How to Stay on Budget with your Interior Home Improvement Project

Busting the budget is everyone's biggest fear when it comes to renovation. And with good reason. Even if you follow the essential advice we've been doling out for years—build in a 20 percent cushion to cover the nasty surprises, get contractor references and check them, banish the words "while you're at it" from your vocabulary—it's hard not to end up shelling out more than you want to, even if you want to pen a check for a million bucks.

But why scale back a project or forgo that Viking range? No, what you need to do is get your dream at a price you can afford. And not by cheaping out, either. With some strategic thinking about design, materials, and timing, you can cut your home renovation costs without cutting corners. On the following pages, we'll show you the ways, from the big (knock down the house and start over) to something as small as choosing a wall sconce over a recessed light. But another universal truth about renovations is that every little thing adds up. So save a little here, save a little there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

1. Increase efficiency, not size.
If you can reorganize and equip your kitchen for maximum utility, you may not need to blow out the walls to gain square footage. Start by replacing space–hogging shelves with cabinet–height pullout drawers 8 inches wide, containing racks for canned goods and other items. "You're getting three or more horizontal planes where you might otherwise get only one," says Louis Smith Jr., an architect with Meier Group, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You could easily shell out a few thousand to outfit cabinets with upgrades like dividers, pull–out pot trays, and lazy Susans, but you'll save many times that amount by skipping the addition you thought you needed.
*Cost to expand kitchen by 200 square feet: $48,000 to $95,000
Cost of super–efficient, custom–designed cabinets: $35,000
SAVED: Up to $60,000

2. Bring in natural light without adding windows.
Before cutting a big hole in the side of your house and rearranging the framing, consider less invasive—and less expensive—ways of capturing light. To brighten up a windowless bath or hallway, for instance, you can install a "light tube," which slips between roof rafters and funnels sunshine down into the living space.
Cost to add a double–pane insulated window: $1,500
Cost for a light tube: $500
SAVED: $1,000

3. Hit the recycling center.

Do–it–yourselfers can reap big savings with recycled or lightly used fixtures and building materials. Habitat for Humanity operates about 400 ReStores nationwide, which offer salvaged materials at half off home–center prices. One caveat: Many contractors won't work with salvaged items, or homeowner–supplied materials in general, because they don't want to assume the liability if something goes wrong. That said, if you're doing your own work, you can find anything from prehung doors to acrylic skylights to partial bundles of insulation. (To find a ReStore near you, visit habitat.org.)
Price of 4–by5–foot insulated window in a home center: $600
Price at ReStore: $300
SAVED: $300

4. Donate your trash.
Before you begin a remodeling job, invite the local Habitat for Humanity chapter to remove materials and fixtures for later resale. "About 85 percent of a house is reusable," says B.J. Perkins, Habitat's ReUse program manager, in Austin, Texas. "We can do a total takedown, or do a cherry-pick job and take the cabinets, the tub, the sink, and so on." You save space in the landfill, collect a charitable tax credit for the donation, and help a good cause. Visit Habitat's website (see Way to Save #3) to find an affiliate near you.
Cost to trash a suite of bathroom fixtures: $50 to $75
Cost to donate: Nothing, plus you get a tax deduction
SAVED: Space in the landfill (and a little bit of your soul)

5. Do your own demo.
Knocking down may not be as costly as rebuilding, but you can still shave dollars by doing some of the demolition yourself—as long as you proceed with care. "If a homeowner wants to demo a deck, well, I am sure they can handle that," says Michael Winn, owner of Winn Design, in Virginia. "But when it comes to interior spaces, I would dissuade them from doing it unless they have done it before." The reason: A reckless wrecker might unwittingly take out a load–bearing wall or, worse still, plunge a reciprocating saw into live wiring or pressurized plumbing. (For tips on how to do demo right, see our October 2005 feature, "Before You Construct, You Have to Destruct.")
Cost to demo a 200–square–foot deck yourself: $450 (Dumpster rental and parking permit)
Cost for a pro: $1,000
SAVED: $550

6. Consider long–term costs, not just short–term gains.

If your addition calls for clapboard siding, for instance, you can save more in the long run by ponying up now for the preprimed and prepainted variety. It costs an extra 10 to 20 cents per foot, but "you'll wind up paying for half as many paint jobs down the road," says Paul Eldrenkamp, owner of Byggmeister, a design–build remodeling firm in Newton, Massachusetts. The reason? Factory finishes are applied on dry wood under controlled conditions—no rain, no harsh sun. "I used prefinished claps on my house about ten years ago and the only flaw in the finish is the occasional mildew spot, easily washed off," Eldrenkamp says. "The paint looks as if it'll be good for another ten years, easily." Cost of unfinished siding for a 10–by–40–foot addition, plus two paint jobs: $5,000
Cost for prefinished claps and one coat of paint at installation: $3,750 SAVED:$1,250

7. Tap your contractor's sources.
When it comes to things like flooring, ask your subcontractor if he has odds–and–ends stock left over from other jobs. While renovating a Civil War–era bed-and-breakfast in New Jersey some years back, contractor Bill Asdal needed wood flooring. He made a few phone calls and came up with hundreds of square feet of hardwood, in various lengths and widths, that otherwise would have gone into the trash on other job sites. Just by planing it to uniform thickness, then sanding and refinishing it, he saved his client almost $9,000 in materials costs.
Cost of new flooring: $19,200
Cost to use someone else's discards: $10,500
SAVED: $8,700

8. Limit recessed light fixtures.
"The more recessed lights you put in, the more it's going to cost," says Tom Silva, This Old House's general contractor. In addition to the fixtures, there's the labor to cut all the holes and insulate them properly. A wall– or ceiling–mounted light can also deliver more wattage, which means you may be able to get away with fewer fixtures.
Cost to install six can lights: $900
Cost to install one surface–mounted fixture of equal wattage: $300
SAVED: $600

9. Consult an architect.

Depending on the scale of your project, you might not need a full–on architectural commission, which involves extensive meetings, multiple job–site visits, and several sets of construction drawings, to the tune of about 8 percent of a project's construction budget. You might be able to tap an architect's design savvy by having him undertake a one–time design consultation. For example, for a $400 flat fee, Baton Rouge architect Kevin Harris will meet with a homeowner, examine the problem, and sketch out a few solutions that could be as simple as opening up a partition wall or moving a door. The homeowner can then give the sketch to a builder or take it to a drafting service, which will charge about $1 to $1.50 a square foot to crank out formal construction drawings.
Architect's fee to design a 300–square– foot home office: $2,250
Fee for design consultation only and plans: $580
SAVED: $1,670

10. Partner with a contractor.
Though the practice is controversial among the trades, some contractors will offer consulting and mentoring services to skilled do–it–yourselfers on an hourly basis. Chicago–area builder Ted Welch charges $150 per hour for such coaching, with a two–hour minimum commitment. "The most satisfied clients tend to be those who have good manual dexterity, who realize that skills need to be practiced in order to be perfected, and who are willing to risk making a few mistakes and then learn from them," he says.
Cost to drywall one room: $1,000
Cost with DIY consultation: $300 (2 hours of coaching), plus materials
SAVED: $700

11. Make sweat equity count.
Unless you've got loads of time (and expertise) to spend on your project, the best way to add sweat equity is up front, by handling your own demolition, or at the back end, by doing some of the finish work yourself. "If you want to save money, dig in and start helping out," says Tom Silva. "You can insulate, you can paint, you can sand." Or better still, he says, help with cleanup every day. "Instead of paying someone to pick up sawdust off the floor, put your money into the time it takes to trim the window properly," he advises.
Cost for construction crew to handle cleanup: $200 per day
Cost to do it yourself: $0
SAVED: About 3 to 5 percent of the overall job cost

12. Do your own schlepping.

If you're doing your own project, slash your materials–delivery fees by picking up goods yourself. No pickup truck? For about $400, you can purchase a nearly new single–axle utility trailer online, which you can tow behind your SUV. Get one just big enough to carry 4–by–8 sheet goods flat. Use it for a half–dozen trips, and it's paid for itself. Find trailers for sale near you via eBay Motors, or try your local classifieds.
Cost of 10 deliveries: $750
Cost to buy a used trailer: $400
SAVED: $350, plus you get to keep (or sell) the trailer

13. Don't overspend on wall prep.
If your walls are in such rough shape that it would take a painting contractor days of filling and sanding to make them ready for the roller, consider using materials such as Texturglas, from Deerfield Beach, Florida— based company Roos International. A breathable, nontoxic wall covering made of fine glass filaments, Texturglas has a similar look and feel to the fiberglass matting used in auto–body work. It's available in a variety of surface patterns, takes paint readily, and is designed to be installed right on top of existing surfaces, adding strength while covering up dings.
Cost to patch and paint a 15–by–20–foot room with heavily damaged walls: $1,525
Cost to install Texturglas:$1,050
SAVED: $475

14. Consider look-alikes.
Some imitations just make sense: Lumber giant Weyerhaeuser sells a fast-growing natural eucalyptus hybrid under the brand name Lyptus. Sustainably harvested in plantations in Brazil, the clear-grained hardwood looks and feels remarkably like mahogany. It's sold as toungue-and-groove flooring and in planks and sheets for cabinetry and millwork. (Visit Lyptus.com to find a distributor near you.)
Cost of 100 board feet of mohogany: $808
Cost of same quantity Lyptus:$395
SAVED: $413

15. Demolish the whole house and start from scratch.

"Most clients don't want to hear those words," says Paul Irwin, design director with Landis Construction, in the Washington, D.C., area, "but it really needs to be considered on major remodels."In one case, for example, plans for a 1,300–square–foot addition revealed that the house's existing foundation wasn't up to code and would have to be replaced—a $30,000 proposition. After crunching the numbers, the owners concluded that it would cost as much to update the house, a former summer cottage, as it would to reproduce it new. "For a relatively small additional cost," says the owner, "we get all the benefits of new construction while preserving the character and feel of our old house."
Cost to remodel: $570,000
Cost to replicate: $588,000
SAVED: For $18,000, the owners gained as much as $60,000 worth of new living space, plus improved safety and energy efficiency.

