One trick to traveling cheaply: flexibility Shield Insurance Agency Blog

One trick to traveling cheaply: flexibility

By SAM KEMMIS of Nerd Wallet July 14, 2021

So you want to travel on a budget. Who doesn’t? Yet it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the cheap travel tips, hacks and strategies out there that promise unbelievable deals on airfare and hotels.

In reality, there’s only one important tactic for traveling cheaply: being flexible with your travel dates, destination and plans. It might sound simple — or even simplistic — but you would be surprised how few travelers are willing to take this piece of advice to heart.

To be fair, this flexibility-first mindset requires a paradigm shift for many in terms of how they start planning vacations. It requires moving from this type of planning:

“I want to go to Amsterdam from Sept. 5th through 13th.”

To this:

“I want to go somewhere fun in September.”

For some, this degree of flexibility is simply impossible. Yet for those who can loosen their preconceptions about how to plan travel, it can lead to big savings — and maybe even more fun — whether you’re paying with cash or using points.


The cost of travel depends on the interplay between many factors, including:

— Demand.

— Supply.

— Randomness.

— Number of options.

When you make specific plans from the get-go, you essentially constrain the last variable — you give yourself fewer options. This means that the cost of your trip will depend entirely on the first three variables, which are completely outside of your control.

This economic interplay will sometimes fall in your favor, and you’ll score a good deal on the exact destination and dates you wanted. But more often than not, you’ll end up paying more than average simply by starting with a severely limited set of options.


You can still set some boundaries around your search. Example parameters might include:

— I want to travel in the fall.

— I want to sit on the beach.

— I don’t want to spend more than $X.

From here, you can begin weighing different destinations and dates to see which could maximize your preferences. For example, you might start with flights to Hawaii, but notice that airfare is through the roof. So you switch to the Caribbean, narrow your interest to a few destinations with cheap flights, then start researching hotel prices.

Finally, you can find the dates and destinations that offer the best combination of price and features, then book your travel.

Think about how many times you (or someone you know) have gone about it the other way — by starting with dates and a destination, then accepting whatever costs come up.


As this flexible travel approach gains in popularity, travel booking sites and services have begun offering helpful tools specifically designed for the task.


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Don't Wait to Renew Your Passport Shield Insurance Blog

Don’t Wait to Renew Your Passport

Americans planning international travel face processing delays

by Larry Bleiberg, AARP, Updated July 19, 2021 

En español | If you’re planning an international trip, check your passport’s expiration date now. It could take more than four months to get a new one.

The U.S. State Department projects a wait of up to 18 weeks for renewals, and some customers are reporting even longer delays. Those paying an extra $60 for expedited service can still expect to wait up to 12 weeks for their document. Those processing times begin the day the department receives your application, not the day you mail it.

And appointments for last-minute, in-person processing are extremely limited.

The problem is — what else? — COVID-19.

In March 2020, when pandemic restrictions were first imposed, the State Department sent most employees home, and severely scaled back processing applications. When workers began to return to the office, in June 2020, they faced a backlog of applications. Now, a year later, they still haven’t caught up with the demand, a State Department spokesman said. There are also mail delivery delays, according to the State Department website, which notes that the 18-month processing-time estimate includes up to six weeks for mailing.

As more people get vaccinated and begin to plan international trips, the backlog is likely to grow, resulting in even longer processing delays. “Put your forms in as fast as you can,” says Jeremy Scott Foster of, a travel advice website. “Unfortunately, there is no workaround. All queues are long.”

The passport delay has caused some travelers to cancel trips. For example, Samantha Meabon, a physician assistant from western Pennsylvania, needed a new passport because of a name change. The process took four months, forcing her to cancel a planned trip to St. Lucia and Martinique in the Caribbean in May. “Although we planned much further ahead of time than we normally would, we ended up having to continue to postpone international travel,” she says.

Another reason to renew early: Some countries won’t admit travelers with passports that expire in less than six months.

How to apply for or renew a passport

Travelers can renew their passport online at, but first-time applicants and those replacing a lost or stolen passport must apply in person at an acceptance facility. The standard cost in all cases is $110, plus a $35 application fee.

