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5 Tips to Save Money on Utilities This Winter

The holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year — for everything except your wallet. With the average American spending $752 on holiday gifts and existing utility bills increasing as temperatures start to drop, the winter months can challenge even the most budget-conscious individuals. Luckily, there are several things you can do to prevent your bills from skyrocketing, so here are five tips and tricks for saving on utilities this winter:

  1. Lower the thermostat:

    Possibly the simplest way to keep your utility bills low this winter is by being mindful of what temperature your thermostat is set. This doesn’t mean that you have to walk around the house wearing a winter coat, gloves, and your thickest socks — but a sweatshirt or blanket could be manageable in exchange for the potential cost savings. Lowering the number on the thermostat by even a few degrees can really add up, especially if you’re leaving the house for an extended period of time.

  2. Fix drafty doors and windows:

    Repairing windows and doors with air leaks can save you up to 30 percent of money on your energy bill each year. Weatherstripping is easy to do — almost like applying tape — and can make a big difference. To see if your windows and doors need a little facelift for the winter, try the flashlight test — have someone shine a flashlight into the edges of windows and doors, and step outside to check if you can see the light shining through. For more information on how to install weatherstripping, reference this online tutorial.

  3. Seal off rooms you do not use:

    If you have rooms in your home that do not get used often, such as a guest room or extra storage room, sealing them off can be helpful. Keep the doors, windows, and heating vents closed will help you retain the heat in the rest of your home.

  4. Replace light bulbs:

    With the shorter days and fewer hours of light that come with the winter months, it can help to replace traditional light bulbs with more energy-efficient bulbs. Using compact fluorescent bulbs can cost more initially, but they can last up to ten times longer than traditional bulbs.

  5. Install a programmable thermostat:

    Programmable thermostats can save homeowners up to 30 percent on utility bill by allowing you to program the times in which you want the temperature in your home to go up or down. For example, you can set your heat to a lower temperature while you are at work, and then have it work on resuming comfortable temperatures an hour or two before you return home. If you like cooler temperatures while you sleep, you can program your thermostat to a lower heat during the night, and then turn it back up a few hours before you wake up. Just try not to turn to your heat completely off during the day, as large jumps in temperatures can cost more and, in extreme weather, could cause pipes to freeze. Before you set your system, learn more about the benefits of programming your thermostat — including a few key limitations.

Don’t let high utility bills break your budget

Ah, winter — holiday music, twinkling lights, cozy nights by the fire, snow…and higher bills. If you are resourceful, you can reduce the impact of that last one. By using these five simple tips (or these, if you’re really ambitious), you can manage — or even lower — the cost of your electric and gas bills! With a little effort and some minor home improvements, you will be surprised by just how much you could save.

Cutting Your Budget: Where to Start

A monthly budget is not always one-size-fits-all. You may find a budget that works perfectly for a little while, but your financial situation is not likely to stay the same. Big life changes can come along, both planned and unplanned, that require a budget adjustment. Whether preparing for a new baby, saving for a down payment on a home, or going through tough times such as a job layoff or large medical bills, you may find yourself cutting the budget. If your budget already seems tight, it can be hard to determine the best place to start. Here are a few quick tips for cutting back on your monthly expenses:

  • Be Proactive

Cutting a budget for significant life changes pays to start early. Some can be easier to prepare for than others — a new baby comes with a few months to save as much as you can, and a home can be purchased on your own timeline when you are financially ready. You may try to plan your life as much possible, there are always unexpected changes and challenges. Even if there are no planned life changes on the horizon, it is essential to build up a solid emergency fund. The general rule of thumb is to save around three to six months of living expenses. A solid emergency fund that in case times get tough, you will have something to fall back on.

  • Assess Your Variable Expenses

When cutting your budget, looking at your variable expenses is a great place to start. Your variable expenses include amounts that fluctuate every month. Examples of variable expenses are groceries, dining out, entertainment, and clothing. Variable expenses are good to start with because you control how much you spend in these categories, and they are often easiest to cut back on. As much fun as going out for dinner and a movie is, it may be considered a luxury for the phase of life you are in. Making meals at home is exceptionally less expensive than eating out. In addition, renting a movie or having a game night at home with the people you love can be just as satisfying as a night on the town. To save money on groceries, looking into the benefits of meal planning can be helpful.

