Engagement Rings: 10 Tips to Save Money

Guys need engagement rings. Only problem: they don’t happen to have $X thousand dollars just burning a hole in their pocket. Check out these great tips on how to save when buying an engagement ring. 

Rule 1 Pretend You’re Buying A Car It starts with your mindset. If you’re like most guys, you don’t know squat about diamonds. If you’re like most guys, you don’t ever want to know squat about diamonds. You think it’s effeminate, like learning about window treatments, opera, or The Jonas Brothers. Only one problem with this mindset: it will cost you money. When you buy a car, you make choices, you make tradeoffs, you weigh the pros and cons. Should you splurge for the hard-top roof? 4 cylinders or 6? GPS system? You can’t just walk into a dealership and say, “I’d like a car. Give me the cheapest one.” And you wouldn’t buy one without a test drive. If you don’t know the tradeoffs, you won’t know where to cut back and save money. Start your diamond education. And if you’re like anyone else, you’ll assume that you will never, ever, ever be able to really tell the difference in cuts of diamonds. Yes and no. Yes, you will never truly become an expert, so it’s a good idea to enlist some real help. Inspect lots of rocks. You will soon get a feel for what you like and what you don’t like, which will let you purchase a diamond ring with confidence.

Rule 2 Go Channel Surfing

There are two channels for buying your engagement ring: traditional brick-and-mortar stores and online stores. Use them both. Pit one against the other. Yep. It's safe to buy diamond online. But no, you should never buy a stone unseen.

Instead, we recommend trolling the brick-and-mortar jewelry stores, looking at lots and lots of different diamonds, and then, when you figure out the exact configuration (i.e. car specs), you can order a near-identical version online. Or, you can find a cheaper quote online, and use that to negotiate a lower in-store rate. 

Rule 3 Sacrifice A Smidgeon Of Size

People like round numbers. We obsess over things like “The First 100 Days” of a presidential administration, 10,000 points at the Dow, batting .300, etc. In reality, of course, Day 99 isn’t that different from Day 100, and the Dow’s 9,999 is about the same as 10,000…your portfolio’s battered either way, right? And that brings us to a diamond’s size. People pay a premium for the “round number” of a Carat. But you can pocket some dough by purchasing slightly lower than the size-echelon; instead of a full carat (1.00),  buy a .85-.95;  instead of a full three-quarter carat,  go for a .60-.73, etc. The only one who can really tell the difference is the jeweler.

Rule 4 …Do The Same For Color

Use the exact same philosophy with a diamond’s “Color.” By the way, for the true rookies, a diamond has "Four Cs"- Carat, Color, Clarity, and Cut. To save some money without sacrificing much look, push your color out one additional grade. Get an "I" not an "H." You are unlikely to notice when the diamond is mounted, in its setting, and on the hand.We know, we know, you’re asking what in holy hell we’re talking about. Diamonds have a color continuum which represents how much yellow color they show, with  DEF "colorless" on the higher-end, then G, then H, etc. Careful, though. Each person sees colors differently, and it takes some time to train your eye. One more reason to look at plenty of diamonds. Don’t go lower than a J if you can possibly avoid it.

Rule 5 Get A Lower Clarity 

Notice a pattern here? Just like with Color and Carat, you can get a slightly lower Clarity and shave off some dollars. For example, you can get a SI1 instead of a VS2.  However, when making this tradeoff, it’s important to make sure the “inclusions” don’t endanger the structural integrity of the diamond. Yes, we know that as far as you’re concerned, VS2 and SI1 sound like a strand of swine flu.

Rule 6 But Never Sacrifice Cut

You can take shortcuts on Clarity, Color, and Carat, but never Cut. A pity, since Cut can represent up to 50% of the price of the diamond. Here’s why. When a diamond is well-cut, its facets are perfectly positioned to reflect incoming light right back at you. It’s what makes the diamond sparkle and shine–frankly, it’s what makes it look like a diamond.  When you first buy it, a lower-Cut diamond might look okay. But it will get dirty. As it gets dirty, the shoddy Cut will trap light inside the diamond–so, in other words, it won’t shine. Sort of like the ozone layer and global warming. Buy the best cut you can afford. 

Rule 7 Buy More Than One Diamond

….More little diamonds, that is, instead of one big one. A three-diamond ring can give a much larger "show" for less money. And no, this doesn’t look cheap, it’s done all the time. A halo style ring will also make it look like you're getting more for your money. 

Rule 8 Don’t Fear Platinum

The old conventional wisdom: platinum is super-expensive, gold is cheaper. And that’s sorta true, in the sense that yes, in absolute terms, platinum is still slightly more expensive than gold (recently, about 25% higher.) So if you’re on a cutthroat budget and are trying to build a ring for under $1,000, say, you wouldn’t have the budget for platinum. But. And this is key. The price difference is nowhere near where it used to be. Less than two years ago, the spread was 82%. The short version: the spread between platinum and gold has tightened dramatically, to the point where platinum is the smarter buy.  Given that it’s a more durable metal, and often more desirable, it’s no longer an obvious place to save money. Much more specifics on the tradeoff between  platinum, yellow gold, white gold, and palladium.)

Rule 9 Avoid A Diamond Altogether

This obviously has some pitfalls. You’re taking a big gamble. But if you’re on a ruthlessly tight budget, or if your girlfriend honestly doesn’t care too much about the rock, or if you’re both cool with upgrading later, then a non-diamond ring is a perfectly viable option.  Your safest bet? Sapphire. It’s strong, has great hardness, and it’s easy to make a classic, beautiful ring with sapphire as your anchor.  Avoid stuff like emerald and tanzanite; pretty stones, sure, but they’re more delicate than Greg Oden’s ankles.

Rule 10 Buy Safely 

Back to the car analogy. You wouldn’t buy a Jetta from some random dude without any paperwork, right? There are certain precautions you must take. Always insist on a legit “Grading Report” for your diamond, preferably one from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) or the American Gem Society (AGS. Make sure you get a reputable jeweler.  Get ring insurance for this baby. And make sure you get a 100%, full, money-back guarantee, ideally with at least 30 days from when you take delivery. And if the store doesn’t offer that, you’re not in the right store.

5 Ways to Slice Summer Power Bills

 

As the temperatures skyrocket, power bills seem to do the same, but you can stop them!

If you want to cut your power bills this summer, remember three things: vampires, ice cream and poker parties.

Cutting your electric bills doesn’t have to mean buying a bunch of gadgets — or sitting alone in the dark.

Here are five low-cost, no-stress ways to slice your summer power bills. And some of them are almost as much fun as eating ice cream.

Slay The Vampires

Where’s the one place people waste power and don’t even realize it? Vampire power: It’s the energy some appliances and electronics drain from your home when they are turned off.

“I think the biggest one is one we all should know but probably don’t: that ‘off’ means unplugged,” says Bob Hart, a real estate broker in Santa Barbara, California, and green designation instructor with the National Association of Realtors. “People have no idea how many things in their house (use) electricity 24 hours a day.”

Signs of a vampire: Anything with a clock or light that’s on when the item is turned off. Also, any kind of plugged-in charger can be a vampire appliance — whether or not it’s charging anything.

Staking vampires doesn’t mean going around constantly plugging and unplugging your electrical items. (Unlike real vampires, that would get old fast. See what we did there?) Instead, hook things up to surge protectors. Or use outlets that connect to wall switches for vampire items. When the wall switch is off, there’s no power to drain.

Actually Program Your Thermostat

You might be planning to get one. You might already have one. But until you actually learn how to use it, that programmable thermostat isn’t doing you any favors.

It’s kind of like buying a Ferrari key chain to go with a broken-down old car. Sure, it looks cool, but it’s not going to make things run any better.

So get out the booklet that came with the thermostat and read it. Or have the customer service department talk you through the basics. Some power companies have special help lines for just that purpose, too.

When you use it, a programmable thermostat can save up to 10 percent per year from your heating and cooling bills, says Ronnie Kweller, director of communications at Emerald Cities Collaborative and past spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy.

And who couldn’t use a little extra money?

Washing machines: Full and cold is better

Jackson Browne was right: You don’t want to be “running on empty.”

Especially if you’re talking about a dishwasher or washing machine. You use the same amount of water and energy whether or not the machine is full.

But with full loads, you get a lot more for your money. And you run the machine less often. Win-win.

Some other ways to save:

  • Do laundry in cold water. Running the water heater — for things such as showers, dishwashers and laundry — accounts for about 14 percent of your total power bill, Kweller says.
  • Skip the “dry” cycle on your dishwasher. Either hand-dry dishes as you put them away, or let evaporation do the work for you.
  • If your neighborhood allows it, check out one of those “solar clothes dryers,” says Hart. (It’s a line stretched between two poles that allows you to hang laundry outside.)

If clotheslines are prohibited in your area, try a discreet drying rack on your back patio or deck. Or, if you’re not jonesing for that fresh-air-and-sunshine laundry smell, you can even set it up in a tub or shower stall.

Skip the arctic AC

Who doesn’t come in from the sweltering heat and vow to crank the air conditioning down to a temperature usually reserved for penguin nesting grounds?

