Which Car Brands Make the Best Vehicles?

Consumer Reports’ exclusive testing and member survey data reveal the best and worst automotive brands overall

By Consumer ReportsLast updated: February 20, 2020

Car Brand Report Cards

Porsche pulls into the top spot this year, leapfrogging third-place Subaru, whose score remains unchanged. Genesis holds steady in second place.

Those are CR’s findings, based on our exclusive testing and member surveys. The leaders benefit from outstanding results in our road test and reliability and owner satisfaction surveys, which are factored into each model’s Overall Score. The best brands on this list tend to have more vehicles in their product lineups that consistently performed well.

CR recommends all the PorscheGenesis, and Mazda (another top brand) models we’ve tested. Subaru falls just short of that distinction because of the below-average predicted reliability of its WRX sedan. Tesla was the biggest gainer, climbing eight positions because of the improved reliability of the Model 3 and Model S sedans.

The bottom brands are also an unchanged club, with Fiat, Mitsubishi, Jeep, Land Rover, Cadillac, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, and GMC again falling short. We tested a total of 36 models from those brands, and we recommend only one, the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Brands that move slightly up or down in our ranking tend to have new or redesigned model offerings, such as Audi with the A6 and A8, or changes in predicted reliability. Shoppers should remember that models from all brands can vary in reliability performance.

How We Rank the Car Brands

Brand report cards are built on an average of the Overall Score for each model tested. A brand must have at least two models tested to be included. The Overall Score is based on four key factors: road test, reliability, owner satisfaction, and safety.

• The road-test scores are for vehicles purchased by CR and run through more than 50 tests.
• Reliability predictions are based on problems reported by CR members in 17 trouble areas.
• Owner satisfaction from surveyed CR members reflects whether drivers would purchase the same car if they had it to do again.
• Safety includes crash-test results and extra points awarded for proven advanced safety features that come standard for the model.

Learn more about how Consumer Reports tests cars.


Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the April 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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There’s A Hidden Cost To Your Big Tax Refund

A new study highlights how much money you actually lose by waiting to receive a refund.

Getting a big fat check from Uncle Sam probably seems like a win. After working hard all year and diligently completing your tax return, a major windfall in the form of a refund feels like a reward. Unfortunately, it’s not.

The truth is that a tax refund is simply your own money, which you earned throughout the year, being paid back because you had too much tax taken out of your paychecks. Even though you worked all year to earn the money, you didn’t actually have access to it until the following April.

It might not seem like a big deal to get a tax refund. In a way, it’s like a forced savings account, which could be a good thing for people who aren’t great at consistently saving throughout the year. The problem? That “savings account” doesn’t earn any interest and you can’t withdraw from it if you need the money for something more important.

That’s a concept that personal finance site SmartAsset sought to explain with a new study highlighting tax refunds and their hidden costs. Getting a big refund in April isn’t so great after all.

How Tax Refunds Cost You Money Over Time

“Tax time is a time when people are generally very excited to get a refund, and sometimes, unhappy to be paying taxes,” said AJ Smith, vice president of financial education at SmartAsset. “If you’re getting a refund in 2020, it means that throughout 2019, too much money was taken out of your paycheck by the government and now you’re getting that money back. You essentially gave the government an interest-free loan.”

Smith said her team wanted to show what that really could mean if you took intentional action with that money throughout the year instead of getting a refund later.

As you can see below, waiting to receive your refund in April might mean missing out on savings or investment interest, or paying more interest on debt, depending on how you’d choose to use the funds if you received them in your paycheck instead.

Analysis by SmartAsset shows how much money you may lose out on throughout the year by waiting to receive a tax refund. The difference is even more dramatic if you consider compound interest. 
Analysis by SmartAsset shows how much money you may lose out on throughout the year by waiting to receive a tax refund. The difference is even more dramatic if you consider compound interest. 

To calculate the cost of getting a tax refund, SmartAsset assumed that the refund would otherwise be spread out evenly across the year (i.e., one-twelfth of the tax refund was received at the end of January, one-twelfth was received at the end of February and so on). Additionally, they assumed that the taxpayer received the refund on April 15, though some people may actually get their refunds earlier or later.

Losing out on $12 in savings account interest, as one example shows, probably won’t wreck your finances. But consider how impactful losing out on a year of investment returns can be ― especially because that money will continue to compound over the years.

For instance, according to SmartAsset’s analysis, receiving a $5,000 tax refund instead of getting that money in your paycheck and investing it in the market could cause you to lose out on $502 in returns. That’s nothing to sneeze at. But let’s say you’ve been happily getting your $5,000 refund for 20 years. If you had been investing it throughout the year each year instead, plus reinvesting the returns, you’ve missed out on making $204,585 ― about double the total amount you’ve been taking home in a cash tax return.

What $5,000 invested every year for 20 years looks like.
What $5,000 invested every year for 20 years looks like.

“You do benefit when you do that from compound interest. That’s the money that your money makes then making more money,” Smith said. “And so you’re losing out on that opportunity, even if you are really great and take that whole refund and put it towards your goal of … saving or investing.”

What if you chose to pay off debt instead? According to the study, using that same $5,000 to pay down credit card debt throughout the year instead could save you $595 in interest. “It means that was interest you were paying throughout the year, on something that you eventually paid off, that you could have paid off throughout the year and saved yourself that money,” Smith said.

How To Adjust Your Tax Withholding

So how do you ensure that rather than receiving a refund (or owing money) at tax time, you break even?

