Energy Masters Program closes out 2016 with recognition and awards

 

The Energy Masters program received awards for leadership in energy efficiency from the Virginia Governor’s Housing Conference Awards and the state’s inaugural Virginia Energy Efficiency Awards, attended by Governor McAuliffe.  

Energy Masters, a joint program of Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment (ACE), Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) and Arlington THRIVE, was honored on November 17, 2016, at the Virginia Governor’s Housing Conference, with the Best Affordable Housing Energy Conservation Effort award, which recognizes innovative, effective efforts that address housing needs in the state. The program received a second award from the first-ever Virginia Energy Efficiency Leadership Awards on November 29, 2016. The program was awarded third place in the Low-Income Category. This award acknowledges demonstrated commitment to energy conservation and prudent use of resources in the renovation of affordable housing properties. Affordable housing properties that have participated in the Energy Masters program are realizing benefits from the energy and water saving services performed by volunteers through increased energy efficiency and a decrease in utility bills totaling $39,623 that was reflected in a 2016 analysis. The program serves residents in Arlington County and the City of Alexandria.

Energy Masters program coordinator, Laura Garcia Olson, acknowledged how important these awards are for the growth of the program: “The Energy Masters program is an example of actions individuals can take to impact climate change in our community. We’re hopeful that the awards recognition will help bring more attention to tactics to save energy and the importance of adopting a sustainable lifestyle.”

The Energy Masters program is a highly successful model that educates citizens how to save energy and conserve water and provides community engagement and volunteer activism. It directly addresses climate change and water conservation, improves the lives of residents living in affordable housing and builds stronger community connections by engaging volunteers in service projects. The program provides volunteers with extensive training in energy efficiency and water conservation, which they use in service to the community by making improvements to affordable housing buildings and by providing education. It also helps low-income families reduce their energy and water bills and improve the comfort of their homes. Energy Masters encourages behavior change in residents of all ages, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of the residents and conserving resources, which benefits the entire community.

To learn more about Energy Masters and how you can get involved, visit the website at http://www.arlingtonenvironment.org/.

 

Van and Elissa June 11 landscape

VCE and SNAP at local farmers’ markets

Bonus Cash for SNAP/EBT Purchases

Local farmers’ markets are a great way to get great produce and support local farmers but did you know that Arlington and Alexandria Farmers’ markets accept SNAP/EBT (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) cards for purchases? SNAP/EBT customers can purchase farm fresh produce at local area farmers’ markets and get matching bonus tokens to add to their purchases.

Virginia Cooperative will be on-site at several local farmers’ markets of Alexandria and Arlington to provide more information on SNAP and offer food tastings, prizes and more!

  • Arlington Farmers’ Market, N 14th & Courthouse Rd – 2nd Saturday of the month
  • Old Town Farmers’ Market, 301 King St – last Saturday of the month
  • Columbia Pike Farmers’ Market, 2820 Columbia Pike – 3rd Sunday of the month

Virginia Cooperative Extension’s varied programs are all supported by community volunteers. No experience is required to volunteer; VCE provides training and volunteer resources. Interested volunteers can find out more at http://bit.ly/VCEVolunteer

 

photo credit: Meredith A. Muckerman

Accolades for Virginia Cooperative Extension

It was a clean sweep for Virginia Cooperative Extension at the George Mason University Go Gaga for Green awards for its efforts promoting environmental sustainability. VCE staff and volunteers won in all three award categories, Individual, Organization and People’s Choice.

Extension Agent and Unit Coordinator, Jennifer Abel, was awarded the Arlington Green Patriot Award for her sustainability efforts both professionally and personally. Jennifer actively volunteers for several local environmentally focused organizations including the Mt. Vernon Group of the Sierra Club and ACE R4 task force. In 2011, Jennifer co-founded the award winning Energy Masters program. In the five years since its inception, more than 150 volunteers have retrofitted almost 600 low income apartments to improve energy efficiency and reduce tenants’ utility bills. The program now operates in both Arlington County and the City of Alexandria. To learn more about the Energy Masters program, visit http://bit.ly/VCEEnergyEfficiency.

Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia took both the Organization and People’s Choice awards. The non profit works with Extension Agent Kirsten Conrad Buhls and supports VCE volunteer efforts to educate the public about sustainable landscape management practices and home food production. MGNV support funds 5 demonstration gardens around Arlington and the City of Alexandria. The public can visit the gardens to learn more about various plants and gardening techniques. MGNV has also developed the Tried & True Native Plant fact sheets that provide homeowners with detailed information on how to incorporate native plants into the home landscape. To find out more about MGNV and the Tried & Trues, visit https://mgnv.org/plants/

Virginia Cooperative Extension’s varied programs are all supported by community volunteers. No experience is required to volunteer; VCE provides training and volunteer resources. Interested volunteers can find out more at http://bit.ly/VCEVolunteer.

Welcome New Master Food Volunteers!

On April 22 a group of thirteen new Master Food Volunteers completed their training and will soon begin serving the community by helping to lead cooking and nutrition classes.

The spring 2016 class of Master Food Volunteers completed their training last Friday.

The spring 2016 class of Master Food Volunteers completed their training last Friday.

The volunteers come from Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, and Prince William Counties. The training was led collaboratively by Jennifer Abel, Nancy Stegon, and Katie Strong, Family and Consumer Sciences agents who cover the above mentioned city and counties. Van Do and Katrida Williams, new SNAP Ed FCS agents who serve Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford, and Spotsylvania Counties, also helped lead the training.

Volunteers will help to lead nutrition education and cooking classes for groups throughout Northern Virginia. Examples of programs in which they will be involved include: Cooking Matters for Kids classes, SNAP outreach at farmers markets, Chefs Clubs for middle schoolers, healthy cooking classes for senior citizens, food preservation classes, Balanced Living with Diabetes for Spanish speakers, nutrition education at food pantries, and many more.

Trainees offered several comments about what they liked most in the training: “The amazing education as well as educators!” “The ability to participate through hands-on activities, group work, and discussion.” “How science-based it was.”

The new volunteers will join 93 current Master Food Volunteers who have been trained at some point since 2012 when the program began. We welcome the Spring 2016 cohort and look forward to working with them!

Extra Money?

by Lauren Chaplin, Master Financial Education Volunteer

We have all probably at one point in our lives have been promised something that we didn’t get or were never able to cash in on. A friend who said they would watch your children because you helped them out. Your sibling putting gas back into your car after borrowing it. What about when you think you are going to get some amount of money? How should you prepare for that?

Every year, people go through this. You think you are going to get money back on your taxes or you have been promised a raise or a bonus. Some people fall into the trap of spending this money before they have it … counting their chickens before they hatch. The old saying goes directly hand in hand with how people SHOULD think when facing these ‘promising’ situations. Nothing is guaranteed. I am currently volunteering at a tax office and I have seen it firsthand: people are shocked when they are told that they actually owe money instead of getting something back like they thought. My simple advice is: your monthly budget should NEVER include funds that are not guaranteed.

If you believe that you will receive extra income one month; I believe that you should NOT figure this amount into your monthly budget. Why? Unless that money is in your pocket, it is not your money yet. You should also NOT spend it before you have it. You should not spend it before it is deposited into your account bank account. Often people have made charges to their credit cards with the anticipation that they would get money. For some, that money never arrives and they are stuck with a balance for months to come.

So what should you do?

1. Make your budget with just your regular income.

2. Stick to your budget. Try very hard to not to get tempted to spend beyond it.

3. Make a plan if your unexpected money comes along. Money Girl (at http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/money-finance/investing/got-cash-what-to-do-with-extra-money) has an article that offers a suggested PIP approach:

a. Prepare for the unexpected
b. Invest in the future
c. Pay off high-interest debt

4. Act on it when you get the money

Some people think that if the money is a small amount, then it’s not worth to have a plan for it or even split it. That is your choice. Sometimes putting it all into one category means that you can jump start or focus on the others when that first is taken care of. Having some sort of financial plan for when goals are met will help make the transition easier and keep you on track for the rest of your financial goals.