But icing down the whole house just to cool you off for a few minutes is expensive. So keep the air conditioning at a reasonable setting and look for other ways to chill when you first come inside. Have an icy drink, put a cold compress on the back of your neck or change into some cool, absorbent clothes.

Another effective strategy: a quick, cool shower.

Go wireless

Sometimes it pays to get away from the two-dimensional electronics for a little while. Literally.

Ditch the Facebook friends to spend a little time with people you know from the real world (not to be confused with “The Real World”).

Organize a game night, a poker party or a craft night with friends.

Close Candy Crush long enough to grow something healthy in your yard. Or, have some fun with a container garden on your patio. (Real tomatoes don’t require wattage. And if you eat what you grow, you can save on your food bill, too.)

The goal: Get unplugged, unwind and connect in a way that has nothing to do with power cords and networks. You’ll save some electricity and recharge your own batteries at the same time.

 

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Best Affordable Summer Vacation Destinations 2018

Your summer get-away doesn’t have to cost you a fortune.. Check out this list of the most affordable vacation destinations!

Whether you want to fly across the country or drive across the state line, here are destinations that offer plenty to do (or not much at all, if you prefer), along with advice on plotting the ultimate getaway and a last-minute escape.

HOBBIES & HELPING DESTINATIONS“Travel is no longer just about vacation,” says Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Traveler. “It’s about self-discovery, opening yourself to the world. That’s why learning vacations are becoming so popular.”

Cooperstown, New York, and St. Louis, Missouri: “If baseball is your passion, plan a trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, or make your way to St. Louis during the all-star break for the Major League Baseball All Star Fan Fest (July 10 to 14). This five-day family event gives you a chance to live out your baseball fantasy by pitching against life-size video images of your favorite sluggers or recording your own play-by-play.”
—Lauren Goldenberg, co-owner, Family Traveler

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: “It’s called Golftown U.S.A. because it’s probably the No. 1 golf destination in the States, with over 100 public courses. Grande Dunes has the best course in the region. Two older clubs—the Dunes and Tidewater—predate the golf explosion and are the area classics. They’re also the only two courses on the ocean.”
—Larry Olmsted, coauthor, Golf Travel by Design
Maine and North Carolina: “A lot of folks are following their hobbies on vacation and going places where they can improve their knitting, learn to quilt, make pottery, or do metalwork or woodworking. Consider the John C. Campbell Folk School (folkschool.org) and the Penland School of Crafts (penland.org), both in North Carolina, or the Hay Stack Mountain Craft School (haystack-mtn.org), situated on the Atlantic Ocean in Deer Isle, Maine. Prices start at $400; room and board are extra.”
—Pauline Frommer
The South: “Take the Southern barbecue tour if you’re a foodie. You can get fantastic food in small, affordable, out-of-the-way places. There’s the Blue Mist Barbecue in Asheboro, North Carolina, and the Dreamland Drive-Inn Bar-B-Que in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Dreamland has two locations, but make sure you go to the one at 5535 15th Avenue E: It’s a real shack, and the ribs are zesty and juicy. Mop up the sauce with sliced white bread.”

Wassaw Island, Georgia: “At the Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge, part of Georgia’s barrier islands, you can help tag loggerhead sea turtles when they crawl out of the sea to lay their eggs. Cost is $750 a week, including transportation to and from the island, a bunk in a rustic cabin, and all meals. Plus, you can sleep late: Beach patrols take place at night. Don’t forget to write off your experience as a charitable contribution.”
—Pam Grout, author, The 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life
The world: “Volunteer opportunities exist worldwide. Tutor kids in Ghana or paint a classroom in Peru through Global Volunteers (globalvolunteers.org). Build playgrounds on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana with Visions (visionsserviceadventures.com). Or help out on an organic tea farm in Japan through Service Civil International (sci-ivs.org).”
—Max Hartshorne
Old Orchard Beach, Maine: “There’s an old-fashioned boardwalk and amusement park that’s a fraction of the cost of one of the brand-name theme parks. We spent the morning playing in the waves and lying on the beach and the afternoon at Palace Playland.”
—Beth Harpaz, travel editor, Associated Press
Panama: “Stay in an over-water bungalow on Isla Colon, one of the islands in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, and get the feeling of Fiji for one quarter the price. Plus, the American dollar is widely accepted.”
—Stacy Rapacon, travel reporter, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance
BEST BIG CITIESFor anyone who can’t bear to sit still, big cities are the best bet for weekend trips. Zero in on cities that attract business travelers during the week—New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco. The big-name hotels empty out on the weekends and will give leisure travelers a better deal, says Peter J. Frank, editor in chief of concierge.com.
Chicago, Illinois: “One of America’s best-looking urban centers, especially in the spring and summer. Take a docent-led cruise (tickets start at $28; architecture.org) and see more than 50 awe-inspiring skyscrapers and other architectural sites. Spend a sunny day in Millennium Park, or consider an indulgent evening at Grant Achatz’s Alinea restaurant in Lincoln Park. It’s a 12-course extravaganza for $145.”
—Heidi Mitchell, features and travel editor, Town & Country
Las Vegas, Nevada: “It’s never been so easy to score a deal on the Strip. Five-star resorts are marked down to three-star prices. The Trump International Hotel is offering a package through June called the Suite Escape. Book a luxury suite for $89 a night at trumplasvegashotel.com and get a $50 spa credit. The three-star Palace Station Hotel and Casino has rates as low as $24 per night.”
—Nina Willdorf, editor in chief, Budget Travel
Montreal and Quebec, Canada: “Can’t afford the City of Light this year? Consider Quebec and Montreal. They’re Paris in North America, at one fourth the price.”
—Pauline Frommer, creator, Pauline Frommer’s guidebooks
Nashville, Tennessee: “Everyone thinks of Nashville as honky-tonk, and yes, that still exists in spades, but it has this incredible emerging food scene with restaurants like Bound’ry, which offers lobster BLT pizza and grilled ostrich. And in newish neighborhoods like East Nashville, there are terrific galleries: The Plowhaus and the Art & Invention Gallery are just two.”

—Norman Vanamee, editor in chief, Sherman’s Travel
New York, New York: “It’s the best place for immigration history. My family chose the living history tour at the Tenement Museum and assumed the identity of newly arrived immigrants visiting a 14-year-old Sephardic Jewish girl, played by an actress. We stayed in character, asking her about adjusting to life on the Lower East Side. My kids (they’re 10 and 11) were riveted. Be sure to get your tickets for the ferry to Ellis Island in advance—or risk waiting in line up to three hours.”
—Mindy Goldenberg Valenci, co-owner, Family Traveler
San Francisco, California: “It’s rare for a major city to have such a spectacular physical setting—the views of the bay from the hills and the Ferry Building Marketplace are stunning. It’s also a compact, walkable city (those hills notwithstanding) with great museums. The new California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park features an aquarium, a planetarium, and a four-story rain forest. Go early! There’s also a long tradition of Bay Area bands (the Grateful Dead got its start here). Check out the Fillmore and Bottom of the Hill. And it’s an exceptional food city, with great eateries like Michael Mina and Restaurant Gary Danko—named after their chefs—and the pleasures of picking oysters at the counter of Swan Oyster Depot in Nob Hill.”
—Laurie Werner, contributing editor, ForbesLife
Seattle, Washington: “Three national parks protect the city’s natural beauty. It’s so enchanting that an entire vacation can be built on side trips. On the other hand, the city proper is brimming with fantastic restaurants and compelling sights. Seattle is a best-of-both-worlds destination. Fresh-caught Dungeness crab at McCormick & Schmick’s delicious. A day amid the fragrant wildflowers on Mount Rainier—intoxicating.”
—Eric Wechter, editor, Fodor’s Travel guidebooks and fodors.com
Portland, Oregon: “The International Rose Test Garden is the one place I never tire of visiting. It easily represents what the whole city of Portland is about—it’s green, friendly, and laid-back. There are over 10,000 rosebushes, and because it’s a test garden, the public has never seen many of these 550 varieties. The Rose Festival is one of the biggest celebrations in the city and runs May 22 to June 14.”
GREAT SMALL TOWNS
“Some Americans are putting off long-haul travel in favor of visiting destinations in neighboring states—sometimes for the first time,” says Daniel Levine, executive director of the Avant-Guide Institute in New York. It’s the perfect time to slow down and enjoy the pleasures of small towns.
Baja California Sur, Mexico: “This is a terrific last-minute destination because airlines frequently offer discounted flights. My husband, my toddler son, and I recently flew to Cabo San Lucas from LAX for $250 and drove from there to Todos Santos, an artsy little beach community. We had a blast and spent less than $100 in four days on food and shopping.”
—Kimberly Lisagor, coauthor, Disappearing Destinations
Door County, Wisconsin: “Known for its cherries, this gem sits on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan. Stay at the little inns in Egg Harbor or Sister Bay, explore lighthouses, and gather shells on windswept beaches. It’s called the Cape Cod of the Midwest and has its own version of the New England clambake: the fish boil. Whitefish, potatoes, and onions are heated in a kettle over an outdoor fire. Once the water boils, the chef tosses kerosene on the fire. When the flames die down, the meal is ready.”
—Laura Begley, deputy editor, Travel + Leisure
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: “It’s rustic and relaxing. Towns like Marquette are a step back in time. It’s never hot, and you get a real Yooper flavor (residents are called U-Pers—get it?). Don’t miss the tasty pasties (that’s a Cornish meat pie, not a typo). Munising is the gateway to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, an ideal spot for hiking.”
—Todd Dulaney, editor, AAA Living
On the road: “Take what I call a one-tank trip, itineraries you can plan on a tank of gas. Cincinnati, Ohio, to Louisville, Kentucky, is about 100 miles. Along the way, you’ll see Churchill Downs, the Louisville Slugger Museum, and the Kentucky Speedway.”
—Peter Greenberg
Bisbee, Arizona: “Spend the night at the Shady Dell trailer park in a 1949 Airstream, have breakfast at Dot’s Diner, then check out the rest of this historic copper-mining town.”
 

