. Take a moment to acknowledge those in your community who keep our public schools great. Two simple words will do it: “Thank you.”

Plus, watch for events in your community that give you the opportunity to learn more about your school and show your support for those who keep the schools open, the students engaged, and the future bright.

Kelly Behnke, CIC, CISR, ACSR
Personal Insurance Consultant

Long-term care: Are you covered?

(Insurance) Permanent link

Kelly Blog PhotoA survey, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, found that the number one category of out-of-pocket spending for families caring for an elderly relative was for long-term care (LTC) services such as a nursing home stay or assisted living. Many are surprised to learn that these expenses are not covered by Medicare. Additionally, home healthcare services are in the “not covered” column under Medicare. With the high cost of long-term care services—the median yearly cost in Wisconsin for a private room at a nursing home is currently $93,075—your financial situation can change drastically in a short period of time.

Only LTC insurance provides coverage for quality LTC that may be needed at any time in life. Today’s policies also recognize that most people prefer to receive care at home and offer flexible cash payments so that even friends and family members can be compensated for providing assistance.

If you have a financial plan that does not include LTC insurance, consider learning more about how this coverage can preserve your assets in the future. Free long-term care seminars are being scheduled around the state and online. You can even set up a personal phone presentation at your convenience. Over 19,000 Wisconsin educators and their spouses have taken advantage of these learning opportunities.

Kelly Behnke, CIC, CISR, ACSR
Personal Insurance Consultant