Consider setting up a flexible spending account during your employer’s open enrollment period. Photo credit: Judy Corbus
Fall is open enrollment for health insurance and other employee benefits with many employers. One benefit available through many employers is a flexible spending account, or FSA. A flexible spending account is a special account into which you put money to pay for certain out-of-pocket health care expenses. You select the total amount you wish to contribute for the following year, and your contributions are divided out evenly over your paycheck schedule beginning January 1st.
A real perk to this account is you don’t pay taxes on your contributions – the money is deducted before taxes are calculated so you will save an amount equal to the taxes you would have paid on the money you have set aside.
The FSA funds can be used to pay for certain medical and dental expenses for you, your spouse if you’re married, and your dependents. Typical allowable expenses include:
- Deductibles and co-payments
- Prescription medications and over-the-counter medications with a doctor’s prescription
- Medical supplies and equipment such as crutches, bandages, contact lenses and solution, hearing aid batteries, and blood sugar test kits.
Access to your funds varies by employer – some provide employees with a special debit card linked to their FSA to use to pay for expenses, while others require employees to submit a claim to the FSA for reimbursement.
You may contribute a maximum of $2,750 per year per employer. Your spouse also may contribute up to $2,750 in an FSA with their employer. Bear in mind that FSAs are “use it or lose it.” Funds generally must be used within the plan year; however, employers may offer a couple of options:
- They may provide a “grace period” of up to 2 ½ extra months to use the funds.
- They may allow you to carry over up to $550 per year to use in the following year.
Employers are not required to offer these options so it’s important to know your employer’s policy. If you have not used your money by the end of the plan year or grace period, you lose it so plan carefully.
To calculate how much to contribute, review this year’s medical expenses for routine doctor and dentist visit co-pays and charges, deductibles, prescription and OTC “maintenance” medications, and other medical expenses. If you anticipate an additional expense for the coming year, such as new eyeglasses, factor that in as well. It’s better to underestimate next year’s medical expenses and contribute a smaller amount than to overestimate and risk losing unused funds.
Some employers also offer dependent care flexible spending accounts to cover childcare expenses. They, too, offer tax savings and operate similarly to healthcare FSAs; check with your employer to see if they are available.
Use open enrollment to review your available options and premiums and compare with your current plan(s) to make sure you and your family are enrolled in the plan(s) that will best meet your needs at the most affordable price. Consider enrolling in a flexible spending account to save money on taxes – don’t leave money on the table!
For more information, visit IRS Publication 969 Health Savings Accounts and Other Tax-Favored Health Plans.
Next to ensuring your family’s safety and well-being during a hurricane, having a game plan to protect your largest investment – your home and property – is essential in preparing for a major storm or other disaster. Many of these tasks can be done as part of routine home maintenance well before a storm is on the horizon.
Mow your yard before a storm to make clean-up easier. Photo credit: UF/IFAS Photo by Camila Guillen
Let’s start with the outside:
- Trim back limbs and branches hanging over the roof and any dead limbs elsewhere in the yard. These can break off in high winds, causing roof and siding damage.
- Clean valleys, gutters, and downspouts of leaves and debris. This will improve water flow off the roof, reducing the risk of leaks.
- If a storm is approaching, move trash cans, lawn furniture, grills, decorative items, potted plants, and toys to the garage, shed, or other secure storage area. These items can become flying missiles in high winds!
- Protect windows with plywood or roll-down shutters. These protective barriers can:
- keep wind pressure from building up inside, leading to roof loss
- reduce the chance of glass breakage
- reduce the risk of wind-driven rain damaging your home’s interior
- Be sure to install plywood before wind speeds increase!
- Do NOT apply tape to windows. Tape will not protect against breakage from flying debris and wastes time and resources. Plus, the adhesive can be very difficult to remove from the glass.
- Protect the garage door with vertical bracing. You can install wooden columns or purchase a kit. For more information, check out Protecting and Securing Garage Doors.
- Check doors, windows, and walls for openings where water can enter. Use silicone caulk to seal any gaps, cracks, or holes – pay special attention to cable and pipe openings into the house.
- Test and service your back-up generator to make sure it’s working properly and check your fuel supply. To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, use your generator only outside and at least 20 feet away from doors, windows, and vents.
- Mow the yard. This makes post-storm clean-up much easier.
Now, we’ll move inside:
- Check your flashlights and stock up on batteries as needed. Plan on a flashlight for every person in the house plus additional lighting for bedrooms, bathrooms, and common areas.
- Check your weather radio to ensure it’s working properly.
- Check smoke detector and carbon monoxide alarm batteries and replace as needed. Hard-wired alarm systems will operate on the battery backup during a power outage.
- Keep your cell phone and other devices charged when a storm is forecast. Purchase backup charging devices for your electronics.
