Baby, It’s Cold Outside: Reducing Seasonal Energy Costs

When winter hits, we can’t help but think of that old song, “Baby, it’s cold outside.” For many of us, winter means high energy bills, but sitting in the dark or turning off the heat are not your only options. Here are some ways to improve your home’s energy efficiency and save money during the cold months:

Sealing

Cold air can get in around the sides of windows, doors, and vents. If you hold a piece of tissue near the frames inside on a windy day and it flutters, you need to seal the window. Check out your local hardware store and pick up some weather-stripping. Talk to an employee or do research online about the right product.

Insulation

Insulating your attic can increase your home’s energy efficiency significantly, and it’s usually fairly easy. Consult with a professional or do some research at the Department of Energy.

Heating and Cooling Systems

Temperature systems account for about 56% of the energy in a typical U.S. home, so updating can save a lot. You can retrofit or replace your furnace or boiler, depending how long your system has to live and how much each option costs. New heating systems can achieve an efficiency of up to 97%.

Appliances and Electronics

Appliances account for 20% of energy use in a typical U.S. home. Old ones can be energy hogs. To find energy-efficient products, look for the Energy Star label. For more information, check www.energystar.gov.

Water Heaters

Insulating or increasing the insulation on your water heater tank and pipes can decrease heat loss and lower your energy bills for a fraction of the price of replacing your water heater. On the other hand, if your water heater is nearing the end of its life, it is probably a good idea to replace it.

Solar Panels

Solar panels typically have high upfront costs, though they can provide clean, free energy for years to come. Use the Solar Calculator at www.findsolar.com to estimate the cost of installing panels and how long it will take for your investment to pay you back.

Financing

Many cities and states have programs to help pay for green renovations. Contact your state’s energy department to see what low-interest loans, rebates, or other benefits are available. You may also qualify for tax benefits; visit the IRS’s website.

*Energy usage and efficiency figures come from the Department of Energy. For more facts and tips, visit www.energysavers.gov.

Revised January 2016

Savings: Your Key to Success

You have wants. You have needs. And you have two ways of paying for them – pull out the credit card or use the money you have set aside. Which would you prefer?

It’s a safe bet that most people would choose to have a stash of cash from which they could pay for everything from impulse purchases to long-term financial goals. But how do you save when there are bills to pay and the paycheck only goes so far?

Do It Now

Even without a specific goal, saving immediately will make you feel good. Have debt? Put a little aside anyway. Acquiring a savings habit as soon as possible is critical. By setting a little aside each month while aggressively paying down your obligations, you will graduate into being debt free with a happy little nest egg in place. And in the event of an emergency you won’t have to touch the credit cards and feel like you’re driving in reverse.

Set a Goal

All achievable goals share the same five factors:

– Specific – describe your goal to the smallest details

– Measurable – how much do you need to save?

– Actionable – break it down into reasonable action steps

– Realistic – could you really achieve this goal in the given time?

– Time-bound – what is the time frame for the goal?

Put it somewhere. How much you have, your time frame, and personal risk tolerance will determine the best home for your money. A few accounts you may consider are:

– Savings account – A great starter account. Interest and risk are low and minimum deposit is small.

– Money market account – This savings account pays slightly better interest but may require a higher minimum balance.

– Money market fund – A very secure mutual fund account. Invested in high-quality, short-term investments. Higher deposit, interest and risk.

– Certificates of deposit (CDs) – Generally a three month to seven year investment commitment, CDs offer higher and fixed interest rates, but with a greater initial deposit and penalty for early withdrawal.

For mid to long-term goals, you may opt for investment rather than savings vehicles. After you’ve saved enough in one of the above accounts, you can transfer your money to mutual funds, bonds, or individual stocks if you wish.

Impossible? Not at all. With careful planning, savings is the key to successfully managing your money and getting everything you want.

Revised February 2016.

Your Clutter Is Costing You

What is the current state of your closet? Is it stuffed to the brim with clothes, shoes, suitcases, cleaning supplies, your high school chemistry textbook, etc., or can you do cartwheels in there? Is every horizontal surface covered in piles and piles of stuff or bare, save for a few knickknacks?

