Life hacks: How to use credit cards during a crisis, plant a modern victory garden
Tribune News Service; NerdWallet
From answering kids' coronavirus questions to helping you plant a garden, here are a few quick reads to help get your health, finances and family in order.
3 ways credit cards can help you ride out a crisis
Dealing with an abrupt, damaging financial event like a cut in your working hours is difficult enough. Doing so in the middle of a global pandemic, as new cases of COVID-19 emerge daily and major U.S. cities essentially shut down, can be overwhelming. But if that’s where you are now, or fear you soon could be, using your credit cards strategically could help you get through.
To be sure, credit cards come with their own costs, risks and limitations. It’s possible to rack up high-interest debt, which can put you in a more precarious financial situation. If you’re already feeling the squeeze from credit card debt, adding more might not be an option. Seeing if you qualify for a credit card hardship program instead could be a good move.
Credit cards can keep someone afloat for only so long. The debt eventually has to be repaid, so they’re not a solution to a permanent loss of income. But when you’re faced with a short-term disruption to your earning power — reduction in hours, loss of tips or temporary layoff — they can be an accessible way to ride out the storm while keeping costs low. Here’s how.
1. Preserving cash
If you have limited cash available, you may need it for essential expenses you can’t pay with credit, such as rent or mortgage payments or, in some cases, utilities. Using a credit card for other purchases allows you to float those costs so you can make your cash reserves last longer.
Carrying debt from month to month generally means paying interest, so this flexibility does come at a cost. However, if you’ve been paying your credit card bills in full up to now, you can buy some time interest-free by making use of your grace period. When you pay off your entire statement balance, new purchases won’t start gathering interest until your next statement’s due date. That means you can get 50 or more interest-free days between making a purchase and paying it off: the 30 or so days in a typical billing cycle, plus the 21 to 25 days between the end of the cycle and the due date.
What to know
Grace periods come with some limitations. They apply only to purchases, not to balance transfers or cash advances, which will typically start accruing interest right away. Also, if you don’t pay all balances in full in the previous billing cycle, there’s no grace period. Purchases will start accruing interest the day they’re processed unless you have a 0% APR offer.
2. Buying time, sometimes at 0%
In a crisis, income can fall off a cliff with no warning while expenses continue to pile up. Credit cards can spread out that impact, “flattening the curve” of your expenses and giving you time to adjust. This can especially blunt the hit from one-time or infrequent expenses you might have otherwise paid all at once — a repair bill, for example.
It’s not ideal to carry balances on credit cards with high interest rates if you can avoid it, though. Over time, interest charges can pile up and make that debt harder to manage. If you have good credit, consider getting a credit card with an introductory 0% APR offer on purchases; many of these have interest-free periods of a year or longer.
What to know
Even with a 0% APR credit card, you’ll still have to pay at least the minimum every month. Generally, you’ll also need good or excellent credit (credit scores of 690 or higher) to qualify for a card with an introductory 0% APR offer on purchases. If you can’t qualify for a 0% APR card, you’ll have to pay regular interest rates, which could add to your debt.
3. Reducing the cost of existing debt
When money is tight, high-interest debt — such as old credit card balances — can snowball out of control. In some cases, the interest charges can be so high that paying just the minimum hardly makes a dent in the balances.
To pump the brakes on interest charges, consider a balance transfer and moving debt to a card with 0% APR on balance transfers. With such a card, you’ll potentially get a year or longer to pay down this debt interest-free. That gives you the flexibility to focus on other, more pressing financial obligations in the short term.
What to know
You generally need good or excellent credit to qualify for the best balance-transfer cards. And moving debt usually isn’t free; most credit cards charge balance-transfer fees of 3% to 5%.
Sometimes, issuers also offer balance-transfer deals to existing cardholders. For instance, you might get convenience checks from an issuer in the mail that count as balance transfers and come with a lower APR (if not 0%, at least lower than what you’re paying). If you can’t qualify for a new card, check your email, snail mail or online account portal for offers like these. And as always, make sure you understand the terms before making the request.
The article 3 Ways Credit Cards Can Help You Ride Out a Crisis originally appeared on NerdWallet.