- Gather disinfectant supplies, trash bags, toilet paper, paper towels, paper plates, cups, and plastic utensils. Put these items in a waterproof/water resistant container to keep them clean and (hopefully) dry in case of flooding.
A 5-gallon bucket with a liner can serve as a toilet. Photo credit: Annette Lanham
- If you might be unable to flush the toilet during/after the storm, place a heavy-duty contractor trash bag in the toilet bowl to hold waste. Tie with a plastic tie and dispose of when full or as needed. Another option is to place the bag in a five-gallon plastic bucket. For added comfort, slit a foam pool noodle on one side and slip over the bucket edge for a “seat”; cut to fit. You can have two buckets – one for liquid waste and the other for solids.
- Before the storm arrives, wash dishes, catch up on laundry, clean the kitchen and bathrooms, and empty wastebaskets. This reduces clutter and promotes a clean environment in which to ride out the storm. It also reduces extra work and stress after the storm when water and electricity may be limited or unavailable.
For additional preparation tips, visit Homeowner’s Handbook to Prepare for Natural Disasters
Stock up on canned fruits, vegetables, meats, and heat-and-eat soups for your hurricane food supply kit. Photo source: UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones.
Now that we are officially in Hurricane Season (June1-November 30) and named storms are paying a call to the Sunshine State, it’s time to make sure we are prepared.
At the top of the list is planning meals for you and your family. Many people grab snack-type foods, such as crackers, cookies, and chips, or whatever is available on store shelves when the storm is approaching without having a meal plan in mind. Use MyPlate as a guide to plan meals to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and dairy products. Foods from each food group provide important vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to properly fuel your body so you are better equipped to deal with the challenges and stresses that accompany hurricanes and other disasters.
Plan a two-week supply of nonperishable or canned food and juices that require little or no cooking and no refrigeration. Include healthy snacks and any special foods for infants, senior adults, or persons with specific dietary needs. Select foods your family likes and will eat. Plan meals and shop early before a storm is on the horizon so you have a greater food selection and can take advantage of sales to stock up at a reduced cost. Keep planned written menus that have worked well for you and your family inside your hurricane food supply kit in a re-sealable plastic bag.
Brenda Marty-Jimenez, Family and Consumer Sciences Agent with UF/IFAS Extension Broward County, offers the following menu suggestions:
Apple juice • ready-to-eat cereal • small boxes of raisins • breakfast bars with fruit • shelf-stable skim milk • tea or instant coffee • water
Orange juice • hot cereal/instant oatmeal • banana • muffin • shelf-stable skim milk • tea or instant coffee • water
Grape juice •ready-to-eat cereal • canned peaches • yogurt • bread with jam or jelly • shelf-stable skim milk • tea or instant coffee • water
Chunky beef soup (ready-to-eat style that only needs heating) • crackers • carrot and celery sticks • nuts • fruit cups packed in water • vanilla wafers • shelf-stable skim milk • tea or instant coffee • water
Canned cream soup (ready-to-eat style that only needs heating) • tuna sandwich on whole-wheat bread • tomato slices • unsweetened applesauce • cookies • shelf-stable skim milk • tea or instant coffee • water
Canned chili with beans (ready-to-eat style that only needs heating) • dinner rolls with margarine or butter • broccoli florets • canned fruit • animal crackers • shelf-stable skim milk • tea or instant coffee • water
Canned meat or cheese ravioli • three-bean salad (canned) • fresh yellow apples • bread with margarine or butter • fat-free pudding cup • shelf-stable skim milk • tea or instant coffee • water
Egg-salad sandwich on whole-wheat bread • canned green beans • canned fruit • fat-free pudding cup • shelf-stable skim milk • tea or instant coffee • water
Mac and cheese • canned vegetable • fresh pears • dinner rolls with margarine or butter • cookies • shelf-stable skim milk • tea or instant coffee • water
Remember the four key food safety principles: Cook, Clean, Chill, and Separate.
- Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of cooked foods.
- Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water. Sanitize food preparation and cooking surfaces regularly.
- Put leftovers in sealed bags or shallow containers and pack on ice or store in the refrigerator if it is running on a generator. Dispose of food that has been at room temperature for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is 90oF or above) or has an off-odor, color, or texture.
- Toss out food that has come in contact with contaminated flood water. Do not eat foods from dented, swollen, or corroded cans, even though the food may appear safe to eat.
For more hurricane meal planning ideas and tips, visit: http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/browardco/2020/06/01/hurricane-preparedness-meal-and-menu-planning/
Removing the moisture source is the first step in combatting mold. Photo source: UF/IFAS Extension Pinellas County
Have you seen black, gray, white, or orange stains on your bathroom tile’s grout? Does it look slimy or cottony? Well, you guessed it—that’s mold. There are good molds – yogurts, cheeses, and antibiotics – and bad molds, like the kind that grows in the bathroom.
