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Heat, Energy and Electricity Oh My!

March 19th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Lifestyle

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The other day I asked my family in Texas, “How do you afford those electricity costs in this heat?” They asked me, “How do you afford those heating costs in the winter?”

Being a resident of the Midwest, high energy costs are a very real threat to my budget every year.  Depending on where you live, heating and/or electric bills can both melt and freeze your budget if you are not careful.

I’ve learned some nifty tricks to help lower my energy bills year round. Keep in mind that I’m about as unhandy as you can get but I can do all of these things…and so can you!

  • Turn off lights whenever they’re not in use. If your co-inhabitants don’t make a habit of turning them off too, quit trying to get them to do it and just do it yourself.
  • Make sure to turn off the cable box and unplug anything you’re not using. One thing I’ve been meaning to do is put the TV and cable box on a timer. By the time I’m ready to use it, the cable will have reconfigured itself and be ready to go.
  • Window coverings can be a great way to beat the beast.  Try decorative thick-fabric curtains or lines drapes to keep out UV rays in the summer and chilly winds in the winter, while keeping your style intact! Covering west and south exposure windows can really keep the house cooler in summer. In the winter, be sure to keep all the windows covered, particularly at night.
  • Sealing gaps around windows and doors is easy to do. It makes the house more comfortable and can save you significant energy costs. In my bathroom, I could feel the cold air blowing in around the window. It just wasn’t sealed properly! I took off the trim (carefully so as not to damage it) and used spray foam to seal it up.

A couple of tips for the not-so-handy-person like me:

  • The spray foam expands a LOT, so go easy! You can always add more.
  • You may want to experiment on paper first to get the hang of it.
  • It also sticks to everything so clean up immediately.
  • After the foam quits expanding, you’ll want to cut off any excess and then put the trim back on.
  • There are other ways to stop air leakage around windows.  Check out greenhomeguide.com.
  • One of the very easiest ways to lower energy costs is to use foam gaskets in the electrical outlets of your house. The purpose of the gasket is to create a barrier between the inside and outside of your home. Keeping the air you want in from escaping, and the air you don’t want from intruding!

All you need is a screwdriver. The gaskets themselves are very cheap. You may even want to cover the interior outlets, including the light switches. More info at: http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/tips-sealing-air-leaks

  • Managing your thermostat can really beat the beast! In winter, I keep my house at 67 degrees while I’m home and 55 while I’m out. I also wear sweaters and warm fuzzy socks so I’m not tempted to crank up the heat on those bitter Wisconsin winter nights. In summer, I try not to use the air conditioner much at all. I try to trap the cool air from the evening and overnight. Then, I close the house and window coverings in the morning. http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/thermostats
  • And one last budget buster – get on the Budget Plan with your utility provider. You’ll pay the same amount every month; this avoids those unpleasant surprise bills. You can usually set up a budget plan online or by phone. Just contact your utility company.

Here’s to a greener planet…and a greener wallet!

Source: greenpath.com

Will Baby Boomers Ever Truly Retire?

March 19th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Financial News

Many may keep working out of interest rather than need.

shutterstock_140383918Baby boomers realize that their retirements may not unfold like those of their parents. New survey data from The Pew Charitable Trusts highlights how perceptions of retirement have changed for this generation. A majority of boomers expect to work in their sixties and seventies, and that expectation may reflect their desire for engagement rather than any economic desperation.

Instead of an “endless Saturday,” the future may include some 8-to-5. Pew asked heads of 7,000 U.S. households how they envisioned retirement and also added survey responses from focus groups in Phoenix, Orlando and Boston. Just 26% of respondents felt their retirements would be work-free. A slight majority (53%) told Pew they would probably work in some context in the next act of their lives, possibly at a different type of job; 21% said they had no intention to retire at all.1

Working longer may help boomers settle debts. A study published by the Employee Benefit Research Institute in January (Debt of the Elderly and Near Elderly, 1992-2013) shows a 2.0% increase in the percentage of indebted households in the U.S. headed by breadwinners 55 and older from 2010-13 (reaching 65.4% at the end of that period). EBRI says median indebtedness for such households hit $47,900 in 2013 compared to $17,879 in 1992. It notes that larger mortgage balances have been a major factor in this.1

Debts aside, some people just like to work. Those presently on the job expect to stay in the workforce longer than their parents did. Additional EBRI data affirms this – last year, 33% of U.S. workers believed that they would leave their careers after age 65. That compares to just 11% in 1991.2

How many boomers will manage to work past 65? This is one of the major unknowns in retirement planning today. We are watching a reasonably healthy generation age into seniority, one that can access more knowledge about being healthy than ever before – yet obesity rates have climbed even as advances have been made in treating so many illnesses.