The State Department does offer limited in-person immediate processing at its 26 regional passport agencies for life-or-death situations or for travel within three business days (both require documentation). But travelers must have an appointment for this service, and because staffing has been scaled back in some areas due to COVID-19, they can be difficult to obtain. Travelers are apt to find that the closest agency with an open appointment is hundreds of miles away.

In the past, travelers could pay private passport courier agencies to handle these rush requests. But since the pandemic hit, many businesses have stopped offering the service because the State Department has sharply reduced the number of last-minute appointments available, says David Alwadish, CEO of New York-based ItsEasy Passport & Visa.

Alwadish’s company is one of many that provide such services; other popular options include and The State Department notes that because these businesses are not government agencies, using them adds to the fees charged by the government. In addition, applicants won’t receive their documents any more quickly than if they applied in person at a passport agency office.

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Summer Recipes That Always Work, Whether You're Entertaining Or Not

Summer Recipes That Always Work, Whether You’re Entertaining Or Not

Veggie platters, salads, dips, burrito bowls, cheese plates and more that’ll feed a crowd … or just you.By Kristen Aiken07/02/2021 05:45am EDT

Summer plans are still a bit wonky this year, so you may not always know exactly how many people you’ll be hosting over a long holiday weekend ― if any at all. For these occasions, we’ve rounded up a list of fresh, summery, low-maintenance dishes that can either be served as part of a larger menu or solo for a quiet night in.

If you want to light up your grill, maybe you’d like some grilled corn with Sriracha aioli or a grilled Caesar salad. If you’re more in the mood for a DIY salad bar, there’s a host of marinated and composed salads waiting for you below. And if you don’t feel like cooking at all, a magnificent summer cheese board is calling your name.

Cobb Salad With Jerk Shrimp

Summer Recipes That Always Work, Whether You're Entertaining Or Not Shield Insurance Agency Blog 2.png

Get the recipe for Cobb Salad with Jerk Shrimp from Grandbaby Cakes.

Grilled Corn With Sriracha Aioli

Summer Recipes That Always Work, Whether You're Entertaining Or Not

Get the recipe for Grilled Corn with Sriracha Aioli from Minimalist Baker.

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How automation in manufacturing can improve worker safety, satisfaction, and productivity Shield Insurance Agency Blog

How automation in manufacturing can improve worker safety, satisfaction, and productivity

COVID-19 has put a strain on the manufacturing industry across the globe, as supply chain limitations and new health and safety regulations increase risk and threaten output. In fact, according to a recent report by Hitachi Vantara, three key challenges manufacturers struggle to manage as the pandemic continues include worker health and safety (74 percent of respondents rated a 3 or more on a scale of 1-5), productivity (66 percent), and supply chain disruption (65 percent).

As manufacturers look to address these challenges while managing costs, one solution shows significant promise: automation.

The effective deployment of automation equipment and processes can fundamentally change your business – and potentially reduce employee exposure to leading causes of workplace injury. In this article, we’ll review key reasons why the manufacturing industry is shifting to automation and three practices on how to incorporate it into operations for maximum impact.

Automation can increase productivity.

Even before COVID-19, manufacturers were looking for solutions to increase productivity despite significant reductions in the labor force.

According to FRED economic research, data indexed against 1990 benchmarks show that output has grown 44.2 percent in U.S. factories despite a 32.2 percent reduction in employment over the last 30 years. That means that the United States is producing 44 percent more goods than it did 30 years ago, with only 70 percent of the labor. In addition, according to Assembly Mag, more than 2.3 million manufacturing jobs created in the next 10 years will go unfilled.

Labor shortages are an ongoing problem for manufacturers, and automation offers a viable solution. According to Boston Consulting Group, manufacturing tasks performed by robots are expected to increase in the U.S. by 30­–45 percent from 2015 to 2025, in large part because robots are less expensive and thus more accessible for smaller factories. But labor shortages aren’t the only motivation for automation. Automation technology also helps to increase labor productivity significantly, both by increasing efficiency and by reducing workplace injuries that result in the need to hire and train temporary workers.

