Author Archives: wpeichel

4 Tips to Control Clutter in Your Life

Clutter imageDo you have CHAOS (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome) in your home? VCE Agent Jennifer Abel visited Alexandria’s West End Wellness Center today to share with 40 participants how to reduce clutter in their lives.

Clutter can lead to mental anguish, physical hazards (potential for fires, tripping, etc.), and even health issues like allergies or headaches, according to the American Board of Behavioral Psychology. An issue of Mother Jones found that we spend 55 minutes a day looking for things we know we own but can’t find. We can’t even fit all of our belongings in our home; the demand for self-storage has skyrocketed in the last decade. Financial strain is also common, not just because you’re paying for extra storage, but because you incur late charges when you can’t find that bill that’s overdue, or you’re eating out more because it’s just easier than cleaning the kitchen.

So what should you do? Jennifer shared some tips we can all use at home:

1. Get real – Don’t assume you can clear up your clutter in one day. Take manageable steps by tackling one room at a time. Gather five containers: one for trash, one for recyclables, one for donations, one for items to sell, and a laundry basket for things you plan to keep that need to be returned to their proper homes. Then set a timer, and work solely on decluttering and filling these containers until that timer goes off.

2. Ask questions – When you pick up an item, ask yourself a few questions:

  • How long has it been since I used this?
  • Do I like it?
  • Does it work properly?  Is it broken?
  • Do I have more of this kind of thing?  How many do I need?
  • If I keep this, what will I get rid of to make room for it?
  • (For paper clutter, in particular) Can I locate this information somewhere else (probably on the internet) if I need it?
      3. Get FAT – No, we’re not suggesting you pack on the pounds.  To reduce paper clutter, professional organizer Barbara Hemphill suggests using the F-A-T system, where you pick up a piece of paper and decide immediately whether you will File it, Act on it, or Toss it.

4. Reduce what you bring in to your home – The most efficient way to reduce clutter is to not even bring it in your house.  Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Reduce the number of financial statements by using only one or two credit cards and consolidate multiple financial accounts to a single financial institution.
  • Call 888-5OPTOUT (567-8688) to stop receiving pre-approved credit card offers.
  • You can go to to get off specific catalog lists.
  • Whenever you sign up for anything where you are providing your address, phone number, or email address (how can you resist a drawing for a free car?!?), look for boxes that let you “opt out” of receiving mailings from that company or from others.
  • Contact the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service to remove your name from mailing lists:

Finally, celebrate success. The best way to keep your good habits going is to acknowledge and enjoy your progress. (You’ll have plenty of time for this when you’re no longer sifting through enormous piles of clutter!) If you would like to arrange a Controlling Clutter class for a group in your area (in Arlington or Alexandria), please contact Jennifer Abel at or 703-228-6417.

Do you have any good tips to address clutter in your life? Please share your ideas!

Welcome to the new class of Master Financial Education Volunteers!

We are thrilled to announce an addition of sixteen more Master Financial Education Volunteers (MFEVs) to our Financial Education volunteer roster.  These MFEVs completed their 12 hour training on April 27, and are equipped to assist with teaching classes, provide one-on-one financial counseling, participate in youth financial simulations, and much more.  They are eager to put their training into practice.  Congratulations, Femeia, Terri, Tyrone, Angell, Jen, Janet, Erin, Esperanza, Cyndi, Geri, Carol, Jack, Sandra, Johana, Brittany, and James!

Five Financial Myths That Can Leave You Poorer

If the road to financial security sometimes feels like a donkey trail instead of a superhighway, then part of the reason may be widely held misconceptions that make us take a few wrong turns.  Here are five myths almost guaranteed to cause you to stumble.

Myth #1:  A home is your best investment.  Not necessarily.  Just ask the people who bought homes in 2006, only to see the value collapse in 2008.  While home values are recovering, they can fluctuate in the wrong direction when you want to sell.  In short, a home is not a liquid investment.

A home also means expenses that renters don’t have:  insurance, property taxes, replacement of dying furnaces, and weekends at Home Depot.  And that glorified mortgage interest deduction on your income tax return?  For every three dollars you pay in interest, Uncle Sam may reimburse you for one dollar, but that’s still two dollars of unproductive out-of-pocket expenditure.  The solution?  Go to your favorite search engine on the Web and type in “rent vs. buy.”  You’ll find sites that can help you decide if home ownership is right for you.  Just make sure you visit several sites to get the wide angle view of your situation.

Myth #2:  A bunch of credit cards makes you look more creditworthy.  You would think that a pile of credit cards would demonstrate that lots of people trust you to pay your debts.  In reality, multiple credit cards represent large potential debt, thus making a banker hesitant to make a large loan (for a car, house, or whatever) on favorable terms.  The solution?  Think like a banker.  Would you loan money to someone who can max out a lot of cards quickly?

