Monday, December 24, 2007

Do Snow Days Reveal Your Bad Attitude?

Do you make the effort to drive into work during a snow storm? Recently, the Milwaukee area experienced a snow/ice storm. Most of the schools were closed and there was an ice storm advisory for those living to the south. In my area, we received only snow; the radio announcers advised that the roads were not treacherous, to take it slow and give yourself plenty of time. My husband who left for work before me called to report the roads were fine; all of his co-workers had made it in safely coming from every area of South Eastern Wisconsin.

My department was a different story; five out of twelve did not make it in. Yet, all the employees in the other departments at our location had made it. This statistic reminded me of a recent article I had read indicating that employees with bad attitudes do not bother going into work during inclement weather. Our company’s owner did walk around making a mental note of who came in and who did not. His only comment was, “I can understand why Jim's not here he has that long commute.”

These same workers grumbled amongst themselves when they returned the next day seeming to have forgotten our company policy, "In fairness to those employees who do not come in to work under adverse weather conditions when we are not closed will not be paid for hours not worked." Understandably, there are family situations employees must attend to; two of the five had to stay home with their children due to school closings. If you truly can't make it in, you can try to handle the situation in a positive manner. Plan ahead, if weather reports are predicting bad weather take work home, call your managers and co-workers to make sure important tasks are completed in your absence, keep up with your work by checking voice mail and email from home, our company is set up so that everyone can do so. Lastly do your career a favor, if the roads are not that bad make the effort and go in.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Wal-Mart $4 Generic Drug List

I thought this was an excellent resource for you or family members who may take some type of prescription drug. Wal-Mart has provided a list of drugs which are $4 Prescriptions up to a 30-day supply fill and refill. I have attached the link for your reference. I hope some of you could benefit from this cost savings program. Prescription drugs is one of the highest cost benefits for a employers health care plan. Wherever we as consumers can save money, we should take advantage of that benefit.

Wal-Mart $4 Generic Drug List - 10/07 Ever wonder what drugs were covered at Wal-Mart for $4?

"Ode to Joy"

This year my husband's holiday party was at the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center and included a performance by the Milwaukee Symphony. Each year his company provides new and unique ideas for their summer parties and holiday events. Past events have included outings to the State Fair, the zoo, a casino night, and Hawaiian entertainment. By providing a variety of events, they ultimately should find something everyone will enjoy. For my husband and me this one was a winner. We both love music; and are always looking to attend cultural events. Others felt differently. Unable to appreciate the two hour concert, they would have preferred a party with an open bar and continuous social interaction. From the owner’s perspective, the President probably preferred an event such as this over one where the entertainment’s focus was alcohol for potential liability reasons.

As more and more companies are doing away with the "Holiday Party", I think we need to appreciate the efforts of company’s such as this who continue to provide a unique “Holiday Party”.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Penelope Trunk's resent blog posting: What to Consider when Considering a Workplace Hook-up hits close to home. My husband and I were a workplace-hookup.

I'm glad we met and all; we have now been married ten years, but looking back on the situation I see it was a stressful time. Also, I am sure our relationship interfered with my work performance at least initially. I spent an awful lot of time wondering if my new boyfriend was in the office, what he was doing, and who he was talking to. I went out of my way to find reasons to visit his department sometimes carrying around a stack of project files pretending I had questions. From the beginning, we both agreed to be discreet and keep our relationship a secret even if it meant attending the holiday party separately. I worked in accounting and was privy to confidential information including the company’s financial position, payroll and human resources. Even though I took the confidentiality aspect of my position seriously, I am sure senior management would have been more cautious sharing information with me if they had known about our relationship and may even have thought twice about promoting me to manager.

My future husband was a consultant with sales goals he needed to meet and projects he had to manage under budget. After we had been dating a couple of years, I was promoted to Controller. I then had to sit through uncomfortable meetings and had a few awkward moments as my future husband’s performance was reviewed and critiqued in front of me. I left the company a month before we  married. After our marriage was made public, my former female co-workers claimed they had been on to us for quite some time; whereas senior management, all of whom were male, had been completely taken by surprise. My husband left the company three years later.