Automation and worker safety: a symbiotic relationship

Workplace injuries are a key driver of loss for U.S. businesses, costing more than $1 billion per week and $59 billion annually according to Liberty Mutual’s 2020 Workplace Safety Index. And for the manufacturing industry, the top five injury causes account for almost $5.2 billion (or 63 percent) of injury-related costs. Looking at these top causes, which include handling objects, falls on the same level, being hit by objects, running equipment, and awkward postures, it becomes clear how automation can help improve safety and reduce costs.

With automation technology, employees can work smarter and safer, avoiding many tasks that lead to workplace injury in the first place. For example, collaborative robots, or cobots, can work alongside human workers to help increase efficiency on the factory floor. Workers may also be able to avoid or limit heavy lifting, repetitive tasks, and contact with machinery or harmful materials — top causes of injuries and workers compensation claims and costs.

In addition to creating a safer work environment, adopting automation can benefit workers in other ways:

  • By leveraging cobots to help with physically demanding and repetitive work, employees can focus on upskilling to more intellectually challenging jobs, which can lead to higher pay and greater job satisfaction.
  • Rather than doing repetitive manual labor, employees can focus on maintaining and reprogramming cobots and managing other automated systems.
  • And because cobots aren’t human, they can help improve overall factory safety – they are never sick or tired, and they never forget safety checks.

Three practices for effective automation installation

While the benefits of automation are clear, it can be challenging to determine the best strategies to implement automation effectively at your company. Here are three best practices to guide your process.

1. Focus on the most critical business needs.

Automation is modular, which means you don’t need to implement it across the board. Taking an agile approach and putting automation where it’s most critically needed will help you manage expenses and reduce confusion as you change procedures. If you want to reduce slips and falls, for instance, install sensor technology. To help drive more productivity, consider cobots. When you take this approach, you don’t need as much upfront investment, and you can more closely monitor how automation is impacting your bottom line.

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How to Bundle Home and Auto Insurance | Shield Insurance Agency Blog

How to Bundle Home and Auto Insurance

U.S. News 360 Reviews takes an unbiased approach to our recommendations. When you use our links to buy products, we may earn a commission but that in no way affects our editorial independence.

By Jim Travers | July 12, 2021, at 12:00 p.m.

Insurance bundling simply means buying your home insurance and auto or other coverage from the same company. Bundling insurance policies can have some advantages; most notably, potential savings on your overall insurance costs. It can also simplify your bill paying and record keeping. But bundling doesn’t guarantee savings, and it may not be the right choice for you. We’ll explain why below, along with how bundling works, the advantages and disadvantages, and the potential pitfalls.

What Is Insurance Bundling?

Purchasing more than one insurance policy from the same company is a common practice known as bundling. It can sometimes save customers money compared to buying homeowners and auto or other insurance policies through different companies. More formally known as a multipolicy discount or multiple line discount, insurance companies encourage bundling as a means of saving money on your overall bill. Most insurers advertise savings of between 10% and 25% when bundling two or more policies, compared to what they would charge for each policy individually.

Insurance companies like bundling as a way to generate additional revenue from the same customer. Research has also indicated that customers who bundle policies tend to stay with the same company longer.

If you’re buying your first home, bundling is especially worth considering. It’s also an excellent time to review all your insurance needs and get competitive quotes from several companies, especially if you haven’t reviewed your auto policy or other coverage in a year or more. As your situation changes over time, it’s important to make sure your insurance keeps up.

A good place to start is by seeing if you can get a better rate with your existing insurance company by adding a homeowners policy – just make sure you get competitive quotes from other providers first. You might end up switching to another company with lower overall rates, or you may be able to use a lower quote as a negotiating tool with your current insurance company.

While you’re getting quotes, think about all your insurance needs and consider any changes or updates you want to make to all your policies. The more types of insurance you bundle, the more money you may be able to save. It’s possible that not all insurers will offer all the coverage you need, so focus your search on companies that do.

Bundling insurance has other advantages, like allowing you to track and update your policies through one company website or app. It can also simplify paying your bills.

Finding a company that will give you the best discount will probably require some research, and rates will vary depending on the types of coverage you need, your location, your credit status, your claim history, and other factors. It’s worth doing your own research online, because everyone’s situation is different. Just because a friend or relative gets a good rate with one company doesn’t mean that you will.