16. Wait until contractors want your business.
Don't schedule your reno in the height of summer or between September, when the kids go back to school, and Christmas. "That's premium time," explains Lisa Stacholy, owner of LKS Architects, in Atlanta, Georgia. Suppliers tend to be busier, labor scarcer, and deliveries slower. One Virginia–based contractor offers discounts of between 4.5 and 5.5 percent (depending on the overall budget) on projects during his down time, right after the new year.
Cost of a major bathroom remodel in peak season: $25,000
Cost in January: $23,625
SAVED: $1,375

17. Skip the foundation.
If local code allows, you may be able to support a small addition on posts and beams, as you would a deck, explains contractor Dennis Gavin, of Gavin Design–Build, in Media, Pennsylvania.
220–square–foot addition with poured foundation: $40,000
Same–size addition on posts and beams: $35,000
SAVED: $5,000

18. Don't move the kitchen sink.
Or the toilet, if you can avoid it. "That often becomes the biggest part of the plumbing–price increase," says Richard Trethewey, This Old House plumbing and heating expert. If your new layout requires that you move the toilet, use the opportunity to upgrade the pipes at the same time. "That will save you money in the long run," says Richard.
Cost to move toilet more than 3 feet: $500—$1,000
Cost to leave in existing location: $0
SAVED: Up to $1,000

19. Plan with stock sizes in mind.

"Ask yourself, 'Why am I building something 10 feet wide if plywood comes in 4–foot–wide sheets?'" says Lisa Stacholy, of LKS Architects, in Atlanta. The same applies to stock windows and doors: Use manufacturers' off–the–shelf dimensions from the outset and you will save the premiums of custom fabrication. Cost of custom doors: $1,500—$2,500
Cost of standard doors: $500–$800
SAVED: Up to $2,000

20. Buy building supplies at auction.
Brian Peppel, a homeowner in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, attends one building–supply auction each month in nearby Lancaster County. His recent finds include two pallets of concrete block for $10 and a solid–wood prehung exterior door for $65. "Their inventory is everything under the sun, a lot of scratch–and–dent, misordered custom items, or new overstock supplies," reports Peppel. He once watched the auctioneer's gavel fall on a large, custom–made triangular window with an original retail value that he pegs at several thousand dollars. The winning bid? $1.
Cost of solid–cherry wall cabinet at a home center: $300
Cost at building–supply auction: $10
SAVED:$290

21. Make decisions early.
Start prowling the aisles at the hardware store or home center way before the wrecking crew shows up. Get a good feeling for what you want in fixtures and appliances and what they cost. If you aren't absolutely specific up front about what you want, you'll have to rely on your contractor's estimate, called an allowance, and his notion of what is acceptable may be quite different from yours. "Ninety–eight percent of the time, allowances are too low," says Tom Silva. For instance, you may have had a glass–tile backsplash in mind, but your contractor's bid was for ceramic.
Cost to plan ahead: $0
Cost of change orders midstream: The difference in the item price, but also time lost to project delays and communications glitches.

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Creating Good Savings Habits in 2018

Most Americans are woefully behind in retirement savings and have little money set aside for emergencies. Whether you're one of those Americans with $0 in the bank, or you have a little nest egg, you probably could stand to save a little more.

This five-step guide will show you how to start saving money in 2018. Just follow these steps to end the year with a savings rate to be proud of.

 

1. Decide what you need to save for

Sixty-four percent of Americans are concerned about not having enough money for retirement. If you aren't saving for retirement already, you're setting yourself up for financial disaster. You'll either have to save a fortune to make up for starting late, or could be left without a nest egg and forced to struggle to live on Social Security.

While saving for retirement is vitally important, it's not the only goal to have.  If you don't have an emergency fund, funding one should be a priority. In one 2015 Pew Survey, 60% of Americans indicated they'd had a financial shock -- with a median cost of $2,000 -- during the past year. More than half hadn't recovered financially six months after the incident.

You also may want to save for a house down payment, college education, or even a vacation fund. Anything you want that you won't be able to pay cash for should go on your list of savings goals.

2. Open the right accounts

When you know what you're saving for, you can open up the right accounts to put your money into. For retirement savers, this means an account that offers a tax break.

Investing in a 401(k) is usually the simplest approach if you have access to one. However, if your 401(k) doesn't offer a good selection of investments, or if the fees are high, it makes sense to invest only enough to receive an employer match and then make IRA contributions. Companies like Ally Invest make it easy to open an IRA online with no minimum balance.

As for your other savings goals, any cash you may need within two years -- including money in your emergency fund -- should be invested in a basic savings account. There are plenty of high-yield savings accounts you can open online. Moving money out of checking into a separate savings account makes it much less likely you'll spend the money.

3. Set a budget that prioritizes savings

Now the hard part: coming up with money to transfer into savings. Your goal should be to save at least 20% of your income, with at least 15% for retirement. If you made the median income of $52,700, you should be saving $10,540. To save anywhere close to this much, you need to avoid wasteful spending -- which means making a budget.

To get started, track your spending for 30 days to ensure you're basing your budget on realistic numbers. If you're spending $1,000 monthly on groceries for your family of four and you budget $200, you're not budgeting -- you're wishcasting and writing down a fantasy instead of a plan.

When you know what you're spending -- and where you're overspending -- you can make a budget that works. When you do, include saving as a non-optional expense, along with the mortgage or rent. After prioritizing required expenditures, allocate the rest of your dollars into spending categories, and give every dollar a job.

Don't forget to build in money for unexpected expenses and irregular expenses like birthdays and holidays.

4. Look for ways to slash your spending

If your budget reveals there's a big mismatch between expenditures -- including savings -- and income, it's time to make big lifestyle changes. This could mean getting a roommate, moving to a lower cost-of-living area, taking on a side gig, or selling your car and getting a cheaper vehicle.

Even if your budget shows you have some cash left over to save, it's worth going through your expenditures to look for ways to save a little bit more. A few options to consider:

·       Reduce the costs of cable: Great streaming services, including Sling TV and Hulu, provide access to local TV, sports, and more -- for a fraction of the cost of cable.

·       Take a close look at your cellphone plan: Are you paying for more data than you use, or texting services you no longer need?

·       Make your home more energy efficient: Turning your thermostat up or down a degree, changing to LED bulbs, and unplugging devices that use phantom power are simple, effective ways to save money without big lifestyle changes.

·       Change your grocery-shopping process: American families throw out food worth around $1,365 to $2,275 every year. If you invested $1,365 every year in a 401(k) instead of using it to buy food you toss, you'd have $154,631 dollars in 30 years, assuming an 8% return. Stop wasting food by planning meals, using a shopping list, and scheduling days to eat leftovers.

·       Cut your credit card costs: If you're in debt, consider taking a 0% interest balance transfer, or a personal loan to make payback cheaper. If you have a credit card with an annual fee, call your creditor and ask to have it waived. This worked for 82% of cardholders whose fees were either waived or reduced, according to a survey by CreditCards.com.

There are dozens of other ways you're probably wasting money -- just take a critical look at your spending. Even saving $1,000 more per year in a 401(k) -- just $83 per month -- could turn into $113,283 in 30 years.

5. Automate the process

Once you've got your budget in place and know how much you want to save for your savings goals, make the transfer of money automatic. Ask human resources at work for paperwork to set your 401(k) contributions to the desired amount, and set up automated transfers from your paycheck to your savings account and IRA on payday.

If you have to make the decision every month to transfer money, you'll constantly be forced to avoid giving into temptation. If you set up an automated system, you only need to do the right thing once.

Make 2018 your year to stop worrying about money

Eight in 10 American families are living paycheck to paycheck, and 60% can't cover an unexpected $500 expense. Living with no savings is really stressful. If you follow these steps and start building a nest egg, 2018 can become the year when you don't have to worry about money any more.

