Readers Share Creative Holiday Tips and Tricks

I am enjoying the unique holiday tips and tricks readers are sending my way, to be shared with you. Over and again I find myself saying, “Wow! Why didn’t I think that?”

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Just this week, I was boiling mad at myself when I opened boxes marked “Christmas” to find supplies of cards, tags and gift wrap purchased on sale, then promptly forgotten. You can be sure this year I’m going to file all this stuff under “Halloween!” You’ll understand as you read on.

MAKE MEMORIES. Once Christmas is over for another year, I scrapbook all the photos and handmade cards we receive. It’s great to look back over the years at all of our friends and relatives as they grow. So much creativity goes into some of these cards. The scrapbook is with all of my other photo albums, so I don’t have to wait until the Christmas decorations come out of storage to see them. Vicky

CANNED BOWS. I use the large, Christmas popcorn tins (cleaned and dried) to store my Christmas bows. I use one for red, another for green and the other two for gold and mixed colors. I can stack them in storage and my bows stay new looking all year. I reuse these bows for several years. Gwen

TREE SKIRT. I purchased a round Christmas tablecloth at the local thrift store for 25 cents. I laundered it and have been using it for the past three years as a tree skirt. It is large enough that I just fold it in half and wrap it around the tree holder, meeting in the back. It is reusable, beautiful and easy to clean. Darlene

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Avoid These Expensive Tax Mistakes

Here we are, nearly to the end of Tax Year 2015. Soon you’ll be rounding up your receipts, figuring out all your deductions and now you’re ready to load that onto your tax forms. This is not the time to get sloppy. Make sure you don’t run any of these red flags up the flag pole of your tax return and you will greatly reduce the chances of getting hit with the most dreaded of all tax events—the audit.

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1 MESSED UP MATH. Double check to make sure your arithmetic is correct. Math errors are not limited only to miscalculations. They could also be truncated numbers. Negative numbers need to have brackets around them. Consider attaching a spreadsheet or adding machine tape. E-filing makes sure that math calculation errors don’t occur.

SLOPPY RECORDS. If you are self-employed your deductions need to be very carefully documented. As a member of this group don’t be tempted to blur the line between personal and business expenses, especially mileage deductions and home-office usage.

MISSING MILEAGE. Automobile logs are one of the most commonly audited items. If you take this deduction, make sure your records are detailed with beginning and ending odometer readings, location and reason for the trip.

OVERSTATING CONTRIBUTIONS. Charitable deductions that are more generous than the IRS’ average guidelines could give an auditor reason to pause. Taking deductions for large, non-cash contributions are particularly suspect. Be sure to have all receipts showing the date of donation, the receiving organization and the valuation of the donated items to document these contributions. The workbook, Money For Your Used Clothing Tax Year 2015 contains more than 1,400 market values for common household and clothing donations that do meet IRS guidelines and makes sure your spot on with your charitable deductions is the best $20 you’ll spend (800 550-3502). Take the deductions you’re entitled to with confidence and peace of mind.   

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Gift-Worthy Gourmet Caramel Corn that Won’t Break the Bank

Sometime during the fall of 2010 (who am I kidding here, it was exactly Oct. 2, 2010 at 4:32pm), I wandered into (actually I was sucked in against my will by the seductive aroma) Popcornopolis in South Deerfield, Mass., (curiously, located inside the Yankee Candle Village Store) and walked out with the most amazing gourmet caramel popcorn.

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As an admitted lover of good caramel corn, I have to say a few things about this gourmet popcorn. These people know how to make caramel corn!

With its rich depth of flavor, Popcornopolis Caramel Corn is about as close to perfection as I have ever tasted. But as wonderful as it is, it is also very expensive.

For years, I’ve tried to make caramel corn, without success. It was either too soggy or too chewy. Or the caramel turned sugary. Once, I needed a hammer and chisel to get the stuff out of the bowl.

I’d really given up until my encounter with Popcornopolis. I had to figure this out―I had to find a way to create a reasonable facsimile in my kitchen that would hit the mark without breaking the bank.

I am excited to let you know is that I believe I have.

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Two Options When Your Social Security Number is Compromised

I just received a letter from a reader that sent chills up my spine. It brought back vivid memories of having my purse stolen while traveling alone in a big strange city. The rental car keys, my cash, my one and only credit card, hotel key—everything I needed to keep going was in that bag.

