Friday, November 21, 2014

Taxes and Wine

Yikes, it’s that time of year when we start saying, “I can’t believe it’s that time of the year again.” Starting next week, holiday decorations will adorn office building lobbies, stores, and your neighbors front lawns. You won’t be able to escape the endless loop of holiday commercials. I dread that Lexus commercial so much—who wakes up on Christmas morning with a new car in the driveway?

It also that time of the year to make your year-end tax moves.

·        Max out your 401(k), if you are older than 50, you can contribute up to $23,000. If you are self-employed and have a Simplified Employee Pension (sep) ira, you may be able to put away more. You have until December 31 to set up a sep for 2014.

·        If you are over 70½, you need to take your required minimum distribution (rmd) from your ira. Failure to do so by December 31 can result in a penalty.

·        Tax-loss harvesting: if certain investments didn’t work out, take the loss. You can use the loss to offset gains or carry it forward to offset future gains.

·        Give to charity. Aside from the good that comes from supporting your college, hospital, or social cause, your donation can help lower your taxes. If you have highly appreciated securities, they are great investments to donate; you avoid paying the capital gains tax, and you get the deduction for the charitable donation. It’s not a bad idea to set up a donor-advised fund for your charitable giving. A donor-advised fund is essentially a vehicle that accepts your donation (cash, stock, real estate, etc.) and allows you the flexibility to distribute funds to the charities of your choice over time.

·        If you have children or grandchildren, you can contribute to their 529 accounts. We all know how fast the cost of college is growing. Grandparents can contribute to an existing 529 account or set up their own, naming their grandchildren as beneficiaries.

Next week is Thanksgiving, and I thought I would close out this post with a few wine and beer selections to complement your turkey feast. I am a firm believer that there is no “right” wine to drink with your dinner. Drink what you like, and who cares what your pretentious uncle has to say.

·        2012 Slingshot Napa Valley Cabernet. I love this wine! It’s soft, with a lot of fruit, and not terribly oaky. It will definitely not overpower your bird or pumpkin pie.

·        2012 Montinore Estate Pinot Noir. I wrote about this Oregon wine earlier in the year and still consider it my go-to pinot. Pinot noir is the traditional red wine of Thanksgiving because of it softness and earthy flavor. While I have not tasted Montinore’s Almost Dry Riesling, I have read great things about it. Riesling is a superb white wine choice with turkey because of the richness of flavor and slight sweetness on the finish.

·        2012 Argyle Pinot Noir. This is another Oregon pinot noir that is peppery and full-bodied enough to take on that overcooked turkey.

As I said earlier, I believe in drinking the wine you enjoy. But if you really want to impress someone on Thanksgiving this year, bring a gewürztraminer to dinner. Gewürztraminer is a grape varietal that is grown all over the world but is most prolific in Germany and the Alsace region of France. There are many fine American gewürztraminers, many from wineries in northern Michigan, specifically the Leelanau Peninsula. One of my favorite gewürztraminers comes from a California winery, Gundlach Bundschu. This is the ultimate turkey wine—luscious, viscous, and packed with aromas to complement everything on the table. Trust me!

Last but not least a Thanksgiving beer, and it’s an obvious one. While some pumpkin beers can be overpowering, too much cinnamon and clove, Southern Tier Brewery located in western New York State makes a winner called Pumking. This beer comes out before Halloween, but you should still be able to find bottles at your favorite retailer.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving with friends and relatives. Cherish the time off, watch some football, eat until you can’t eat any more, and most important, if you are traveling, travel safe. Happy Thanksgiving.