Answers to kids' coronavirus questions
Children are curious – Why does the coronavirus make grandparents very sick but kids not so much? How did it come here? When will there be a cure? Los Angeles Times science writers offer answers:
Q. How did the first people get coronavirus? – Olive, 7
A. Scientists are still trying to figure that out but they think the virus may have started in bats then moved to another animal called a pangolin, which looks like a scaly anteater. Some of the first people who got the virus worked at a giant food market in China that sells different kinds of meat. It's possible the virus moved from an animal to a human at that market, but scientists don't know for sure yet.
Q. How did it get here. – Lesley, 9
A. The new coronavirus probably first entered the United States when somebody who didn't realize they had it flew here from China, probably sometime in January.
Q. Should I be scared? Because it seems like a lot of people are freaking out. – Zev, 9
A. We know that it doesn't seem to get kids that sick, which is a big relief. But it can make older people sick. We all have the power to protect the older people in our communities by washing our hands a lot, coughing and sneezing into our elbows and definitely staying away from other people if we're feeling sic.
Q. Why do kids not get coronavirus as much as grownups? – Eli, 5
A. Scientists aren't sure but they have some theories. One idea is kids' immune systems are not as fully developed. The immune system is part of your body that's constantly on the lookout for invaders like viruses. When it finds them, it works really hard to get rid of them. A fever is one way a body fights back against the virus. In adults, the immune system sometimes works so hard it hurts the body too. Because kids' immune systems aren't as powerful, they can't do as much damage.
Q. What does it feel like for a kid to get coronavirus? – Townes, 11
A. We don't know! Scientists think many children get cases so mild they never even know that they're sick. Many other will feel about the same as if they had a winter cold, and a small number will get sick enough that they need to see a doctor. Children who are the sickest may develop pneumonia, a lung infection that can make it feel hard to breathe.
Q. How long do you think school is out for? – Isabella, 12
A. This is a difficult question to answer. Estimates range from six to eight weeks all the way to the end of the academic year. Right now, we don't know enough to say for sure.
Shazam! All of a sudden everyone is thinking about growing a vegetable garden. Essentials disappearing from the local supermarket is at best a wake-up call. One thing for certain now that families are all together - there is no better way to teach children a little horticulture, pollination and where food comes from than a vegetable garden. If you want to, call it a corona victory garden or a victory garden 2020.
You are probably thinking you have no plot, and besides don't you need an acre? The answer is, no you don't need an acre. You can go small and intense. French intensive, square foot, interplanting, vertical, wide row, gardening by the yard and succession planting are all names for intensive gardening.
The purpose of intensive gardens is to harvest the most produce from a limited space. These spaces usually are small blocks, compared to traditional gardens which consist of long, single rows widely spaced. Much of the traditional garden area is taken by the space between the rows.
An intensive garden minimizes wasted space, but there is a limit on how much you can reduce open space. When you go beyond those limits, you open the door to control nightmares from disease and insects.
Intensive gardens concentrate efforts to create better yields with less labor. Fewer pathways and closely spaced plants often mean less weeding, but the work usually must be done by hand. Some gardeners prefer using machine cultivation on long rows to hand weeding.
Soil preparation is the key to successful intensive gardening. Plants must have adequate nutrients and water to grow together so closely. Providing fertilizers and irrigation helps, but there's no substitute for deep, fertile soil, high in organic matter - just 3% to 5% would probably give you that proverbial green thumb.
Humus rich soil will hold extra nutrients, and existing elements locked up in the soil are released by the actions of earthworms, microorganisms and humic acids. Nurseries and garden centers have specially prepared mixes that are excellent to use alone or incorporated in your soil. Use landscape timbers or railroad cross ties to enclose your bed. A 6- to 8-inch high bed would be ideal. I even bought a kit from a local grocery store.
A good intensive garden requires early, thorough planning to make the best use of time and space in the garden. Consider the interrelationships of plants before planting, including nutrient needs, shade tolerance, above and below ground growth patterns and preferred growing season. It is suggested if possible to run your rows north to south which allow for most sun exposure,
The raised growing bed is the foundation of an intensive garden. Several beds allow the gardener to focus soil preparation in small areas, resulting in effective use of soil amendments and creating an ideal environment for vegetable growth. Beds are generally 4 to 5 feet wide and segregated into blocks. This allows gardeners to work from either side of the bed, reducing the compaction on the soil.
The first step in deciding what to grow is to select what your family likes to eat. Next, look at what costs you the most at the market per pound. Tomatoes, green onions, leaf lettuce, turnips, summer squash, beans, beets, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, head lettuce and cauliflower are all among the top 15 economic crops to grow.