There was one thing that I was not carrying. My Social Security card was safe at home. As it turned out, and thankfully, everything important in the bag was relatively easily cancelled and replaced.

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Dear Mary: About a month ago my wallet was stolen out of my handbag while in the supermarket. I filed a police report, but they advised me it’s not likely I will ever get my wallet back or its contents. I reported this to my bank and credit-card company. Those accounts were closed and reopened with new account numbers. But I am sick with worry because my Social Security card was in the wallet. I don’t know what to do. What can I do? I so appreciate any guidance that will help give me some peace of mind. I’ve learned my lesson to never carry that with me. Just wish I’d been smarter sooner. Marissa

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The Unintended Consequence of 1,000 Bread Bags

As you know—and only because I write about it so much—I may as well be president of the Artisan-In-Five fan club for how the book and method of making bread have changed my life.

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Back when I was first learning to do this ( it is so easy), I decided I needed good quality bread bags not only to store partial loaves, but also for presentation. Let’s just say that when you bake bread, you have a lot of friends.

Turns out bread bags are quite inexpensive, purchased in bulk. And when I say bulk, I mean a case of 1,000 bread bags. I did. I bought a case.

As I look back, I’m not sure what I was thinking. Apparently the idea of 1,000 loaves of bread ever coming out of my kitchen was overshadowed by a bargain-basement price on large bread and bakery poly bags.

While I continue to bake bread as needed by my household of two people, only occasionally do I use a bread bag for bread. But for dozens of other uses around the house? These bags the best thing since, well, sliced bread!

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Appearing in a Community Near You: The Best Season of All

Ah, December … the most wonderful time of the year! At least that’s what we are led to believe. Sounds great, but the truth is that for many people this is the worst time of the year. And there’s nothing like the pressure of tight finances to compound the situation.

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I think the Holidays—and by that I refer to all of the winter holidays right through New Years—are a lot like a big magnifying glass. They exaggerate what already exists.

If you are unemployed, the season makes unemployment even more unbearable. If you are so stretched financially that you’re having trouble making ends meet, this time of year only widens the gap because of what seem like unavoidable holiday expenses.

But that magnifying glass can also enlarge what’s good in your life provided you are willing to change your focus.

I want to encourage you to position the magnifying glass of the season over what you do have. 

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Would You Spend $70 One Time to Save $120 Every Year?

Faithful readers may recall the story of a woman in Philadelphia who decided to go over her parents’ phone bill only to discover they were paying $21 a month to lease three landline telephones—one of which they’d tossed out years ago. Failure to keep up with technology cost this family $6,000. What’s it costing you?

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Just because you may have rented a piece of hardware in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cost-effective or to continue.

If you have not looked closely at your monthly cable and or internet service bill lately, you should. You may be leasing a modem from your service provider. It probably made sense when you signed up for the service and were asked, “Would you like us to provide the modem as part of your service?” or something like that. And I doubt if it registered with you what that cost would be on an annual basis.  Or how many years that would go on. Or that you might have the option at some point in time to provide your own equipment.

Internet and cable service providers routinely provide the modem when installing cable TV and internet service, then charge a monthly rental of $10 or so. At first that might not have sounded like such a big deal, but when you consider you’re paying $120 per year—every year—for a $70 item, suddenly that sounds like a big rip-off. 

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Making Christmas Work For Us

This is a guest post by David W. Hegg, MA, D.Min, senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church; professor, blogger, columnist, husband, father, grandfather and brother of your humble columnist! Visit Dave at his website and follow him on Twitter.

So … here we go again! With Thanksgiving behind us and Black Friday staring us down there are no more excuses. The Christmas season has officially arrived and we’re already tired! Worse, memories of past seasons have us secretly wishing we’d actually planned that December trip to Hawaii.

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But this year can be different if we’ll just take the reins and use Christmas rather than, once again, allowing the season to use and abuse us. Here are a few thoughts on making the season work for us.

PRIZE PEOPLE OVER PRESENTS. One of the biggest challenges of the season is gift giving, especially if you have many to shop for, and do most of the family buying yourself. I can see you already. You’ve made lists for everyone, and lists of lists including stores and sizes. Or maybe you’re way behind in your list making, and that is just adding more stress.

Here’s the deal. Make this Christmas about the people more than the presents. Reach out and reconnect with some distant friends. A phone conversation may be the best gift they get. And plan some family time without media distractions so you can recover the meaning of conversation, laughter, and love. 

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