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Quick Guide to Purchasing Your First Swimming Pool

Think you might be ready to take the plunge? If you’re planning to buy your first backyard swimming pool, you probably need a few tips to get started. Learn how to establish a budget, find a pool builder, and always remember to put fun on the list.

1. Create a wish list.
You may have been dreaming of a swimming pool for years, and you may think you know exactly what you want. But it pays to read up on the latest technology and gather ideas. Once you’ve done a little homework, you’ll be ready to speak to your pool builder who will suggest styles, materials, designs, and blueprints to make your dream a reality.

2. Research the three types of in ground pools. 
Some pools are made of concrete, others are made of fiberglass, and still others are vinyl. Then there are various coping options, cleaning systems, filtering systems and artistic finishing touches. Knowing what you may want will kick start the process with your pool builder.

3. Find a credible pool builder. 
Take your time with this process. Check with friends, your local and regional pool builders associations, even the Better Business Bureau. Interview several candidates, and ask for examples of their work and references. You’ll be working with this person for many months, so choose someone you feel comfortable with.
4. Decide what kind of pool shape you want.
From infinity pools and overflow swimming pools to rectangular, kidney shaped swimming pools to custom designed pools, the options are almost endless, which is why it’s important to choose the best design that suits your style and needs. The shape of your swimming pool should be chosen for its aesthetic appeal and a lifestyle fit. For example, rectangular pool designs are perfect for almost any type of style and ideal for people wanting a classic, timeless pool look. They’re also great for games and swimming laps. On the other hand, Kidney and free-form swimming pools are more easily able to blend in with the surrounding vegetation and appear more natural. They also lend themselves to waterfalls and grottos.

5. Consider the weather in your area. 

Depending on where you live, the weather can dictate certain pool building decisions. People in cold or wet climates should consider enclosures to prolong the pool season. Does your climate warrant the inclusion of a heater? Windy areas, heavily treed areas, or winter climates will definitely want a pool cover to stem evaporation, keep debris out, and protect the swimming pool when not in use.

6. Know how you want to use your pool. 
Picture you and your family in and around the pool. Is it mostly for your kids? For entertaining? Is it an investment? Do you want it to make a dramatic architectural statement? Or is it a relaxing retreat for you and your spouse? Answering these questions will help determine the need for a slide or wading area for kids, high-end glass tile finishing, a vanishing edge or a built-in water feature.
7. Consider long-term costs.
Along with establishing a budget, consider the long-term costs involved with owning a swimming pool. Owning a swimming pool is actually quite affordable. Upkeep, especially if you take a few energy-saving steps (more on that below), can literally cost pennies a day. But it’s important to have an idea of what those costs are. For example, factor in how much water it will take to keep your swimming pool full, cleaning and water maintenance costs, and any accessories (pool covers, filters, toys, etc.) you’ll need to purchase.

8. Check your local building codes. 
Yes, your pool builder can help you with this part immensely, but it’s a good idea to know the rules yourself. Some areas require perimeter fences of a certain height. Some require the fences to lock. Others require a fence around only the swimming pool itself. You’ll also want to inquire about building permits, building restrictions, noise policies, and property tax concerns.

9. Don’t forget about insurance. 
When establishing a budget, don’t forget to think long term. Contact your insurance carrier and find out if owning a swimming pool affects your homeowner’s policy—no one likes to be surprised.

10. Be energy efficient.It’s easier than ever to save on a swimming pool’s energy costs. Enclosures, pool covers, variable speed pumps and lighting timers can all pay for themselves in energy savings in a short amount of time. In cool climates, it can sometimes pay to shut your swimming pool down for the winter, rather than heat it.

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10 Fun DIY Graduation Party Ideas

 

1. A homemade “congrats” banner is a simple piece to DIY for your decorations.

2. If you’re into a more vintage vibe, you’ll love this shabby chic DIY photo wall.

3. Make sure to announce your graduation to family and friends, so they know there’s a party coming.

4. To light up your party, decorate your candles with the year of your graduation.

5. What party would be complete without gold balloons with tassels?

6. How adorable are graduation cap cookies? Best part is they’re super-simple to create with a cookie cutter.


7. Use dishes in the shape of your graduation year for the perfect decoration that doubles as a dessert.

8. Get custom sunglasses made as party favors for your guests.

9. Have your guests leave a note for you to read once the party is over.

10. Save some cash and create your own photo booth for your guests to enjoy and remember for years to come!

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Creative Stay-Cation Ideas

No money in the budget for an exotic vacation this year? Don’t despair. You can plan a fabulous, fun “staycation” in your hometown, full of spontaneous and invigorating new experiences (including plenty of downtime and some of the fun things you haven’t had time to do). With a creative mindset, you can have a fun vacation at home for a fraction of the cost of traveling. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Set a Budget

You aren’t paying for airfare or a week’s worth of lodging and meals out, so you can get creative with spending when you vacation at home. Figure out how much you can extend from your everyday budget, then relax and enjoy yourself within those limits. Remember, one of the biggest benefits of any vacation is having loads of free time without rules and obligations.

Send Your Brain to the Beach

As if your body were there, too, let co-workers know you will be unavailable. Tune out emails and other distractions on your phone and computer. Catch up on errands, chores and grocery shopping beforehand. Tempted to tackle a house project? A fix-and-clean staycation will leave you … needing a vacation. Unless you will enjoy painting your living room or planting a new tree, let the project wait for a future weekend or day off.

Turn Routine on its Head

This is especially fun for young kids. Make eggs for dinner or eat dessert for lunch. Wear pajamas all day. Camp out in the living room or backyard. Stay up late. Get creative. This is still a vacation even if you're at home, so let loose and have fun.

Empower Your Kids

Each family member takes turns choosing an activity for the day. This may be as simple as a board game, a bike ride or cruising to the mall. Say “yes” to your kids whenever possible, even to your teenager who wants to spend the afternoon alone in his or her room.

Be Spontaneous

At least one day, plan absolutely nothing and see where the day takes you. Sit on a café patio, go shopping, visit the library, go for a walk or take a nap. When a creative idea for something fun to do on your vacation at home strikes, go do it — right now.

See Your Hometown Through Foreign Eyes

Check local tourism websites and brainstorm new destinations and activities — be that a special hike, art exhibit or sporting event. Venture to a museum or bookstore that you have been meaning to visit. Bay Area-dwellers, have you been to Chinatown lately? Chicagoans, when’s the last time you were at the top of the Willis Tower? Plan a fun staycation a few towns or neighborhoods over. Then bike their trails, learn about the local history, eat in their restaurants and pop into their shops.

Book a Mini-Vacation

A week skiing Vail or surfing in Costa Rica was out of the question, but perhaps you can afford an evening on the town and an overnight stay at a hotel or B&B. Weeknights go for less. Check websites for last-minute deals. Request an early check-in or late checkout so you can lounge with a book or good movie. For an added bonus, schedule for your house to be cleaned while you are away.

Visit a Faraway Place—at Home

Pick a country and spend the day learning about it. Dress in traditional clothing, cook the food (or go out to eat it) and play a game native to that culture. This idea requires a bit more effort and will force you to get creative, but since your vacation is at home, you've saved some energy by not planning hotels or plane tickets.

Learn More about Something you Enjoy

Scout newspaper, university and museum websites for events and classes. See an author speak, learn how to play chess, grow orchids, rock climb, taste wine or cook Korean food.

As with a regular vacation, a “staycation” is only as successful as the effort and planning you put into it. Your only limits are your creativity!

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How to Budget Your Dream Vacation

If you’re dreaming of a getaway this summer, the best thing you could do right now is to stop dreaming and start taking action to save money for your vacation. You still have plenty of time to make small adjustments to your everyday life that can result in a big impact on your travel fund.

The best part is, these ideas to save money can be applied to whatever goal you want, whether it’s traveling, hosting an large event like a wedding or a buying a new car. Try a few of these tips and see how much you can save:

1. Make your vacation fund separate from other savings and checking accounts. This way, you’re less likely to dip into it when you need some extra cash. Plus, that’s what your emergency fund is for.  

2. Factor saving for travel into your budget, and then automate deposits into your vacation fund so you don’t have to think about it. Automated savings make it easier to store away cash without spending it first.

3. Sign up for a few email alerts from travel companies and airlines that share flash sales and limited-time-only offers. You’d be surprised at the deals you can find!