If your house is filled with clutter, you probably know you won’t make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, but you may not be aware that it could be costing you money too. Many people buy or rent bigger (and usually more expensive) places so they can have more closets or other storage space. They may also opt for the smaller space and pay rent on a storage unit. A clutter-filled house can also lead to increased entertainment costs; you don’t want your friends to see the mess (or are sick of seeing it yourself), so you go out. Duplication is another way that clutter can cost you. Have you ever spent money on something you already had because you had no idea where it was, and did not want to spend hours looking for it?

If the thought of actually having to go through all your stuff makes you sweat, don’t worry. Here are some tips that can help make the decluttering process as painless as possible:

Do a little at a time: You are less likely to get discouraged and give up if you set a series of small goals spread out over time (e.g., clean the closet in the master bedroom tomorrow, clean the garage next weekend) instead of trying to clean up the whole house at once.

Take a picture of sentimental items: Do you have some items that you never use but can’t throw out because of their sentimental value (such as the doll you bought for your daughter who is now 25)? Taking a picture can make it easier to part with. You will have a reminder even if it’s no longer collecting dust in your closet.

Donate or sell: While some of your items may be worn out and only welcomed by the trash bin, there may be many things you can sell to a consignment or thrift store, or donate to charity. Think of your cleaning as putting money in your pocket or helping others, instead of just a chore.

Use the “one in, one out” rule: After you go through all that effort to get rid of what you don’t need, you probably don’t want the house to revert back to its former messy state a few months from now. A good solution is to get rid of something whenever you purchase something new. You buy a new t-shirt at the mall—when you get home, go into the drawers and get rid of an old one.

By taking the time to declutter, you’ll be cleaning all the way to the bank.

Revised January 2016

Maintain and Save

When we’re looking to save money, the first thing most of us do is scrutinize our every purchase to see where we can squeeze out unnecessary spending. After all, a nip and a tuck here and there can add up to a bundle of savings over time! What many forget, though, is the cost savings that can result from proper maintenance of the things we already own – especially the really high-ticket items, like a home and car, which can be costly to repair and even more expensive to replace.

R. L. Polk reports the average person holds on to a new vehicle for just under six years. That’s longer than it was before the Great Recession, but with the average new car price topping $33,000, it makes good budget sense to find ways to extend the ownership period as long as possible. Just think of the boost it would be to your retirement savings if you bought just one fewer car in your lifetime, and instead directed that cash to an IRA or 401k account!

Here are some simple things you can do to keep your car and other stuff in good shape for the long haul.

Get Regular Oil Changes

Be sure to read your vehicle’s owner’s manual to find out how often oil changes and other preventive maintenance is recommended. Nobody knows more than the manufacturer about what your car needs to continue running properly. Plus, not following the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule could affect your warranty.

Check Tires Regularly

A flat tire’s not just inconvenient and expensive to replace. If not fixed promptly, a flat tire can lead to costly wheel damage. In addition to checking tire pressure monthly, have tires rotated, balanced and alignment checked regularly. Oftentimes, this regular maintenance is included in the warranty for new sets of tires.

Following Cleaning Instructions

If the tag says “dry clean only” believe it! Professional cleaning can add up, so you may be tempted to try laundering at home, but it’s a false economy if it means you ruin an expensive item of clothing. Instead, look at care instructions before you buy and decide then whether or not it’s a smart purchase.

Rotate Your Mattress

Some super-premium beds have different maintenance instructions, but if you have a standard mattress and box springs set-up, you’ll get longer life out of it by rotating it at least twice a year. If you notice sagging sooner, go with a three-month rotation schedule.

Replace AC Filters Regularly

A home’s air conditioning system is one of the most expensive items to replace if it goes bad. Twice-yearly maintenance is a prudent investment, and replacing filters regularly is really important since clogged filters can cause the system to burn-out prematurely.