The $16,122 Social Security bonus most retirees completely overlook
If you're like most Americans, you're a few years (or more) behind on your retirement savings. But a handful of little-known "Social Security secrets" could help ensure a boost in your retirement income. For example: one easy trick could pay you as much as $16,122 more... each year! Once you learn how to maximize your Social Security benefits, we think you could retire confidently with the peace of mind we're all after.

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6 New Years Resolutions for Saving Money

1. Divvy up unexpected income. 

When you have a windfall — a bonus, gift, or extra cash for extra work — use the rule of thirds to determine how to use it:
• One third for the past. Use one third to pay down debt you owe.
• One third for the future. Put a second third immediately into some sort of savings or investment.
• One third for the present. Use the final third to make a home or personal improvement or purchase you want.
If you follow this rule, you'll see your debt shrink and your savings grow, and you won't feel deprived.

2. Keep an emergency fund handy

Something — be it a car repair, an emergency root canal, or a job layoff — always comes up to throw you off your monthly budget. To keep these incidents from running you into debt, you need to have an emergency stash in an easily accessible account, preferably a money market account (they earn a little more interest than regular savings accounts).

How much is enough?
Easy. Track all of your spending for a month (including everything from your mortgage payment to lunch at the deli), and multiply that monthly total by three. That three-month operating budget is a scary number, eh? Well, this is the minimum you should have on hand in case the roof caves in (literally or figuratively) and you need some dough to get you through the rough spots. And don't worry if this money isn't accruing the big interest; it's there for emergencies.

3. Ditch the ATM card

We're always making impulse purchases, from a pack of gum at the supermarket checkout line to that new Van Halen-meets-bluegrass CD. How can you stop your bank account from hemorrhaging? Take a page from the old-timers and shred your ATM card. It's just too easy to take out money at the local 7-Eleven. Instead, figure out how much cash you'll need each week for your regular, cash-based purchases (things like lunch at the cafeteria and your daily cup of coffee), head on over to the bank teller's window, and get your walking-around money for the week. With a finite amount of cash, you'll start to think twice before those spur-of-the-moment spending sprees.

4. Put yourself on your payroll

There comes a time every month when the bills start piling up and you force yourself to sit down and write out all the checks. Well, there's one more check you should be writing — one to yourself.  Every month — or even better, every paycheck — make sure you set an amount aside for investment. A good number would be about 6 percent. Anything more would be great. If you have to, you can even write yourself a check to deposit or send to another account. But just as you pay your mortgage and your electric bill without fail, now you'll be making sure to pay yourself as well.

5. Make and Keep a budget

Budgets are the first steps to gaining some financial order in your home. 

1. Don't attempt to do your entire budget in one sitting. Take a few days, breaking the work down into manageable pieces.

2. Gather up all of your income information, including salaries, interest, and gifts.

3. Next, gather up all of your expense information. Do this thoroughly, even if it takes three days, a week, or a month. Make sure you're not missing anything.

4. Using a budget worksheet add up all of the totals for the income and outflow.

5. Figure out where you can do some fine-tuning, either to pay down your debt or increase your savings goals. However, above all, make sure you're making as much money as you're spending. Stay out of the red.

6. Redo the budget with the new totals, and post it around your house, lest you forget you are now living within the cozy confines of a household budget.

Budget Formula

So you diligently track your income and every expense that you have. But how do you know if you're spending reasonable amounts of money on things like housing, debt, and groceries? Follow these parameters 

•30 percent: Housing and debt (mortgage/rent, credit cards, auto loans, student loans, etc.)
•26 percent: Living expenses (food, clothing, utilities, transportation, medical, entertainment)
•25 percent: Taxes (federal, state, local, and property; FICA and Medicare)

•15 percent: Savings and retirement (401(k), stocks, mutual funds, college savings, etc.)

•4 percent: Insurance (life, health, disability, auto, homeowners, etc.)

6. Follow financial rules of thumb

Concerned about how much you're spending, how much you should be saving, and how much house you can afford? Use these easy equations to determine how financially healthy you are:
• The price of your home should not be more than 2.5 times your annual gross household income.
• Your total monthly debt payments (including mortgage, student loans, car, and credit card payments) should not be more than 35 percent of your monthly gross income. Some mortgage brokers will stretch this ratio up to 40 percent, but that leaves you very little budgetary wiggle room.
• To retire comfortably, your nest egg should be about 20 times what you want your annual income to be. If you anticipate needing about $75,000 a year to live on when you retire, you'll need to save a nest egg of about $1.5 million. Of course, this will vary if you retire early or continue to work longer than usual.

Referenced from Reader's Digest 

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How to Save on Christmas Dinner

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We all want to have the ideal Christmas dinner, one your family and guests will remember for years to come—a dinner with all the entire family together and food covering the table. Sadly, the stress of feeding lots of people and buying tons of food ends up cutting back that amazing dinner. It can even turn the whole event from a perfect day to a perfect nightmare!

There are a lot of ways to save on the meal without your guests ever knowing that you served a frugal Christmas dinner.

It Starts With a Plan

First, you need to plan early. Don’t start planning the week before, start now.Decide what you want to serve, down to every side, sauce and dessert. Start the savings by sharing the list you’ve made and seeing if any relatives or other guests want to handle a particular side or dessert. The more you delegate, the more you save—plus everyone will enjoy getting to help out in some way with the meal.

Shop for a Month

Once everyone else has chosen sides they can make, go ahead and make a list of what items you need to prepare from the dishes that are left. Also, add any paper goods you want and even decor items to your list. You are basically making your shopping list a month in advance. Having this list ready means that over the next month you can start to watch sales and buy the items you need when they are actually on sale. You won’t be running in the week before the big meal and paying full price because you have no other option.

As you watch sales, it’s important to know what a “real” grocery sale is. To save the most money you want to look for sales that are at least 40% off of the regular price. An example: Canned vegetables are normally $1, but you want to grab them when they are on sale for 60¢ or less.

Clip Those Coupons

Buying an item on a “true” sale is a massive savings, but you can save even more by adding in coupons. There will be great baking and food coupons throughout November and December, so keep an eye out. We want to save the coupon and use it when the item is at that great sale price. Pairing the 40%-plus sale and the coupons allows you to grab some items for pennies and some items for free!

To get an idea of the savings, check out the specific item search on Southern Savers. Type in “cranberries” and you’ll see everywhere they are on sale this week, plus any coupons available to use for that item. And yes, there are even coupons for cranberries!

Main Dish Promotions

Lastly, let’s talk about how to save on the main entrée: the turkey or ham. The biggest way to save on meat for a holiday meal is to take advantage of special store promotions. Many stores will match ham or turkey prices, and some stores that run gas savings programs will even give increased gas discounts. We’ve even seen grocery stores offering a free turkey when you transfer any prescription to their pharmacy. Spend a few minutes to decide which promotion or price match works best for you. Don’t forget to look for coupons too. There will be a number available for the major brands.

Quick Tips to Remember

If you are feeling burdened or overwhelmed by the expense of hosting Christmas dinner, keep these simple tips in mind:

  1. Plan the menu early and delegate some dishes
  2. Make a detailed shopping list of everything you need
  3. Stash away coupons for key items and watch for sales
  4. Pair coupons, sales, price matching and rewards programs to maximize savings

Get started on your menu planning now and watch the savings stack up. Following these savings tips will let you achieve a frugal holiday meal, and shopping early will let you concentrate on the thing that really matters: cultivating family memories. In the end, I expect you’ll be eager to share how much you saved with every guest at the table!

 

10 Ways to Save Energy Costs this Winter

1. Use the sun for free heat. That bright orb in the sky should be the focus of temperature control in your residence throughout the year. Open the curtains on your south-facing windows during winter days to bring free heat into your home. Close your window coverings when the sun goes down to keep the heat inside.


2. Bundle up with warm accessories. This is one of the easiest ways to save on your heating bill. Instead of turning the heat up, put on a cozy winter sweater and warm socks. Keep throw blankets on your couch, and add an area rug to insulate the floor.

3. Use ceiling fans to your advantage. Homes that have better ventilation and airflow can be more energy efficient in the summer and winter months. If you have ceiling fans in your apartment, you have more control over ventilation than you know. Ceiling fans can be used strategically to achieve better airflow: counter-clockwise will push hot air up in the summer and clockwise will trap heat inside to keep your rooms warmer during cooler months. Turn your ceiling fan on a low setting to gently push hot air back down.

4. Adjust the thermostat at night. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, you can save about 10 percent per year on your heating bills by turning your thermostat down 10 to 15 degrees for eight hours. Consider investing in flannel sheets and a warm comforter for your bed and keeping your apartment cooler when you sleep.

5. Only heat the rooms you use. If you have rooms that you never use, like guest rooms or large storage areas, close and seal off the vents in those rooms to be more energy efficient and direct the flow of air to the rooms you use most. Energy bills run, on average, $183 per month. By using a space heater in the rooms where you need it and setting the thermostat to 62 degrees, you can save approximately $200 each year.

6. Keep your furnace clean and unblocked. Keeping your furnace and vents properly maintained will reduce energy consumption and help you save. Check your furnace filter monthly, and replace it when it gets dirty.