4. After you decide on a few places you’d like to visit, research when they have their off-seasons. You can find much more reasonable rates if you’re not traveling there when everyone else is (and smaller crowds).

5. Consider an all-inclusive trip. This will help you keep costs down throughout the vacation, as your meals and drinks will already be paid for.

6. Check to see if your credit card offers a rewards program if you’re not already using one. You can use points you earn for hotel and dining discounts.

7. Streamline your expenses for a few months. Consider cutting out one or two things: Can you substitute web streaming for cable? Bring a bagged lunch instead of eating out? Then, deposit whatever you save each month into your vacation fund.

8. It’s spring, so get started on your spring cleaning and sell your unwanted stuff in a yard sale or online. Everything you make can go right into the travel fund.

9. Use coupons and cash back when you’re shopping for things you need. Coupons, whether you print them or use them online, are an easy way to save money on things you’re already buying. If you start clicking through a cash back site before you shop online, you can build up money in an online account and then cash out for extra money towards your trip.

10. Create a change jar and add your spare change to it whenever you have any. Bonus if you can add in small bills, too.

11. Sign up for a library card to rent books, e-books and movies. It’s free!

12. Offer your services instead of buying gifts for a while. Babysitting, cooking dinner or housesitting for friends can be really helpful and needed more than you think.

13. Only withdraw money directly from your bank or your bank’s ATM. These fees can add up quickly.

14. Never go to the grocery store hungry, and always arrive at the store with your shopping list. This makes it less likely that you’ll give in to impulse purchases.

15. Tax refunds are coming up. Though it’s tempting to spend any refund you receive right away, put some or all of it right into your vacation fund.

Lastly, one of the best travel budgeting tips is to total the approximate cost of your entire vacation (factor in transportation, hotel, dining and entertainment), and then divide up the amount you will need to save each month leading up to the trip. If the monthly amount seems like too much, then push your travel dates out further – or as suggested above, cut out some of your other monthly costs. Remember, the total you’re saving for is just an estimate, so aim high to be safe. If you find a really great deal, you might even be able to go away for longer or pick up some souvenirs while you’re gone. Happy travels! 

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Low Cost Way to Refresh your Home this Spring

Interior Paint

Looking for a low-cost solution for your Spring clean up or refresher? A fresh coat of paint can do just the trick!

Refresh a room for spring with a new coat of paint. As you search for the perfect color, remember that paint often dries darker or brighter than the swatches. Sample on a piece of scrap cardboard or a small area of a wall first to ensure you love the color. Also, invest in a high-quality primer to ensure a long-lasting paint job. Rearrange the artwork -- after the paint dries -- to complete the fresh look.

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Ten Tips for the First Time Car Buyer

It doesn't matter whether you're a recent grad with your first real job or someone other than the prototypical first-time car buyer, the car-buying process is never filled with as much uncertainty as it is the first time. But no matter how much affection we develop for our high school hand-me-down or skateboard, at some point it's time to move on. Being a good first-time car buyer isn't easy, but if it's worth doing — and it is — it's worth doing well.

To that end, we've come up with some tips to help with the process.

10. Establish a realistic budget

This figure is generally based on what you can afford per month. The ideal is to pay cash, but in most instances when considering a new (or just newer) car, the nature of the transaction price often requires the leverage of financing. So, look at your cost of living in all the more important areas, like shelter, food, health insurance and Happy Hour. Once those are calculated, the remainder could be spent on a car payment, fuel, car insurance and — for cars without a warranty — mechanical maintenance.

9. Know what you can spend monthly

While this may look similar to #10, your level of indebtedness is different from your monthly commitment. Neither one — for a first-time buyer — should be out of balance in comparison to your other assets (at this point in your life those assets are probably limited to your most recent purchase at H&M). If you're financing, figure $25/month for every thousand dollars that you borrow for 48 months, and $20/month on 60-month financing. It follows that every $10K borrowed is $250/month for four years, and $200/month for five. Again, this is the base obligation; insurance, fuel and periodic maintenance are above and beyond this.

8. Establish your transportation needs

We know. Despite our cautionary note, you have short-term enthusiasm UP TO HERE. A MINI Convertible or Fiat Cabriolet may be the car of the moment, but is it going to work for you as a day-in/day-out piece of transportation? Conversely, you may think you need a minivan or pickup for ALL OF YOUR STUFF, but on those occasions when you're moving to a new apartment or, uh, moving home, you can rent a pickup. Given the cost of fuel, insurance and — in many cities — monthly parking, don't buy what you don't need. And perhaps consider renting what you need, only when you need it.

7. Identify and prioritize your wants

This runs a bit counter to the previous tip. The first-time purchase doesn't need to be your be-all/end-all acquisition, but you should still pay attention to your want list, as this isn't a process you need to repeat every 18 months. Better to stretch a bit for those things in a car that satisfy you, than to be hit over the head — and pocketbook — with buyer's remorse before you've emptied the first tank of gas. If getting what you want costs $40/month more, spend it — and skip a couple Happy Hours.

6. Do your research (it's never been easier)

In that you're reading this at one of the foremost websites for car purchasers, online research is also intuitive. There is, at this point, an amazing amount of both information and perspective on new cars and their late-model alternatives. Once you've digested it all, balance it with your gut instincts — or those instincts of someone whose gut you trust. And be proactive; if you see someone with a car you have an interest in — and they're not doing 90 miles per hour — stop and ask them about their ownership experience.

5. Locate a convenient dealer

For most of car-selling history (we're talking to you, Karl) the act of buying a car for the first time has run akin to getting a colonoscopy for the first time: Come in, lay down, you're not gonna' feel a thing. But despite our almost inherent misgivings, the salesman on the showroom is closer to a normal person than you might think. Most of the abnormal ones — we've heard from reliable sources — end up selling something less precious; let your parents worry about them. And while new and late-model cars have never been more reliable, they still need attention and that attention should be easy to access. When weighing a couple of choices — let's say Mazda3, Kia Soul and Honda Civic — compare dealer locations and, if all other things are equal, showroom environments. We tend to stay away from dealerships where two-thirds of the sales staff is sitting or standing at the front entrance.

4. Take a test drive

With all of the online sources available for your basic research, we believe the importance of the test drive has been marginalized. Virtually nothing is more important in your decision process than how you feel behind the wheel. And so many variables come into play — seat height, wheel adjustment, steering feel, throttle tip-in, outward visibility, control layout, etc. — that you simply must spend a reasonable amount of time driving the car. And that time should be more than five minutes on someone's idea of a stop-and-go test route. Take at least half an hour, while trying stop-and-go, freeway merging and freeway speeds. And if your sales rep — you know, the normal guy trying to make a living — doesn't have the 30 minutes, find a time when he or she does, or take the time to find another dealership.

3. Determine the proper purchase price

Once you've decided what you like — and have already established what you can afford — it's time to arrive at a purchase price. The Kelley Blue Book Fair Purchase Price gives you an accurate idea of what people have paid in your area for the car you have an interest in. A credit union should also be able to provide you with perspective, and may have a contact on the showroom floor. An important note regarding referrals: Get the referral before taking another salesman's time for a walkaround and demo. Most of these people work on commission, and commissions are notoriously small. If you plan on working with a referral, start with a referral. Finally, when discussing what you want to pay, don't reveal a "per month" number; that's the oldest trick in the book. If you're thinking you can budget $20K — and you're looking at a $25K car — tell 'em $20K. You can always work up...while it's much harder to back up.

2. Secure financing, or know your options

Financing issues are somewhat like the purchase price; there has been an exponential growth in the number of resources. That, however, is mitigated by your lack of credit history or, in an increasing number of instances, marginal credit history. The last thing you want, however, is to be in a room with an F&I (Finance and Insurance) rep, and he or she is holding all the cards; the deck — if you will — is stacked against you. Better to talk with your credit union, bank or insurance provider (many have the capability and desire to finance your purchase), and line up your financing in advance. You can always go with the dealer option if it's competitive, but never approach it as if the dealer is the only money game in town. 

1. Enjoy the process

We know, the above advice makes buying a car seem like an ordeal, but even those with no interest or passion in a car or truck can — if the process is given half a chance — be stimulated by the sheer variety of options available, and the genuine creativity that goes into today's automotive menu. With low financing rates and literally hundreds of great cars to choose from, your options have never been better (especially in the "entry-level" category) — and car ownership never more rewarding. Take your time in the process, and you'll be delighted with the outcome for at least the first 48 (or 60) monthly payments.

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What Not to Do House Hunting

Don'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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How to Undertake a Whole House Renovation

Judging by shows on DIY Network and HGTV, it takes approximately 24 minutes to renovate a house. We all know this is not true. But this style of fast-shot remodeling presided over by glib hosts takes away from the core notion that home renovation is complex and difficult and real.

Following is the approximate process for whole-house renovation.

1. Design and Planning- A sketch on a cocktail napkin, full-blown architectural plans, or just a firm set of thoughts about how the remodel should progress. It is cheaper and less frustrating to correct mistakes before the remodel takes physical form. Ensure that you have funding for your renovation before you move any further. Once you determine that you do have the budget, draw up a simple "yes/no" list of do-it yourself projects and projects you want professionals to do. Then, you can look for contractors and subcontractors for those jobs you do not want to do yourself. After that, you can begin applying for permits.