Whenever you start a job, you fill out a W-4 form to determine how much tax should be withheld from your paycheck by your employer. You can update this form at any time for the upcoming tax year, if desired. In fact, you should update your W-4 if you experience any major life changes such as getting married or having a child.

Just be aware that, along with the many other recent updates to our tax code, the way W-4s work also changed. It no longer has you claim “allowances,” which were tied to personal exemptions ― money that could be deducted from your taxable income for you and any dependents. Exemptions were eliminated as part of the 2017 Tax Cuts And Jobs Act, so the W-4 was updated to reflect this big change.

Now, the new W-4 for 2020 is completed by answering a few personal questions about you and your spouse’s job, dependents and other adjustments. Your employer will update your W-4 for this year based on last year’s information, but it’s not a bad idea to double-check that the info is correct. If your W-4 is completed accurately for 2020, you should end up having roughly the correct amount of taxes withheld from each paycheck.

Note that certain people, especially lower-income taxpayers, will still end up getting a refund thanks to tax credits. But that’s extra money awarded to them by the government and not earnings withheld from their paychecks.

The Bottom Line

“Personal finance is personal,” Smith said. “And if you’re someone who is really great at getting that $3,000 and doing something really smart and intentional with it ― you’re able to put that money to good use ― that’s great.” However, she said the point is that many people might think of their refund as found money they can use to treat themselves, when it’s really just part of their wages.

“It’s really important to make sure that you’re the active party when it comes to your money and that you’re intentional about what you’re doing, and that it matches up with your values and your goals. That can be a really powerful thing,” Smith said.

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What is considered a bad credit score?

How to improve your credit

CNBC Select explains what range is considered to be a bad credit score, how to get a free credit report, and how to improve your credit score fast.

Having a bad credit score isn’t the end of the world, as long as you work toward improving it.

While bad credit may make it more difficult to achieve financial milestones, such as being approved for an auto loan or mortgage, there are steps you can take to repair your credit score.

Lenders look closely at your credit report when determining whether you qualify for credit, such as credit cards or loans. One of the factors they consider is your credit score. This three-digit number is calculated by analyzing your financial actions, such as debt and payment history, to predict your ability to repay money lent to you.

If you have a less than stellar credit score, you should take action as soon as possible, so you can work toward good credit and increase your odds of being approved for financial products like credit cards and loans.

Below, CNBC Select explains what credit score range is considered bad, how to improve a bad credit score and how to get a free credit report.

The rundown: Bad credit scores

  • What is a bad credit score?
  • How a bad credit score can hurt you
  • How to improve a bad credit score
  • How to check your credit score for free

What is a bad credit score?

Credit score ranges vary based on the credit scoring model used (FICO versus VantageScore) and the credit bureau (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) that pulls the score. Below, you can check which credit score range you fall into, using estimates from Experian. Take note that the credit score lenders use varies, though 90% pull your FICO score.

FICO Score

  • Very poor: 300 to 579
  • Fair: 580 to 669
  • Good: 670 to 739
  • Very good: 740 to 799
  • Excellent: 800 to 850

VantageScore

  • Very poor: 300 to 499
  • Poor: 500 to 600
  • Fair: 601 to 660
  • Good: 661 to 780
  • Excellent: 781 to 850

What factors influence your credit score

Credit scores are calculated differently depending on the credit scoring model. Here are the key factors FICO and VantageScore consider.

FICO Score

  1. Payment history (35% of your score): Whether you’ve paid past credit accounts on time
  2. Amounts owed (30%): The total amount of credit and loans you’re using compared to your total credit limit, also known as your utilization rate
  3. Length of credit history (15%): The length of time you’ve had credit
  4. New credit (10%): How often you apply for and open new accounts
  5. Credit mix (10%): The variety of credit products you have, including credit cards, installment loans, finance company accounts, mortgage loans and so on

VantageScore

  1. Extremely influential: Payment history
  2. Highly influential: Type and duration of credit and percent of credit limit used
  3. Moderately influential: Total balances/debt
  4. Less influential: Available credit and recent credit behavior and inquiries

How a bad credit score can hurt you

Denials for credit

A bad credit score can reduce your approval chances for credit cards and loans, making it difficult to accomplish many goals. If you want to get out of debt with a balance transfer card, such as the Discover it® Balance Transfer, you’ll need good or excellent credit. And if you want to earn rewards or receive luxury travel perks, it’ll be near impossible to find a card that accepts bad credit.

Less favorable loan terms

If you’re approved for credit, odds are you’ll receive less favorable terms, such as high interest rates or annual fees, compared to applicants with good credit. For example, one of CNBC Select’s best credit cards for bad credit, the OpenSky® Secured Visa® Credit Card, has a $35 annual fee; though there are no annual fee options.

Limited credit card choices

Bad credit limits which credit cards you can qualify for; the options you have will be primarily secured cards. While a secured card, such as the Discover it® Secured or the Capital One® Secured Mastercard®, can help you rebuild credit, you’re required to make a security deposit — typically $200 — in order to receive an equivalent line of credit.

Take note that even if your credit score falls within the bad range, that is not a guarantee you’ll be approved for a credit card requiring bad credit. Card issuers look at more factors than just your credit score, including income and monthly housing payments.

How to improve a bad credit score

If you have bad credit, take some time to review your credit score and identify the cause. Perhaps you’ve missed payments or carried a balance past your bill’s due date. In order to achieve a fair, good or excellent credit score, follow the credit-building tips below.