In retrospect I believe we were fortunate our workplace-hookup worked out as well as it did. We had been good friends for a year and a half before we started dating which I am sure made a difference. Also, I have never regretted our decision to be discreet and to keep our relationship a secret.

Friday, December 07, 2007

We've never done it that way before!

Snow and freezing rain caused havoc this week at my place of employment. Two employees slipped and fell in our company parking lots. Luckily, neither of them was seriously hurt. In the past, some of our company's largest workman's compensation claims have resulted from employees falling on ice. After the first incident, I instructed the employee who is responsible for salting our parking lot to please salt the entire lot. After the second spill, which occurred at a different location, I realized our entire lot still had not been salted. When I confronted our employee he replied, “We’ve never done it that way before.” He has always salted the entryway only and besides we were almost out of salt. To which a co-worker overhearing our conversation responded, "That is not true we have always salted the entire lot, weigh your options $4 bag of salt vs. 1,400,000 liability suit. Hmm what sounds better?" I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Today in our litigious society companies need to constantly manage risks. Slippery parking lots are a hazard to the company not to mention the loss of productivity, pain and suffering for the employee.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Does your Company Offer a Flexible Spending Plan?

A co-worker recently inquired as to why our company does not offer a flexible spending plan. Both he and his spouse incur high out-of-pocket medical expenses each year; almost always paying out their entire deductible. If they were able to set some of these monies, let’s say $1,000, aside each year in a flexible spending account they would be able to save about $300.00 a year.

What is a Flexible Spending Plan?
The Flexible Benefit Plan is a program that was enacted by Congress in 1978. The plan allows employees to pay for certain expenses using pre-tax dollars. Employees deduct monies from their paycheck before federal, state, social security and medicare taxes are calculated. The monies are withheld from each paycheck in equal installments and reimbursed once an employee shows proof that the service was rendered. By using the plan, you save approximately 30% in taxes on the qualifying expenses. Employers also save money. They do not have to pay their portion of social security and medicare taxes on your pre-tax deduction.

What types of expenses qualify for reimbursement?
Medical Reimbursement: Expenses paid out-of pocket for medical deductibles, vision care including eye exams, contacts, and glasses, and dental work. Over the counter drugs such as allergy, cold and flu, pain relievers, cough suppressants, anti-inflammatory drugs and smoking cessation items. Walgreen's Pharmacy codes items eligible for reimbursement with an "F" on their receipts. I have noticed purchases of prescription drugs, sunscreen, lip balm and saline solution all coded in this manner.

Dependent care Reimbursement: Expenses paid for care of a qualified dependent can be paid on a pre-tax basis. You may be able to claim dependent care expenses for children under the age of 13, certain preschool tuition and certain adult care expenses.

Independent Premium Feature: If you do not have insurance coverage through your employer and have purchased an independent policy for either health or dental insurance, you may be allowed to set aside funds pre-tax for those premiums.

Why does our company not institute a plan?
First, we were told that we can not offer a (FSA) Flexible Savings Account in conjunction with an (HSA) Health Savings Account. Our company was contemplating instituting an HSA instead of our current health plan. Despite changing our views on HSA’s, all discussions concerning flexible spending accounts are on hold.

Adding a FSA account would increase the administrative work for our already over burdened payroll department. Initially, instituting a FSA would entail more work, but typically companies contract this service out to a third party, so after the initial set up additional work should be minimal.

Adding an FSA plan will be costly. After the initial set-up costs, the account should pay for itself with the social security and medicare tax savings I previously mentioned.

Honestly, the real reason our company does not institute a FSA is that if an employee leaves the company early in the plan year, after they have been paid out all or the majority of their FSA medical deduction, but before an equal amount has been deducted from their paycheck, our company would be out the difference. In discussions with Human Resource Managers from other companies, I have learned this is usually not the case. The more prevalent scenario is that an employee leaves the company or completes the plan year without using their entire FSA deduction and forfeits their money. One way to minimize losses on both sides is for the employer to cap the amount of monies employees can place in their accounts each year. Also, the employee should use conservative estimates when determining their deduction amounts and only set aside monies for known expenses.