2. Roof, Foundation, Water Issues, Siding, Windows- This can include roof replacement or repair; foundation fix; stopping water infiltration; installing or repairing siding and windows. Large projects must be done first because subsequent projects are impacted by them. If the siding is so damaged that it will allow water infiltration, repair or replace the siding. If not seriously damaged, leave it for later in the process.Protect your future renovation work by making certain the house won't collapse on you (foundation, major structural problems) and that it will remain dry (roof, siding, windows). Then, secure the foundation. Make major foundation repairs to areas such as weakened walls, joists, and carrying beams. Repair or replace roof. Replace seriously damaged windows that may threaten future remodeling work. If not seriously damaged, leave it for later in the process.

3. Demolition- Demolishing and disposing of sections of the house that will be replaced by later projects. First, rent a large container for waste. Then, carefully demolish all or some of the areas of the house that will be renovated. Demolish as much as possible if you will not be living in the house.Exercise caution when demolishing surfaces coated with lead-based paint.

4. Structural Carpentry- Carpentry that is in support of other work such as drywall, new or moved walls, windows, doors, etc.

5. HVAC Ductwork, Electrical, and Plumbing-This step of the renovation includes moving walls or constructing new walls, significantly enlarging window openings, adding new construction windows. It can also involve adding beams to support a greater weight upstairs or punching in new doors (or removing existing doors). With the walls and ceiling open, it is time for the HVAC company to install ductwork for central heating and air conditioning.Run new electrical and plumbing systems. Electrical and plumbing inspectors will visit at this time, too.

6. Insulation- Laying insulation in the walls and ceiling.

7. DrywallInstall fiberglass insulation in the walls and attic.Insulation goes fast, so make sure that your drywall company is ready to go soon after this. Steps include closing up the walls with drywall: hanging it, mudding it, and sanding it. A second inspection from the electrical inspector (and perhaps the plumbing inspector) will give you the go-ahead to close up the walls. Drywallers hang sheets of drywall, apply drywall compound, and let the compound dry. After drying, they sand it smooth. Sometimes, they will repeat the process until they achieve a seamless surface.

    8. Windows- Installing new-construction or replacement windows.Window installation, whether whole-house or partial, almost always plays into a home remodel project.

    9. Fine Carpentry- Carpentry that is not supportive: baseboards, molding, trim around windows and doors, built-in elements (bookcases, breakfast nooks, etc.).Fine carpenters give your house that finished touch.

    10. Interior Painting, Wallpaper, and Other Surface Finishes

    This step includes painting interior walls, hanging wallpaper, painting molding and trim, staining and sealing trim. 

    All of these detail-oriented surface finishes should be one of the last items you do indoors as this work can damage other work of yours.

    Should you paint before installing or sanding your flooring or the reverse? This is debatable. Laying flooring first means that paint might get on the flooring. Painting first means that the floor sander may scuff your walls.

    11. Flooring- Your final floor covering--laminate, solid hardwood, tile, engineered wood.

    Installing the flooring as late as possible in the renovation process saves your flooring surface from significant damage.

    12. Siding, Gutters- Exterior work on the outside of the house.With the house mostly finished, it is safe to put on siding. You do not want to do this earlier (unless absolutely necessary) because doors and windows may get punched out, ruining the siding.13. Major Auxiliary Building-Any buildings that are detached from the main house. The list can include:

    • Additions
    • Sunrooms
    • Swimming pools
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    Tips to Starting a New Business

    If you’ve thought about opening your own business, you might have begun to look for advice. There are so many tips for starting a new business out there that choosing which ones to follow can get confusing. There is no perfect formula for starting a small business. The best business advice usually forces you to think in a new way. So, here are a list of tips for starting your own business that you might not have heard.

    1. Address excuses

    Countless people dream of becoming entrepreneurs, but they never do. They’re burdened with excuses and fears of failing. From money to time to responsibilities, you can make a million cases for not starting a business.

    Let’s face it, being your own boss is scary. In most cases, new business owners have a lot to lose with little insight into their chances of success. Worrying about the risks of business ownership is normal.

    But, excuses only slow you down from reaching your goals. If you really want to start a business, you need to address the reasons you think you can’t start a business and get rid of them. Find a solution to the issue rather than let it hold you back.

    2. Absorb everything

    Listen to what others have to say—friends, family, experts, even yourself. When it comes to things that have to do with your entrepreneurial goals, be a sponge. As you learn, start to work out the idea in your head. Write things down. Keep notes from all the resources you come across to develop a detailed plan.

    When you tell people about your startup, read their body language. Do they like the idea? Or, are they just being nice and really think you’re going in the wrong direction? Encourage your listeners to be honest with you. The collective opinion you get from peers could be a reflection of how consumers will react.

    Don’t ignore the power of advice from experts and veteran business owners. These folks know first-hand what does and doesn’t work. Smart entrepreneurs learn from the mistakes other business owners have made.

    3. Be a solution

    Rather than starting your idea with what to sell, think about what it will solve. It’s a lot easier to gain a solid customer base when your business is fixing a problem. Your startup should fill a hole in a certain market or niche.

    Hone in on why you are opening your own business. Understanding your motives will help you create a brand and market your company. Know what problems your target customers face and how you can solve them.

    4. Keep it simple

    If you’re like many entrepreneurs, you have a business idea and you’re ready to run with it. Be careful not to let your concept snowball into something overcomplicated. You could end up with an expensive, elaborate end-product that nobody wants to buy.

    As a new business owner, try to start small and narrow your focus. Learn how to test your business idea. Create a simple, quality good or service. A successful business idea should fulfill promises to customers and exceed expectations.

    Cut unnecessary features that water down your offerings and cost you money. As a small business, you don’t need all the bells and whistles of a giant corporation. It will be easier to add to your business as it grows.

    5. Count the Costs

    Once you start to develop your business idea, add up how much it will cost. You will need to factor in every business expense necessary to launch and operate. Some costs to keep in mind include your location, rent, supplies, marketing, and more.  

    Come up with the most educated number you possibly can. Then, take whatever you think that dollar amount is and quadruple it. Seriously, quadruple it. You’ll experience unexpected costs of running a business around every corner. It’s better to be over prepared than short on funds when bills start to roll in.

    When you're thinking of the cost to start a business, don’t forget about your personal budget. Look at how much money you need to live, including rent, food, gas, healthcare, etc. Lay these expenses out in order of which ones you must pay (e.g., mortgage) to ones that can slide if the money runs out (e.g., entertainment).

    Once you have a grasp on all your expenses, start to create a business budget. At first, you might need to get some outside capital to make ends meet, like a small business loan. Go over all of your options before putting your money into the startup.

    6. Imagine yourself with zero money

    Launching an unsuccessful business idea is a reality for many entrepreneurs. Over half of new businesses fail within the first five years of opening. How would you handle having no incoming money?

    It’s a good idea to come up with a “just in case the worst outcome happens” plan. You might need to get a job on-the-fly or temporarily live with your parents. You might have to go without comforts that you’re used to. Figure out how you would get by if your business plan went south.

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    Is Leasing a Car Right for You?

    Is Leasing a Car Right for You?

     

    A car lease lets you drive a new vehicle without paying a large sum of cash or taking out a loan. To lease a car, you simply make a small down payment — less than the typical 20% of a car’s value you’d pay to buy– followed by monthly payments for the term of the lease. When the term expires, you return the car.

    Leasing a car has some drawbacks, however. Among them:

    • You don’t own the car when your lease expires. You essentially rent, not buy, the car. So you don’t have equity in the car to use toward the purchase of another vehicle.

    • Over time, say 10 years, the cost of leasing several cars will likely exceed the purchase price of a new or used car.

    • Lease terms can carry steep penalties. You may have to pay penalties if:
    -You exceed the number of miles in your lease contract.
    - You fail to keep the interior and exterior of the car in good condition.
    - You drive the car hard and inflict significant wear and tear on the car’s performance and appearance.
    - You want to return the car before your contract expires.

    Does a lease make sense for you?

    Leasing is more beneficial than buying when you:

    • Don’t have the cash to buy the car.
    • Want to drive a vehicle that’s out of your purchase price range.
    • Won’t likely exceed the mileage cap in a contract—usually between 10,000 and 15,000 miles per year.
    • Can take good care of the car’s exterior and interior, paying particular attention to avoid nicks, spills and other cosmetic damage.
    • Expect to lease another car when your vehicle’s current contract expires.

    Exceeding the mileage limits on your lease can cost you 10 to 15 cents per mile. The dealer will inspect your car just before the lease expires, and you’ll also be charged for excessive wear and tear.

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    Tips for Finding your Dream Home

    Tips for Finding Your Dream Home

     

    Make a list of priorities: You'll want to make sure that you have a solid list of priorities in order of what's most important to you and strive to get at least the top things on that list in one place. Unless you are incredibly lucky or have an unlimited budget to build everything to your exact specifications, you'll eventually have to give up something on your list, but you'll want it to be a lower priority item. Are you most concerned about location? Square footage? A private backyard? You may have to forgo one thing to get another, but it's easier to be more focused when you know what's a nonnegotiable. Also, decide which things are preferences vs. needs on your list as well. 