  • Make on-time payments. Payment history is the most important factor in your credit score, so it’s key to always pay on time. Consider setting up autopay to ensure on-time payments, or opt for reminders through your card issuer or mobile calendar.
  • Pay in full. While you should always make at least your minimum payment, we recommend paying your bill in full every month to reduce your utilization rate, which is the percentage of your total credit limit you’re using. To calculate your utilization rate, divide your total credit card balance by your total credit limit.
  • Don’t open too many accounts at once. Every time you submit an application for credit, whether it’s a credit card or loan, and regardless if you’re approved or denied, an inquiry appears on your credit report. Inquiries temporarily reduce your credit score by roughly five points, though they rebound within a few months. Try to limit applications as needed and shop around with prequalification tools that don’t hurt your credit score.

How to get a free credit score

There are dozens of free credit score services available that offer your free FICO Score or VantageScore. Here are some popular free credit score resources.

What is a business credit score and how does it work?

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Shield Insurance Agency, Hudsonville, MI

Read Across America Day: March 2, 2020

Read Across America is a day held annually on March 2nd that encourages children in every community to read and also encourages parents and teachers to celebrate the joy of reading. It’s a holiday that has been celebrated since 1998 and falls on the same day as children’s book author Dr. Seuss.

History of Read Across America

This holiday can be traced back to May of 1997. This is when a small group of people at the National Education Association (NEA) came up with the idea to create a day of the year that celebrates reading among children. They reasoned that since many school football programs can get children engaged in the sport through pep rallies, then why couldn’t the same thing be done for reading? So they decided to advocate for a Read Across America program that would be celebrated on the birthday of one of the most prominent children book authors ever – Dr. Seuss. The day was officially launched March 2, 1998, and ever since it has continued to grow in scope and size. Today, more than 50 national nonprofit and association sponsors and more than 3.3 million NEA members  support the effort every year.

How to Celebrate Read Across America

This holiday is celebrated in numerous ways. All over the country, libraries, schools and community centers hold special Read Across America events that foster reading in their communities. Teachers also develop special events on this day to encourage their students to read.

The NEA also sponsors reading round tables and has an online store that allows people to buy everything they need for their RAA celebrations. This includes Dr. Seuss hats, RAA bookmarks, Special RAA flash drives and even RAA mugs.

Recommended Student Reading List

While recommended student reading lists vary from community to community, there are some books that always seem to pop up. Below is a partial list of some of the books read by elementary, middle school and high school students.

Elementary School

  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 1 By C.S. Lewis
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Who Would Win series by Jerry Pallotta and Rob Bolster
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Middle School

  • I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai
  • Brian’s Song by William Blinn
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

High School

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Conclusion

Read Across America is a perfect holiday to get children interested in reading. Parents can take their children to special events and book readings on this day and teachers can dedicate the whole day reading the classics. And if you really want to make the day exciting, you can purchase Cat in the Hat hats and wear them while you read. After all, on this day, Dr. Seuss was born as well. No matter what you do, however, make sure you instill the love of reading into the next generation.

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8 lesser known home insurance facts

8 lesser known home insurance facts: what you should know

Having home insurance can help keep you financially sound when disaster strikes. It covers damages to your abode, protects your belongings, and safeguards your liability — but there are more obscure areas of coverage you may not be aware of. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of 8 lesser known (but nevertheless crucial) home insurance facts you should know about.

1. an insurer cannot cancel your home insurance policy without a good reason

If your policy has been active for more than 60 days, your insurer cannot legally cancel it, unless you fail to pay your premium, lie on your application, or commit fraud.

Your insurance company can, however, decide not to renew your policy — typically around the one-year anniversary of it’s start date. In most states, a homeowners insurance company has to give at least 30 days’ notice to the insured as well as an explanation for why the policy has been non-renewed.

If you receive a notice of non-renewal, don’t fret! It doesn’t necessarily mean you did anything wrong, nor does it mean you won’t be able to find insurance elsewhere. It could be that coverage is simply no longer available in your region, or your property no longer fits your insurer’s guidelines. In any case, there are options at your disposal and ways to bounce back if your home insurer decides not to renew your policy.

2. certain dog breeds can make it difficult to buy home insurance

No one knows how slobbery and cuddly your wolf-coyote hybrid is better than you. But you might run into complications when trying to find adequate homeowners coverage for your beloved pooch’s breed.The average homeowners insurance policy includes liability coverage for all household members, which is why insurance companies are on guard when it comes to particular dog breeds they’re willing to insure — especially when you consider the fact that dog bites account for a third of all liability claims, each averaging $30,000. For this reason, most home insurers won’t provide coverage if you have a pit bull or the aforesaid wolf hybrid. Other blacklisted breeds typically include:

  • Rottweilers
  • German Shepherds
  • Akitas
  • Staffordshire terriers
  • A cross-mix of any of the above breeds

Rules for how insurers can regard certain dog breeds vary by state. In Michigan, for instance, an insurance company cannot deny coverage based on your canine’s breed alone, but you may see a higher premium.

3. your credit may have an influence on your premium

As you may already know, your credit history wields influence in various venues of your financial life — from apartment rentals to the interest rate on your leased car. But did you know it could also affect your home insurance premium?

Roughly 85 percent of home insurers use certain attributes of your credit score to create what is called a “credit-based insurance score” (CBI). That’s because studies show a strong correlation between someone’s financial risk and the likelihood that he or she will file a claim.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. According to the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, studies have shown that most policyholders get a better deal when CBI scores are used to determine a premium since there’s greater accuracy.

However, there are a few states, including California, Massachusetts, and Maryland, that prohibit insurance companies from factoring in credit history to set policy rates. If you live in a state where the practice is permitted, you have the right to obtain your score through LexisNexis, and learn how different factors were used to determine your policy rate.