  • Find Ways to Slash Fixed Expenses

Obviously, you may not be able to immediately cut back on expenses such as rent, mortgage, car payments, or education loan repayments (although student loans could potentially be refinanced to save you money or lower your monthly payment). However, there may be other fixed expenses that you can eliminate. For example, cutting out cable — even temporarily — can save you a surprising amount of money. If you have a landline, you might be able to get rid of it and solely use your cell phone. Utility bills can rise in the winter months, so ensure you are diligent about turning off your lights, unplugging appliances, and not turning up the heat too high. If necessary, do some research to make sure you are getting the best deals on cell phone service, internet, and car insurance. While you won’t be able to completely exclude all of your fixed expenses, with a little effort, small savings spread over several categories can add up to a cumulative amount that creates more flexibility in your monthly budget.

Getting Through Tough Financial Times

Throughout life, there are many circumstances that may change your income or expense levels. Whether you are cutting back to consciously save up for an exciting life event or to unexpectedly adjusting to a financial challenge, it is essential to reevaluate your budget to adapt when these changes occur. Though it may seem daunting at first, you might be surprised by how much you can save when you put forth some thought and effort.

Home Renovations and Projects with the Greatest ROI

Your home is a precious investment — it is the protective roof over your family’s head and the place where many memories are made. Unfortunately, it is also an expensive investment — one that will likely continue to require maintenance and more funds as time goes on. While this is a typical concern related to homeownership, there are specific strategies you can do that are more likely to help you recoup a decent percentage of your funds when it comes time to sell.

Whether you plan to move in a few years or a few months (or there is no immediate plan to move at all), certain purchases, maintenances projects, and renovations have a greater return on investment (ROI), thereby helping you recoup more of your hard-earned money when you sell your home. To figure out which projects provide the greatest “bang for your home renovation buck,Remodeling magazine surveyed various remodeling consultants to estimate the average cost of 27 different home improvement projects. They then asked real estate agents from across the country to estimate the expected resale value of those remodeling projects and renovations. The resulting comparisons help show consumers and homeowners just how much they would likely get back — for each project — in the sale of their home. 

 

The general home improvement consensus is that lower-cost projects generally reap larger returns. In fact, four of the top five projects offering the greatest potential for return on investment cost less than $5,000! Want to see the rest of the list, including the home remodeling projects with the least return on investment? Check out Remodeling magazine’s 2016 Cost vs. Value Report.

Home renovations and maintenance projects with great returns on investment — if not value-boosting potential — can help maximize your ability to sell your home at the price you want and need to re-absorb your costs. Keep in mind that how soon you sell after making improvements, as well as the quality of the project itself, do factor in. Finally, always consider the following when selling your home: the overall value of your home, your location, the value of the homes near you, and the health of the economic market. Do that and follow the above list, and you will be well on your way to [hopefully] selling your home for your asking price — and maybe a little extra.

Charitable Giving Basics and Your Budget

If you’re a Millennial, you’ve probably grown weary of the cliché labels of entitlement that have been placed on your generation. In fact, major media outlets such as Entrepreneur, CNBC, and the Washington Post have challenged this mindset by reporting that Millennials – the generation which brought us crowdfunding – are among the most generous groups in history.  

 

It’s understandable that for the first few years out of college, recent graduates must often conserve finances to meet the basic budget requirements of their newfound independence, such as rent, car payments, student loan payments, and day-to-day expenses. However, once young professionals get settled in their new lifestyles and see their careers (and salaries) begin to accelerate, they are finally able to start directing more of their income to savings, investments, and charitable giving.

 

We all know that charitable giving, first and foremost, helps those in need. However, did you know about the many other benefits to charitable giving, including how it can incite more meaning in your life, promote generosity in your children, encourage friends and family to donate, create potential tax deductions, and improve personal budgeting? You may be unsure of which charities to trust, what percentage of your donation is actually given to the intended recipients, or how much you can afford to give.  With that in mind, you want to make sure your hard-earned money is going to a trustworthy cause that not only maximizes your dollar — but spends the majority of it where they say they do. We have you covered in this charitable giving guide — complete with budgeting tips!

 

Charity Navigator

 

Before we get started with our tips, we would like to introduce the nation’s largest, most utilized evaluator of charities: Charity Navigator. This 501(c)(3) non-profit organization aims to guide intelligent giving decisions by evaluating a charity’s financial health, accountability, transparency, how efficiently they will likely use support, their long-term sustainability, their level of commitment to good governance, and their openness with information. Since their inception in 2001, Charity Navigator’s professional analysts have worked to develop an “unbiased, objective, numbers-based rating system to assess over 8,000 of America’s best-known and some lesser known, but worthy, charities” — all in the hopes of improving the nonprofit sector’s performance. Many of the following tips come from Charity Navigator’s website. As such, their website is a great place to start your charitable giving research.