Mold and mildew refer to a fungus that flourishes in warm, humid, indoor environments. Florida’s heat and humidity supply the ideal habitat for molds of all kinds. Because mold reproduces by releasing spores into the air, mold can go undetected until it has grown into a colony, as in our grout example. Certain molds really are toxic, however, and not only cause health problems, but also damage building structures, furniture, books, and other items.
Health Impacts of Mold
Exposure occurs by touching mold or inhaling air containing its spores. Exposure may cause allergic symptoms and health problems, ranging from sneezing, coughing, or a runny nose to chronic sinus problems, nosebleeds, asthma, skin and/or eye irritation, headaches, difficulty concentrating, and even memory loss.
How to Prevent Mold
Mold is a part of nature and there is no way to keep it entirely at bay. However, we can limit its growth by keeping our house:
Cool – Keep the temperature below 77°F inside your home if you think mold might be an issue.
Dry – Keep the relative humidity below 60%. You can purchase an inexpensive humidity meter (hygrometer) from a hardware store.
- Dry wet surfaces or items as soon as possible. Do not leave anything wet for more than 24 hours.
- Wipe down shower walls with a window squeegee or towel right after showering.
- Fix leaks.
- Pull the shower curtain across the tub/stall to allow the curtain to dry.
- Run the bathroom exhaust fan while you are showering and up to 15 minutes after you finish or open the bathroom window to allow moisture to escape.
- If bath towels remain damp in your bathroom several hours after bathing, hang them in the garage or outside to dry. This reduces moisture in the bathroom and keeps towels from souring.
Clean – Keep your house clean to minimize nutrients for mold.
- Wipe countertops to remove any food residue.
- Refrigerate perishables. (This also reduces foodborne illness risk).
- Clean bathrooms – pay special attention to the shower/tub area and sink to remove soap scum and dead skin cell residue that some molds feed on.
- Change the air conditioner filter monthly.
When you find mold inside your home, it means there is a moisture problem – leaky plumbing, a roof leak, or water entering around a window or door. Fix the source of the problem or mold will continue to be a problem. If you cannot find the source, if there has been a lot of water damage, or the moldy area is larger than 10 square feet (about a 3 ft. X 3 ft. square), it is recommended to get professional help.
To clean small areas, scrub the moldy surface with a solution of dishwashing or laundry detergent and water, or a mild solution of bleach and water. Wear waterproof gloves and protective goggles to protect your skin and eyes from direct contact with the mold. Wear an N-95 respirator (available at most hardware stores) to avoid inhaling the mold spores. After cleaning, dry the wet area thoroughly to prevent further mold growth.
For more information on controlling mold and mildew, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.
Resource: Keeping It Clean: Controlling Mildew
Source: “Keeping Your Home Healthy,” Taking Good Care of My Home, UF/IFAS Extension.
As the holiday season gets underway, shopping for gifts may be on the top of your To Do list. While there is usually no shortage of suggestions for the kids on your list, you may be stumped about what to give to your neighbor, co-worker, best friend, or favorite aunt.
Fresh fruit makes a healthy, colorful gift.
UF/IFAS Photo: Thomas Wright.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Fruit basket: Give the gift of health with a basket of fresh fruit – apples, oranges, and grapefruit are seasonal favorites loaded with vitamin C and make convenient snacks or a tasty, colorful complement to any meal. If the recipient has experienced some financial challenges this year, consider tucking in a grocery store gift card to help stretch their food budget.
Gifts of Service: If your gift-giving budget is smaller this year, give of yourself! Give gift certificates for a free housecleaning to an elderly neighbor or relative, a free car wash, pet sitting for a weekend, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, a plate of your famous brownies, or an evening of child care, to name a few. These also make great gifts for children and teens to give. Download gift certificate templates online or design and decorate your own.
Magazines: A magazine subscription is a gift the recipient can enjoy throughout the year. Check renewal offers that come with your favorites – many publishers offer free or greatly reduced gift subscriptions when you renew your own.
Donations: We all have that one hard-to-shop-for person on our list – they have everything or aren’t involved in any hobbies. Or perhaps they have downsized to a smaller home and have limited space for “things.” Consider donating in their honor to one of their favorite charities or causes. There are several humanitarian organizations that provide needed supplies to persons in Third-World countries and even here in the U.S. Your donation can purchase a “share” of a farm animal that can provide income for a family, or you can select school supplies, clothing, sports equipment, or other items to benefit persons in need. Gifts of this kind always fit, take up no space in the recipient’s home, and help others in the spirit of the season. To check how well a charity uses donations for their intended purpose, visit the IRS Searchable Database of Charities, Charity Navigator, or Guidestar.org.
Gift giving doesn’t have to be expensive. With a little creativity, you can celebrate the season with fun, meaningful, budget-friendly gifts! Happy Holidays!