Myth #3:  You should invest all of your money in one well-publicized company.  Yes, that company could be the next Apple Inc.  Or it could be the next Enron.  The point is:  even the experts get it wrong sometimes, which is why they usually don’t put all of their eggs in one basket.  If investing is difficult for pros with research staffs, what chance does the average person have?  The solution:  a diversified mutual fund having stocks in a variety of industries and low operating expenses.  It also helps if the fund hasn’t been in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s doghouse.

Myth #4:  To beat inflation, you must invest in high-yielding (and high risk) investments.   Financial salespeople will overstate the effect and duration of inflation to scare you into their investment products.  Yet, an inflation rate is merely a weighted average of various products, such as housing, fuel, and food.  If you don’t drive a car or are not looking for a new house, your personal inflation rate may be pretty low.  You don’t need to rush into any investment.

What’s the solution to all this pressure?  A little perspective helps.  In real dollar terms, we’re better off than we used to be.  Electronic equipment is better per dollar spent.  Medical care, while expensive, is far more advanced than even twenty years ago.  Cars last longer.

Make no mistake:  things will cost more tomorrow.  But that is no reason to invest in something that gains 20% each year for two years and then wipes out your gain in the third year with a 33% drop.  (Do the math; you’ll be surprised.)  Like the tortoise, slow but steady wins the race.

Myth #5:  You can always trust the advice of personal finance magazines.  A famous financial publication once declared a certain mutual fund as being best for the long run.  That fund’s parent company no longer exists.  Aside from bad predictions, personal finance magazines have an inherent conflict of interest because much of their advertising income comes from the same mutual funds that they write about.  How tough would you be on the hand that feeds you?  In fairness, the magazines do contain useful historical information.  But the solution to trusting them too much is to always be skeptical of their advice for the future.  After all, nobody has a reliable crystal ball.

– Phil Neel, Master Financial Education Volunteer

Excited for tax season?

Generally when tax season rolls around, there’s a sense of gloom in the air.  “Have you filed your taxes yet?” becomes the ever-popular question, and it pervades our everyday lives until we’ve finally sent them off.  As long as you’re armed with the proper information, there’s no need to dread these first few months.

If you are a low-income earner, you may be eligible for free tax preparation.  The IRS sponsors numerous Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites, including two in the Arlington/Alexandria area.  Visit for more information.  You may qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of the biggest government benefits provided to low-income persons to alleviate poverty.  If you do receive a refund, try to save as much as possible.

Tips for all filers:

  • Be prepared for direct deposit.  If you receive a refund, the fastest and best way to process it is by having it directly deposited into your bank account.  Bring your checkbook and/or your bank routing and account number to provide to your preparer.
  • What if you owe money?  If you owe taxes, your best course of action is to file your return no matter what, then pay what you can by the deadline (federal deadline is April 15, 2013).  If you cannot pay the balance, contact the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 to set up a payment plan.  The IRS can be very accommodating, as long as you keep the lines of communication open.
  • If you have either a big refund or a large amount due, consider changing your withholding in your current paycheck.  Go to to determine the appropriate amount to withhold each paycheck, then complete a W-4 and forward it to your HR Department.

Are you planning to visit a paid tax preparer?

  • Shop around.  Ask friends and family for recommendations, but be careful to check other references.  There are plenty of scammers in the tax preparation business who would love nothing more than to take your money and run.  Look for a permanent office and check the BBB website for any previous complaints.  Keep in mind that even if the BBB has no complaints listed, it isn’t a guarantee that the company is reputable.  The preparer should be thorough and record all information in accordance with tax laws.  Just because you made income in cash, doesn’t mean you don’t have to report it to the IRS.  The tax preparer should ensure all income is reported accurately.
  • Ask about fees at the beginning.  The tax preparer should not base his/her cut on your refund amount, and it’s possible he/she will charge more for additional forms prepared (such as Schedule C).
  • Avoid refund anticipation loans (RALs).  This is a very expensive way to receive your refund early.  You can be charged a very large fee, and it isn’t much of a benefit since refunds are usually sent within a few weeks.
  • Before you sign the returns, make sure all information appears accurate and complete.  The preparer’s Employer Identification Number (EIN) or SSN should be listed on the return.  Have the preparer answer any questions you have to your satisfaction.  After signing, keep a copy of your return for your own files.
  • It is ultimately your responsibility to file an accurate tax return.  If the IRS finds an error in your return, you will be the first person it contacts, not the preparer.

For other tax assistance, contact Community Tax Aid.

Cooperative Extension will be providing financial counseling at both Arlington and Alexandria VITA sites, on Tuesday & Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings during the tax season.  Even if you are not intending to file with these preparers, you are welcome to sit down with us to discuss your financial concerns.  Please visit our calendar for dates, times, and locations.