What happens if your Social Security Number is Stolen?

By Eileen Jones, Master Financial Education Volunteer

Social Security numbers (SSNs) are the single most important piece of government-issued forms of identification a U.S. citizen is granted, even more important than a driver’s license or even a passport!  A valid SSN can be used by people attempting to hide their true identities as well as undocumented workers.  With a stolen SSN, a person can do almost everything that you or I can do with our legitimate SSNs. In essence, they are assuming another person’s name and can and often are successful at stealing property and money from that person.

Criminals, in particular cyber criminals, are on the hunt for valid SSNs because it is the most valuable piece of identification they can get their hands on.  While you certainly do not want to be robbed of your identity or your valuables, an identity thief can use your name and SSN to do criminal acts.  If this happens, the police are going to come looking for you because it is your identity that has been associated with the crime, not the thief’s.

You can close a credit-card account or get your debit-card reissued if it is compromised, however you cannot close your SSN.  If you’ve lost your SSN number card of it has been stolen and by some miracle you got it back, you must assume that the number itself has been stolen and act immediately!

Below are two options that may help you if your SSN is stolen or compromised, but again –  act quickly!

#1. Join a trusted and reputable identity-theft protection service.  Once you act and set the ball in motion, people who try to use it will be stopped dead in their tracts.  Alerts from your identity theft protection agency will be immediately sent to you, giving you the information on the person (people) attempting to open accounts using your SSN. Once you respond that this is not you, the identity theft agency puts a stop to these applications immediately before the thugs can even complete the first step.

#2)  You can do it yourself!  Contact any or all of the 3 credit bureaus immediately to place a freeze on your credit file.

TransUnion (800-916-8800)

Experian (888-397-3742)

Equifax (888) 766-0008

This will prevent others from opening accounts in your name. You can also place a fraud alert on your file if you have been a victim of identity theft. As soon as you contact the first bureau, the other two will be notified. Make sure that you renew the fraud alert every 90 days until you’re satisfied the matter has been settled. Be aware that this process could take years.

  • Tell each of the three bureaus that your SSN has been stolen. You will be given free copies of your current credit report from each bureau. Read over these reports, carefully looking for unfamiliar accounts and unknown inquiries from companies.
  • Report the theft of the SSN to the IRS @ 800-908-4490. That will prevent tax-fraud thieves from filing tax returns in your name, and if applicable, collecting your tax refund.
  • File an identity-theft report with your local police. The police report will be necessary to help clear your records and your name in the future.
  • Keep track of, record, report and close all fraudulent accounts by contacting both the companies holding the accounts and the credit-reporting agencies. This will keep your credit as clean as possible going forward.

If several years pass after the theft of your SSN, and the problems arising from the theft continue, you may want to consider applying for a new SSN. But before you do, there are several things to consider: It’s not easy, in fact, it is nearly impossible.  In rare instances the government will issue you a new SSN, but it is very rare. Even with a new SSN, your old SSN will never go away completely. The Social Security Administration never invalidates an SSN once it has been issued and used.

 

Protect Your Identity This Holiday Season

By Eileen Jones, Master Financial Education Volunteer

Make sure your holiday season is merry and safe with these important reminders for protecting your identity and financial info.

Before you deck the halls this holiday season, take a few minutes to review these important reminders for protecting your identity and financial information.