     

    Think ahead: How long do you plan on staying in this house? If you are single or newly married, you may be fine with a smaller starter place that you plan on selling in a few years to get something bigger as life changes, but if you are planning on expanding your family or working from home soon, make sure you factor in the space you'll need so that you won't outgrow the space too quickly. In other words, don't buy for something that has features that you know will only work for a year if you plan on spending 10 years there. Of course, life is unpredictable and you can't plan for everything, but consider the things you know for sure or at least will most likely be the case in your near future.

     

    Decide on your "most lived in" spaces: Where do you spend the most time in your current house? If you are an aspiring amateur chef, then you'll probably care about the kitchen set up a lot more than your friend who orders in most nights. So you should be more focused on loving that spot in a new house. You probably won't be head over heels for every single room in a house, but if you get rooms you love where you spend the most time, then that tiny master bathroom won't seem quite so annoying.

     

    Stick to your budget: Obviously the budget question is totally different for every person looking at a house, so there's really not a magic number for this category. A relatively standard goal is to try to keep your mortgage payment (with taxes and insurance included) at around 25% of your total household monthly income, but if you are living in a bigger city with high housing prices, you'll probably have to raise that number quite a bit. Just make sure that you've looked at your overall monthly budget to see what you really can afford (be honest!), and then only look at houses within your price range. Believe me, it's not a good idea to start looking at houses that are 1-2 price ranges above yours "just to see what's out there" because you will get house fever for something you can't buy and all of a sudden you think all the houses within your budget are totally lame. It's a lose-lose; don't do it. Depending on the market, however, it can be OK to look at houses a little over your budget in case there is a seller you can negotiate down to your range, but that's a lot more likely in a market that favors buyers instead of one where the sellers have control over pricing. 

     

    Decide if you want to renovate or a move-in ready house: Buying a house you plan on completely redoing is pretty different from getting something you can simply move right into, and most people know which category they lean towards (although you may be somewhere in the middle). If you know which path you want to take right off the bat, it helps narrow down your search and you can focus on viewing each house from that point of view. This decision also plays into pricing because if you decide on doing a renovation, then you don't want to look at houses that are already at the top of your budget—you'll have no money to renovate with! It's also good to keep in mind that you can't automatically get a renovation loan for the difference in your house price and your pre-approval amount (as in you can't necessarily get a 50k renovation loan just because you were pre-approved for 200k and only spent 150k on the house). They are separate loans, and sometimes the renovation loan is a lot harder to get. Your loan officer will help walk you through what's possible for your financial situation, but you'll want to be extra sure you can afford the renovations you want before you commit. 

     

    Use X-ray vision to see through the "ugly": I know this is easier for some people than others, but it's really important for finding a diamond in the rough instead of passing on a house for cosmetic reasons. Just think about the bones of the house as you walk through it. Pay attention to the layout. Do you like the flow of the room spacing or is it awkward? Asking questions about the actual set up of the house rather than focusing on paint colors or flooring choices you don't care for will help you decide if you like what really matters about the space. Paint colors can be changed and flooring can be refinished, but it's a much bigger deal to move the kitchen to the opposite end of the house. If your biggest complaint in a space is the easily-changed orange accent wall, then it may actually be a great space for you!

     

    Consider moving a little further out from town if on a budget: This one also can vary from place to place (you may not really live near a "town" to move further from), but those that are closer to a big city know that, generally, the further out you go from town, the more your money will buy for you. In some places, just going another 10 minutes out or moving to a "less trendy" spot can get you the same house for hundreds of thousands less. 

     

    Don’t give up! Especially if it takes a while, there will be a lot of days where you feel like giving up. You think you can't afford anything good, you'll never find the right location, you may as well just quit. Don't! Even if it takes months, it's worth it when you finally get something you love. And, the added benefit of a search that takes a while means that you've gotten a really good feel for that price range and location, so you know what's good, bad, overpriced, and underpriced, which will make you more confident about your choice once you make one. And if you don't get a house that you make an offer on? It's OK, that just means it's not the house for you and yours is still out there somewhere. 

     

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    Post-Winter Exterior Home Maintenance Tasks

     

    Post-winter Exterior Home Maintenance Tasks

    There is no better way to welcome spring than with a lovely home as reflected on the outside. So check up on & tidy up your exteriors by going through the following: 

    ·       Roof. Your roof braved a good beating during the autumn and winter months. Layers of dead leaves and even heavy layers of snow may have settled on your roof. Regardless of material, it is important that you check your roof for cracks and leaks. Repair where you can and if needed, call in your home repair professionals. Check the vents as well. Birds may have nested on these areas and may have left droppings where bacteria breed.

    ·       Chimneys. A huge part of your winter survival is brought on by your chimney. After the long winter months of service, they need a good clean. Bring a powerful flashlight to shine on nooks and crannies. Inspect the surface carefully if you can. Wear a mask and protective eye gear to avoid any stray cinders. Whether you choose to clean the chimney on your own or hire a certified chimney sweep, make sure you don’t wait until fall or worse the next winter to get your chimney cleaned and fixed.

    ·       Gutters.  This is the time to check your gutters thoroughly and remove any debris that may have been blown in or gotten stuck. Remove dead leaves and other material to ensure unblocked gutters that drain water to the ground. Take note of any repairs that need to be done. Nothing looks more forlorn on a house than a loose or leaky gutter.

    ·       Faucets. Check your faucets for any possible leak or damage. Outside faucets are prone to freeze damage. If you suspect possible damage, contact your plumber, and schedule a repair before you’ll need to start watering your garden again. Your garden hose could also have dry rot, and replacement may be needed as well.

    ·       Decks. There is no better way to check the condition of your deck than to walk over it. Carefully testing for softness or signs of water damage. Take note of loose boards that need nailing down. Discoloration is often a sign that the sealant used on a board has been breached by the elements and resealing is needed.

    Spring is when the whole earth is awakened from its slumber. Buds bursting into bloom while branches sway with the weight of birds coming home from their winter journeys. Your house should not be a stranger to this awakening transition. Even so, your lawn and the rest of your home’s exteriors should exude this liveliness. Better get started on the exterior home improvement fixes on our list above and get your home into the lovely vibe of spring. 

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    Remodeling On a Budget

    Remodeling your home? Here are some quick tips to help cut costs!

    1. Buy Unfinished

    Unfinished oak cabinets are one of the least expensive options for kitchens. You can paint or stain them in 1000’s of ways with just a bit of research and a few afternoons of labor.

    2. Do It Yourself

    A large percentage of the costs of home renovations are in the labor. Use You Tube video’s and how to sites.

    Craftsy also has 2 free mini classes that you can watch and learn cabinetry tips & techniques as well as flawless wood finishing techniques.

    3. Use What You Have

    If you have leftover material or paint from a previous project, make sure to repurpose it!

    4. Search Yard Sales

    You can find bathroom cabinets, tile, hardware and mirrors for next to nothing at yard sales. You can also try Craigslist, or Freecycle if they are active in your area.

    5. Don’t Buy it all at Big Box Stores

    Don’t just assume the big box stores will always offer the lowest price. Make sure to check liquidators and even Amazon.com for competitive prices.
     

    7. Purchase Discount Gift Cards and if shopping online check to see if you can get cash back.
     

    Discount Gift Cards are available for saving of up to 8% for both Lowes and Home Depot. 8% may not seem like much but when you doing a whole home renovation 8% can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars saved. One sites we use frequently is Cardpool.

    If you are buying items for renovations online, you might also want to check for an available cash back from sites like Ebates, or Top Cash Back, and don’t forget point programs that offer cash backs in the form of points that you can cash in for gift cards (often for hardware stores where you are buying materials) such as Swagbucks and Mypoints. Just a few minutes of comparing different cash back sites can save you as much as 8% off your purchase.

    8. Be Creative

    You can save major bucks by adding a coat of paint to furniture, cabinets and railings. This is a great way to keep costs low while creating a whole new look!

    9. Shop Clearance

    Even hardware stores have clearance sales.  They often change their displays (twice per year or seasonally) offering steep deals in the process! Items we often find are light fixtures and faucets. We have found that hardware stores change their displays twice a year, once in fall and once in spring and those are the best times to look for clearance.

     

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    Tips for the First Time Renter

    Congratulations! When you decide to rent an apartment, you not only get a new home -- you get a flexible lifestyle. Leasing an apartment means you’re not locked into the long-term financial commitment of a house.  There is, however, a lot to think about when renting a new apartment.

    The first is to ensure you that you rent from the best apartment community in the neighborhood you’re considering. As a top apartment management company, Home Properties offers quality apartment communities, fair and flexible leases, and high-end amenities. To take that a step further, we also guarantee your satisfaction with the Home Properties Pledge. Whether you’re looking for a studio, 1 bedroom, 2 bedroom or 3 bedroom, Home Properties offers apartments for lease throughout FL, IL, MA, MD, NY, NJ, PA, and VA. As a first time renter, you probably have a few questions.  