Friday, November 14, 2014

A Guide to Great Service

I am a good service junkie. Some people love cars or watches. I love a great customer experience. Whether in a restaurant, grocery store, or a doctor’s office, a superb customer experience is a work of art and makes me want to come back again and again.
We have all experienced the worst in customer service: your local cable provider is as bad as it gets, followed closely by your bank. Having someone apologize for lousy service doesn’t make it any better.
I first learned about the art of the customer experience at a seminar over 20 years ago at the world-renowned deli Zingerman’s.  Yes, a deli, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
From the moment you walk into Zingerman’s, you are king. There are samples of food displayed everywhere. Enthusiastic sales people are scrambling to answer any question you have. If you want to taste a Sicilian olive oil, they’ll crack it open. They know that an engaged customer is a happy customer who will come back time and time again.
If you want to read about the art of giving great service, I suggest you order a copy of Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service by Ari Weinzweig,
What prompted me to write about great customer experience was a trip I took with my daughter to her dermatologist. Granted, this is a fancy Upper East Side dermatologist who does not take insurance, but the experience was great—you almost don’t care that you have to remortgage your apartment when you check out.
When you enter this doctor’s office, you are immediately made to feel relaxed and happy. The walls and carpet are a rich cream color, there is beautiful comfortable furniture to melt into, and your favorite music is playing on a super chill Pandora playlist (think Dave Matthews meets Van Morrison.)
While my daughter was being treated, the doctor noticed a burn I had on my wrist from a cooking mishap. She didn’t like the way it looked, and without saying a word, her nurse began bathing my wrist in hydrogen peroxide. A baggie of bandages and “special” antibiotic cream was prepared for me. All of this with no words exchanged.
After we were done, we walked over to settle our bill. We were greeted by a very pleasant young exchequer, and there on the counter beside her was a glass vase filled with the best caramels I have ever had. I popped one in my mouth and eyed my daughter, signaling her to throw a few more in her pocket.
My daughter thinks I am crazy to feel so happy about a trip to the doctor, but this was an unbelievable customer experience. Who ever says they had a great experience at the doctor’s office? Usually the waiting room has uncomfortable generic furniture, torn-up old copies of People magazine, unhappy receptionists, and no Van Morrison playing in the background. Certainly no delicious caramels. This doctor has made every effort to wow you from the moment you walk through the front door. You are happy to be there.
If you are in the service business, think about your customers’ experience. Have you thought about every possible step and how it might be improved? Are you meeting or surpassing your customers’ expectations? Do your customers value your service, your expertise? Do customers rave about you to their friends and colleagues? If not, it’s time to think about how you really want to be treated and do that for your customers.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Failure to Fail

My 10th grade daughter has more homework each night than I had each week when I went to high school. It is astounding; she is up until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning doing homework. She is not a procrastinator or busy multitasking on Facebook and Instagram. She may get a late start because she runs cross-country, but I don’t think she starts her homework any later than most 10th graders.

The state of education in this country and maybe other developed countries is simply abysmal. I am not an expert on education, and in all fairness I have never attended a PTA meeting in my life. What I can tell you is that schools are failing to really educate our children. Schools do a really good job of giving homework and preparing students for standardized test, but are we educating our children?

In a recent New Yorker article on this subject, Nathan Heller writes about whether elite colleges are “bad for the soul.” Much of the article is about William Deresiewicz and his essay in the American Scholar, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” and book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

According to Deresiewicz, the system “manufacturers students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea of why they’re doing it.”

Why are we still having students memorize facts instead of teaching what they really mean or don’t mean? My daughter is asked to read the front page of the New York Times every day and then quizzed on random facts. Wouldn’t it be better to discuss the front page and ask students what they think of a story or have a discussion about how they’re dealing with the stories about ISIS or Ebola?

I constantly see T-shirts or bumper stickers advertising the importance of failing, getting up, dusting yourself off, and trying again. But are we really teaching our children this approach to life? If they are only focused on their grades and knowing what they are supposed to know, are they learning the importance of failing, figuring out what it might take to find a different way, and then trying again (and again)?

If we really believe in the importance of failing, then we have to encourage our kids to be okay with failure, to take risks and experience a full range of outcomes, both good and bad.

This idea of learning through tests has crossed over into college. This is a time in young adults’ lives when they should be exploring every opportunity. Deresiewicz writes, “The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start your way through the vale of soul-making. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways: all of these are incitements, disruptions, violations. They make you question everything you thought you knew about yourself.”

We are truly failing our children if we don’t start letting them know it’s okay not to get an A if it means they are really engaging with what they’re learning. If they’re studying in order to get an A but fail to really know, feel, or understand the material at hand, it’s not an A. It means they are robots.