Working past 65 probably means easing into part-time work – and not every employer permits such transitions for full-time employees. The federal government now has a training program in which FTEs can make such a transition while training new workers and some larger companies do allow phased retirements, but this is not exactly the norm.3

Working less than a 40-hour week may also negatively impact a worker’s retirement account and employer-sponsored health care coverage. EBRI finds that only about a third of small firms let part-time employees stay on their health plans; even fewer than half of large employers (200 or more workers) do. The Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies says part-time workers get to participate in 401(k) plans at only half of the companies that sponsor them.3

Boomers who work after 65 have to keep an eye on Medicare and Social Security. They will qualify for Medicare Part A (hospital coverage) at 65, but they should sign up for Part B (doctor visits) within the appropriate enrollment window and either a Part C plan or Medigap coverage plus Medicare Part D.3

Believe it or not, company size also influences when Medicare coverage starts for some 65-year-olds. Medicare will become the primary insurance for employees at firms with less than 20 workers when they turn 65, even if that company sponsors a health plan. At firms with 20 or more workers, the workplace health plan takes precedence over Medicare coverage, with 65-year-olds maintaining their eligibility for that employer-sponsored health coverage provided they work sufficient hours. Boomers who work for these larger employers may sign up for Part A and then enroll in Part B and optionally a Part C plan or Part D with Medigap coverage within eight months of retiring – they do not have to wait for the next open enrollment period.3

Prior to age 66, federal retirement benefits may be lessened if retirement income tops certain limits. In 2015, if you are 62-65 and receive Social Security, $1 of your benefits will be withheld for every $2 that you earn above $15,720. If you receive Social Security and turn 66, this year, then $1 of your benefits will be withheld for every $3 that you earn above $41,880.4

Social Security income may also be taxed above the program’s “combined income” threshold. (“Combined income” is defined as adjusted gross income + non-taxable interest + 50% of Social Security benefits.) Single filers with combined incomes from $25,000-34,000 may have to pay federal income tax on up to 50% of their Social Security benefits in 2015, and that also applies to joint filers with combined incomes of $32,000-44,000. Single filers with combined incomes above $34,000 and joint filers whose combined incomes top $44,000 may have to pay federal income tax on up to 85% of their Social Security benefits.5

Are boomers really the retiring type? Given the amazing accomplishments and vitality of the baby boom generation, a wave of boomers working past 65 seems more like a probability than a possibility. Life is still exciting; there is so much more to be done.

This material was prepared by MarketingPro, Inc., and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party, nor their affiliates. This information has been derived from sources believed to be accurate. Please note – investing involves risk, and past performance is no guarantee of future results. The publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional services. If assistance is needed, the reader is advised to engage the services of a competent professional. This information should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice and may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any Federal tax penalty. This is neither a solicitation nor recommendation to purchase or sell any investment or insurance product or service, and should not be relied upon as such. All indices are unmanaged and are not illustrative of any particular investment.

Citations.
1 – marketwatch.com/story/only-one-quarter-of-americans-plan-to-retire-2015-02-26 [2/26/15]
2 – usatoday.com/story/money/columnist/brooks/2015/02/17/baby-boomer-retire/23168003/ [2/17/15]
3 – tinyurl.com/qdm5ddq [3/4/15]
4 – forbes.com/sites/janetnovack/2014/10/22/social-security-benefits-rising-1-7-for-2015-top-tax-up-just-1-3/ [10/22/14]
5 – ssa.gov/planners/taxes.htm [3/4/15]

The Top 12 Tax Frauds

March 19th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Financial News

A look at the IRS “dirty dozen” list.

shutterstock_191769953Have you heard of the “dirty dozen?” Each year, the IRS lists the top 12 recurring federal tax offenses – frauds, cheats, feints and schemes that ethically challenged taxpayers, tax preparers and crooks try to perpetrate. Watch for these scams in all seasons, not just tax season.