  1. Shop smart online and in the stores. You can put your financial information at risk whether you shop online or in-store. Be smart.  Before purchasing anything online, shop only at trusted websites and those that display a secure lock sign or URL that starts with “https://”. Instead of entering your credit card online, consider payment services such as Visa® Checkout.
  2. In stores, make sure to use your chip card at chip-enabled card readers. Or, pay with your phone using your digital wallet. When these options aren’t possible, use credit cards that provide zero liability protection.
  3. Don’t give your information to an unfamiliar charity. Identity thieves are known to prey on holiday givers by setting up fake charities or giving campaigns. Unless you’re already familiar with a charity, this is an easy way for scammers to collect your personal information and money. Be wary of sketchy phone calls and emails soliciting your information.
  4. To determine the legitimacy of a charity, you can research the charity yourself or use an online service such as charitynavigator.com, an independent charity evaluator.
  5. Select your ATM carefully. You’ve probably heard stories in the news about ATM skimming. With this scam, thieves attach electronic devices on or near ATMs to collect your card number and PIN. The easiest way to avoid using tampered machines is to use ATMs in well-lit areas or inside bank lobbies. Always shield the keyboard with your hand as you enter your PIN. If the ATM doesn’t look quite right, it’s better to avoid it entirely.
  6. Keep your travel plans off social media. Sometimes it’s hard to keep your excitement about a holiday trip to yourself, but it’s always wise to make sure your plans are only revealed to those you trust. Don’t mention your travel plans or post vacation photos on social media until well after your trip. Otherwise, you could be welcoming criminals to an empty house. (Think Home Alone!)
  7. Eyeball your credit report. It never hurts to check up on your credit report, especially during or following a busy purchasing time like the holidays. To receive a copy of your credit report, go to www.annualcreditreport.com.
  8. Shred unnecessary receipts. Receipts tend to collect in your wallet, purse or shopping bags. Sometimes the information on them can be enough for an identity thief to do damage. Shred those receipts, along with junk mail or documents containing your information, on a regular basis.
  9. Pay attention to data breach announcements.  If you hear of a data breach that could impact your personal information, take action as soon as possible. Place fraud alerts or credit freezes with credit bureaus and contact the creditors or banks associated with the breached company.
  10. Put identity theft protection in place.  Consider purchasing identity theft protection. It’s a great way to help protect your identity and keep track of your personal financial information. If you have it, make sure you’ve activated all of its features, so your product is doing the best detect-and-alert work it possibly can.

 

Remember: The holiday season is a time to celebrate with loved ones. Don’t let identity thieves put a damper on your spirit!

Taste of Extension Showcases 2015 Successes of VCE

On December 4 more than 76 people attended VCE-Arlington and Alexandria’s annual breakfast event for local, state, and federal elected officials and community leaders. Each year we showcase the recent successes of our programs and this year we focused on new developments at VCE in 2015. There was a lot of new information to share: Energy Masters is expanding into Alexandria thanks to a grant from the city; our full-time financial coach started in March and will be with us for more than two years through special arrangement with the CFPB; our new 4-H agent, Caitlin Verdu, started in October; a new SNAP FCS agent, Van Do also started in October and will be providing nutrition education to SNAP clients in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties; and Paula Kaufman joined VCE in June as our new Master Gardener Coordinator.

Another new feature of this year’s event was that the Master Food Volunteers prepared the breakfast that was served to attendees. In past years the breakfast has been catered, but after Master Food Volunteers saw how unhealthy and tasteless last year’s breakfast was they volunteered to prepare the meal. Dishes included a leek and feta cheese frittata, chard, red pepper, and sweet potato frittata, homemade preserves, and parfaits made with yogurt, granola, and cranberry chutney. The fresh and healthy food was much appreciated by the guests.

Also at this year’s event we had the opportunity to honor Toby Smith, a long-time 4-H volunteer who received a Connect with Kids award from the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth, and Family. Toby runs a Junior Master Naturalist club and has served as chair of both the Arlington and state Extension Leadership Councils.

Every year this event is attended by Arlington county board members, state delegates and senators, aides of federal legislators, and community leaders such as the heads of Arlington and Alexandria departments of parks and recreation. They get to talk with volunteers and staff as they visit stations set up around the room highlighting all of VCE’s programs. This is an important event to help spread the word about the exciting work that Extension is doing and we look forward to having an even bigger and better event in 2016.

Family Nutrition Program Assistant Haregowoin Tecklu demonstrated how coffee is roasted and prepared in her home country of Ethiopia.