4. your lender can restrict the size of your deductible

The deductible is the amount you agree to pay for a loss before your insurance coverage kicks in. Many homeowners try to earn savings on their premiums by raising their deductible. But mortgage lenders typically won’t allow you to set your deductible at more than $1,200. That’s because your lender has a stake in your property too, and should anything happen to it, they want to have the peace of mind (much like you do) that the necessary repairs will be covered.

Moreover, they will likely require that they be listed as the “loss payee” on your homeowners policy — which means that if disaster rears its ugly head, the reimbursement would go to them, where they’ll ensure it’s used to repair the damage or pay off the loan.

5. maintaining a home inventory is paramount

Taking stock of all your belongings (that’s right, all your belongings) is very important. Not only does a home inventory give you an idea of how valuable your belongings are, but it’s also a helpful way to determine a sufficient personal property coverage amount. Additionally, having a record of your stuff can be very useful during the claims process if you ever experience a loss.

Recording the details of your items — from brand and model, to purchase price and serial number — is no simple task. But following some useful home inventory guidelines could mean the difference between financial hardship and quickly getting back on your feet if you ever need to file a claim.

6. you can reopen a claim after you’ve received reimbursement

If your home is damaged by a windstorm or fire, your homeowners insurance company will assess the loss, and reimburse you to repair or replace the damaged portion. But sometimes you may discover additional damage that had gone previously unnoticed. Luckily, you may be able to reopen the claim so that any supplementary damage can be addressed.

Bear in mind that, depending on the state in which you live, claims for damage usually have to be filed within a year of the loss date. If you’re ever unsure, your best bet is to contact your insurer or your state’s department of insurance.

7. your home remodeling project isn’t automatically covered

Thinking of building a front porch or constructing an in-ground swimming pool? If so, it’s always wise to notify your homeowners insurance company before you begin your project.

That’s because you’ll likely need to update your home insurance policy to reflect the additions and determine whether you’ll need financial protection during the course of the project. If you fail to do so and the project is damaged in the process, your renovation may not be covered. Additionally, you run the risk of getting dropped by your home insurance company. For this reason, it’s best to be totally upfront with your insurer.

And before you commence the remodel, make sure all contractors and subcontractors involved carry their own insurance, and ask to see physical copies of it. That should include both worker’s compensation and general liability policies. If they don’t have sufficient coverage, a worker could sue you if he or she gets hurt on the job.

8. adding home safety features could lower your premium

Many home insurance companies (including Esurance) offer discounts if you outfit your pad with security features, such as burglar alarms, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and water safety systems. That’s because these safety devices help safeguard the home against common perils, thus reducing the likelihood that you’ll have to file a claim.

In addition, you could earn savings if no one on your policy smokes, if your roof has hail-resistant shingles, or if you install storm shutters on your windows’ exteriors. The less risks there are, the more affordable your insurance rate is likely to be.

And at Esurance, the perks don’t just end there. For starters, you could earn savings the moment you purchase a policy with us, and if you go just one year without filing a claim, you’ll see your premium continue to go down. Plus, if you do have to file a claim (hey, it happens), our claim forgiveness program will prevent your premium from hiking up.

Get a fast, free homeowners quote today, and learn about our other myriad discounts as well as wide-ranging coverages customized to fit your lifestyle.

Have questions or concerns about homeowners insurance? Feel free to give us a ring at 616-896-4600, where our agents are here to help you along the way.

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Volunteering Is Important

Are you considering volunteering? It’s an important way to help individuals and communities in need. And, as Calvin Holbrook writes, the benefits of this altruistic act are proven by science.

With most of us leading super busy lives, the idea of volunteering – giving your time and energy to a cause without financial reward – may seem an impossible task. I mean, how can we fit anything else into our already jam-packed schedules? However, volunteering is important for many reasons and doesn’t have to take up too much time. And, in fact, the benefits of volunteering are vast for the volunteer – not just the community, individual or organization receiving their assistance.

Indeed, it’s these benefits that could partly explain the rise in popularity of volunteering over the past few years. During 2012-13, 29 per cent of adults in England, UK, said they had formally volunteered at least once a month. The figure in the United States is not far off, at around 25 per cent (with slightly more women volunteering than men).

Promisingly, an increasing number of these people are young adults. In the UK, figures show that 2.9 million people in the 16 to 25-year-old age group volunteered during 2015, compared to 1.8 million in 2010: that’s a whopping 50 per cent increase.

So, why the interest in volunteering? The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said that the essence of life is “to serve others and do good,” and it seems an increasing number of us are starting to wake up and see why volunteering is important. People are starting to understand how serving and helping each other and different communities benefits not just others but ourselves, too.

Why is volunteering important?

Volunteering is important as it offers essential help to worthwhile causes, people in need, and the wider community. Indeed, many organziations and charities rely on the generosity of volunteers as often they’re only part-funded through government or local councils, and cannot afford to pay salaries for all their staff. In fact, many companies depend almost solely upon teams of volunteers to help them thrive and do their work.

So, what are the benefits of volunteering?

Of course, the benefits of volunteering for those receiving help are clear. Whether it’s providing kids in a Third World country with free English classes or litter picking from your local beach, the benefits to the receiver and the wider community are usually part of the reason why you decide to volunteer in the first place.

But did you realize just how important volunteering could be for the person doing it? In fact, volunteering is beneficial to the doer for a whole host or reasons, including stress reduction, combating depression and providing a sense of purpose.

“Volunteering is important as it offers essential help to worthwhile causes, people in need, and the wider community.”