7. Get a humidifier to add moisture to the air. The air inside your home can become very dry. Moist air feels warmer and holds heat better, so a humidifier can help you feel comfortable when your thermostat is set at a lower temperature. You can also increase the humidity in your apartment with a collection of house plants.

8. Invest in insulation. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy costs are lost each year due to escaping heat and cold air in homes without proper insulation. Get some inexpensive insulation from your local home improvement store, and cover up all those areas where heat might escape. Start with foam weather stripping for your doors and windows; it's cheap and is extremely easy to apply.

9. Decorate with LED lights for the holidays. Buy new LED holiday lights, which use at least 75 percent less energy and last 25 times longer than older, incandescent lighting. In addition to consuming less energy, LED lights don't emit as much heat and are more resistant to breakage, making them a safer alternative. Bonus tip: Always unplug your holiday lights before going to bed or leaving the house. As with all appliances and electronics, your holiday lights will continue to draw power even when not in use, which adds unnecessary expense to utility bills.

10. Only use exhaust fans when necessary. Exhaust fans in your kitchen and bathroom pull the hot air that rises to the ceiling out of your apartment. Use exhaust fans sparingly, and shut them off when you are done with them.

Niccole Schreck is the rental experience expert for Rent.com, a free rental site that helps you find an affordable apartment and gives tips on how to move.

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5 Ways You're Wasting Your Money This Holiday Season

1. You're making financial decisions with your heart, not your head. Amanda Mulfinger, a psychologist who owns a small group practice just outside of Minneapolis, believes this is where many consumers go wrong.

"Part of the reason people spend so much money during the holidays is because they're chasing the idealized picture of the holiday that they have in their heads. It doesn't feel fun to just set a budget and stick to it," she says. "We believe that the more money we spend, the better the chances that we'll be able to purchase the perfect holiday."

Her recommendation? If we focus more on what we love about the holidays, beyond the shopping part, and we make it a point to engage in non-spending activities, whether that's baking Christmas cookies with friends or volunteering at a soup kitchen, then suddenly, "the holidays are both more meaningful and a lot less expensive."

2. Your gift list is too long. Dawn Casey-Rowe, a social studies high school teacher in Providence, Rhode Island, who just finished writing an upcoming book, "A Broke Teacher's Guide to Success," suggests considering whether someone can be cut from your gift list.

Sure, it sounds cruel, but Casey-Rowe points out that "many times, we buy out of guilt or obligation while the other party is doing the same thing. If you can get a no-buy agreement with some people, that will go a long way to helping you reduce holiday costs."

You can always be truthful and explain that it's nothing personal, but you're trying to save money. Most people will likely understand that.

3. You're glued to social media. You may not realize it, but social media can affect buying patterns.

Vassilis Dalakas, a consumer psychology specialist and a professor of marketing at Cal State University–San Marcos, says you might save money by staying away from Facebook. After all, your friends and family may be posting photos of shopping bag after shopping bag or of elaborate holiday parties that they're throwing.

"They essentially establish norms," Dalakas says.

And if their normal is in a higher financial bracket than your normal, you could be in trouble. After all, Dalakas points out, we all have a desire to win.

"So not only are [we] likely to follow those norms established by our peers but we are also likely to try and do better than them, which means spending even more money," he says.

4. You're overdoing gift cards. Arguably, one of the best ways to waste money is to get everyone on your list gift cards. Look at the math. Unless you're getting everyone $10 gift cards, you're probably buying gift cards worth $25, $50 or more, depending who you're buying for. So let's say you're shopping for your brother-in-law. You want to get him something nice, but you want to avoid that tradition of being broke in January.

Now, you can give him a $50 gift card to his favorite restaurant or home improvement store, and he'll probably appreciate the gift (he'd better). But unless you're going to a gift card reselling website, like GiftCardGranny.com or Cardpool.com, you're almost certainly going to spend $50 on that $50 gift card. But if you shop and look for deals, hypothetically speaking, you might buy him a sweater and slacks on sale for a total of $35. He does well, and you've saved yourself $15.

These numbers add up, and if you plan on buying a lot of gift cards, you will save time, but you will be killing any chance to save money.

5. You wait until the last minute. Starting early means you'll have more time to give a loved one something meaningful and relatively inexpensive, like, say, a handmade scrapbook.

It also means you have more time to look for sales and consider what your friend or family member really needs.

"Do a little detective work to see where they shop, what they were looking to buy, if they have an Amazon wish list," Casey-Rowe suggests, adding that too often, we end up getting the recipient what we would like to receive. And while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, as Casey-Rowe says, if the gift isn't used or is underappreciated, "that creates waste."

And, really, if you're smart about how you buy your gifts, you're really giving yourself at least two presents – less stress and more money.

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5 Easy Ways to Save Money on Holiday Shopping

 

With core holiday shopping season just around the corner, it can be stressful thinking about all of the money you may have to shell out for presents. Don't worry, we've got you covered with five easy ways to save on your holiday shopping.

Buy Discounted Gift Cards

If you find something you want to buy, check to see if you can score a discounted gift card to get instant savings.

Sites like Raise.com typically offer gift cards with discounts off of the total cost ranging from 5% to as high as 30%. For example, consumers can currently purchase Nordstrom gift cards for 5% off, Allen Edmonds gift cards for nearly 12% off, and Happy Socks gift cards for 15% off on Raise.com.

 

Aside from store gift cards, the holidays are also a great time to stock up on discounted restaurant gift cards, for yourself or others. Restaurants usually offer these deals from November through the end of the year.

Many restaurants offer exceptional promotions during the holidays, including several of the major steakhouse chains - such as Capital Grille, Del Frisco's, Morton's, The Palm, and Ruth's Chris - as well as upscale restaurant groups, including Rosa Mexicano, BR Guest Hospitality, and Starr Restaurants. Even casual dining restaurants like Chipotle, Jamba Juice, and Steak n' Shake sometimes offer discounted gift cards.

Use Cash-Back Shopping Sites

Cash-back shopping allows consumers to save money on nearly everything they buy online, regardless of whether a particular store is holding a sale. The savings come from cash-back portals, which have affiliate relationships with all of the stores listed on their sites.

Quite simply, cash-back sites earn a commission when they refer a customer who ends up making a purchase. These sites allow referred consumers to share in the commission generated in the form of cash back, typically in amounts ranging from 1% to 30% of the purchase price. You can take advantage of cash-back shopping through two simple steps.

  1. Sign up for a cash-back site. Some of the most popular options include Ebates, Mr. Rebates, and TopCashBack.
  2. When planning to make a purchase, go directly to the cash-back shopping site instead of the store's website. Once there, search for your store of interest, click its name, and - ta da! - you will be redirected to the store and off to cash in on some savings through cash back.

Most cash-back sites allow you to cash in on these savings through a check or online deposit within a specified time frame, such as one to three months after completing the purchase.

Take Advantage Of Sales

Combining the first two strategies with store sales allows you to save even more money. During the holidays, a sale always seems to be going on, so you have little reason to pay full price. In addition to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, sales also occur for Small Business Saturday, Green Monday, and Free Shipping Day, among other events.

Use A Price Adjustment App

Although sales abound during the holidays, you may still find it difficult to time when you will get the best price for a particular product. That's where a price adjustment app could be helpful. By signing up for an app like Earny, your credit card and email will link to the app. The app will then track whenever you might be eligible for a price adjustment, either through the store or through your credit card, for past purchases.

If you're eligible for a lower price, the app will automatically send an email to the store or card company, detailing the relevant transaction, the price difference, and the refund request. That's it! At the end of each month, Earny will take 25% of the total amount refunded across all transactions.

Look For Free Shipping Both Ways

Some stores offer free shipping to you, but not necessarily free shipping both ways. Certain stores, including Nordstrom, Bonobos, and Zappos offer free shipping both ways year-round. Other stores may offer free shipping both ways only during the holiday season.

 

Don't despair if a particular store lacks free shipping and free returns as you may still be able to qualify for these benefits. Services like Shoprunner offer free shipping and free returns for a range of participating stores, including Bloomingdales, Express, Kate Spade, Saks Fifth Avenue, Under Armour, and 1-800-Flowers. The service typically costs $79/year or $8.95/month. However, consumers with a personal or small business American Express or World or World Elite MasterCard are eligible for free Shoprunner memberships. If you don't have either of those credit cards, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Shoprunner, which you may be able to strategically use for the holidays and then cancel.

Even if a store lacks free shipping and isn't a Shoprunner partner, there is still hope. Check FreeShipping.org to see if you're able to find a free shipping code for your store of choice.

Putting It All Together

There's no time like the present to start planning to save on your holiday shopping. You can sign up for one or multiple cash-back shopping sites today, to save you time during your actual shopping journey. In addition, you can start scouting out stores that offer free shipping both ways. Remember to continue checking back as many stores offer free shipping promotions around the holidays.