Family Nutrition Program Assistant Haregowoin Tecklu demonstrated how coffee is roasted and prepared in her home country of Ethiopia.

4-H club members Aziza Hasen, Areli Ibarra, and Rebecca Nance joined 4-H volunteer Maria Jechoutek (center) and Alexandria 4-H agent Reggie Morris to represent local 4-H programs.

4-H club members Aziza Hasen, Areli Ibarra, and Rebecca Nance joined 4-H volunteer Maria Jechoutek (center) and Alexandria 4-H agent Reggie Morris to represent local 4-H programs.

Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation Deputy Director (DPR) Jennifer Fioretti, Emergency Services Director Debbie Powers, and DPR Director Jane Rudolph were among the guests who attended the breakfast event.

Arlington Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) Deputy Director Jennifer Fioretti, Emergency Services Director Debbie Powers, and DPR Director Jane Rudolph were among the guests who attended the breakfast event.

Celebrate National Dine In Day, December 3!

Today is national Dine In Day, a nationwide campaign started by the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences that is intended to encourage families to eat a healthy meal together at home. Many families are so busy these days that they rarely have the chance to sit down to dinner together. Eating family meals at home has several benefits:

  • Cooking at home is typically less expensive than eating out, thus helping families save money.
  • When you prepare meals at home, you can control how much salt and sugar go into your food and so home-cooked meals can be healthier than those you eat in restaurants.
  • When families eat a meal together they get the chance to re-connect, talk about their days, and enjoy each other’s company.

You can commit to dining in today by taking the pledge at this web site: http://www.aafcs.org/FCSday/commitment.html. If you need healthy recipe ideas, contact staff at the Arlington Virginia Cooperative Extension office: http://offices.ext.vt.edu/arlington.

AAFCS at AFMAAFCS Chief Executive Officer Carolyn Jackson promotes Dine In Day at the Arlington Farmers Market

 

Year-end smart money moves

By Master Financial Education Volunteer Eileen Jones

Working toward a healthier financial future before your New Year’s resolutions begin!

Time is of the essence! You’ve heard that at least once before in your lifetime. Well, the year is quickly coming to an end and now is the time to get your important year-end financial tasks in order. The deadline is December 31st, and unlike some deadlines in life, this one cannot be changed.

Here’s a list of smart money moves to that may help you end the year 2015 on solid financial ground.

  1. Assess any financial loss as this may save you in taxes:

Tax-loss harvesting is pretty simple – it means offsetting your realized taxable gains on your investments (capital gains) with losses (capital losses). That means selling stocks, bonds, and mutual funds that have lost value to help reduce taxes on gains from winning investments.   Tax-loss harvesting has a deadline of 31 December, so don’t waste time. The idea is to sell investments that are not expected to gain significant value in the near (or possibly far) future. Do not undermine your long-term investing goals by selling an investment just for tax purposes – research and make smart decisions that will ultimately save you money.

  1. Give to your favorite charity or charities:

Charitable donations are an extremely effective way to reduce your taxable income when you itemize on your tax returns. If you’ve been meaning to make a donation and want to lower your tax bill for 2015, be sure to make your contributions by December 31.

Charities like Goodwill and Salvation Army are a great place to donate your gently used household items and clothing. Forget Spring Cleaning – end-of-year cleaning can be very beneficial.   It can make you feel good about helping others while benefiting you through tax write-offs. Go ahead – clean out closets – but don’t forget to itemize your donations and always get receipts for all non-cash donations.

  1. Consider giving money to your favorite family member(s):

Give to family members, especially if you are approaching the later years in life.  Take advantage of the IRS tax law that allows an individual to give up to $14,000 a year to as many individuals as you choose without paying gift taxes. Giving cash, stocks, bonds, and real estate reduces your estate. This can also help reduce your stress levels as “cleaning house,” if you will, lowers one’s burden in life.