    Home Properties can help! Here is some advice to help make renting your first apartment a positive experience:

    Private Landlord vs. Management Company

    Before you begin your search, you may want to decide whether you want your apartment run by a private landlord or a professional apartment management company. There is an important distinction. A private landlord might be hoping to get rich quickly from their rental property. It’s also a bit more difficult to gauge the history and reputation of an individual landlord. An apartment management company such as Home Properties is invested for the long term and has a reputation of high integrity and honest lease agreements.  If you haven’t had a chance to review Our Pledge, you can view it by clicking here. The best apartment lease is the one that is both fair to you and the property management firm. Home Properties has been in business since 1967 and we manage over 36,000 apartments in nine states.

    Choosing a Roommate

    You may need to consider finding a roommate to share expenses. Think about your friends first. Is there someone you already know with whom you would consider living? This is an important decision and one that shouldn't be made too quickly. Find someone who keeps the same hours, shares your level of cleanliness, and can afford their share of the expenses.

    Find your Home!

    Compare Apartment Community Amenities

    Many Home Properties apartment communities offer various amenities — swimming pools, fitness centers, business centers, outdoor trails, etc. Take the time to compare offerings of several area communities and consider the potential savings if leasing a new apartment means you don’t need that separate gym membership.

    Rental Apartment Layout & Selection

    Take the time to review different layouts available to you — one- and two-bedroom apartments with one or more bathrooms and other features such as dens, dining rooms, extra storage, etc. Pick a floor plan that fits your lifestyle today, and one you can live with for the next few years. Choose the exact apartment that you would like to live in — there may be several two-bedroom apartments available, each offering different upgrades and amenities, and located in different areas of the apartment community.

    Lease your Apartment Online

    Once you find the perfect apartment, act quickly. It takes just a few minutes to visit the Home Properties website and apply for your apartment online.

    Application Fee

    After you place a hold on an apartment, the next step will be a credit screening and a residency application. You can apply online, or download a standard residency application right here on the Home Properties website. Once you submit the application, you will be asked to pay a non-refundable application fee to cover the costs of ordering a credit report, checking references, and processing your application.

    Your Apartment Lease Agreement

    Once you are ready to make a commitment to a specific apartment and community, and your application has been approved, you will be presented with an apartment lease agreement. The lease is a document that is binding for both the resident and landlord. You can view the standard lease agreement used in your state. Read this document carefully and ask questions about anything you do not fully understand.

    Security Deposit

    Security deposits for most apartments are roughly equal to one or two months' rent. This will be held by the property manager and applied to the cost of repairing any possible damages to the apartment. After deducting the proper amount to cover damages and repairs, the remainder of the security deposit is refundable when you move out of the apartment. You’ll want to take excellent care of your new home so the deposit will be refunded to you when you leave.

    Dog and Cat Friendly Pet Fees and Deposits

    Home Properties communities are pet friendly. As one of the top apartment property management companies in the country, we recognize that dogs and cats are part of your family. In some cases, you may be charged a small, upfront fee and/or a monthly charge to cover the extra cleaning and repair costs related to a dog or cat living in the apartment. Terms for holding and refunding the pet deposit are spelled out in the lease agreement.  

    Renters' Insurance

    Before you move into your new apartment, it is required that you obtain renters' insurance. This is a special insurance policy which is very affordable and protects the contents of your apartment from loss or damage due to fire or theft. Premiums are calculated based upon the value of your furniture and other personal possessions. Remember, any insurance carried by the property owner only insures the buildings. Protecting the contents of your apartment is your responsibility.

    Apartment Walk-through

    Right before you are scheduled to move in, it is important to walk through the apartment with the leasing consultant. This allows you to confirm that the apartment is prepared to your satisfaction. It is a good idea to take a few "before photos" of each room in the apartment.

    Arrange for Utilities

    Because utilities such as gas and electric, cable television, Internet service, and telephone service will be placed in your name, it is your responsibility to call and order service before you move in. Depending upon your credit history, these suppliers may request a refundable deposit. This will also help you start building a credit history in your own name.

    Furnishing Your New Apartment

    Before moving in, you will want to give some thought to furnishing your apartment. The most important piece of furniture in your new apartment is, of course, your bed. After that, consider hunting for furniture and accessories at garage or yard sales, thrift stores, and the attic or basement of close relatives! Don’t forget to stock up on the basics, including a shower curtain, wastebaskets, cleaning supplies, etc.

    Arranging the Move

    You have found your perfect apartment, completed the paperwork, and have a move-in date in mind — now it's time to locate a moving company. Ask friends and relatives for recommendations. You can choose to pack everything yourself or pay for a packing service. If you are doing it yourself, start collecting boxes, newspapers, bubble wrap, and other supplies to protect your belongings.

    Settle In and Enjoy!

    Renting an apartment offers a worry-free lifestyle – you can enjoy your free time while the apartment management company mows the lawn, rakes the leaves, and shovels the snow. So settle in to your new lifestyle and enjoy it!
     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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    Great Inexpensive Valentine's Day Gift Ideas

    Want to celebrate Valentine’s Day without going into debt? Think fun.

    Some of the best gifts involve sharing time, along with a little thoughtfulness. And the memories last far longer than a dozen roses or a box of chocolates. Here are 14 ways to express your love on the 14th — or any other day for that matter.

    For a spouse or significant other:

    1. Time in a bottle: Give your hardworking spouse a full day to do whatever he or she wants — or just to relax — no interruptions allowed. For him, that means he gets to engage in his hobby, watch the game, play 18 holes or do absolutely nothing. For her, that might means you feed and entertain the kids while she indulges in a good book, a bubble bath or a manicure. Announce your gift — along with your most heartfelt message of love and appreciation — in your best handwriting or play with various fonts on your home computer. Clean up an old wine bottle and insert the rolled-up message tied with a red bow.

    2. Dining out: Sure, you can take your loved one out to dinner, but that can get expensive. Instead, eat out — as in outdoors. A picnic in a park or at the beach will fill the bill. In frostier climes, set up a picnic blanket and basket at the dining room table, on the living room floor or in the middle of that king-size bed. Add a rose or two (rather than a dozen) for atmosphere.

    3. New adventures: Do something different. Go somewhere you’ve never been before, or “someplace you haven’t been in a while that’s special,” says John Gray, author of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” The site of your first date, for example. When you vary your routine, “that’s what creates the memory,” he says.

    4. Surprise, surprise: For guys that don’t normally cook, Gray says, your best attempt at a home-cooked meal can be a huge treat and doesn’t have to cost anything. Or hide a note under her pillow the night before or little notes around the house on the day, telling her what she means to you. Look at the little things. “What men don’t realize about Valentine’s Day is that it doesn’t have to cost a lot,” says Gray. “Little things make the difference. The surprise factor is nice, whenever possible,” Gray says.

    5. Culture up: Does your significant other delight in museums, foreign films or rare books? In most metro areas, you can find high-culture, low-dollar activities if you know where to look. (Start with the local paper, check online and you can even call the local library or cultural organizations for suggestions.) Many museums have free days. Movie houses have special times when tickets are heavily discounted. For the book lover, plan a trip to a rare book shop, and splurge for cappuccino and biscotti at a nearby coffee house.

    For the parents:

    6. Creature comforts: For mom or dad it’s always a good idea to focus on the creature comforts. Let her sleep late and bring her coffee or orange juice and a simple breakfast in bed. “Some of the best stuff is free,” says Melina Bellows, author of “The Fun Book for Moms: 102 Ways to Celebrate Family,” and editor in chief of National Geographic Kids. Give dad or mom — especially if you have a single parent — the gift of an hour of “me-time” when they get home from work just to decompress, says Eric Stromer, author of “Do-It-Yourself Family: Fun and Useful Home Projects the Whole Family Can Make Together,” and host of HGTV’s “Over Your Head” and AOL’s “Do-It-Yourself with Eric Stromer.” “Try it Friday or Monday,” he says. If you know dad will retreat to his man-cave, post some kind of thank you note or affirmation there, just to let him know how much you appreciate his hard work.

    7. Get techy wid it: The perfect gift for parents from teens and college kids. “Offer to be mom’s tech concierge,” says Bellows. Teach her to text, or show her how to download music or movies. If she’s wanted to investigate social networking, introduce her to Facebook, and create (with her permission) a page for her, so that she can catch up with her high school and college friends. Or, if you have a few bucks, do the old mixed tape one better and load up her MP3 player with a playlist with of music you know she’ll like.

    8. Chores: Sure, you’re busy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t spend a little time making sure your parents know you love them. Make a book of coupons for your parents filled with jobs you promise to do for the week, month or year: things like shining dad’s shoes, washing mom’s car, watering the plants or even taking out the trash.

    For the kids:

    9. Cooking up some love: Kids will remember the Valentine’s Day they baked cookies with mom or dad. With little kids, opt for something simple, like heart-shaped cookies. With older children, consider cupcakes with more elaborate Valentine’s Day decorations. Then turn off the TV one night and have family game time or story time. Get out the old favorites or create a few new ones.

    10. Treasure of love: Kathy Peel, author of “The Busy Mom’s Guide to a Happy, Organized Home,” suggests hosting a treasure hunt. “Post clues (pictures, rhymes or words) to direct family members from one location to another until they find their treasure: a small Valentine’s Day gift,” she says.

