4 Ways to Save on Apartment Utilities

By Jennifer Riner of Zillow

Many prospective leaseholders erroneously calculate their monthly rent budgets without factoring in utility costs. Electricity, heat, water, gas, cable, internet and trash removal often act as separate expenditures, detached from advertised monthly rents. Sometimes, landlords include portions of utilities within rental prices. If rent is stand-alone, applicants without roommates should budget 20 percent of total monthly rent for utilities. Additionally, landlords can provide utility cost estimates for applicants to prepare accordingly.

When utilities aren’t incorporated into monthly rent, tenants benefit from lowering unnecessary energy costs. Consider these four money-saving strategies to minimize utility incidentals in apartments.

1. Alter Energy-Wasting Habits

Apartment transformations – from energy wasteful to energy-efficient – doesn’t always require major purchases or renovations. In fact, low-cost modifications can significantly impact energy bills. Try rearranging furniture to uncover any registers, blocking hot air flow. In the wintertime, make sure to open the blinds or curtains on south-facing windows so sunlight can heat up interiors naturally. Close them after sunset to retain heat and insulate cold windows. Door snakes, also known as draft stoppers, are inexpensive solutions for drafty cracks in older buildings, and storm kits provide temporary insulation to unsealed windows. Make a habit of turning off lights and electronics, or setting them to enter automatic sleep mode when not in use for extended periods of time.

2. Turn Down the Heat

Residents of cold climates familiarize themselves with astronomical heating bills rather quickly. Renters in Chicago, for instance, can expect to pay up to $300 per month in a single-family rental using oil burners for heat and hot water. Forced-air and gas heating costs significantly less than oil burners, averaging tenants about $100 per month in the middle of winter. Although weather patterns shift throughout the years, consult previous tenants for general projections of heating charges. Renters who notice their heating bills rising, or face more expensive bills than previous renters, should try to modify their daily behaviors to cut down on costs. Reducing thermostats by 10 degrees while at work and sleeping can cut total heating bills by 14 percent. What would normally cost $100 per month diminishes monthly heating fees to $86 – totaling $168 savings per year.

3. Share the Internet

Just as renters with roommates can save money by splitting the Internet with their friends, tenants who live alone can split with their routers with nearby neighbors. While single renters pay around $45 per month for internet, sharing WiFi with the couple next door lowers the bill to $15 per person. Keep in mind, splitting the Internet slows maximum speed, so this may not be a practical option for renters who work from home. Further, router location might be less convenient for some – the person with the router located in their apartment receives the strongest WiFi connection. While sharing the Internet with neighbors may not work – depending on apartment layouts, individual usage and signal reach – it’s worth the attempt.

4. Replace Incandescent Bulbs with Light-Emitting Diodes (LED)

Forty-watt LED bulbs only use six watts of power, saving 85 percent of the energy and subsequent costs. While initially more expensive, LED bulbs typically save renters more than their hardware cost throughout the year lease term. Plus, LEDs last up to 20 years, only costing owners an average of 72 cents per year to operate. Unlike other more permanent energy-efficient installments, renters can unscrew and move their LED bulbs into future apartments to continue saving on utility bills.

While homeowners have the option of installing solar panels, energy-efficient appliances, irrigation meters and programmable thermostats, renters can cut energy costs without losing their eco-friendly investments after lease end. Albeit small, minor changes add up over the course of a year. Saving even $50 on utility costs per month allows renters to raise their budgets for modernized, more convenient apartments in the future.

Free Two Year Subscription to LEGO Magazine

Whether you collect LEGO as an investment or just for fun, this is an offer that you simply cannot turn down.  Just sign up at the link below and you’ll receive a two-year membership in the LEGO club including free copies of LEGO Club Magazine.  You can also elect to receive LEGO Club Jr if you sign up with your child’s information.

Click here to grab your free LEGO Magazine subscription.

Sizing Up Your Debt

Debt is a major problem in today’s world. It’s easy to get so far into debt that it seems like your every move is blocked by an insurmountable wall. But with the right plan, the right mindset, and a little bit of work you’ll be able to break that wall into smaller chunks and before you know it you’ll be on the other side…debt free!