Identity theft. Casually discarded or displayed personal information is an open invitation to criminals. Even when we are vigilant, multiple firewalls and strong passwords can fail to protect us. The Government Accountability Office says fraudsters stole $5.8 billion in false refunds in 2013 and the Treasury Inspector General Tax Administration thinks the losses will hit $21 billion next year. The IRS says it is “making progress” fighting this problem.1

Criminals posing as “tax professionals.” Each year, roughly 60% of taxpayers get help with their 1040s at tax preparation businesses. As the IRS notes, nearly all of these businesses are legitimate. Exceptions do exist, however. Sometimes a fraudster will rent a storefront with a mission of collecting SSNs and other personal information pursuant to claiming phony refunds.2

Unwarranted or excessive refunds. Annually, some taxpayers and tax preparers claim refunds that are embellished or wholly unjustified. A preparer may tout that it will get you a big refund but then claim a percentage of it. Worse yet, they may ask you to sign a blank return.2

Phishing. This is tax fraud via email. A scammer will send a message mimicking communication from the IRS or the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS). If you get an email like that, forward it to phishing@irs.gov. Neither the IRS nor the EFTPS has a policy of initiating contact with taxpayers through email.2

Threatening calls. Crooks will sometimes target elders or immigrants with phone scams, pretending to be the IRS or another federal agency. (Sometimes even the caller ID will suggest this.) They will assert that the other party owes thousands in back taxes. The only solution, they contend, is immediate payment through a pre-loaded debit card or a money order. The caller may even know the last four digits of their Social Security Number or volunteer what is supposedly an IRS employee badge number to make the con more believable. A follow-up call from “the DMV” or “the police” may be next. Such behavior can be reported to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at (800) 366-4484 or the IRS at (800) 829-1040.3

Sham charities. An old wisecrack says that you can make a lot of money running a non-profit organization. A specious charity may ask you for cash, your SSN, your banking information and more. If anything seems fishy, ask for visual proof of the organization’s tax-exempt status, and check it out further at irs.gov using the Exempt Organizations Select Check search box.2

Tax shelter schemes. Tax evasion is different from legal tax avoidance. Some unprincipled tax and estate “consultants” seem to confuse the two, much to the chagrin of their clients who run afoul of the IRS. Watch out for aggressively marketed “tax shelters” that seem too good to be true or sketchily detailed.2

Hiding taxable income. How many taxpayers file fraudulent 1099s? Enough for this ploy to make the IRS top 12 list for 2015. Any hint of bogus documentation to cut taxes or boost refunds becomes especially egregious when a paid preparer attempts it.2

Inventing income that was never earned to get credits. The IRS notes that some of the shadier tax prep services sometimes convince clients to try this. It is fairly easy to disprove.2

Stashing taxable income or money offshore. In recent years, the IRS has scrutinized taxpayers with undeclared foreign bank accounts and the financial organizations that have offered them. Its Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP) encourages taxpayers to quietly disclose such accounts and become compliant with IRS rules.2

Claiming unwarranted fuel tax credits. Few taxpayers can legitimately claim these, yet some try thanks to urging from third-party preparers. Most taxpayers don’t own farms, mining or fishing businesses or companies whose vehicles operate mostly on local roads.2

Frivolous arguments against income tax. Assorted seminar speakers and books claim that federal taxes are unconstitutional and that Americans have only an implied obligation to pay them. These arguments carry little weight in the courts and before the IRS. The IRS imposes a $5,000 fine for filing a frivolous return, and Section 1 of the Internal Revenue Code imposes income tax on all Americans, specifically 26 U.S.C. § 1 and 26 U.S.C. § 1(a). IRC Section 6072 establishes April 15 as the annual federal tax deadline.2,4

One thing to remember in light of this list: you are legally responsible for the content input into your 1040 form, even if a third party prepares it.2

This material was prepared by MarketingPro, Inc., and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party, nor their affiliates. This information has been derived from sources believed to be accurate. Please note – investing involves risk, and past performance is no guarantee of future results. The publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional services. If assistance is needed, the reader is advised to engage the services of a competent professional. This information should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice and may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any Federal tax penalty. This is neither a solicitation nor recommendation to purchase or sell any investment or insurance product or service, and should not be relied upon as such. All indices are unmanaged and are not illustrative of any particular investment.