And while studies do show that the more you volunteer, the more benefits you’ll experience, volunteering doesn’t have to involve a long-term commitment. Even giving in simple ways can help those in need and improve your overall health and happiness. So, let’s take a closer look at just why volunteering is important with seven key benefits of this altruistic act.

1. Volunteering connects you with others

If you’re feeling lonely, isolated, or simply want to widen your social circle, volunteering in your local community is an important – and often fun – way to meet new people. In fact, one of the best ways to make new friends and strengthen existing relationships is to commit to a shared activity together, and volunteering lets you do just that.

If you’ve recently moved to a new city or country, volunteering is an important and easy way to meet new people and it also strengthens your ties to that local community and broadens your support network. Furthermore, it connects you to people who have common interests and passions and who could go on to become great friends.

In fact, volunteering is an important and interesting way to meet people who you might not normally connect with: people from different age groups, ethnicities or social groups. Because volunteering is open to everyone, it allows you to meet a wide variety of people from all sorts of walks of life, something that can only open your eyes further.

2. Volunteering builds self-confidence and self-esteem

Doing good for others and the community helps to create a natural sense of accomplishment. And working as a volunteer can also give you a sense of pride and identity, helping to boost your self-confidence further by taking you out of your natural comfort zone and environment.

Indeed, volunteering helps you to feel better about yourself, which you can then take back to your ‘regular’ routine, hopefully creating a more positive view of your own life and future goals.

If you’re shy or fearful of new experiences, cultures and travel, volunteering overseas could be an important and insightful way to help you build self-confidence in this area too (not forgetting the other benefit of this type of volunteering – a chance to see a bit of the world at the same time!).

Research shows that volunteering could be particularly useful and important in boosting the self-esteem and confidence of adolescents who are just starting out on their life journey. A 2017 study from the University of Missouri and Brigham Young University that included almost 700 11- to 14-year-olds examined how sharing, helping and comforting others affected self-confidence. The study found that altruistic behaviors may indeed raise teens’ feelings of self-worth and that adolescents who assisted strangers reported higher self-esteem one year later.

“If you’re feeling lonely or simply want to widen your social circle, volunteering in your local community is an important – and fun – way to meet new people.”

And a National Youth Agency report seemed to corroborate this evidence. In it, young people aged 11 to 25 “repeatedly stressed that volunteering had increased their self-confidence, self-esteem and self-belief.” This self-confidence boost was shown to be strongly linked to improved communication skills, especially amongst young volunteers who were previously nervous about meeting new people.

3. Volunteering is important for physical health…

Interestingly, volunteering has distinct health benefits that can boost your mental and – perhaps more surprisingly – physical health. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that people who give their time to others might benefit from lower blood pressure and a longer lifespan.

A 1999 study showed that ‘high volunteers’ (helping out at two or more organizations) had a 63 per cent lower mortality rate than non-volunteers. And more recent research (2013) from Carnegie Mellon University found that adults over 50 who volunteered regularly were less likely to develop high blood pressure (hypertension) compare to non-volunteers. Hypertension is an important indicator of health as it contributes to stroke, heart disease and premature death.

Lead study author Rodlescia Sneed said that carrying out volunteer work could increase physical activity among those who aren’t normally very active, and that it could also reduce stress: “Many people find volunteer work to be helpful with respect to stress reduction, and we know that stress is very strongly linked to health outcomes.”

Importantly, volunteers seem to notice these health benefits too. Indeed, a 2013 study from UnitedHealth Group and the Optum Institute of over 3,300 U.S. adults revealed that 76 per cent of those in the United States who volunteer said it makes them feel physically healthier. Also, around 25 per cent said that volunteering had been important in helping them manage a chronic health condition.

4. …and mental health

When it comes to volunteering being important for mental health, the benefits are clear. It can help counteract the effects of stress, depression and anxiety. Indeed, the social contact aspect of helping others can have a profound effect on your overall psychological well-being.

Volunteering keeps you in regular contact with others and helps you develop a solid support system, which in turn combats against feelings of loneliness and depression. Volunteering with animals has also been shown to improve mood, reducing stress and anxiety.

Finally, volunteering boosts mental health simply because it makes you happier; the so-called ‘helper’s high’. Human beings are hard-wired to give to others, and by measuring so-called brain activity and happiness hormones, researchers have found that being helpful to others can deliver great pleasure.

A 2008 study from the London School of Economics examined the relationship between volunteering and happiness in a large group of American adults. The researchers found that the more people volunteered, the happier they were. Compared with people who never volunteered, the odds of being ‘very happy’ rose seven per cent among those who volunteer monthly and 12 per cent for those who volunteer every two to four weeks.

5. Volunteering is important for a sense of purpose

Because volunteering means choosing to work without receiving monetary compensation, people often choose to give their time to issues or organizations they feel are important or have a special connection to.

For example, if you’re a big animal lover you may want to volunteer at a pet shelter. Or, perhaps you’ve living with or have recovered from an illness and want to dedicate some of your spare time to a charity that helps others living with the same condition. Volunteering like this helps address a social problem that is meaningful to you and in turn helps to build a sense of purpose, which furthermore boosts your own happiness.

“When it comes to volunteering being important for mental health, the benefits are clear. It can help counteract the effects of stress, depression and anxiety.”

You can try volunteering at any age to help build a sense of purpose, but it’s often particularly common in older adults – those that have retired or maybe lost a partner of friends. Whatever your age of life story, volunteering can be an important technique to help give your life new meaning and direction!