Does Bundling Insurance Save Money?

There’s a good chance you will save money by bundling your home insurance with another policy such as your automobile, boat, RV, or life insurance. Your specific savings will vary, depending on where you live, how many policies you bundle, your credit rating, your claim history, and other factors.

Every homeowners insurance company in our rating advertises some kind of bundling discount for combining two or more policies, with websites touting savings of anywhere from 5% to 25%. Allstate, for example, offers savings of up to 25% when you bundle home and auto insurance. Amica advertises discounts of up to 20% when you combine homeowners insurance with policies for auto insurance, and up to 30% for combining home with auto, condo, life, or umbrella policies.

Other providers, such as USAA, reference an average savings rate of 10% overall for bundling home and auto policies.

But all insurance companies include caveats about individual discounts, and not all insurers offer every type of coverage in all states. The only way to know how much you might save is to get quotes from several companies.

Some insurance companies offer additional savings with reduced or consolidated deductibles when you buy more than one type of policy. If your home and boat are both damaged by a hurricane, for example, some insurers may only charge you the deductible for your home and waive the deductible for your boat.

Remember that discounts advertised on websites represent the most you might be able to save. Chances are your savings will be less. Depending on your claim history, location, type, and amount of coverage, you may not see any savings at all.

Is Homeowners Insurance Bundling Worth It?

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Insurance Solutions for your Industry | Shield Insurance Agency Blog

Insurance solutions for your industry

Liberty Mutual Small Commercial: Insurance solutions for your industry

As an expert in your business, you know your operation inside and out – from how to market during your high-selling season to what equipment is best to use in your production lines. At Liberty Mutual Insurance, we know how to protect your business. With industry expertise in areas such as underwriting, risk control, and claims, we know how to keep your specific type of business and employees protected. Whether you manage a clothing store, operate a farm, or run a publishing house, you need the right coverage to ensure your business is protected.

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Climate change anxiety: How to stop spiraling and make a difference | Shield Insurance Agency Blog

Climate change anxiety: How to stop spiraling and make a difference

The monarch butterfly, known for its distinctive orange color, is now on the verge of extinction. Numbering in the millions in the 1980s, the monarch population has been in steep decline thanks to habitat loss, pesticide useand climate change. So, in fall 2020, when I spied several monarch caterpillars feasting on a neighbor’s milkweed plant, I excitedly pointed them out to my young daughters. We soon noticed the caterpillars inching their way toward a neighbor’s garage door, where they spun chrysalises, preparing to transform.

They’d arrived at an uncertain time, two months after we’d woken up to a sky made orange by wildfire smoke, and at the beginning of the third COVID-19 surge in the U.S. I drew something altogether human from their presence: The world may be chaotic and unforgiving, but survival is still possible because nature insists on it.

We walked by each day, anticipating empty cocoons. But the days turned to weeks and the butterflies remained locked inside their husks. They would never emerge. The monarchs hanging delicately before us never had a shot.

In early December, looking for answers, I read about scientists tracking the monarch butterfly population. A yearly volunteer count found fewer than 2,000 monarchs, a figure that puts them closer to extinction. When I contacted one of the researchers with my own anecdote and asked if the butterflies’ demise might be related to climate change, the expert said that while nature is full of “small failures,” it’s also possible that warmer temperatures confused the female caterpillar into laying eggs too late in the season. In that scenario, the monarchs hanging delicately before us never had a shot.

I was crestfallen. I couldn’t bear the idea of my children growing up without monarch butterflies — or how that shift mirrors the catastrophes small and large happening on our planet because of climate change. With no way to meaningfully cope with that anxiety and grief, particularly during the bleak winter COVID-19 surge, I left those feelings to idle and fester. Of course, these emotions resurface stronger and more powerful each time I learn of ice sheets meltingheat domes forming, and wildfires blazing.