Citations.
1 – blog.credit.com/2015/03/the-solution-to-tax-id-theft-is-an-unpopular-one-slower-refunds-110478/ [3/5/15]
2 – irs.gov/uac/Newsroom/IRS-Completes-the-Dirty-Dozen-Tax-Scams-for-2015 [2/12/15]
3 – cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2015/01/nearly_3000_people_in_us_have.html [1/23/15]
4 – docs.law.gwu.edu/facweb/jsiegel/Personal/taxes/JustNoLaw.htm [3/13/15]

Tax Efficiency in Retirement

March 19th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Financial News

How much attention do you pay to this factor?

shutterstock_224912215Will you pay higher taxes in retirement? Do you have a lot of money in a 401(k) or a traditional IRA? If so, you may receive significant retirement income. Those income distributions, however, will be taxed at the usual rate. If you have saved and invested well, you may end up retiring at your current marginal tax rate or even a higher one. The jump in income alone resulting from a Required Minimum Distribution could push you into a higher tax bracket.

While retirees with lower incomes may rely on Social Security as their prime income source, they may pay comparatively less income tax than you will in retirement – because up to half of their Social Security benefits won’t be counted as taxable income.1

Given these possibilities, affluent investors would do well to study the tax efficiency of their portfolios as some investments are not particularly tax-efficient. Both pre-tax and after-tax investments have potential advantages.

What’s a pre-tax investment? Traditional IRAs and 401(k)s are classic examples of pre-tax investments. You can put off paying taxes on the contributions you make to these accounts and the earnings these accounts generate. When you take money out of these accounts come retirement, you will pay taxes on the withdrawal.2

Pre-tax investments are also called tax-deferred investments, as the invested assets can benefit from tax-deferred growth.

What’s an after-tax investment? A Roth IRA is a classic example. When you put money into a Roth IRA during the accumulation phase, contributions aren’t tax-deductible. As a trade-off, you don’t pay taxes on the withdrawals from that Roth IRA (providing you have followed the IRS rules for the arrangement). Thanks to these tax-free withdrawals, your total taxable retirement income is not as high as it would be otherwise.2

As everyone would like to pay less income tax in retirement, the tax-free withdrawals from Roth IRAs are very appealing. Given the huge federal deficit, the pressure is on to raise tax rates in the coming years – and in that light, after-tax investments look even more attractive.

It is also possible to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, so many investors are considering paying taxes on a Roth conversion today in order to get tax-free growth tomorrow.

Certain tax years can prove optimal for a Roth conversion. If a high-income taxpayer is laid off for most of a year, closes down a business or suffers net operating losses, sells rental property at a loss or claims major deductions and exemptions associated with charitable contributions, casualty losses or medical costs … he or she might end up in the lowest bracket, or even with a negative taxable income. In circumstances like these, a Roth conversion may be a good idea.

Should you have both a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA? It may seem redundant, but it could actually help you manage your marginal tax rate. It gives you an option to vary the amount and source of your IRA distributions in light of whether tax rates have increased or decreased.

Smart moves can help you reduce your taxable income & taxable estate. An emphasis on long-term capital gains may help, as they aren’t taxed as severely as short-term capital gains (which are taxed at the same rate as ordinary income). Tax loss harvesting (selling the “losers” in your portfolio to offset the “winners”) can bring immediate tax savings and possibly help to position you for better long-term after-tax returns.