Consult your local county agent for recommendations on spacing for interplanting. In general, however, add the inches of recommended spacing for the two crops to be planted together and then divide the sum by two.
Prime example, tomatoes have a 24-inch spacing and leaf lettuce has a 4-inch space recommendation. The total of 28 inches divided by two means that you can plant your leaf lettuce 14 inches from your tomatoes. A caged tomato surrounded by lettuce sounds like a good salad combination. By all means, grow up! What I mean by that is take every opportunity to grow vertically with pole beans, cucumbers and more.
Try a smaller garden but one that is intensive and your success may be greater. Even if you live in an apartment you can grow and harvest a bounty of produce from baskets and containers. If you are blessed with a large plot then grow enough to share. Your local garden center will have everything you need from seeds to transplants, soil and fertilizer and best of all, expertise.
(Norman Winter, horticulturist, garden speaker and author of, "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden." Follow him on Facebook @NormanWinterTheGardenGuy.)
Fighting the coronavirus with disinfecting sprays and solutions: What works?
Brand-name disinfectants are flying off store shelves, snatched up by shoppers looking for effective weapons against the novel coronavirus.
But some disinfectants are better than others; some probably aren't necessary at all; and some can actually be harmful, spawning antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
We reviewed recommendations for the general population from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and talked to Erica Marie Hartmann, an environmental microbiologist at Northwestern University, about what people can do to prevent virus transmission at home.
We also got intel on what to look for in a disinfectant, and how to help keep your family and your community as safe as possible.
The CDC says older people and those with severe, chronic medical conditions should consult with their health care providers about additional precautions.
Among the key points for the general population:
Start with soap. The major method of transmission is thought to be person-to-person, through droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus may also be spread when you touch an infected surface, and then your mouth, nose or eyes. Either way, good old-fashioned soap and water is essential, Hartmann said. The CDC recommends washing your hands often, and for 20 seconds at a time.
Continue with soap. The CDC recommends cleaning frequently touched household objects such as counter tops and doorknobs daily with household cleaners, then disinfecting.
Read labels. When buying disinfectants, look for products with alcohol or bleach listed as the first ingredient, Hartmann said.
Check the list. The CDC says most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective and provides a list of specific products that are thought to work.
Be careful. Bleach and hydrogen peroxide, another common cleaning agent, are both highly reactive, so make sure you have plenty of ventilation while you are cleaning, Hartmann said. Improper use can cause chemical burns.
No vodka, please. Yes, it's "strong," but it's not an effective disinfectant, Hartmann said.
Rubbing alcohol works. The solution has to be 70% alcohol, according to the CDC. Follow the directions on the bottle.
There's a (CDC-approved) DIY option. The CDC offers this recipe for a DIY disinfectant: To make a bleach solution, mix 5 tablespoons (? cup) bleach per gallon of water, or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water. Remember to check the expiration date on your bleach, and to follow the manufacturer's instructions for application and proper ventilation. You should never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser.
Avoid antimicrobials. These sprays and solutions, which may be labeled as having long-acting bacteria fighting power, contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, in which bacteria evolve to survive the medications that once killed them, Hartmann said.
Don't spray and walk away. Spraying a bottle or can of Lysol may make you feel better emotionally, but if the primary ingredient isn't alcohol or bleach, and if you don't wipe down surfaces to fully disinfect, you won't get the desired effect, Hartmann said.
Can you help your immune system ward off coronavirus?
By now, you've probably seen advertisements for supplements or other products that promise to prevent the new coronavirus. Maybe your friends have talked up the wonders of high doses of vitamin C or told you that drinking water can wash away the virus.
The federal government recently warned marketers of essential oils, teas and colloidal silver to stop claiming these products can prevent the disease caused by the new coronavirus, COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration said there are no approved vaccines, drugs, or investigational products currently available to treat or prevent the virus.
Don't get your hopes up that there's any over-the-counter fix that will leave you unscathed by the new pandemic. Three immunologists - Timothy Craig, a professor of medicine and pediatrics in allergy and immunology at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center; Cathryn Nagler, a mucosal immunologist at the University of Chicago and distinguished fellow of the American Association of Immunologists, and John Wherry, director of the Institute of Immunology at Penn Medicine - said there's no strong evidence that any herb or supplement, including vitamin C, will prevent coronavirus. Like drinking water, taking most of them probably won't hurt you, but also won't help. Probiotics also won't save you. Colloidal silver can be harmful.