6. Volunteering helps you forget your own problems

One other benefit of volunteering is that focusing on others can give us a deeper sense of perspective and help distract us from negative thoughts and help stop rumination. Volunteering often involves helping those in need and can be useful in showing us that, in fact, our own lives are not as bad as we thought they were.

7. Volunteering is important for your career

In an increasingly competitive job market, volunteering experience can be incredibly useful. It shows potential employers that you can take initiative and that you’re willing to give your own time to improve the world for other people.

Furthermore, volunteering gives you the opportunity to practice important common skills used in the workplace, such as communication, teamwork, problem solving, planning and organization. Indeed, if you haven’t had a full-time job before then volunteering is an essential way to prove your skills when you do go for work interviews.

Also, if you’ve just graduated or looking for your first job, volunteering is an important and relatively easy way to get a foot in the door of a company you’d like to work with. Even if there’s no immediate chance of employment afterwards, volunteering can help you to make connections for the future.

Alternatively, if you’ve already had jobs and are considering a change of direction, volunteering is an important and fun way to try out different career options, especially if you’re not quite sure of where you want to go next. Indeed, volunteering offers you the chance to try out a new career without making a long-term commitment!

Conclusions: the importance of volunteering

It’s clear the benefits of volunteering are huge – improved mental and physical health, new friends and avoiding loneliness, a sense of purpose and deeper self-confidence. In turn, all of these things will help to boost your overall happiness: a win-win situation for all involved.

If you’re considering volunteering, ask yourself a few questions before taking the plunge. Firstly, really think about which causes you’re passionate about – it means you’re more likely to enjoy and stay committed to the work.

Secondly, are you looking for regular volunteering opportunities or would you prefer a one-off project? Thirdly, what skill set can you offer and what can you hope to gain from volunteering? Good luck when you finally get going, and make sure you have fun – volunteering is important – the benefits are clear – but it’s important to enjoy it too!

Have you ever or do you still volunteer now? What are the benefits for you? What did you enjoy most about it? The happiness.com community would love to hear your story below…

Source: Happiness.com

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The Power Of Kindness

From boosting your mood to lowering stress, the power of kindness is proven. In fact, science shows the benefits of kindness are greater for the giver than the receiver. So, as Calvin Holbrook suggests, help others and help yourself, too.

Can you remember the last time a stranger was kind to you? Maybe someone held a door open or offered you help with directions in the street? Or, perhaps you can recall the last time you helped somebody. After recently carrying out a few altruistic acts myself, I wanted to find out more about the power and benefits of kindness

Just before Christmas I passed a homeless man sitting outside a London Tube station. Coming out of a nearby coffee shop after paying almost £3 for a flat white, I couldn’t justify spending that on a hot drink while he was sat with nothing. I started a conversation to find out how he was doing and he was thankful when I offered him some change and a banana. However, he seemed most grateful when I simply asked him what his name was. When I got up to leave, he looked directly into my eyes and gave me a genuine ‘thank you.’

Later, I was traveling on the top deck of a bus when a very jittery and ill-looking man got off and slipped, cutting his hand badly. While the driver called the ambulance, people in the street just stared and did nothing. I got off the bus and sat with him, putting an arm around him, and chatting to help keep him calm while we waited for an ambulance. Again, when I had to leave, he looked squarely at me and told me how grateful he was.  

The power of kindness: a ripple effect

In all three of these examples the power of kindness is obvious for the recipient: they were in a moment of need and received assistance. But the power of altruism also extended to me – in fact, one major benefit of kindness is that the love spreads both ways; it’s a win-win situation.

A positive sign: showing kindness is easy and free

After connecting with these three people I felt a sense of happiness and pride to know I’d made a small but meaningful impact on their day. In fact, this feel-good sensation stayed with me for hours afterwards. Experiencing this feeling has also made it more likely that I’ll carry out more random acts of kindness in the future. 

Likewise, I like to think that the power of kindness can potentially rub off on the people I’ll help out in the future, that they, in turn, will be more likely to assist others. In fact, it turns out that science backs up this kindness ‘ripple effect’. 

“One major benefit of kindness is that the love spreads both ways; it’s a win-win situation.”

A 2018 study focused on employees at a Spanish company. Workers were asked to either a) perform acts of kindness for colleagues, or b) count the number of kind acts they received from coworkers. The results showed that those who received acts of kindness became happier, demonstrating the value of benevolence for the receiver.

However, those who delivered the acts of kindness benefited even more than the receivers. That’s because not only did they show a similar trend towards increased happiness, but they also had an boost in life and job satisfaction, as well as a decrease in depression.

Furthermore, the effects of altruism were contagious. Those colleagues on the receiving end of the acts of kindness ended up spontaneously paying it forward, themselves doing nice things for other colleagues. This study suggests the ripple effect really is one of the benefits of being nice.

Kindness and psychological flourishing

Further studies back up the power of kindness. In another, researchers asked members of the public to either perform acts of kindness – such as opening doors for strangers – for one month, or to perform kind acts for themselves, such as treating themselves to a new purchase. 

The researchers measured the participants’ level of so-called ‘psychological flourishing’ – their emotional, psychological, and social well-being at the start and end of the experiment. By the end, those who had carried out kind acts for others had higher levels of psychological flourishing compared to those who acted kindly towards themselves. Kindly acts also led to higher levels of positive emotions.

Good to give: kindness benefits both the giver and receiver

Meanwhile, another study incorporated cold hard cash to test the powers of altruism. Researchers gave participants either $5 or $20 which they had to spend either on themselves or others before the end of the day. They measured the participants’ happiness levels before giving them the money and then called them on the phone in the evening. The results? Those who had spent the money were happier than those who used the money for their own needs.