Maintain Exterior Paint

Shabby and peeling paint doesn’t just make the outside of a home look unkempt. A proper paint job protects surfaces from the sun and weather, and helps ensure that cracks are repaired, preventing leaks and helping to keep destructive pests like termites at bay.

5 Things You Need to Start Your FAFSA Application

First, the bad news…Higher education isn’t getting cheaper. According to recent reports, student-loan debt just hit an all-time high: $1.4 trillion.

Now for the good news! As of October 1, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is available. The FAFSA is a one-stop shop that determines a student’s eligibility for all federal financial aid, including loans and work-study programs, as well as grants and scholarships (which you don’t have to pay back!).

So if you’re headed to college next year and want to minimize your debt, fill out the FAFSA ASAP. Not sure how to start? Here are five things you’ll need:

1. FSA ID

The easiest and fastest way to fill out the FAFSA is online at fafsa.gov. To get started, you’ll need your FSA ID, which is your username and password. Note: parents of dependent students (see #4 below) will need to create their own FSA ID in order to sign your child’s FAFSA form online.

2. The Names of Schools You Want to Attend

Don’t worry, you don’t need to be 100-percent sure about your college options. Enter up to 10 schools that you’re considering. If you change your mind later, you can easily remove the school from the list. Didn’t get accepted? The school can just disregard your FAFSA application.

3. Personal and Financial Information

You knew this was coming… To complete the FAFSA, you have to spend some time entering data. Personal information includes items like your social security and driver’s license numbers. However, dependent students also have to enter their parents’ tax return info from last year.

4. Dependency Status

If you’re in high school and live at home, you’re most likely considered a dependent. That means you need to report information about your parents.

But here’s where it gets more complicated. Even if you live on your own and support yourself, you still may be considered a dependent for the purposes of the FAFSA. Make sure you review the application guidelines and determine what category best describes you.

5. A Secure Connection

It probably goes without saying, but if you’re filing your FAFSA online, make sure you do it over a secure Internet connection. In other words, don’t use public WiFi.

Libraries, coffee shops, outdoor spaces—open connections are much more vulnerable to hackers. If your personal information is stolen, it could lead to identity theft and put you and your parents in financial jeopardy.

Four DIY Solutions to Help Your Holiday Budget

Holiday spending can be a budget buster. The expenses are numerous: presents, wrapping paper, food, travel and more. However, if you don’t have the funds to buy everything you want, there is no need to despair. With a little DIY creativity, you can get through the holidays without draining your checking account.

Get Crafty

Why spend $75 to buy a scarf if you can knit it yourself with $15 of yarn? If you have a knack for crafts, making your own gifts is a great way to save, since supplies usually cost less than the finished product. Not only are homemade gifts cheaper, but many people appreciate them more than store-bought presents because of the personal touch. Don’t know your way around a glue gun? A framed photo always goes a long way.

Wrap with Re-Purposed Items

Skip the fancy wrapping paper and bows, and look around the house to see what you can use. Do you have a newspaper? The comic section works well as it provides a little color. Computer paper or supermarket bags are good alternatives as well. Meanwhile, cheap craft supplies such as glitter and paint can be used to decorate plain surfaces.

Cut Card Costs

Holiday cards are a great way to stay in touch, but the costs add up. It is not uncommon for store cards to cost $4 each—or more. If you sent cards to 20 people, that would cost you $80, not including postage. Creating your own cards can help you save, but resist the temptation to buy the pricey supplies that pepper the scrapbook aisles of craft stores. Another option? Create and send cards electronically, and don’t spend a dime.

Hang Up Homemade Decorations

Like gift-wrapping, you can use household items for decorations. Making a garland out of popcorn is a classic holiday decoration. Pine cones and acorns—available in abundance in many parts of the country—provide a perfect seasonal touch. If you are really craving store-bought decorations, consider waiting until after the holidays to buy. Most stores will be selling them at a deep discount, and you can use them next year.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a good time. By being creative with your purchasing, you can afford to celebrate during the holidays, and afterwards as well.