 

(Charity Navigator receives no funding from the charities they evaluate, and they refuse to charge users to view the data they have collected. Education Loan Finance receives no funding for mentioning Charity Navigator.)

 

Tip #1: Be an informed donor.

To be a smart donor, you must be an informed donor. This Top 10 Best Practices of Savvy Donors by Charity Navigator is a great place to start.

 

Tip #2: Find out what percentage of your money goes to the charity’s programs and services.

Finding out what percentage of your money is going to your desired non-profit’s programs and services is important! After all, that is what and who you are trying to help, right? According to Charity Navigator, “the most efficient charities spend 75% or more of their budget on their programs and services and less than 25% on fundraising and administrative fees… [but] mid-to-large sized charities do require a strong infrastructure, therefore, a claim of zero fundraising and/or administrative fees is unlikely at best.” To learn more about your charity of choice, simply type their name in Charity Navigator’s search bar. Executive compensation data can be reviewed in the CEO Compensation Study.

 

Tip #3: Review the charity’s financial records, transparency, and future goals.

Among other things, a healthy charity should be able to grow their revenue at least at the rate of inflation, maintain a continued investment in their programs (day-to-day and long-term), and have some money saved away. You can review such details pertaining to each charity by searching the non-profit’s name on Charity Navigator’s site, or you can request the charity’s three most recent 990 forms. Finally, talk to your preferred charity about its accomplishments, challenges, and future goals. Not sure what to ask? Consider asking these four questions before donating. If the charity is unable or unwilling to participate in any of your requests or questions, walk away.

 

Tip #4: Understand the different types of non-profits.

There are many different types of non-profit organization designations. Your charity’s designation will determine if your contribution is tax deductible or not. Before you donate any money, expecting a tax deduction, review this list.

 

Tip #5: Understand your tax benefits of giving.

Ensuring that your charity is a tax-deductible charity is the first step to receiving charitable giving benefits, but there is more you should know about charitable tax deductions before you make your donation. Your first task is to talk to your tax advisor to make sure there are no federal, state, or local tax consequences to making a charitable donation. Next, it is time to take a deeper look at the actual cost of your donation — after your tax-deductible savings are applied. For example, if you donate $100 and are in the 33% tax bracket, the actual cost of your donation is $67, thanks to the $33 in tax savings. With each and every tax bracket increase, the actual cost of the charitable gift decreases because your reward (the tax break) increases. You can read more about this, your benefits, and other great tax-related tips here, or you can calculate your savings on the Giving Calculator.

 

Tips #6: How much should you give?

The answer to this question depends completely on your personal budget. Different sources will recommend various percentages of your income or net worth, but the true answer lies in what you feel comfortable giving. Your task is to take a look at your budget and see if there is any room for charitable giving. If you need help figuring out how to create a budget that accommodates your spending goals, check out our blogs: “How to Write a Monthly Budget” and “How to Create a Zero-Based Budget.” Next, review the Giving Calculator to estimate the amount of your potential tax deduction, thereby reducing the actual spend of your initial contribution amount. If you still want to give more, this tax-deductible reward could change how much you can afford to give in a given year.

 

Maximizing the Impact: Once you identify a reputable charity that aligns with your personal convictions, you may want to consider focusing your philanthropic efforts there (rather than diversifying your allocation of charitable giving funds) to ensure that the organization you support can do more with the money they receive. Although your contribution may not fund an entire project, for most charitable organizations, every dollar helps meet a larger goal.  You can always start out with a modest amount, increase your donation each year, and still feel great about putting your goodwill to good use.

 

Do You Need a Financial Advisor to Start Investing? 

Types of Home Loans

Possibly the most important factor potential homeowners need to consider during the home-buying process is how to pay for it. Buying a home is typically the largest purchase individuals make in their lifetime, and most people cannot afford to purchase it outright. This is where mortgages come in — but with all the different types of home loans, which one is right for you? Making the right choice can save you money, so understanding the elements of various financing programs is crucial to making the right decision for your situation. Here are two questions to ask during the home loan selection process:

Fixed-Rate Loan or Adjustable-Rate Mortgage (ARM)?

The first question borrowers need to ask is whether a fixed-rate or an ARM loan is right for them. Fixed-rate loans are the most common and offer more security in terms of predictable monthly payments. This type of mortgage is billed over a set amount of time (10, 15, 20, or 30 years) and the interest rate stays the same throughout the loan term, regardless of market fluctuation. Just as with fixed-rate student loans, you will know exactly how much you will need to pay each month. This type of loan is best for homeowners who are more risk-averse and plan to stay in the same place for a substantial amount of time.