My Perception: The employee benefits of a flexible benefit account outweigh the employer costs of this benefit. I recommend that management consider adding this benefit.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Business Lessons from Paula Deen

Paula Deen is not your typical entrepreneur. Or is she? I just finished her memoir Paula Deen: It Ain't All About the Cookin' in which she tells us her success story. One thing is very clear, it wasn’t easy. She began her business in 1989 at the age of 42, a recent divorcee who had suffered from agoraphobia for twenty years. Starting small, with only a $200 investment she began “The Bag Lady”. She made sandwiches out of her home and sold them to her co-workers and neighboring businesses at lunch. This led to private catering and ultimately to a restaurant of her own.

She shares the lessons she learned along the way. You need to be legal; she licensed her business thru her friend's pool hall. Entrepreneurship is hard work; while working 16 to 24 hour days she let her own home literally become a roach invested pig sty. You can’t be afraid to take a risk or work under a little stress. When she decided to open a restaurant in downtown Savannah she entered into a long term lease that needed renovations with just a handshake. The day her new restaurant was to open her checking accounts were overdrawn. She surrounded herself with the best people she could find and strived to bring out the best in them.
Paula’s lessons aren’t necessarily new, yet her story has a realistic spin. If you have always wanted to sell your famous egg rolls, salad dressing, caramel nut torte or whatever to the public I would recommend reading this book first.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Yogurt is really pudding

"Yogurt with high fructose corn syrup is more like pudding (a treat) than a healthy food," stated Eliz Greene of Embracing Your Heart, whose seminar "Women's Heart Health" I attended last week. After hearing this, I had what Oprah would call an Aha! Moment. If yogurt is considered a treat, the majority of the food I eat is really a treat. I decided it's time I got serious about losing weight; to do this I need to change what I eat.

I have wanted to lose ten pounds for as long as I can remember. For the past ten years I have gained a couple of pounds each year; resulting in many of the classic clothes I purchased to wear year after year no longer fitting. I have never tried dieting; I didn't think I had to. I exercise religiously three times a week; pack what I considered to be a healthy lunch; a granola bar, yogurt, and a piece of fruit. For dinner I limited my red meat and usually ate sensibly. Following these steps I thought eventually the weight would just come off.

What am I doing wrong?
I don't eat enough for lunch. To compensate each afternoon around 3:00 I hit the snack machine or raid the candy bowl at work. In addition, in order to have enough energy to workout I almost always grab several handfuls of chips or a couple of cookies as I head out the door on my way to the gym. During summers I entertain frequently; consuming fattening appetizers, desserts and high calorie drinks.

What changes am I going to make?
After hearing that yogurt is a treat, I finally realized I need to be honest with myself about my food choices. First and foremost, I need to eat a more substantial lunch. Since I am not fond of sandwiches, I am going to add a large salad or soup to my lunch. I will substitute plain yogurt with real fruit instead of the yogurt pudding I've been eating and raisins mixed with nuts for the granola bars (which is really a glorified candy bar). A piece of fruit will be my mid-afternoon snack. Sweets and chips will be eliminated from my diet. When entertaining, I will attempt to include healthy appetizers and low calorie drinks.

What is my time frame?
I plan on immediately making these small food adjustments permanent lifestyle changes. I will keep you informed of my results.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Could it be Jack Welch's 20-70-10 model?

My company is hiring a new in-house HR Consultant. She is a personal friend of the owners and rumored to be good. In the past, our company's HR duties were split amongst the employees in my department. None of us are degreed in HR and most feel these activities to be time consuming and a burden to our department. So why does the anticipation of this new hire bother us.

Could it be Jack Welch's 20-70-10 model? In case you didn't know, Jack Welch used to be the Chairman and CEO of General Electric. During his tenure he developed a model which determined that 10% of his workforce was slackers, 70% were average, and 20% were top performers. Each year he would fire the bottom 10%, leave the 20% alone to do their thing and groom the middle 70% to become the next top performers. Over time his employees would shift into new categories. After the bottom workers were let go and the top performers left the company, a new group would move into the bottom 10% and the top 20%.