When you find an item that you want to buy (on sale, of course), the remainder of your shopping journey can be as simple as 1-2-3:

  1. Go to a site like Raise.com to look for discounted gift cards for the applicable store
  2. Go to your cash-back shopping portal, click through to your store of choice, find your item, and proceed to checkout
  3. Sit back and relax while you wait for your item. In the background, your price adjustment app will be monitoring prices for you to see if you are eligible for a refund, should prices decrease.

7 Best Practices for Black Friday & Cyber Monday

 

1. Black Friday Is Now Black November

With holiday shopping now starting as early as October, it’s not surprising that by the time Black Friday arrived in 2011, 54 percent of shoppers had already completed more than one-quarter of their holiday purchases, according to an eMarketer study.

Affiliate Strategy: If you’ve already been running holiday promotions, create a new campaign specific to Black Friday and boost incentives for publishers during the 24- hour period.

Another good data nugget to keep in mind is that men are more likely to shop on Thanksgiving night as opposed to early morning on Black Friday. This comes from the National Retail Federation and was reported by the New York Times. Depending on your merchandise, you may want to take this into consideration as you customize your online promotions.

2. Consumers Tend To Shop Before & After Work On Cyber Monday

An eMarketer study found that during last year’s Cyber Monday, consumers did their shopping before 9:00 a.m. then picked up it again between the hours of 5:00-9:00 p .m.

Affiliate strategy: Consider running limited-time promotions during the heavy online traffic cycles of Cyber Monday.

3. Daily Deal Sites Continue To Be Popular

Last year, nearly one in four online consumers purchased a gift from a daily deal site.

Affiliate Strategy: Retailers should offer their own daily deals and work with publishers to promote them. Additionally, with so many consumers flocking to daily deal sites, ensure that your business is included in their listings. What many retailers may not realize is that you can still appear on coupon site listings even if you’re not offering a coupon.

4. Value Supersedes Price

A recent study by the E-Tailing Group surveyed 1,136 U.S. consumers about their expected holiday shopping plans. The study found that when it came to selecting a retailer, 87 percent of respondents say the are looking for value while 85 percent say they are looking for price.

Affiliate Strategy: The fact that value and price are neck-in-neck for consumer attention is not a surprise. Yet, retailers should leverage their brand name and emphasize the quality of their goods over the price to attract buying customers.

5. Product Curation/Product Category Focus  

Consumers are making more online purchases from more product categories than ever before. Publishers are becoming better curators of product than the retailers themselves. You will endear yourselves to your shoppers and build loyalty if you have a good eye for selecting and highlighting the best products from your advertiser data feeds.

Affiliate Strategy: Put a strategy in place for finding, sourcing and identifying products that fit the unique tastes of your audience.  It’s easy to focus on price and discounts, but value can also mean finding just the right product with the right features. You can build loyalty among your shoppers if they feel they are continuously discovering unique gifts and other items on your site that they don’t easily find on other sites.

6. Mobile On The Rise But Not Yet The Dominant Sales Platform

Forrester Research finds that smartphones will account for three percent of e-commerce this year, and that number will increase to seven percent by 2016. Meanwhile, tablets are expected to generate more Web traffic than smartphones by early 2013, according to the Adobe Digital index. While it’s clear that m-commerce is on the rise, it’s not yet the dominant e-commerce platform.

Affiliate Strategy: Ensure every path to your website accommodates the needs of the shopper whether they’re on a traditional computer, smartphone or tablet.

For m-commerce shoppers, be sure you go beyond simply m-enabling your current website and are able to fully support both tablets and smartphones. This may require additional adjustments given the different screen sizes of smartphones and rich visuals you’re able to display on tablets, yet is well worth the investment.

For your traditional website, be sure that you call out your holiday deals and promotions to improve search engine results and accommodate the specific interests of shoppers when they come to your site.

7. Promotions & Free Shipping Reign

A survey conducted by Shop.org after the 2011 holiday season found that the top three marketing tools that drove sales were promotions, free shipping without conditions, and free shipping with conditions such as a minimum purchase requirement.

Affiliate Strategy: While we’ve covered promotions extensively above, let’s take a closer look at free shipping. As you probably guessed, free shipping is becoming table stakes in e-commerce.

To differentiate your business, consider offering free returns as well and extending how much time a customer has to return items after the holidays. Also, be sure to be bold when calling out your shipping policies to entice customers, especially since you know they’re comparing deals on multiple sites.

With some small adjustments, you’ll be able to reap even more from your performance marketing efforts this holiday season.

6 Ways to Host Thanksgiving on a Budget

Have you ever wondered how you can possibly host a Thanksgiving dinner and still afford all your Christmas gifts? If you just answered yes, I'm here to help. It is totally possible to host a generous, palate-pleasing Thanksgiving feast on a budget. Hey, don't be so skeptical! The Pilgrims were on a budget — and they helped inventThanksgiving.

1. Accept help and go potluck

Are you trying to be the holiday hero, tackling the entire menu? Why mess with the spirit of Thanksgiving? This is a potluck-style holiday at heart, so accept help and get everyone involved. My extended family does a potluck style Thanksgiving like this every year and it's a great way to cover all the essentials, start a few of your own traditions (we always have oyster stuffing, thanks to a very distant streak of New England heritage), and share costs.

→ Small Household Budget Tip: If you are only cooking for your immediate family, find a friend in the same situation and split your groceries. You save money by getting only the ingredients you need, and you'll avoid the very American tradition of typing "What do I do with leftover turkey?" into your search engine for three weeks afterwards. It's a win-win!

2. Stick to your shopping list

Write out a menu and budget and stick to them. Take your Thanksgiving list along on your regular shopping trips for the month of November and try to pick up non-perishable items during store sales. Bread, for example, is often on sale and you can freeze it until needed and then make your own breadcrumbs.

3. Make your menu from scratch

Outlaw pre-made items from your shopping list, including special spice packs (if you have spices in your cupboard at home), powdered mashed potatoes, pre-made stuffing, and pre-made pie crusts and pies. You're usually paying for packaging and end up with a lower-quality product. Instead, buy a bag of potatoes and peel, boil, mash, and butter them by hand. Make your own stuffing with leftover sliced bread, onion, celery (cheap, seasonal produce), seasoning, and broth. Slice sweet potatoes and sprinkle them with brown sugar, salt, and pecans, and broil them in the oven.

You probably won't feel like you're saving much with each small choice—but those small choices add up and can really shave dollars off your final bill.

 

4. Do without the alcohol

There's so much food on Thanksgiving, it can be its own soporific! Or, if you simply must have wine with your turkey (and you're hosting for more than just your immediate family), ask someone else to bring a bottle or two.

5. Prioritize the dishes you love the most

Who needs 15 side dishes? Pick your priority foods (the absolute must-haves to complete your Thanksgiving tradition) and simply make less.

This brings me back to my first point: If you're serving fewer dishes, you'll be less tempted to buy a plethora of cheaper, pre-made options and instead spend more time creating high-quality dishes. And if you're like me, you'll buy a pint of heavy whipping cream, whip it up, and totally smother your homemade pumpkin pie with it. (And with that on hand, who really cares about anything else?)

6. Decorate with what you already have

Buying Thanksgiving-themed decorations can be a slippery slope. Once you start, you just keep going in pursuit of that perfect look. Buy a few quality, versatile pieces that you can bring out each year — avoid the fake leaves, themed napkins, and cheap centerpieces — and use what nature offers (dried grasses, herbs, and decorative gourds). A little goes a long way.

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5 Money Saving Tips for your Home this Fall

  1. Schedule a tune-up for your HVAC system. Controlling the temperature of your office building, retail store or warehouse space most likely accounts for the largest portion of your energy bill. That’s why energy efficiency experts are gung-ho for tune-ups and maintenance of HVAC systems before the high-demand months of winter. This includes boilers, stack economizers, furnaces, and rooftop HVAC units (RTUs). Not only will your system run more efficiently, but you may also catch and repair HVAC problems before they leave you cold.
  2. Seal leaks around doors and windows. You pay to heat air, air escapes through leaks and cracks, and then you pay to heat the air again. Waste like this needlessly adds to energy bills, so don’t overlook a simple repair that can save you money.
  3. Resist using space heaters. In cold climates, central heating systems are usually more efficient than electric resistance space heaters because most electricity is produced from sources that convert only about 30% of fuel energy into electricity (energy.gov). If a space needs supplemental heat, it may also be a red flag that air leaks or insufficient insulation are the underlying cause of the chill.
  4. Say ‘hello’ to your programmable thermostat. Has it been a while since you reviewed the settings and features on your thermostat? Have business hours changed, or are you using the space in a different way? Now’s the time to check your thermostat, and if you wonder how much you might save by changing the settings a few degrees, Energy Smart has people and tools to help you calculate the savings.
  5. Check your lighting photocells and timers for proper operation. The days are getting shorter and the time your lights are on is getting longer. Make sure your automated lighting systems are running properly, for safety as well as energy efficiency. Remember to check exterior lighting—an opportunity for energy savings that is often overlooked.
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5 Fun Fall Projects

5 Fun Fall Home Renovation Projects

For many reasons, fall is the perfect time to bang out home renovation projects. Due to a combination of mild weather and inactivity, autumn months make home improvement particularly easy and productive. If you're looking for a few renovation projects to polish off this fall, the following five upgrades are always a good place to start.