Burying negative emotions is commonplace in a culture that discourages pessimism about the future. It’s hard to be the downer who talks about a world that could turn apocalyptic in a few short decades. What makes that conversation doubly difficult is the feeling that individual action can seem futile when politicians hedge their bets and refuse to act, whittling away the precious time we have left to stop releasing carbon into the earth’s atmosphere. We are led to believe that our pain belongs to us alone, when in fact the systems we live in — a government and economy built for the wealthy — create the conditions for our suffering.

Yet, as I’ve learned recently, this cycle of reckoning with our rapidly changing planet, feeling overwhelmed by powerlessness, and then living in some form of denial or avoidance isn’t inevitable.

Experts who study mental health and climate change say there are ways to cope with emotions and experiences that can be otherwise debilitating. The goal is to calm the body and mind, make meaning out of confusion and tragedy, and transform our own understanding of what the future may hold so that we can act in meaningful ways, individually and collectively.

Related Video: Even the ‘optimistic’ climate change forecast is catastrophic

“Presencing” and “purposing”

This April, the weather in western Oregon, where Bob Doppelt lives, was an unseasonably warm 85 degrees. Doppelt is trained in counseling psychology and environmental science, and coordinates the International Transformation Resilience Coalition, a project of the The Resource Innovation Group. The nonprofit focuses on creating capacity and resiliency for climate traumas.

The heat wave prompted a Red Flag Warning, a sign that a wildfire could erupt quickly. Traditionally, major blazes aren’t a threat until autumn, when the ground is parched. But a massive drought in the western U.S. changed the equation. After fires destroyed homes and small towns in western Oregon the previous fall, the prospect of a similar tragedy loomed.

Such events elicit the kind of stress, dread, and grief that Doppelt counts as its own crisis. He believes two concepts — presencing and purposing — are essential to coping with these experiences.

Presencing is the act of bringing the body out of its fight-or-flight or freeze modes, states of fear and panic induced by a severe stressor. When the body releases cortisol and adrenaline to facilitate a fight-or-flight response, it’s supposed to help someone flee a wildfire, for example. People can freeze when they’re overwhelmed. The body can also be plunged into a high-alert state, or become low-functioning, even if there’s no immediate action to take. When that happens, it can be challenging to find calm again if we don’t possess the skills to do so.

Doppelt wants people to develop the awareness to identify these dynamics by observing them. Then he wants them to use self-regulation skills to coax the parasympathetic nervous system back online. This network of neurons manages the body’s ability to “rest and digest.” When you tame the stress response, it can lead to making wiser decisions about what to do next.

Doppelt recommends techniques like coherent breathing, a rhythmic exercise, and body scanning, which involves noticing physical sensations like heat, tingling, or warmth. When the brain focuses on unpleasant feelings, Doppelt says to shift attention to pleasant or neutral sensations. These techniques can slow the body’s heart rate and restore a sense of calm. Other skills include creating art or music and engaging in high-energy activities like dance or movement, which provide an opportunity for the body to recalibrate and release feel-good hormones like endorphins and dopamine. Similarly, connecting with a loved one can push oxytocin into the body, which is why Doppelt recommends tapping into emotional or practical support from friends and family as an antidote to climate-related angst. When you tame the stress response, Doppelt says, it can lead to making wiser decisions about what to do next.

“You’re trying to learn skills to hold the distress in a way that allows you to continue to function well,” he adds.

Presencing can be followed by purposing, or using the painful experience to clarify your values, find new sources of meaning, and seize realistic hope. Most find their purpose by working with others to help people, animals, or the natural world, says Doppelt. This enhances well-being while also creating key relationships that help you and others determine together how to respond to climate change. Doppelt highly recommends starting or participating in community organizing efforts focused on improving people’s capacity for psychological wellness and resilience.

“Building community coalitions…is really the most powerful thing we can do right now to help ourselves and also help the environment,” he says.

Feel, talk, unite, act

When I spoke with Andrew Bryant, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Seattle, he’d just experienced an unprecedented heat wave. An extreme weather phenomenon known as a heat dome had blanketed the temperate Pacific Northwest, sending temperatures into the triple digits and potentially causing hundreds of sudden deathsScientists have linked heat domes to human-caused warming.