So that explains it, as this new hire with a stellar reputation joins our company she may just knock some of us out of the top 20% or worse yet push some of us into the bottom 10%.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Basic Understanding of the Income Tax Code Needed

Since I work as an accountant, I am frequently asked income tax questions by friends and family. Here is the latest from a college student:

"Ms. Colere, could you please review my 2006 federal income tax return, my tax preparer calculated that I owe money this year. I don't understand how this could possibly be correct. Last year, I got a refund. I didn’t work any more hours this year or change my tax withholdings." Upon further review, I discovered this particular college student owned a taxable mutual fund account in her name that had incurred a large capital gain distribution in 2006. The tax-withholdings withheld from her part-time job earnings did not cover her tax bill once she included the capital gain distribution into the tax calculation resulting in money owed.

This scenario led to my conclusion that as part of a financial literacy program everyone should be able to complete a 1040EZ tax return and have a basic understanding of the Federal Income Tax code. This is important even if you hire an accountant to do your taxes. It could save money on taxes; not to mention interest and penalties for unreported income or unallowable deductions, lead to better investment decisions and save money on tax preparation fees.

“The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.” — Albert Einstein, physicist

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"I don't think you want to do that!"

My ultimate dream has always been to someday teach financial literacy in my community. I would keep my options open to whom my students would be: children, young adults, single moms, widows, senior citizens or even non- financial savvy entrepreneurs.

Occasionally when the opportunity arises, I will share this dream with someone I meet. I had just such an occasion this week. I met a woman who is very active volunteering in Milwaukee's inner city. The program she is involved with provides hot showers and meals for families in need. Seeing this as a perfect opportunity to discuss my dream; I asked if her volunteer organization taught financial literacy and expressed my desire to some day do so. To this she stated that the people she works with have much more pressing needs than financial planning and are not ready for a financial literacy program. I continued pressing my issue to which she replied, “I don't think you'd want to do that.” She expounded by saying these people have a different value system. She has been in homes where families will have two big screen televisions but no food to feed their children. They are not ready to hear my message and my time would be wasted.

How timely that last night I read the following in "Black Enterprise" magazine: In 2004, black buying power rose to $723 billion, up from $585 billion in 2000, according to The Multicultural Economy of 2004, a report by The Selig Center for Economic Growth. The report defines buying power as the total personal income available to individuals after taxes for spending on goods and services. The report also found that blacks spend more money on telephone services, shoes, personal care products, and children's apparel and less on healthcare, reading materials entertainment, and household textiles, compared to other groups. Although buying power is increasing in the African American community, experts say consumers should not mistake that statistic for a sign that the community is becoming wealthier. In fact, to the extent that African Americans spend more of their increased income rather than save and invest it, in many cases their wealth might even decline in light of the increase in their income.

I have never responded well to someone telling me, “You don’t want to, can’t or shouldn’t do something I have already set my mind on doing. Obviously, there is a great need for my services and I will not be deterred.

Monday, April 09, 2007

One more thing to do before it is too late

Having recently experienced a death in my husband’s family, we have spent several hours over the past few days looking through boxes of old photographs. How saddened we were to discover that many of the very old photographs were thrown haphazardly into a box and were not labeled. How unfortunate. There are far too many pictures that we will never be certain who they are of or what the occasion was.

Take the time now to sort through your family photos; you never know when it will be too late.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Tips for an infrequent baker

I am an infrequent baker. This is not because I don't like baking. I happen to love baking. It's because baking is time consuming and one thing I don't have a lot of is time. But more importantly and perhaps more truthfully, it is because I like to eat baked goods. If I come home from work and am faced with the option of making myself salad or eating a plate of cookies I will more often than not eat the cookies. So, I don’t give myself this option and do not bake.

When I do have to make the occasional dish to pass I am usually faced with a few ingredient obstacles. Here are some tips for an infrequent baker like myself:

How to soften hardened brown sugar: If you notice signs of hardening but the sugar is still somewhat pliable, place an apple slice in the bag and leave it for a couple of days. If it has already reached the concrete state place the brown sugar in a glass dish, cover with a small piece of waxed paper, then top with a slice of bread to provide a bit of moisture, then loosely cover the plate or bowl with plastic wrap and microwave until softened about 30 seconds.