The physical effects of kindness

So, science and studies show that being kind and helpful clearly has a positive and uplifting effect on those carrying out the act. But what exactly is happening in the body when you help someone out? Here are four ways keys in which the physical benefits of kindness can be felt.

1. Kindness releases feel-good hormones

When you do kinds acts for other people, so-called happiness hormones are released, boosting your serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of well-being and satisfaction. Endorphin levels also rise, leading to a phenomenon known as a ‘helper’s high’ (just like what I experienced). 

2. Kindness can reduce anxiety

Another physical benefit of kindness is that it can help to lower anxiety. Social anxiety is associated with low positive affect (PA), which relates to an individual’s experience of positive moods such as joy, interest, and alertness. A four-week study on happiness from the University of British Columbia found that participants who engaged in kind acts displayed major increases in their PA levels that were maintained during the study duration. 

3. Kindness may help alleviate certain illness

Inflammation in the body is linked to numerous health problems including chronic pain, diabetes, obesity and migraines. For older generations at least, volunteering as an act of kindness may be of benefit to reduce inflammation. In fact, according to one study of older adults aged 57-85, “volunteering manifested the strongest association with lower levels of inflammation.” 

Additionally, oxytocin, also released with acts of kindness, reduces inflammation, and it can directly affect the chemical balance of your heart.  According to Dr. David Hamilton, “oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in blood vessels, which dilates the blood vessels. This reduces blood pressure and therefore oxytocin is known as a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone because it protects the heart (by lowering blood pressure).”

4. Kindness can reduce your stress levels

Helping others takes you out of your own mind and can potentially help to build relationships with other people. Anything that helps you to build bonds with other people is known as ‘affiliative behavior’.

And, according to one study on the effects of pro-social behavior — action intended to help others  on stress, “affiliative behavior may be an important component of coping with stress and indicate that engaging in pro-social behavior might be an effective strategy for reducing the impact of stress on emotional functioning.”

“Science and studies show that being kind and helpful clearly has a positive and uplifting effect on those carrying out the act.”

Furthermore, once we establish an ‘affiliative connection’ with someone — a relationship of friendship, love, or other positive bonding — we feel emotions that can boost our immune system. So, it seems continued altruism can boost your happiness and improve relationships and connections, in turn indirectly boosting your health.

Shifting to kindness

So, knowing this, why aren’t people benefiting from the power of kindness? Why aren’t more people making a conscious effort to change the lives of others? 

For one, in our fast-paced world, benevolence and compassion often end up taking a back seat to self-interest – and selfies. People don’t seem to take the time to stop and help others or even notice what’s going on as we’re often wrapped up in our own lives.

Helping hand: the power of kindness is proven

Also, some people believe that showing kindness and compassion is a weakness and will only lead to being taken advantage of. But, the truth is, it’s in our human DNA to show kindness. In fact, we’re the only mammals with an extended gestation period, and while other animals rely on support for a short period before becoming self-reliant, we depend on the care of our caregivers to provide our needs. Indeed, kindness is fundamental to the human existence – we’re literally wired for it. 

Kindness is not something that demands hard work or huge amounts of time. It’s something all of us can strive to achieve every day. And, knowing that the power of kindness and its benefits are immense for ourselves and not just the receiver, why wouldn’t you want to help others more? 


Source: Happiness.com

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Avoid Deadly Distractions Behind The Wheel

Not texting is a start, but there’s more to safe driving.

Here’s the bad news: Distracted driving causes thousands of accidents every year, many of them fatal. The good news? If you’re driving, it’s 100% preventable.

You’ve seen them around your city or town. You may know a few of them.

And you might even be one yourself.

Distracted drivers come in all shapes and sizes, all makes and models. And even if you’re not one today, you could become one at any moment—in the time it takes you to answer your phone, or check the kids in the back seat.

But before you say, “I can talk on my phone and drive just fine,” think about this: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2016 nearly 400,000 people were injured in crashes caused by distracted drivers—and in 2015, more than 3,400 were killed.

It’s not just about texting, either. Although that is perhaps the most dangerous distraction, there are many others that can impact how you drive, whether you realize it or not. And they can be just as deadly.

Here are just a few of the things that can distract drivers on the road:

  • Talking on the phone, even with a hands-free device
  • Eating or drinking
  • Talking to passengers
  • Grooming (yes, there really are people who apply makeup or shave on their way to work)
  • Reading, including maps
  • Adjusting the stereo

Younger drivers are the most distracted of all—according to the NHTSA, teens were the largest age group reported as distracted at the time of fatal crashes.

With distractions more prevalent than ever—nearly 800 billion text messages are sent in the U.S. every month, for example—how can you, and those you love, be safer behind the wheel?

Here are a few tips:

  • Don’t use the phone: This includes texting as well as talking, unless it’s an emergency. Even hands-free conversations can take your attention off the road.
  • Eat before you leave, or after you get there: Scarfing down that burger with one hand on the wheel means your focus is divided—and you probably don’t have as much control over your car as you should. Bonus benefit: Keeping your meals and your driving separate means you’re much less likely to get ketchup on your pants.
  • Know where you’re going: Nobody likes to be lost. But messing around with your car’s GPS (or the maps app on your smartphone) while you’re moving can lead to something you’ll hate even more—an accident.
  • Talk to your family about safe driving: Having a conversation with your spouse as they’re driving home? That’s a perfect opportunity to say, “I’ll let you focus on the road; we can talk when you get here.” And if you have young drivers in the household, be sure to have a conversation about their phones and other potential issues, such as their passengers—a key distraction for teens.
  • Watch for other distracted drivers: Just because you aren’t distracted doesn’t mean that other drivers are focused on safe driving. Stay in control and be vigilant—you’ll be ready to react when someone else makes the wrong move.