If you’re making a charitable gift, giving appreciated securities you have held for at least a year may be better than giving cash. In addition to a potential tax deduction for the fair market value of the asset, the charity can sell the stock without triggering capital gains. If you’re reluctant to donate shares of your portfolio’s biggest winner, consider this: you could donate the shares, then buy more of that stock and get a step-up in cost basis as a consequence.3

The annual gift tax exclusion gives you a way to remove assets from your taxable estate. In 2015, you can gift up to $14,000 to as many individuals as you wish without paying federal gift tax. If you have 11 grandkids, you could give them $14,000 each – that’s $154,000 out of your estate. The drawback is that you relinquish control over those dollars or assets.4

Are you striving for greater tax efficiency? In retirement, it is especially important – and worth a discussion. A few financial adjustments could help you lessen your tax liabilities.

This material was prepared by MarketingPro, Inc., and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party, nor their affiliates. This information has been derived from sources believed to be accurate. Please note – investing involves risk, and past performance is no guarantee of future results. The publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional services. If assistance is needed, the reader is advised to engage the services of a competent professional. This information should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice and may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any Federal tax penalty. This is neither a solicitation nor recommendation to purchase or sell any investment or insurance product or service, and should not be relied upon as such. All indices are unmanaged and are not illustrative of any particular investment.

Citations.
1 – ssa.gov/planners/taxes.htm [2/23/15]
2 – denverpost.com/business/ci_27383286/ira-vs-401-k-which-is-better [1/25/15]
3 – desmoinesregister.com/story/money/business/2014/11/01/jim-sandager-donate-shares-directly-charities/18304273/ [11/1/14]
4 – accountingweb.com/article/how-make-most-federal-annual-gift-tax-exclusion/224201 [12/18/14]

Monthly Economic Update – March 2015

March 19th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Monthly Economic Update

Weekly Economic Update

How to Survive Pothole-Ravaged Roads

March 19th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Lifestyle

pothole-1

The brutal winter cold has wreaked havoc on our roads, creating the likes of crater-sized potholes that we haven’t seen in years. Your car will probably take some hard shots and bring on mounting car repairs. In fact, a survey conducted by Trusted Choice and the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America found that half of car owners from 2009 to 2014 experienced vehicle damage due to potholes.

Driving into a pothole puts enormous strain on your tires, wheels, and suspension. The shape and depth of the road hole and the speed you travel all play into the severity of potential damage, but there are other considerations as well. A lot of cars, for example, now come with performance tires, which come with short sidewalls that provide responsive cornering but with less area to flex and conform to a pothole edge compared to a taller conventional tire. As a result, performance tires are also more prone to sidewall cutting and blistering.

Any direct hit in a pothole could bring about near instant air loss and will require immediate replacement. Any tire that survives a pothole and has sidewall damage should also be replaced in short order.  Wheels also take a beating; drive into a really deep pothole and you may be replacing the tire and the wheel. And just think of what that pothole shock does to your car’s suspension.

It’s always a good civic duty to report potholes to your local municipality. Many major cities and states now have apps for sharing pothole locations. This time of year, town and city officials should be repairing the holes to thwart any further road degradation and curb vehicle damage and accidents.

Should the worst happen and you experience pothole damage to your vehicle, most auto insurances will cover the damage, but may not cover normal wear and tear items such as tires. In the Trusted Choice survey, 31 percent of respondents who experienced pothole damage filed an insurance claim. The majority paid out of pocket for repairs.

How to survive pothole-ravaged roads

  1. Slow down and pay attention to the road conditions. Don’t be fooled, thinking that some potholes are small. If they are filled with water they can be more than you bargained for.  Also, keep some distance between you and car you are following—that will give you time to react should there be a pothole hazard up ahead.
  2. Avoiding potholes is the best bet, but if the impact is inevitable, try to at least partly slow down before entering, and drive straight into it. Turning into a pothole exposes more tire sidewall to potential damage.
  3. Be diligent after a pothole encounter. Any shake or shimmy in your car’s ride can mean something was damaged. Stop the car, check for visible signs of tire and wheel damage. Keep in mind that if the front tire ran over the hole, the rear tire probably did as well—check both. Also, if no damage is visible, it could mean the car threw a balance weight off a wheel or possibly suffered suspension damage.  Have everything checked by your mechanic.
  4. Keeping your tires inflated to the recommended inflation pressure is one of the best guards for minimizing pothole damage to your tires and wheels. Under- or overinflated tires can affect a tires’ or wheel’s resistance to pothole damage. Most cars now have a tire pressure monitoring system to alert the driver if a tire is losing air pressure. If your car does not have a tire pressure monitoring system, check the tire pressure when the tire has cooled to ambient temperature to be sure it’s not losing air from the pothole encounter.