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How to Free Yourself From Credit Card Debt | Shield Agency Blog

How to Free Yourself From Credit Card Debt

4 strategies to reduce stress and pay down credit card debt

by Linda Stern, AARP, June 10, 2021 | Comments: 2


En español | Add burdensome credit card debt to the list of woes the pandemic has made worse for older Americans. New surveys confirm what your letters have already told me: Many of you are struggling to make monthly payments while balances grow. And even those of you who aren’t struggling are carrying more of this debt, and paying more interest, than you were before.

So, burn debt we must. If you’re carrying $5,000 at current rates of just over 16 percent, you’re paying about $67 a month in interest. That drain on your money gets in the way of everything else you want to do, including sleep soundly.

I’ll assume you’ve already dug deep for cash to pay down the balance — held a yard sale, taken on a side gig, sold a car, or used part of a tax refund or stimulus check. That’s good, since every extra dollar you pay beyond the minimum is a dollar on which you won’t be paying interest.

But if you’re still in trouble, you haven’t run out of options. Lenders understand that household budgets have been squished, and there are signs of both increased forbearance and new card offers that can make it easier to get back to zero.

Before I get to options you might have, I’ll make one important point: Don’t miss or delay minimum payments while you plot your strategy. Doing so will lower your credit score and take some of the best solutions off the table.

With that said, here are four distinct ways to work it now.

1. Transfer your balance.

Zero-interest-rate introductory balance transfer offers on cards were scarce in 2020, but more are arriving now, says Sara Rathner, a credit cards expert at the personal finance website NerdWallet. These cards typically charge as much as 5 percent of the transferred balance up front, so this works only if you get an introductory deal long enough for you to make a big dent in your balance. This spring, Rathner found, the U.S. Bank Visa Platinum card was offering one of the longest no-interest periods: 20 months. The Citi Double Cash card was offering 18 months at zero interest.

2. Ask for a break.

COVID has made card issuers more flexible. Since the beginning of 2020, roughly 83 percent of people who asked for a rate cut got it, LendingTree reports. Many issuers have had special programs for struggling cardholders, said Bruce McClary of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). He says to tell your lender that the coronavirus affected your finances and that you intend to keep up your payments and reduce your balances, but that more affordable terms would help. Your issuer might lower your interest rate for six to nine months, he says.

3. Refinance credit card with a personal loan.

Ask your credit union or bank if you can roll all your card debt into one lower-interest loan. The average rate on a two-year personal loan from a bank was under 10 percent at the end of 2020, according to the Federal Reserve. That may be a better deal than you can get from your card issuer. Don’t borrow against your home or your car to pay off your card; that creates a new risk of losing your possessions. And don’t grab at “debt consolidation loans” from companies you’ve never heard of. Chances are too high that they’ll load you up with new fees or, worse, scam you.

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5 tips for contractors moving from nonstandard to standard surety | Shield Insurance Agency Blog

5 tips for contractors moving from nonstandard to standard surety

Moving from nonstandard to standard surety

It’s been a challenging and uncertain year for the construction industry. According to Deloitte, construction was finally returning to pre-recession levels of employment and economic growth in February 2020. Then COVID-19 hit, and the industry lost more than $60 billion in gross domestic profits and nearly one million jobs. Although 2021 projections are looking up, this unprecedented economic situation put many contractors in a tough spot, with uncertain financials making them only eligible for more expensive nonsurety bonds.

While it’s not always a quick fix to move back into standard surety eligibility, there are concrete steps you can take. The ultimate goal of any underwriter is to help contractors move back to standard surety — whether you’re new to the industry or you’re an experienced business owner going through a period of financial difficulty. In this piece, we’ll share five best practices for a return to the standard market.

1. Clean up your financials.

In general, it’s a best practice for contractors to work with a trusted CPA to maintain clean books. As Brian O’Neal, director of Liberty Mutual Surety Vista, a specific program for nonstandard contract accounts, says, “Multiple irregularities or errors in a contractor’s financials are going to raise red flags.” To move out of nonstandard surety, underwriters need to see that contractors are doing their due diligence to improve accounting procedures and correct these irregularities. 