The first thing you should do is sit down and size up your situation so you can figure out exactly how much debt you’re in and where all of your money is going. This is a vital step that you can’t afford to skip.

People who skip this step are missing the point…no matter how good their intentions are they will just never break the cycle of debt. You see your debt is about more than just dollar signs and interest rates. Your debt is about you. Your desires, your temptations, your weaknesses. In order to truly understand your debt you must first understand yourself.

There’s an old episode of The Honeymooners where lovable loser Ralph Kramden vows to transform himself into a success. He understands that there are certain qualities all successful people have in common, so he sits down to size himself up and he makes a list of all his strengths and weaknesses.

You’re going to do the same thing except instead of strengths and weaknesses you’re going to list all of your income and expenses. Just grab two pieces of paper and get started. On the first piece list your monthly salary and any other income you receive from interest, divorce settlements, part-time jobs, and anything else that generates income.

On the second sheet write down all of your expenses. Include your mortgage, rent, car payments, insurance, student loans, credit cards, utilities, and any other payments you must make each month.

What we’re trying to do is figure out exactly where your money is going. You need to total up all of your income and all of your expenses. Then subtract your total expenses from your total income. Hopefully you’ll have a nice amount of money left over which we can then use to form a debt reduction plan to start paying down your debt.

If your expenses are higher than your income it means you’re actually spending more than you are bringing in. This is a dangerous situation and if you don’t resolve it quickly you’ll only dig yourself deeper and deeper into debt. You need to take a close look at your expenses to see where you can cut back, and it wouldn’t hurt to pad your income a little with a part-time job until you get out of the red.

So there’s your assignment for tonight. Draw up a nice list of your income and expenses and jot down some ideas for cutting down your expenses a bit. You may be shocked when you see where all of your money is going.

Steer Clear: What to Avoid to Save on Your Cell Bill

Money is tight for just about everyone right now, barring the cell phone company CEOs who are raking in more money than they know what to do with because you’re paying too much on your cell phone bill. Sometimes bills are inevitable to avoid, but there’s an answer to the question on everyone’s mind –how do I save on my cell phone bill?

• Avoid Texts. This is a no-brainer. There are about a million applications out there that offer the same type function of text messaging without having to set up a costly contract with a major company. Check out some alternative apps like WeChat or TextPlus. Instead of paying for unlimited texts through your cell phone provider, get a free SIM card through Mobi-Data that offers coverage 97% of the UK without long-term contracts. By using data only plans like these, you still get all of the functionality and then some without having to worry about a huge monthly bill.

• Avoid Calls. Video chatting has become the next big thing in communication, allowing a much richer form of communication than chats on a telephone call. Before locking into a several-year contract, try out your other calling options. By going outside your service provider with your calls, you only have to worry about data usage and not about how many minutes you’re clocking and with whom. Many contracts give you free night and weekend minutes that can be complicated to take advantage of or some may allow free calls but only to certain members of a plan or fellow users. Instead, go with something free and take advantage of all it has to offer.

• Avoid Contracts. You’re not alone if you’ve ever been wooed by a cell phone company with the glittery promise of a ridiculously cheap phone at contract signing time. It can be baffling how little they’re willing to let you pay to walk away with a new phone but you’d be foolish to think they aren’t making money that way. Mainstream cell phone companies rake in the money with deals like this because they make their money back (and then some) with the contracts you’re locked into. Chances are your phone will break before your contract is up or you’ll have to pay a cancellation fee to switch carriers. These things add up quickly. Instead, buy an unlocked phone for a little bit more and enjoy your freedom. Look at it as an investment for the future as it will save you money in the long run.

While you could forgo the cell phone altogether to keep your monthly expenses in check, you’d certainly be in the minority. The best advice that can be offered is to not settle for a large monthly payment when there may be options out there that can help you tremendously. By assuming you have no other options you’re only making it true. Review your current situation and search for alternatives – there’s more than you might think out there!

5 Ways to Save $50-plus Per Month

David Bakke constantly searches for new ways to save money and shares his findings on the personal finance blog, Money Crashers.