The other option is adjustable-rate mortgages. These loans usually offer a lower starting interest rate than comparable fixed-rate loans, but the interest rates (and, in turn, payments) will fluctuate up or down at specified intervals based on current rates. ARMs come with more risk, especially in a rising interest rate environment, but the lower starting rates may offer money-saving potential provided that interest rates do not rise dramatically after the adjustment period. This loan is ideal for potential homeowners who have enough flexibility in their budgets to withstand potential payment increases or those who plan to move or refinance before the adjustment period resets.

Conventional or Government-backed loan?

Borrowers will also need to consider whether they want (or qualify for) a government-backed loan, as opposed to a conventional loan. Any loan that is not affiliated with the government is referred to as a conventional loan. Here are some of the options the government offers for financing a home:

    • Federal Housing Administration (FHA) Loan: This type of loan is great for homeowners who do not have the funds available to make a traditional down payment of 20 percent, as an FHA loan allows down payments as little as 3.5 percent of the amount of the loan. However, these loans come with several conditions, such as caps of $417,000, fixed rates, and a mortgage insurance requirement.
    • Veterans Administration (VA) Loan: This loan is available to qualifying veterans and offers tremendous benefits, including no money down and no mortgage insurance requirements.
  • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Loan: USDA loans are designed to help lower-income individuals in rural areas purchase a home. If you qualify, you could purchase a home with zero down payment and discounted interest rates.

Which is Right for You?

Mortgage loans are not one-size-fits-all — each prospective homeowner has a different situation with varying circumstances. For additional assistance in determining which mortgage loan program provides the ideal solution for your goals, consider consulting a reputable real estate agent or mortgage broker with experience in working with a variety of clients. Numerous programs exist to help individuals achieve the dream of homeownership, and understanding the pros and cons of each, as well as your preferences and financial situation, can help you choose a loan that best fits your needs.

3 Steps to Create a Cash Envelope Budget System

What if you were told you could save money by using cash instead of credit and debit cards? Until the relatively recent advent of plastic cards, most individuals used cash for their purchases. While modern consumers love the convenience, perks, and limited liability of cards, studies have shown that credit card users spend more money, especially since parting with cash is psychologically more “painful” than swiping a card. If you are having a hard time sticking to your budget when your finances are not in front of you, then sorting your budget allotments into tangible categories through the cash envelope budget system may be right for you.

 

In a digital environment where everything has an app, you may have already heard of this system but previously deemed it too “old-school” or difficult to maintain. However, we’d argue that this mindset, in which electronic tools streamline every facet of our decision-making process, is precisely what contributes to senseless overspending. If you routinely rack up more revolving debt than you can comfortably pay off each month, you might want to take a second look at the money-saving opportunities associated with the cash envelope budget system, which, when implemented correctly, could help you save money and take control of your finances. Here are the three steps associated with creating a cash envelope budget system:

 

  • Audit Your Budgeting System

Whether or not your current budget is working for you, you need to take a look at it and figure out if it is conducive with the cash envelope system. The system operates on the zero-based budgeting concept — the idea that every penny you make should fall into a specific category — so if you already have this kind of budget system in place, you can move on to the next step. If not, you can find information about how to easily create a zero-based budget.

 

Learn More About Zero Based Budgeting

 

  • Make Envelopes for Each Category

Once you have your zero-based budget in place and you have divided your income into categories, it is time to make the envelopes. Grab a pack of envelopes and use one for each of your budgeting categories, such as groceries, gas, clothing, and entertainment. Write the category names on the back of the envelopes, withdraw the weekly or monthly (or whatever time frame you choose) cash allowance you have already calculated for each category, or simply ration out any remaining cash that falls within your budget.

 

One problem many people run into when trying to implement the cash envelope system is online bill payments. Different methods work for different people, and you can feel free to deviate from the structure of the system on this step. Some people decide to leave money in their checking account for their fixed expenses like rent, utilities, and student loan payments. Others find it helpful to create a separate checking account for these expenses. Of course, you are not going to end up with zero dollars in the bank when using this system — ideally, you will also be putting a designated percentage of your income into your savings account(s), retirement accounts, IRA accounts, investments, and any other long-term or emergency-only accounts.

 

  • Be Disciplined

Budgets can be hard to stick to at times, and they will always require hard work to maintain. The cash envelope system is no different, as it demands even more discipline to be successful. You need to be strict and committed for it to work. That means that if one of your envelopes is empty, it is empty, and your budget — as well as your spending for that timeframe and that category — is gone, without exception. Once you wrap your mind around this concept, you will find yourself cutting unnecessary costs. For example, if you have allocated $100 to spend on groceries for the week and end up with a $102 total at the register, you need to put back that magazine or that bag of chips. After some time, you will become more selective with the items you purchase, and you may end up finding coupons to make your budget stretch even more.