Distracted driving isn’t just “one of those things” that happens, like a tire blowout or mechanical failure that isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s 100% preventable—and by committing to avoiding distractions while you drive, you’ll help make the road safer for everyone.

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Safety Items To Keep In Your Car – Winter Edition

You keep your home stocked with emergency supplies. (Right?)

What about your car?

During winter, extreme weather and road conditions can lead to all kinds of trouble when you’re commuting or traveling – crashes, being stranded, getting lost or stuck. And cold temperatures make those situations more dangerous than usual.

So keep a stockpile of emergency items in your car, just like you do in your house. In the best-case scenarios, you’ll never have to use them or they’ll help keep you comfortable for an hour or so while you wait for a tow truck to arrive. But, if you’re ever caught in a truly sticky situation, they just might be key to your survival.

The folks at the, Michigan Emergency Management Program as you can imagine, are quite familiar with the perils of winter travel. So don’t just take our word for it.

Here are some recommendations for what to keep in your car to help keep you safe in the snow and ice:

  • A shovel, tire chains, tow rope and sand or cat litter: All of these can help you get your car unstuck. And jumper cables are always good to have in your car, too.
  • A windshield scraper: Preferably one with a brush attached.
  • Blankets, sleeping bags, gloves and extra clothing: Staying warm is crucial while you wait for help – especially if you don’t know how long you’ll be waiting.
  • Bottled water and snack food, such as energy bars, peanut butter and raisins: It could be hours before you get moving again, so you need to stay hydrated and nourished.
  • A first-aid kit: Keep one in your car no matter the time of year.
  • A battery-powered or hand-crank radio: Listen to weather updates, information on emergency response efforts, etc. while conserving your car’s battery.
  • Emergency flares, reflectors and a battery-powered or hand-crank flashlight: All of these will help you attract attention and help other drivers avoid you.

Your kit doesn’t have to be limited to the above, of course. Feel free to add items that suit your individual needs. But, most importantly, keep the kit in your car at all times.

Keep these additional safety tips in mind:

  • Keep your vehicle well maintained (and gassed up).
  • Create a trip plan and share it with friends or family.
  • Stay in your car if you get stuck. Walking to find help is an easy way to get lost and separated from others in your party.
  • To reduce battery drain, only use your emergency flashers if you hear vehicles approaching. You can keep your dome light on to remain visible.
  • Contact Shield Agency and add roadside assistance to your car insurance policy for help in an emergency.

Remember, it doesn’t take much time or money to prepare an emergency kit. It’s the potential cost of not having one that is enormous.

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Ice Dams Create Roof Danger

You may be feeling cozy and warm in your home as the snow serenely falls outside. But, up on your roof, a dangerous situation could be forming – one that can compromise your roof and lead to water damage inside your home. It’s all the result of an ice dam. If you live in a snowy area and you’re not familiar with what an ice dam is, it’s imperative that you read on.

What Is an Ice Dam?

An ice dam is a ridge of ice that forms along the edge of your roof and prevents snow melt from running off. It often occurs because heat from the attic warms the middle of your roof, causing snow to melt. When that runoff reaches the eaves, or overhang, of your roof, the cooler surface temperature (there’s no heat rising from inside your home to this part of the roof) can cause the water to refreeze. As this happens over and over, an ice dam forms, preventing melted snow from running off your roof.

Do Ice Dams Cause Damage?

Yes, ice dams cause the water from melted snow to back up under the shingles of your roof and into your home – the water doesn’t have anywhere else to go. This can damage your roof, not to mention your interior. And, remember, water damage can lead to toxic mold inside your home.

How Can I Prevent Ice Dams?

An easy way to help prevent ice dams is to keep your eaves, gutters, downspouts and drains clear. This way water can drain away from your home as snow melts on your roof. It’s ideal to have your gutters cleaned out before snow season even begins. While you’re at it, install gutter screens for added protection.

Here are some other ways to help prevent ice dams:

  • Keep your attic cool. Proper insulation between your living areas and attic will help keep warm air from escaping into your attic and warming your roof. Ideally, during a snow storm, your attic won’t be more than 10 degrees warmer than the temperature outside.
  • Remove snow with a roof rake. Only if you can safely do so, remove accumulated snow from your roof using a long-handled roof rake, a specialized tool for clearing roofs, that won’t damage your roofing material. Do this from the ground. Never climb on top of a snowy roof.
  • Update your roof with materials that help prevent ice dams. These include a rubberized, water-repellent membrane underneath the shingles and a heating cable along the eaves. For either installation, consult a professional.

Ice dams may not be the first thing you think about once the snow stops coming down. After all, there’s the sidewalk and driveway to clear. But, for the sake of your roof and the integrity of your overall home, it’s important to keep an eye out for this winter roof danger.

So, how can you spot ice dams? Icicles may be a sign of ice dams, a buildup of snow and ice along your eaves that blocks water runoff. Discolored ceilings or walls may indicate that your ice dam has turned into a leak.

Remember, in the midst of this harsh winter, it’s important to keep your gutters clear, your roof updated and an eye out for the signs of ice dams. If you suspect trouble, call a trusted roofing contractor at once.

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Talk to Shield Agency about homeowners insurance coverage that’s right for you.

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