    11. Get crafty: Try a family craft project, says Stromer. “Nothing spells love more than a heart made out of balsa wood and hung on the front door,” he says. Balsa is inexpensive, easy to work with (you can often use tools that you already have), and available at local craft stores. Paint it, let it dry and display it prominently, says Stromer.

    12. Start the day with love: Celebrate with a Valentine’s Day breakfast, says Bellows. For a lot of families, the morning routine is hectic. So take some time on Saturday for a leisurely breakfast. Go for something traditional with a twist, like their favorite pancakes in heart shapes. Keep with the Valentine’s theme by using lots of strawberry or cherry syrup and whipped cream. And focus on the foods they really love.

    13. Work together: Take a few hours on Saturday to work together as a family on a project geared to the abilities of the kids. Build — or even just hang — a bird house. You can find kits in craft stores or if you’re not handy, take the children to pick out a seed ball. Then, together, select a spot where it can be seen from indoors and hang it. Not only do you help foster local wildlife (and help creatures during the cold winter months), you and your family get to enjoy a little bit of nature in your own backyard. Another thought: Make your own kite. A little newspaper (or other heavy paper or light cloth), some balsa wood (available at craft stores), string and poster paints can add up to a pretty fantastic kite. (Check Internet sites or children’s craft books at the library if you need examples or instructions.) See who can design the prettiest, fastest, most colorful or most unusual kite. You can display them in the kids’ rooms or around the house. Then on the first sunny, windy day, try them out.

    For any situation:

    14. Be a friend: Know someone who’s alone? Set aside some time to share a meal, go on an outing, or swap recipes or gossip. It can cost virtually nothing, and you’ll likely gain a lot more than you give.

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    Save Money on Heating your Home

    Heating your home in the winter can be costly! The strategies below will help you save energy, save money, and stay comfortable during the cool fall and cold winter months. Some of the tips below are free and can be used on a daily basis to increase your savings; others are simple and inexpensive actions you can take to ensure maximum savings through the winter.

    If you haven't already, conduct an energy audit to find out where you can save the most, and consider making a larger investment for long-term energy savings.

    Also check out no-cost and low-cost tips to save energy during the spring and summer.

    Take Advantage of Heat from the Sun

    Open curtains on your south-facing windows during the day to allow sunlight to naturally heat your home, and close them at night to reduce the chill you may feel from cold windows.

    Cover Drafty Windows

    Use a heavy-duty, clear plastic sheet on a frame or tape clear plastic film to the inside of your window frames during the cold winter months. Make sure the plastic is sealed tightly to the frame to help reduce infiltration.

    Install tight-fitting, insulating drapes or shades on windows that feel drafty after weatherizing.

    Find out about other window treatments and coverings that can improve energy efficiency.

    Adjust the Temperature

    When you are home and awake, set your thermostat as low as is comfortable.

    When you are asleep or out of the house, turn your thermostat back 10° to 15° for eight hours and save around 10% a year on your heating and cooling bills. A smart or programmable thermostat can make it easy to set back your temperature. 

    If you have a heat pump, maintain a moderate setting or use a programmable thermostat specially designed for use with heat pumps.

    Find and Seal Leaks

    Seal the air leaks around utility cut-throughs for pipes ("plumbing penetrations"), gaps around chimneys and recessed lights in insulated ceilings, and unfinished spaces behind cupboards and closets.

    Find out how to detect air leaks.

    Learn more about air sealing new and existing homes.

    Add caulk or weatherstripping to seal air leaks around leaky doors and windows.

    Find out how to select and apply the appropriate caulk and weatherstripping.

     

    Maintain Your Heating Systems

    Schedule service for your heating system.

    Furnaces and heat pumps: Replace your filter once a month or as needed. Find out more about maintaining furnaces or boilers and heat pumps.

    Wood- and Pellet-Burning Heaters: Clean the flue vent regularly and clean the inside of the appliance with a wire brush periodically to ensure that your home is heated efficiently. Find other maintenance recommendations for wood- and pellet-burning appliances.

    Reduce Heat Loss from the Fireplace

    Keep your fireplace damper closed unless a fire is burning. Keeping the damper open is like keeping a window wide open during the winter; it allows warm air to go right up the chimney.

    When you use the fireplace, reduce heat loss by opening dampers in the bottom of the firebox (if provided) or open the nearest window slightly--approximately 1 inch--and close doors leading into the room. Lower the thermostat setting to between 50° and 55°F.

    If you never use your fireplace, plug and seal the chimney flue.

    If you do use the fireplace, install tempered glass doors and a heat-air exchange system that blows warmed air back into the room.

    Check the seal on the fireplace flue damper and make it as snug as possible.

    Purchase grates made of C-shaped metal tubes to draw cool room air into the fireplace and circulate warm air back into the room.

    Add caulking around the fireplace hearth. Find out more techniques to improve your fireplace or wood-burning appliance's efficiency. Learn tips for safe and efficient fireplace installation and wood burning.

    Lower Your Water Heating Costs

    Turn down the temperature of your water heater to the warm setting (120°F). You'll not only save energy, you'll avoid scalding your hands.
    Find other strategies for energy-efficient water heating.

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    5 Steps to Help You Save for that New Car

     

    If you're trying to save up a few thousand bucks for a new car — or a used car that is at least new to you — it helps to have a plan that keeps you disciplined and on schedule if unexpected expenses pop up.

    If you're looking to purchase a vehicle, here's how to get your finances in order.

    Step 1: Calculate your desired car payment.

    If you don't want a car loan at all, the answer here is "zero." Skip to Step 2.

    But for those who can't pay in full or who don't mind a car payment, start by calculating how much you can afford to pay out each month.

    Make sure you leave some wiggle room for maintenance, such as oil changes or new tires, of course, or any change in insurance costs. While a car payment is perhaps the biggest single expense here, it surely isn't the only one.

    Step 2: Calculate how much you need down.

    Again, if you're paying in full then the answer is "everything." Now skip to Step 3.

    For those looking at a monthly car payment, a host of Internet tools can help calculate how much you need down at the time of purchase. For example, a 2014 Chevy Cruze compact sedan starts at $18,345 with shipping.

    The Auto Loan Calculator on Cars.com is a good one, because it allows you to easily customize fields including trade-in value, sales tax and loan terms to get a more accurate estimate. Bank of America also has a nice affordability tool that starts with the monthly payment instead of the sticker price of the car. This allows you to start with your budget instead of guessing on how much vehicle you can afford and working backward.

    You can do an Internet search and find a host of others. But spend a few minutes testing different down payments and payment terms, and you'll quickly see how that affects your monthly expenses — and how much car you can ultimately afford.

    Step 3: Decide when you want (or need) the car.

    Once you know how much you can afford to spend, including down payments and monthly loan installments, the final element is timing.

    Just remember that the sooner you want the car — or if your old wheels are unreliable, the sooner you need a car — the faster you'll have to save up the cash.

    Don't be unrealistic or impatient here. For instance, if you only take home $4,000 a month but need a $5,000 down payment for the car you want and insist on buying that car next week … well, it isn't going to happen.

    The obvious way to find a more affordable car is simply to look for a cheaper one. But delaying your purchase by a few months to build up more savings can also make a difference on your finances.

    Step 4: Make savings mandatory.

    Now we arrive at the hard part: sticking to the plan and saving what you need, by the time you need it.

    The best way to meet a savings goal is to take out the guesswork and make it automatic, rather than debating every single purchase you make. It's not only less temptation this way, but also less stress.

    Let's say, for round numbers, you need to save $5,000 in the next five months. If you have a direct-deposit paycheck, simply tell your payroll department that you want $500 sent to your savings account every two weeks, with the rest sent to checking as usual.

    That way the savings happens on its own — and best of all, there's no risk you'll accidentally eat into those savings when you write a check for the electric bill or when you swipe your debit card at Chipotle. Some banks may even allow you another separate account free of charge if you even want to keep the car fund separate from your rainy day savings account.

    If you don't have direct deposit, then you have to do it the old fashioned way: Either make a trip to the bank yourself or deposit $250 into a "car jar" on the dresser every Thursday after you get paid.

    And save it first thing, before some reason to spend it pops up.

    Think of this method as a kind of withholding, like the money set aside for health insurance or taxes. If you never know you have it and learn to live on a budget without it, the savings happen on their own.

    Step 5: Save, but don't punish yourself.

    Even if your savings are building "automatically," keeping your emotions in check across this process is easier said than done.

    There's the guilt that comes with spending too much on something when you should be pinching pennies. There's frustration from having to say "no" to other things we want. And, of course, there's the fear that you won't save enough and will always be behind.

    It's crucial to be realistic about what you can spend, and make a good plan … but after you have a structure in place, it's also important to relax.

    If savings becomes a daily or hourly battle to pinch pennies, you can seriously stress yourself out — not to mention your spouse or children.

    So, remember that while cutting out your twice-daily Starbucks run is a great way to save cash, it is perfectly acceptable to treat yourself to an iced mocha every week or two in order to keep your spirits up. Or, if you wind up skipping a beach vacation this year, it's OK to settle for a day trip to a campground with the kids instead.

    Giving up luxuries shouldn't mean killing simple pleasures, too.

    The bottom line is that saving money shouldn't feel like punishment. If it does, you're less likely to be successful at it.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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