1. Do the Landscaping

As we all know, landscaping plays a big part in the overall aesthetic appeal of any property. When fall rolls around, be sure to mulch your perennials and trim any dead wood that's cluttering the yard. Furthermore, fall is the perfect time to aerate your lawn after you've cleared it of dead leaves to promote robust spring growth.

2. Batten the Hatches

Whether you live in Canada or Mississippi, fall always means colder weather in the near future. Audit your home for draft hot spots using a thermal leak detector and install insulation as needed. Caulk any windows and doors as a stopgap measure if a full hardware replacement isn't necessary. Next up, swap out old window and door trim that shows signs of rot or pest infestation. 

3. Gussy Up the HVAC

Regardless of local climate, most houses have some sort of HVAC system. Have your furnace cleaned and your vents swabbed out thoroughly by a trained professional. In addition, you can take this opportunity to install additional vents in problem areas that are difficult to heat. Installing a classy cast iron wood stove to augment your primary heat source can add value to your home while saving you money on energy bills. 

4. Pull a Few Paint Jobs

Autumn is often the best time to paint the exterior or interior of a home. Seeing as how a new paint job is just good winterizing practice, you might as well use the opportunity to give your home a makeover. Take some time to pick the right shades to achieve the look that you desire. Whenever possible, opt for darker colors to maximize heat retention during the chilly summer months.

5. Smarten Up Your House

Last but not least, there's the little matter of making your home more energy-efficient via technology. A smart house is ultimately a less expensive house, after all. Start off by installing a programmable Nest thermostat that you can control remotely from your smartphone. Another frugal fall home improvement option worthy of serious consideration is a tankless water heater setup. Tankless heaters deliver hot water instantaneously and use less energy than traditional water heaters. 

Most people look at home renovation and maintenance as a chore. If you adopt this attitude, you're more than likely to come up with lackluster results. If you take run-of-the-mill home renovation projects and put a fun spin on them, you'll end up with far more positive returns in the long run. Use the preceding fall renovation ideas as a jump-off point and tailor your plans to meet your own unique needs.

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3 Car Buying Tips To Ensure You Get a Good Deal

 

Know the incentives and rebates

The first you hear of an incentive should not be from the sales person.

You'll want to do your homework, says Jones. "You want to get a read on what a regular deal is, then go for the holiday sale."

A good way to do this is to track incentives and rebates. Go to an industry source like Edmundsor Kelley Blue Book for their current lists of automaker discounts and sweeteners.

These are the manufacturer's blue-light specials, but they don't compare apples to apples. It may be $2,000 cash back on one model and $300 cash back on another. Some deals may be available only to certain groups of people like recent college graduates, veterans or those who already own a vehicle from the automaker.

Usually the incentives come in the form of cash rebates, a low annual percentage rate on financing or special lease terms. But it could also be a totally unrelated bonus gift, like an iPad or a boat. (Seriously: "Yes! There was a dealership in Texas that was giving away a boat with the car!" says Jones.)

After you look at the automaker's deals, check out any additional specials local dealers have.

"If you see big fat incentives from the automaker, chances are the dealership may have incentives of their own," says Jones.

Choose the right kind of car

Not only do manufacturer and dealer incentives get car buyers' attention by saving them money, they help steer buyers toward particular models that automakers want to move. Those cars may suddenly become much more attractive.

In short, you're not going to get a sweetheart deal on the new Dodge Demon -- that's going to be $90,000 any day of the week. But the current year's Chrysler 300 or Ford Expedition? Now you're talking significant discounts.

When you're deciding which kind of car to buy, look at cars that are being phased out or replaced with new models, says Jones. They're more likely to be discounted.

Most people just want to be sure they're not over-paying, says Jones. "On sale days, if you do a little bit of research, chances are you'll be in good shape."

Get the timing right

There are ways to time your purchase to improve your chances of getting a lower price.

Even if you take advantage of time-sensitive deals, you can still negotiate the price lower.

"If the sticker is $30,000 and there's $5,000 cash back, it doesn't mean $25,000 is your ultimate best deal," says Jones.

But, he said, the timing -- a sale weekend when there are already discounts and the showroom is incredibly busy -- means long, drawn out negotiations may not be necessary or even possible.

"Read the room," says Jones. "If you walk in there and you're the only person there, you may have more time for negotiation." But if it's full of people, you're not going to get an hour for negotiating, "you'll get 20 minutes."

Jones also said that if you can buy a car when there are two years of that model on the lot (often at the end of the summer, but not always) you're likely to get a better deal.

"Those are real, no-smoke-and-mirrors deals."

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9 Money Saving Tips for Families

Last year, CNN reported that the cost of raising a child has skyrocketed nearly 40% in the last 10 years. Parents can now expect to shell out about $227,000 on each child between birth and the age of 18. That’s a huge amount of money – but when you consider the clothing, food, shelter, education, and other aspects of raising a child, it’s easy to see how your bank account is often dry at the end of the month.

Here’s the problem: Lots of money-saving advice requires a complete lifestyle overhaul for you to see a return. Whether it’s switching to a more sustainable lifestyle, or skipping out on family vacations, you simply might not be willing to make the huge sacrifices that frugal living sometimes requires.

This is understandable. I have two children, and I pride myself on providing them with the best I can manage. It would be hard for me to completely overhaul our way of life to save a little cash. That’s why, when my budget became tight recently, I looked for baby steps to savings.

Some of the smallest changes in your lifestyle can reap the biggest benefits when it comes to a floundering budget. When you understand that saving money with your family doesn’t have to be all about extreme couponing or deprivation of quality time, you might be more inclined to make tiny changes and save more – I know I was. If you make saving money a family affair, it can lift some of the burden off your shoulders, and it teaches your kidsimportant lessons about spending and saving.

Money-Saving Tips for Families

The most frugal families know that lavish trips and the latest clothes do not necessarily make a happy family. Reducing bank account strain, however, can help relieve family stress. There are many simple things you can do to ease your monthly finances:

1. Plan Your Meals
One of the greatest downfalls of even the most frugal family is an impromptu trip to McDonald’s in lieu of dinner. Instead of serving up a healthy meal for under $2 a serving, you end up splurging – on calories and money – to feed your family, making it an automatic budget buster.

By taking the time to plan your family’s meals, you remove the excuse of not knowing what’s for dinner. Though you can plan any way you want, I find that it’s easiest to plan a week at a time. When I already know that I’m serving up chicken on Tuesdays, I can get started on supper without staring at the fridge for 20 minutes or resorting to a fast food meal. To help plan your meals, use a free online meal planner, such as Food on the Table.

2. Shop Smart
You don’t have to be a hardcore couponer to save money on groceries. Instead, smart strategies can relieve pressure at the store so you don’t overspend.

It’s imperative that you only shop once and get everything you need in one trip. Heading to the store for a forgotten gallon of milk or an extra loaf of bread can cause you to repeatedly overspend all week long, and plus, it wastes gas. I also like to shop without the kids. When my little ones are with me, it’s harder to stay focused and resist spontaneous purchases – especially when they’re clamoring for them.

3. Arrange for a Staycation
Instead of blowing your budget on a trip to Disneyland, see what fun stuff you can do nearby instead. If you can take a few days off work and school, a “staycation” feels like a vacation even if you’re sleeping in your own bed.

Many nearby towns and cities have tons of stuff to do, whether it’s historical sites, campgrounds and hiking trails, free museums, or cheap daytime admission to the movie theater. When times are tight, it’s fine to nix the yearly vacation for something new. As long as you make it fun for your kids, they’ll hardly miss the trip. Vacations are about spending time and making memories together. Do you really have to go out-of-state for that?

4. Invest in Reusable Items
Disposable goods are usually cheap and super-convenient, but not when you have to buy the same items repeatedly. Your family probably uses a ton of paper products, but why keep spending your cash on them when you can purchase reusable goods instead?

Paper towels can cost around $1 a roll – instead, buy a pack of $1 washable cloths and you’ll save money in the long run. Rather than buying plastic water bottles by the case, purchase a filter and aluminum water bottles for each family member to get your water for cheap. Before you grab a disposable item off store shelves, ask yourself if there’s a reusable solution instead.

5. Buy Secondhand
Buying previously used items can definitely take some getting used to, especially if you’re used to brand new gear. But tons of stuff can be bought used without any difference as to how and when you use it.

For instance, I refuse to buy books from the big box bookstore when I can frequent local used book shops for way cheaper. I can fill my kids’ bookshelves and support local small businesses at the same time. Toys are another item you can save money on by buying used. Outdoor bikes and scooters are big-ticket items, but they’re significantly more affordable when bought from garage sales or thrift stores. You might be surprised at what you can get for a small amount of money without sacrificing your kids’ fun.