Often, these errors and inconsistencies occur because of poor internal controls. Along with providing a CPA-reviewed Percentage of Completion statement, contractors should work with their CPA to improve their internal processes. Those processes will vary based on the size and scope of the business.

2. Maintain quality Work in Progress reports.

Work in Progress reports, or WIPs, are critical pieces of information to help underwriters determine the current state of a contractor’s business. WIPs include ongoing projects and income for the current period and help underwriters evaluate future profits, on-time payments, and cash flow. Contractors need to keep WIPs up to date and ensure the data they include accurately reflects the current state of their business. After all, a report is only as good as the data it contains.

3. Understand loan requirements.

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How to transform your backyard | Shield Insurance Agency Blog

How to Transform Your Backyard Into a Restaurant-Worthy Oasis with Outdoor Lighting

How to Transform Your Backyard Into a Restaurant-Worthy Oasis with Outdoor Lighting

We asked the pros how to install magical, twinkling outdoor lights — on a budget.

This year’s hottest venue? Your own backyard. Maybe you’ve got the plants and furniture down, but you want to take the space truly over the top, so it looks just as incredible as your favorite restaurant’s outdoor dining setup. Short of splurging on a fancy firepit area building outdoor awnings, there’s a functional, budget-friendly move you can make that’ll totally set the mood. And that’s installing outdoor lighting like a pro.

Many restaurants hire lighting companies to put up their twinkly string lights, but that can set you back thousands. With the right tips and tricks, you can totally DIY. That’s why we turned to event and experience production company Cloth and Flame. Their team is so adept at installing lighting, they can rig it up in the even the most remote places (think: the top of the Grand Canyon or the middle of a dessert). Here is their creative, resourceful advice.

Choose the Right Type of String Lights

Google “string lights” or “café lights” and hundreds of different varieties will pop up. Nathan Lesueur, the lead designer at Cloth and Flame gives us guidance.

Avoid interior lights. Stay away from Christmas lights or anything that’s labeled as an interior light, because these won’t be weather-proof.

Read buyer reviews. Amazon and Costco are great sources for inexpensive string lights, but terms on sellers’ pages like “industrial” or “commercial” don’t mean much. “My only reliable source, no matter what I’m buying is doing the research and reading verified reviews of what other people have experienced that item,” Lesueur says.

Make sure the bulbs are generic and replaceable. Bulbs might break when you install the lights, and they’ll burn out over time. You want to make sure that you can buy generic replacements that screw in. Proprietary bulbs will be more expensive and harder to source down the line.

Buy long strands instead of connecting strands end to end. 25-feet-long lights are the most common, but for safety reasons there’s usually a limit to the number you can plug together. To achieve lots of light yardage, look for 50-foot or even 100-foot light strands.

Use warm light, not cool light. “Warm bulbs are more natural and better on skin tones that bright white daytime lights or LED bulbs. Warm light is like the glow of the sun as opposed to a bright refrigerator light,” explains Lesueur. Plus, warm light photographs better than cool light. “It’s fun to create a sanctuary at home that’s also photographable so people want to share it,” says Lesueur.

Install Your String Lights with Upcycled Materials

There’s no need to buy a crazy expensive lighting kit. Instead, there are some simple, inexpensive ways to repurpose items around your home as lighting poles. “The best things you can use are practical, everyday things and are also reusable for other functions,” Lesueur says.

Some smart ideas? Home Depot sells flagpole yard inserts, which lots of people use. You can also buy inexpensive electric polls that are usually used as conduits. Home Depot will cut these lightweight polls to whatever height you’d like — they’re easy to mount to a wall, stick in the ground in your yard or even secure upright in an umbrella stand. If you prefer a wooden look, head to Ikea, and snag some wooden poles.

If you don’t want to hang your lights between poles, use natural suspension points like the side of your house or the support beams underneath a deck ceiling.

One thing to keep in mind? You should hang your lights so they fall in arches. “I’ve noticed with a lot of installations of this type of light, people trying to pull the lights too tight and that causes tension issues on the poles,” Lesueur explains. Plus, allowing the lights to drape down adds dimension from multiple angles — above you and to the side of you.

Make Your Setup Pop with Other Lighting Too

Click here for the rest of the story… and some great photos too!

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