Source: consumerreports.org

‘Treats’ Aren’t Frivolous — They’re Key To Reaching Goals

March 19th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Lifestyle

The author of Better Than Before shows us how kind indulgences can keep us on track with our goals.

By Gretchen Rubin

shutterstock_233522656Unlike a reward, which must be earned or justified, a “treat” is a small pleasure or indulgence that we give to ourselves just because we want it. We don’t have to be “good” to get it, we don’t earn it or justify it.

“Treats” may sound like a self-indulgent, frivolous strategy, but they’re not. Because forming good habits can be draining, treats can play an important role. When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for and contented, which boosts our self-command — and self-command helps us maintain our healthy habits. Studies show that people who got a little treat, in the form of receiving a surprise gift or watching a funny video, gained in self-control. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: If I give more to myself, I can ask more from myself. Self-regard isn’t selfish.

By contrast, when we don’t get any treats, we feel depleted, resentful and angry and justified in self-indulgence. We start to crave comfort — and we’ll grab that comfort wherever we can, even if it means breaking good habits.

To strengthen my good habits, I decided to create a menu of healthy treats — but that can be more challenging than it sounds. So many popular treats come at a cost: the museum visit requires a long trip across town, the new shoes are expensive, the martini tonight will make the morning tougher. My favorite treat is reading, and reading requires time and concentration, which aren’t always easy to muster. A reader of my blog noted, “I love to play the piano, but it takes focus, and some days I’ve already spent out my focus quota.”

I began by collecting examples of other people’s inventive treats: browsing through art books, cookbooks and travel guides; taking photographs on a walk; napping; having a session of “fur therapy” (petting a dog or cat); wandering through a camping store; looking at family photo albums; keeping art postcards in the car visor for a quick diversion in stalled traffic; going to comedy clubs; going to baseball games; listening to podcasts; coloring in coloring books; visiting amusement parks; learning new magic tricks.

It’s important to have some treat options that aren’t very demanding. A friend told me, “Every day after I get my kids off to school, I go back to bed for 20 minutes. I may go to sleep, or just lie there. I’m still at work by 9:00 a.m., and that little indulgence makes me so happy.” A friend living in London told me his treat: “My calendar is packed, but twice a day, for 15 minutes, I sit and drink an espresso and read the International Herald Tribune. I don’t check email, I don’t do work. I don’t want any additional breaks, but I’m furious if I don’t get those two in.” Another friend said, “I wonder if there’s something a person could do with this sexually. Depending on their situation,” he laughed. “I don’t even want to say out loud what I’m thinking.”

“No, don’t spell it out!” I protested. “But it’s true that treats that come through the body seem to have special powers.” Sometimes treats might not look like treats. Writer Jan Struther observed, “Constructive destruction is one of the most delightful employments in the world.” I find that true, and tasks like shredding mail, emptying out files or even peeling hard-boiled eggs can feel like a treat. Funnily enough, clearing clutter is also a treat for me, when I’m in a certain mood. On my blog, people wrote about their own untreatlike treats: ironing, writing code, doing Latin translation.

As a treat for herself, for her birthday, one of Jamie’s colleagues walked to work — six miles. “Did she do it to prove to herself she could do it?” I asked. “Or as a treat?”

“Oh, she wanted to do it,” Jamie assured me. “For fun.”

Although I love hearing what other people consider treats, I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.” Just because an activity is a treat for someone else doesn’t mean it’s a treat for me — and vice versa. A friend said, “I love CrossFit, that’s a treat for me.” Maybe I could reframe my yoga class, or exercise generally, as my “treat,” I thought. Then I realized — nope. I do enjoy it, in a way, but it’s not a treat. A friend told me that her favorite treat was to shop for gifts — a task that for me is arduous. I wish my bank of fun included activities like sketching, playing tennis, cooking, doing puzzles or playing a musical instrument, but they’re not treats for me.