6. Shop Around
A couple of years ago, I had the sneaking suspicion that I was paying too much for satellite television. Being the reality TV junkie that I am, I wasn’t willing to get rid of our service (or the Disney Channel) altogether, so I started shopping around. Once I collected various package prices from a couple of other service providers, I contacted my own to negotiate a better rate. After only five minutes on the phone, I had credits for a couple months’ worth of service, a lower price for my package, and six months of premium channels for free.

Shopping around for cell phone plans, insurance, cable or satellite TV, or just about anything else you pay for regularly can net you better deals without drastically changing your lifestyle.

7. Entertain at Home
If the kids are driving you crazy, it can be tempting to head out to the movie theater or bowling alley just to get out of the house. But your day trips can spell disaster for your budget.

Instead of nixing family time altogether, find ways to keep the kids entertained at home. A stash of board games, a run through the sprinkler, or a home movie night complete with popcorn can keep your kids occupied for pennies. If you need to get out of the house, try being park critics: Head out to parks in your area and rate them according to a bunch of different characteristics. It’s fun, and let’s you know which places to come back to later.

8. Head to the Library
One of the best ways that I entertain my kids on the cheap is a trip to the public library. It’s a perfect outing, and allows us to bring home free movies, audiobooks, and books to enjoy throughout the week. It saves a ton of money on rental fees, and is the perfect way to answer the age-old whine, “I’m bored!”

Rental movies cost about a dollar a day, and can be a major problem if not returned on time. As long as you live within your city’s limits, library cards are free and late fees are minimal. You can save more money if you make sure to always get your items back on time.

9. Be Energy Smart
You’ve probably heard it a million times: Save energy and you save money. Of course, not every family has the means or the know-how to install a new low-flow toilet or a tankless water heater. Still, you can make saving simple by conserving energy the old-fashioned way: Turning off lights, timing showers, or taking baths can all help to lower utility bills, while teaching your kids an important lesson about energy conservation. While you might find yourself nagging from time to time, conserving energy eventually becomes habitual for everyone.

Final Word

Saving money with your family doesn’t have to require drastic steps. Instead, small, simple methods can make a big difference for your bottom line. It might take some getting used to, but getting your family on board with your money-saving efforts makes it easier to gain a little wiggle room in your budget or to add more padding to your savings account. The reduced stress is worth the extra effort.

 

 

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11 Ways to Save Money as a Renter

A smart renter will tell you, you don’t necessarily have to break the bank just to have a roof over your head. In this article, I'll show you eleven money saving tips for renters that will keep money in your pocket.

1. Take Advantage of Technology

Cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York may be the best in the world but they are also among the most expensive to live in. In New York, for instance, finding an affordable rental unit is next to an impossibility. In addition, there is an agent’s fee that you have to may have to pay. There is also the challenge of finding a compatible roommate.

The good news is that there are some apps that help you find an affordable rental. These include smartphone apps like Zumper, Naked Apartments, Rad Pad, Zillow, PadMapper among others. These apps not only help you avoid the real estate agent’s fees but also enable you to find compatible roommates and even people you can sublet a space to.

2. Negotiate For Lower Rent

Because rent is arguably your biggest monthly expenditure, you may want to negotiate for a lower rent with your landlord. Those who don't ask, don't receive. Here are some tips to help you:

In case, you plan to live in the same place for a long time, ask your landlord if it’s possible to sign an extended lease agreement. In exchange, you can negotiate for lower rent. Most landlords would be happy to receive lower rent but consistently. Ask for one month off your lease for every additional year you sign for. The worst that they can say is no.

In case, you can pay your rent earlier, use this as a bargaining tool. For example, if you're able, pay 3-4 months of rent in advance when you sign. Ask your landlord to give you a discount of 5%-10%. The feeling of certainty is very important for landlords.

3. Research The Competition

One of the best ways to negotiate for a better rent is to know the area and the competition. It could be that the apartment down the road is more competitively priced than your place. Use this newfound knowledge as leverage.

6. Find A Roommate

A foolproof way of saving money on rent is through having one roommate or two. Use websites like Roommates.com or Craigslists.com to find one. Roommates bring one big advantage in that they split the rent and utilities cost. A roommate helps you save on rent and therefore you may be able to afford a larger and nicer apartment than if you lived alone. Also, you can split the cost of shared items such as groceries.

7. Consider Having Renter’s Insurance

When you rent an apartment or a home, your landlord will be responsible for insuring the unit against fire damages and other disasters. However, this doesn't mean that your personal property is also protected. You can buy a renter’s insurance to protect you from any eventuality.

For instance, if there is a break-in and your possession are stolen, or even damaged by severe weather or fire, the insurance will allow you to be compensated.

8. Nurture A Great Relationship With Your Landlord.

Make sure that everything is laid out in writing and also document the condition of the house or apartment. If the house requires painting or some minor repairs that you can do, ask the landlord for a discount. Communication can help you a lot financially, especially under these circumstances.

9. Design On A Budget.

Websites such as Freecycle and Craigslist can help you find used furniture and movers among other things. Get creative with DIY projects to further save and personalize.

10. Location Is Everything

When renting, the two most important things are price and location. Find a place that’s close to a school, grocery store, and work. This will help you save on commute time and gas. The Walk Score smartphone app enables you to see nearby grocery stores, schools, restaurants and coffee shops.

11. Be Mindful Of Mother Earth.

Irrespective of whether the utilities are included in your contract or not, it is always a good idea to remain as efficient as you can. Install window shades to save on energy. Also, use energy efficient light bulbs and install a programmable thermostat.

As a renter, you want to be smart. There are many things you can do to save on your rent and live more easily. Know how to negotiate with your landlord for a lower rent, find a good location to save on gas and groceries, find a roommate to save on rent and other utilities and above all, maintain a great relationship with your landlord. After all, the more you save, the more you'll have for when you eventually buy.

 

4. Maintain A Healthy FICO Score

Just like any other business, a landlord also wants to protect their investment. They want to be sure that you will pay the rent when the time is due. Having an "excellent" score of 700 or more can give you leverage for negotiation. This is because it shows that you are financially responsible and therefore a less risk.

 

5. Increase Your Income.

In addition to having a robust credit score, you also want to demonstrate to your landlord that you have strong financials. You can take on part-time jobs, work overtime, or even consult online. These not only help your bottom line but also increase your rental options. But make sure not to rent above your financial ability to avoid working for your rent.

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Funding your Home Improvement Projects

Owning a home, while rewarding, requires a lot of upkeep and maintenance. Fall is a great season to begin those home improvement projects you've been meaning to start: the weather is cooler and the kids are back in school. However, such projects are often costly, leading many homeowners to push off remodeling and improvement projects indefinitely. But did you know you can utilize a personal loan to get your home improvement or remodeling project off the the ground?

 

Because homes are a core part of your life, it's important to invest in it and ensure that you are happy with how it looks and feels. A personal loan can help you achieve your goal for your home, whether that is a complete remodel, an addition, or even upgraded appliances. Home remodels or improvements often pay off in the long run as they increase your property value. It is possible to take out a personal loan to fund these projects without leveraging your home equity. 

A personal loan allows for great flexibility- it can be used to fund whatever home improvement project you have in mind. This type of loan is also unsecured, which means that your home or other assets will not be used as collateral. To put it simply, this means that your home equity will remain intact. Personal loans are also beneficial because they allow you to get fixed rates with a set payment schedule, keeping you and your project on track!

 

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The Best Ways to Save Money this Fall

SAVE MONEY THIS FALL

Changes in season inevitability bring new expenses. While autumn leaves are a beautiful sight to behold, the beginning of school, cooler weather, and holiday shopping all lead to higher bills during this season. Save money this fall with these tips!

 

Weatherproofing your home is one long-term method to save month. Because the temperature starts to drop in the fall, many homes experience a higher heating bill. Weatherproofing your home will cost you upfront, but you will save money in the long run, especially throughout the winter!

 

Eating out is one expense that many families tend to overlook. Dining at restaurants or ordering takeout adds up very quickly. Save money and eat healthier by preparing more meals at home. Plenty of delicious fruits and vegetables come into season in the fall including butternut squash, artichokes, pumpkins, apples, and sweet potatoes. Creating a meal plan can help you stay on track during the week!

 

Take advantage of fall sales. Holidays like Columbus Day, Halloween, Veteran's Day, Black Friday, and Small Business Saturday offer plenty of opportunities to purchase products at a discounted price. Waiting for an item to go on sale during one of these days can save you a bundle.

 

Fall is also known as football season by some. Enjoy the games on a budget by purchasing team gear in the off-season and hosting potlucks during game-time instead of purchasing food. 

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Car Loans 101

Car Loans 101

Purchasing a car is a huge expense, one that often requires a loan. While securing a car loan is relatively easy, the many steps involved may make it confusing for a first-time buyer. The following is a quick breakdown of the basics behind a car loan.

 

What is a Car Loan Exactly?

A car loan is a loan specifically for the purpose of purchasing a car and is composed of two parts: the principal amount and interest. Principal is the total amount taken out for the loan whereas interest is accrued on that amount. Some loan terms may require you to pay interest owed on the loan amount, but you may be able to find a 0% financing deal.  