 

Reap the Rewards

Do not get discouraged if the system is not working correctly the first few months — perfecting a routine may take some time, and that is okay. However, if it works for you and your household, you could soon see the rewards of all your hard work. The cash envelope budget system is a great way to hold you accountable and let you see exactly how much money you have left to spend in certain categories, thereby keeping you from spending money on “extras” you might not really need. Give the system some time, and before long, you will likely see more money in the bank, have more wiggle room in your budget, and lessen your financial stresses.

How to Save Money on an Engagement Ring

The season is upon us, the most popular time of the year to get engaged. Getting engaged is often one of the most memorable events in a couple’s life — but it can be pricey. Society’s expectations for engagement rings have become more expensive every year: larger diamonds, designer jewelers, and the “three months’ salary rule” are the new normal. In fact, a recent survey found that 28 percent of Americans think spending over $3,000 on an engagement ring is appropriate, and 17 percent said money is not an object. However, if you are looking for a beautiful ring for your partner without breaking the bank, there are plenty of options. Here are some creative ways to save money on an engagement ring:

Consider the Specifics of the Ring

There are many factors to think about when choosing the perfect ring, like the gemstone, shape, setting, and precious metal — and each characteristic has cheaper alternatives. It is important to explore your options for each to get the best value for your money.

 

  • The Gemstone: Diamonds are the most commonly-used gemstone on engagement rings, but they are also the most expensive. Instead of a diamond, consider a sapphire, emerald, or ruby for the center stone. These gemstones have grown increasingly popular and offer an unconventional look for a unique bride-to-be. If you want a more traditional look for your new fiancé, a light blue or peach sapphire may be right for you.

 

  •  The Shape/Cut: Diamonds are traditionally cut into ten standard shapes, and a round diamond is the most popular (and expensive) choice. According to Brilliant Earth, you can save up to 40 percent by choosing a different shape. Other popular shapes that are less expensive include the princess, cushion, and oval cuts, adding a unique factor to the ring.

 

  • The Size: The weight of a diamond or other precious gemstone is measured in carats. As one would expect, the higher the carat number, the higher the price. Many jewelers price their gemstones based on this factor, with some pricing disproportionately at the 1 and .5 carat marks. Thus, if you are looking for a gemstone around the 1-carat size, you can get a nearly-identical .9 carat one for a lower price.

 

  • The Precious Metal: For long-term durability, platinum rings take the cake. However, like most commonly-used ring characteristics on this list, it is also the priciest. To cut costs, opt for white gold, yellow gold, or rose gold band instead.

 

  • The Setting: Getting strategic with the setting is a great way to save a little money. If you cannot afford the gemstone size you would like, try a halo setting (smaller diamonds surrounding the center stone). This makes the gemstone appear larger. If you want to add a little something extra, but smaller diamonds around the band are not in the budget, try a pavé-style band, which features tiny and inexpensive diamonds encrusted into the band to give extra sparkle.

Shop Online

Shopping online allows you to sift through a wide selection of gemstones and setting styles to create the perfect ring, while also comparing prices to get the best deal. Some online jewelers like Blue Nile, Brilliant Earth, and James Allen even let you “design your own” ring by first choosing a setting and then selecting a loose gemstone at the best price based on your specifications. In addition, many of these online retailers do not charge a sales tax in most states, and most have sales and promotions throughout the year.

 

Think About an Antique

If your future spouse loves the vintage look, scoring a one-of-a-kind antique ring may be your best bet. Vintage engagement rings are timeless, cost-effective, and environmentally sustainable — you just need to know where to look for them. There are plenty of online options, but you can also try estate sales or antique shops.

 

Get a Beautiful Ring Without Blowing the Budget

It is no secret that engagement rings are expensive, and you want to find one that your partner will love and wear forever. However, if you shop smart, you can get a beautiful piece for a price you can afford, simply by choosing cheaper ring features, shopping online, or purchasing an antique.

If you are in the process of accumulating funds to buy the ring, there are a wealth of creative ideas to save money out there. If you have a few months to go before you take the plunge, revising your budget to include your ring savings may be a good option. If revising your budget includes refinancing your student loans, talk to Education Loan Finance. We would love to help you free up some extra funds for the ring that not only fits your budget but fulfills your partner’s dreams.

 

Budget Tips for a Wedding