How to test baking powder for freshness: Baking powder loses its ability to leaven with time; if it's older than 6 months to a year you will need to test it for freshness: Mix 2 teaspoons of baking powder with 1 cup hot water, if there is an immediate reaction of fizziness and foaming the baking powder can be used. If the reaction is at all delayed or weak throw it away and buy a new can.

Substitutions I have used in a pinch:
Cream: For one cup use 1/3 cup butter, plus ¾ cup milk.
Sour Cream: Substitute an equal amount of plain yogurt.

What to do with unused evaporated milk: Instead of leaving the unused portion of evaporated milk sit in the refrigerator for weeks eventually to be tossed, freeze the unused portion in an old ice cube tray, thaw and use the cubes as needed.

Friday, March 09, 2007

What's wrong with this picture?

One of my co-workers firmly believes that it is his job as a parent to do whatever he can to give his son a good head start on life. To achieve this he has paid his son's college tuition, paid his rent when he moved out to be closer to campus, bought him furniture and a car. He made sure that he had health insurance and paid his car insurance. He achieved all of this despite both he and his wife were laid off from their jobs. He did whatever he had to do, including not rolling over his 401(k), so that he could pay all the bills. Even now, almost two years after his son has graduated and has a full time job, he continues to pay his car insurance.

On a recent visit home this man's son said, "Gee Dad, why don’t you buy yourself some new furniture yours is really looking shabby and by the way next week I'm going on vacation to Florida with my girlfriend.”

I firmly believe that you should not jeopardize your own retirement and financial future to subsidize your children’s college education. There are many resources available to assist your children with their college expenses, but relatively few to assist you with expenses if you run short each month after retirement. How will these same children respond when they hear their elderly parents are experiencing financial difficulties? I imagine they will say, “Gee Mom and Dad you should have saved more.”

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Take advantage of 401(k) match

The lifetime pension (a retired employee receives a set amount of money every month for the rest of his or her life) is no longer a benefit for the majority of American workers. Of the five organizations I have worked for since 1985, not one of them offered a company lifetime pension plan. Four out of the five did offer a company sponsored 401(k) plan. Most of the plans included a 401(k) match in which the company matched a portion of my contribution.

It continues to amaze me how many employees do not contribute at all or enough to take full advantage of the 401(k) match. People, this is leaving free money on the table.

Last week, I asked a co-worker, who was complaining about his lack of retirement savings, if he contributed to our 401(k) plan. He did not; our company matches half of our contributions up to a measly 2 percent. He is so angry about such a small match he refuses to contribute to the plan. He learned years ago that he had to take care of himself, nobody else, especially his employer, was going to do it for him. I agree a 1% match isn’t much, but it’s something and it’s free. I suggested in 2007, he take care of himself by taking advantage of our company match.

401(k) contributions are deducted with pretax dollars. This means your contribution reduces taxable income, cuts your tax deduction which makes saving a little easier. For example, let’s say your weekly gross pay is 1,000 and you pay 30% in federal and state taxes. If you put 2% of your pay in a 401(k), you'd contribute $20 a week. But, your net paycheck would be reduced by only $14 a week.

Bottom line: Start taking care of yourself in 2007; make a contribution to your company's 401(k) plan that takes full advantage of your company match.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Recent Loss

I recently lost a friend and colleague to breast cancer. I clearly remember the last time I saw Jeanie. She had recently finished her first bout with chemo and looked radiant in her bright red suit. Her attitude was optimistic and determined. She had been such a courageous fighter; I was sure she had beaten her cancer and was destined to be a survivor for many years to come. That was two years ago.

Experts claim that breast cancer treatment is most effective when detected early. To do this we must perform self examinations, schedule annual clinical breast exams and receive mammograms one to two years after the age of 40.

As we start 2007, I would like to encourage everyone to call their doctor’s office and schedule their annual breast cancer screening. And while you’re at it, if you are over 50, schedule your colonoscopy. I know these procedures are unpleasant, taking time off from work is a hassle, etc, etc. But don’t schedule your appointments because I told you to; schedule them because Jeannie would have wanted you to.