 

Because a car loan is for quite a large sum of money, paying one back often takes a long time. Thus, car loans are referred to in terms of months, whether that is 12 months of 72. Deciding between a short term plan with high payments versus a long term play with small payments depends on your own unique financial situation.

 

When to Get a Car Loan?

Interested in getting a car? You may not know, but you should always shop for a car loan before looking for the perfect car. Your bank may offer you a good rate as you are already an established customer. If you are not satisfied with your bank's rate, a credit union is the next place to look. The only drawback to credit union is that you often need to be a member before you can take out a loan. If you are a homeowner you may want to consider taking out a home equity loan in order to pay for your car with cash. 

 

Lastly, auto manufacturers also provide in-house financing companies, particularly at new car dealerships. These companies are likely to offer you the best rate as they ultimately want you to purchase their brand's cars. If, however, you are looking to purchase a used car, steer away from these companies. For used cars you will likely get a rate that benefits the dealership rather than you. 

 

How Long to Pay a Car Loan?

There are short term and long term loans. Both have their advantages and disadvantages depending on your financial situation. A long term loan will mean reduced monthly payments but more interest payments. A short term loan will mean less interest but higher payments each month, something that not everyone can afford. The best type of loan is a 0% financing loan, in which case your monthly payment will be the same no matter how many months the loan is. 

 

Be sure to check what your loan says about buyouts. If you come into enough money to pay off the principal loan, you don't want to be charged an "early payout fee". This type of fee is sometimes included in a loan's terms to make up the loss of the interest that occurs when you pay off the loan ahead of schedule. 

Source: http://www.autoguide.com/auto-news/2014/11/car-loans-101-what-you-need-to-know-about-financing-a-car.html

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Different Methods to Fund Your Start Up

Launching a startup can be both an exciting and a daunting task. A brilliant idea can turn into a flourishing business but laying the foundation demands a hefty amount of investment. Balancing a great idea and finances is crucial to ensuring that your business does not run itself into the ground. There are many different ways to fund your business but not every method is appropriate for every potential business. 

 

Different loans will have varying degrees of usefulness to you depending on your unique financial situation. A home equity loan or line of credit may be best for you if you are a homeowner who already has 20-30% equity in the home at the minimum. If you are interested in this type of loan, you will also need a 650+ credit score. A home equity loan will enable you to borrow 80-90% of your home's equity with a 3-8% APR.  This type of loan is especially beneficial because of its low interest rates. However, do not make this loan lightly as you run the risk of losing your home if you are unable to pay back the loan. 

 

A personal loan is another option you may consider for bringing your startup to life. A 650+ credit score will enable you to borrow up to $40k with a 5-20% APR. If you qualify, you will likely receive funding in less than 1 week. Additionally, this loan is an appealing choice for many because you can receive funding pre-revenue. On the other hand, you must bear in mind that this loan is limited to $40k, making it preferable for those seeking a relatively lower investment to launch their business.

 

Networking has often been touted as an invaluable tool in the business arena and starting up a new business is no exception. If you have a willing family member, friend, or acquaintance that believe in you and your business's ability to succeed and has the funds then all you have left to do is put it in writing. Be sure to determine a workable interest rate as well as a cap on funding amounts in order to ensure that the loan is fair to both you and the person funding you. This type of loan has the potential to be tricky since it involves personal relationships and and failure to pay back the loan would result in emotional as well as financial repercussions. 

 

Crowdfunding is another alternative to conventional loans to start up your business. There are a number of sites you can use to explain and promote your cause and such sites allow you to persuade a large number of people to invest a small amount of money each into your business. The crowdfunding model means that there are no minimum or maximum funding amounts,  no interest rates, and no debt to pay off, making it an ideal option for would-be business owners.  However, crowd-funding works on an all-or-nothing basis, meaning that you either reach your monetary goal or you do not. You may also need to deal with many legal regulations if you choose to utilize this means of funding.

 

Having a great idea but limited funds shouldn't stop you from bringing your ideas to life. Find the method of funding that works best for your situation and move one step closer to starting your business. 

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What Not to Do While House Hunting

on't just pick up the phone, call the number on the sign, and go by yourself. First, it's unsafe. Second, you can end up looking at a bunch of properties that don't meet your search criteria or price range, wasting your time. Third, it can make sellers think you are unrepresented and, thus, that they have the greater bargaining leverage from the get-go. Let your Realtor do her job; if you drive by an interesting property your Realtor hasn't mentioned to you, call your Realtor with the property address and phone number from the sign, and let her research the asking price and property details, nine times out of 10, your Realtor hasn't sent it to you because the property doesn't meet one or more of your search criteria. The 10th time out of 10 - your Realtor can escort you there and show it to you while the seller is out of the house, and out of your hair.

Don't plan something for two hours later. You don't want to rush, you want to linger where necessary. Plus, if you find one you really like, you might spend more time there. And, with drive time, etc., it can easily take three hours to see seven houses - not to mention that you may find one you want to immediately write an offer on, which will take another hour or so.

Avoid taking separate cars on your buyer's tours. Every once in awhile a hot property will come up, your Realtor will call you from work, and you can meet her there. If you are going to be driving from house to house, get in the car with your Realtor -- even if it means you have to put the baby seat in your Realtor's car. This way, you don't get separated, no one gets lost, and you can spend the time between houses debriefing and providing your Realtor with the feedback she needs to narrow your search and hone in on your home.

Don't bring a triple Venti mocha frap with you on your buyer's tours. How can I say this? Uh, you don't want to be using everyone's bathroom, if you know what I mean -- especially if people still live in the house. Vacant houses are the best ones for pit stops, but because everyone knows that, they are also the most likely to have nothing in the way of toilet paper except a cardboard roll with a couple of spots of paper still stuck to the glue.

Plus, coffeehouse drinks usually have coffee and milk, not the most gastro-friendly substances. If you need to, plan ahead to stop in the middle of the tour for a snack and a pit stop, and do feel free to bring a bottle of water.

Don't wear lace-up shoes. Slip-ons, flip flops, etc. are ideal. Many well-prepared homes will have new carpet, and often the listing agent will have posted a "please remove shoes" sign to help keep the flooring clean. Having to untie and tie your shoes at every house can be a huge waste of time and really anti-climatic when you get to the front door of a house you really want to see. Note-those paper booties some "shoes off, please" agents provide can be slippery. Avoid them; if you can't stand the idea of walking barefoot through a house, make sure you wear socks with your slip on shoes.

Don't hesitate to look in drawers, cupboards and closets. If you really dislike a place, you needn't get really detailed in your viewing of a property. But if you don't hate it, you should open every door. I've had clients miss whole rooms and large storage areas by not opening a door they assumed went to a closet. Besides, you need to know how wide and deep the real closets are, which you can't find out without opening the door and having a look. If you really like a place, you should also open kitchen and bathroom drawers, cupboards and cabinets. You're not being nosy, you're gathering information. Rest assured that the sellers have had ample notice to straighten up those spaces in anticipation of your poking around.

Hold the trash talk. Sellers may be listening. I wish I was kidding, but often the seller just steps outside or next door. (I once represented a kooky seller who walked around with her purse on during the Open House "ooh"ing and "aah"ing like she was a prospective buyer.) And they don't always understand that it's the most interested buyers who pick the place apart to figure out exactly what they will need to do to it to make it theirs. If you end up in a multiple offer situation, you don't want to have an uphill battle because you badmouthed the sequined butterfly "artwork" the seller had hanging in the hallway. So, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. Until you get in the car, and roll up the windows - then you need to let it rip so your agent can learn your likes and dislikes.

Don't think you can offend your Realtor. I always remind my clients that the house I'm showing them is not my house. So, if you like it, that's great. But if you hate anything about it, don't hesitate to say so. Don't be timid or polite and omit a criticism or concern you have. Doing so can result in you seeing more of the same, which is a waste of everybody's time.

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Tips for Saving on Books for College Students

Every college student must buy books. You’ve probably heard horror stories of textbook “final bills.” Well, we have options that will save you money on your textbooks. Make sure to allow yourself time; don’t wait to run to the bookstore the day before your class begins.

  1. Before you even think about putting out money for a textbook, don’t you think someone else on campus had to already have one? Borrow if it’s possible.
  2. If you can’t borrow, buy used college textbooks. On sites like Amazon used hardcover books are often cheapest. Soft cover are more valued for convenience, so if you’re willing to haul a couple extra ounces, then hardcover is the cost-saving choice. ISBN allows you to easily compare book prices from major online book stores. The campus bookstore will sell a supply of used books, but they are limited; so check the online sources as well.
  3. If you are buying new, check for an “international” edition. The book will be almost exactly the same, except for maybe some Chinese characters on the front, AND it will be exponentially cheaper.
  4. Have your own store of used textbooks?
    • See your used textbooks online and make some cash for yourself, at the same time you will help some other starving students save their money.
    • Or you can sell them back to the campus bookstore, but expect to take a big hit on the value if you sell them back to the book store. Some sneaky students wait in the campus bookstore with their old books in hand, trying to connect with new students that need their books, hoping to strike a better payout directly.
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