"I personally don't take any vitamins," Nagler said.
These efforts to prey on our fears do raise an interesting question, though. Since our immune system is all we've got between us and the ICU as this virus spreads, are there ways we can make it work better?
The immunologists agreed that your best bet is to try to prevent exposure. So, do what all the public health experts have been telling you. Wash your hands thoroughly and often. If you can't access soap and water, use a hand gel that's 60% alcohol or more. Avoid crowds and close contact with other people. If you are over age 60 or have underlying health conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes, take these prevention steps very seriously. The new disease is much harder on older people and those in already weakened health.
If you get a cough, fever or feel short of breath, protect others by staying home.
Do your best not to touch your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth. These are the home of the mucosa that Nagler studies and they are where all viruses enter our bodies. Your skin itself is a good barrier, she said.
The viruses will invade in two ways. Someone coughs or sneezes on something like a counter. You touch it and then touch a mucosal tissue. Or they cough near you and droplets laden with virus fly into your eyes or nose. This is why it's a good idea to stay six feet away from others.
Nagler said it's also wise to get vaccinated for other deadly viruses, like the flu. The pandemic, she said, will be a lesson for people who don't remember what the pre-vaccine world was like.
"Fifty years ago, we had epidemics like this all the time, because we had no vaccines for diseases like measles, mumps and rubella," she said. "Polio was a scourge like this."
Wherry said there's no single measure of how well your immune system is working, which makes it hard to know if anything is making it better, kind of like asking whether the economy is healthy. Are you asking about the stock market? The job market?
Something could help fight bacterial infection but do nothing for viral infection, Wherry said. It might work against one virus but not another. It is a safe bet, he said, that no supplements have been tested against the newly identified virus that causes COVID-19.
You also don't want your immune system to be too revved up. That's what happens when you have chronic inflammation from stress, poor diet or sickness. It weakens response to new invaders. A truly over-active immune system can be deadly and was associated with pneumonia from two earlier coronaviruses, MERS and SARS.
The best route to a well-functioning immune system is to do what doctors always tell you to do:
Eat a healthy diet rich in vegetables, fiber and whole grains. Get seven to nine hours of sleep. Maintain a healthy weight. Try to manage your stress. Stop smoking. Don't drink excessively.
Craig said sleep is especially important for the immune system. "Sleep deprivation is bad," he said. "It increases inflammatory factors."
It's also a relatively easy thing to improve. "Correcting poor sleep patterns may have a quicker effect than having to lose 30% of your body weight," Wherry said.
Craig said aerobic exercise is likely the most beneficial kind of physical activity. Right now, he said, "you may not want to do that in a crowded gym. ... This is a good time to get out there in nature and walk where you're not in crowded spaces." It might also be good for your mental health during a stressful time.
"While the mechanisms are not understood, exercise and some of the chemicals released during exercise do seem to have immune boosting or at least immune resetting capabilities," Wherry said. Obviously, though, this is not a good time to exhaust yourself with too much exercise.
As for your bad habits, smoking damages the lungs and causes inflammation that lessens their ability to fight infection, Nagler said.
Craig said it suppresses the immune system and makes it harder for lungs to free themselves of fluid and viruses. Smokers are also more prone to bacterial pneumonia, which can find a foothold in lungs weakened by viruses.
Obesity is also hard on the immune system and it is strongly associated with the chronic diseases that raise risk of death from COVID-19.
Craig said it increases inflammation and contributes to immune system factors that leave people less able to fight viral infection.
"We need our immune system to be sitting in a resting, really fit state, and being obese strains it," Wherry said.
If you haven't been paying attention to the doctors for the last few decades, you're probably not going to fix your immune system overnight. Getting healthier will take longer than that.
You'll probably get the fastest results from sleeping better and stopping smoking. Craig said lungs might start functioning better in weeks.
Other lifestyle changes could also lead to "short-term benefits," Craig said, "but that's short-term benefits after months, not days."
But, hey, COVID-19 is going to be around for a while.
While Wherry thinks we're in for a "bumpy ride" as the virus spreads, he says it's important to remember that many people in the U.S. have access to "some of the best health care in the world." And, "for most people, managing symptoms at home the way you would if you had the flu or another respiratory infections will be fine."