I made a list of my own treats. One of my favorites is a visit to the library. I love keeping a log of books I want to read, looking up the call numbers and wandering through the stacks to pick them out. Returning library books is an odd little treat, too (perhaps that’s my Finisher nature). I love copying out my favorite passages from books and adding them to my various collections of quotations. I view sleep as a big treat, which is why I don’t resent the idea of going to bed earlier, the way some people do. For me, it feels like a luxurious indulgence.

Beautiful smells are also a reliable treat for me and can be enjoyed in an instant, with no cost, no effort and no planning. In a flash, I get pleasure from the fresh smell of a grapefruit, or the comforting fragrance of clean towels or the promising smell of a hardware store. I remind myself to notice such treats, to register the fact that I’m experiencing a scent that I love.

After all, we make something a treat by calling it a “treat.” It’s all too easy to overlook how much we enjoy something. When we notice our pleasure, and relish it, the experience becomes much more of a treat. Even something as humble as herbal tea or a box of freshly sharpened pencils can qualify as a treat. “Look,” I tell myself as I light a scented candle, “I’m giving myself a treat.” Sometimes we can even reframe a challenging habit as a treat, which makes it much easier to keep. A reader observed, “When I thought of exercise as something I ‘should’ do, it was hard to get into a routine. Eventually, I decided to count my daily walk or cross-country ski as a treat — my time for myself in a day otherwise filled with responsibilities. Somehow, that made it much easier to make it a priority.”

The treats of childhood retain a special power. As a child, I was rarely allowed to drink soda or to buy a book instead of checking it out from the library. What do I do now, with abandon? Drink diet soda and buy books (the book-buying treat is wholly separate from the library-visiting treat). So, perhaps we parents need to think hard about what we identify as treats for our children.

A friend thought she should renounce her treat. “I really love coffee, but I know I should stop drinking it,” she told me.

“Why?” I pressed. “Does it keep you up at night? Does it make your stomach hurt?”

“No, it doesn’t affect me.”

I couldn’t resist launching into a defense of coffee. “You need some treats, and as treats go, coffee is great. Even if you buy very expensive coffee, it’s not that expensive, in absolute terms. It boosts your energy and focus. If you don’t add anything crazy, it doesn’t have any sugar, carbs, fat or calories, but it does have antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and even fiber, weird as that sounds. Caffeine is fine if you’re drinking it in the human range. Plus, there’s a pleasant ritual connected with it — you can go out for coffee with a friend.”

“But I drink so much. I should at least cut back.”

“But why?” I pressed. “Enjoy it! Samuel Johnson said, ‘All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.’ A habit isn’t bad unless it causes some kind of problem.”

I don’t think I convinced her.

Not everyone is attracted by the idea of having each day ordered, but I love the monkish horarium, or “table of hours,” the highly specific routine that runs on an annual cycle, with variations for the days of the week and the seasons. Every part of the day has its own character and purpose, with time set aside for prayer, manual work, rest, eating, sleeping. Few decisions, no hurry, time for everything.

I am particularly intrigued by the hours that monks set aside for lectio divina, or spiritual reading. This is another kind of treat. To be happy, even we nonmonks need to make time for transcendent matters — such as beauty, creativity, service, faith — but too often these get pushed aside for more urgent demands, and life begins to feel empty and purposeless. Scheduling lectio divina is a way to make sure that the spiritual gets attention — whether a person decides to read holy books and attend religious services, as a monk would do, or adapts this habit to make regular time to leaf through art books, read biographies of great figures, spend time in nature, go to concerts, volunteer or meditate. For some people, politics is a spiritual concern, tied to transcendent values, such as justice, opportunity and freedom. And from what I’ve observed, sports seems to have a spiritual value for some people — with its aspects of devotion, loyalty, hope and perseverance.

Once we’ve truly adopted a habit, it comes easily, without decision-making. But until that point — and even established habits, alas, can never be completely taken for granted — giving ourselves a little boost with treats helps us maintain our self-command. Goethe pointed out, “Whatever liberates our spirit without giving us mastery over ourselves is destructive.” And whatever liberates our spirit while giving us mastery over ourselves is constructive.

The excerpt was reprinted from Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives Copyright © 2015 by Gretchen Rubin. To be published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on March 17.

Source: huffingtonpost.com

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