  1. Bundle your tax write-offs:

One way to maximize the value of tax deductions is to bunch two years’ worth of itemized deductions into a single year, especially if you expect your income to be higher. For example, if you have unreimbursed work expenses that you incurred early in the year, you might be able to pull next year’s expenses into this year and double up your 2015 deduction.

Homeowners with mortgage payments: consider making an extra mortgage payment or prepay taxes (state and real estate), this will allow you to take additional deductions on your 2015 tax return.

  1. Max and Match – reduce your taxable income:

Even if you contribute regularly to your 401(k) or 403(b), take a few minutes to see whether you can make an additional contribution before the end of the year—especially if you aren’t on track to contribute the full amount your employer matches. The maximum you can contribute in pretax dollars for 2015 is $18,000, or $24,000 if you’re age 50 or older, and contributions must be made by December 31, 2015.

You may be able to reduce your taxable income1 by making a contribution to an IRA or spousal IRA. While you can make an IRA contribution for 2015 by April 18, 2016 (the tax-filing deadline for 2016 due to a federal holiday), doing so now will give your money more potential to grow in a tax-advantaged way. The maximum contribution is $5,500 per person ($6,500 if you are age 50 or older) or 100% of employment compensation, whichever is less.

  1. Don’t forget money in your Flexible Spending Account (FSA):

There are two types of flexible spending accounts that allow you to set aside pretax money and then reimburse yourself, with calendar-year “use-it-or-lose-it” deadlines: health care and dependent care. The U.S. Treasury Department has relaxed the rules a bit this year. Employers can allow participants to carry over up to $500 in unused funds into next year, so make sure your balance doesn’t exceed that. Some plans allow you to submit 2015 claims until March 2016—check with your employer

  1. Health plan analysis:

Do you receive health insurance through your job? If so, many offer more than one option and choosing the right one can be financially beneficial. If you don’t go to the doctors often or regularly, enrolling in a plan that is more affordable because the co-pays and the deductible are high, may be your best option. Your company should provide you with all of the necessary paperwork so you can read up on each plan – be an educated consumer when choosing the right health plan for you and your family.

  1. Assess your W4:

Are you claiming too many dependants so that the IRS is holding onto your money rather than you? Or at tax time, do you owe the IRS a huge amount of money? Now is the time to assess whether you need to change tax withholding from your pay check. Getting a big tax rebate check is nice, but unless you are using it wisely, you are missing out financially.

  1. Consider converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA:

Who wouldn’t want the tax-free growth potential and withdrawals in retirement that a Roth IRA offers?  The problem is, not everyone can contribute to a Roth IRA because of income limits. But you may be able to convert existing money in a traditional IRA or other retirement savings account into a Roth IRA. Because pretax contributions and gains in a traditional IRA are generally considered taxable income when you convert, later in the year is a good time to take a look. That’s because you have more information about your taxable income for the year, which may enable you to convert a more targeted amount to ensure that the income from the conversion doesn’t bump you into a higher income tax bracket. If you don’t have an existing traditional IRA, you may want to open one, make a nondeductible contribution, and convert it to a Roth IRA before it accumulates any earnings. That way it would not be considered taxable income.

  1. Are you over 701/2 year of age? Take your minimum required distribution:

As soon as you turn 70½, IRS regulations generally require you to withdraw a minimum amount of money each year from your tax-deferred retirement accounts (i.e. traditional IRAs, annuities, 401(k) plans); otherwise, you may have to pay penalties of up to 50% of your minimum required distribution (MRD). Be prudent – pay attention – don’t let the IRS take your hard-earned money!

Even if you reached 70½ this year, you have until April 1, 2016, to take your 2015 distribution. However, it still might be a good idea to take your 2015 distribution now, before the end of this year. Waiting will mean that you will have to take two distributions in one year – 2015 and 2016. If this pushes you into a higher tax bracket next year, you will have to give the IRS more of your money. Being mindful now may mean saving money in the long run!

Remember: the benefits of these suggestions can last a lifetime! Don’t regret wasting these opportunities.