Show me a bunch of ways to save $10 per month, and I won’t be too interested. Explain to me how to save $25 a month, and my eyebrows might rise a tad. But if you mention shaving off $50 per month from what I spend, now that gets some attention. Think about it: An extra $50 in your pocket each month comes out to $600 at the end of the year. If you can find five ways to save an extra $50 per month, and your savings rise to a whopping $3,000 per year

Fortunately, finding five ways to save $50 each month isn’t that difficult:

1. Clip Coupons
Far too few people take advantage of coupons. Extreme couponers – those who put in some serious time – can shave off upwards of 80% from their grocery bills. However, it only takes saving $12.50 per week to reach the $50 monthly threshold, and doing so is relatively easy: Each Sunday, pick up a few copies of your local paper, or save that cost by trading coupons with your friends on the things you each buy. Organize your coupons by expiration date, and try to shop on the day that your local supermarket doubles coupon values. Sign up for loyalty programs and discount cards, and join a coupon service, such as Coupon Cactus or Shopping Nanny, for additional deals.

2. Bundle Services
There’s just no sense in having your cell phone, cable TV, and Internet service contracts with three different companies. Check out bundle offers from a few providers, and make the best choice. But don’t stop there. When you call, ask if the advertised price can be improved upon, and you may be pleasantly surprised: “Consumer Reports” conducted a survey in which a third of participants asked for a better deal – and 90% of them got it.

3. Eat Out Less
If you eliminate just one family trip to a restaurant each month, your household can easily save more than $50. And when you do dine out, do it smart. Take advantage of daily deal sites such as Groupon or Living Social for half-off offers. And there are many cell phone apps, such as Bite Hunter, that provide you with meal deals in your area.

4. Take Lunch to Work
Let’s say you eat out every day of the workweek and, on average, spend $7 per meal. That’s $35 per week. If you bring your own lunch to work, you’ll spend roughly $2 per lunch. The final tallied savings: $100 every month. Plus, what you put together at home is sure to be much healthier than restaurant food.

5. Pay Off Credit Card Balances
At first glance, this seems like spending, not saving. But the average American carries approximately $7,000 in credit card debt and pays about $1,000 per year in interest. By eliminating this costly expense, you can save more than $80 per month. Even if your debts aren’t that significant, it’s still worthwhile to pay them off – it’s never worthwhile to pay interest.

Final Thoughts
Unfortunately, the majority of Americans are woefully unprepared for retirement, and many more have no emergency fund whatsoever. Therefore, now is the time to improve your personal finances and save more money. By making these small changes, you can line your pockets with some significant extra cash.

What other ways can you think of to save $50 per month?

What is Superannuation?

A girl I used to work with moved to Australia a few years ago and she recently came back to the US to visit her family. While she was in town I met her for lunch at the same old diner we used to eat at when we worked together.

While Elaine and I waited for our lunch to be served we talked about how much the company I work for (she worked there too before she moved to Australia) had changed. There had been layoffs and cutbacks on just about everything, including the 401k match.

The company had been matching the first six percent of compensation for as long as I had worked there but during the recession they froze the match completely. There has been some talk that the match will be reinstated soon but at a lower rate.

I asked Elaine if companies in Australia were making similar cutbacks, and she went on to explain that her employer was required to contribute nine percent of her salary into her superannuation fund.

I had never heard of that term before so I asked her all about it and also did a little reading up on it when I got back to the office.

To make a long story short, superannuation is the Australian version of a retirement savings plan. Employers are required to make compulsory contributions equal to nine percent of your salary, which is already more generous than retirement plans offered by most US employers.

In addition to the employer contribution, you can also make voluntary contributions to your superannuation fund. The money is then invested and grows over time.

Superannuation is kind of a cross between defined benefit plans (like a traditional pension that is rarely offered these days) and a defined contribution plan (such as a 401k). By combining some of the best elements of each, Australia’s version of the retirement plan seems like a good deal.

10 Ways To Cut On Energy Costs At Home

When it comes to reducing energy costs, little gestures can go a long way. By apply these 10 simple tricks at home, you will shrink your energy bill, all the while doing something good for the planet!

1. Fight the Phantom Load!

You probably think that your TV, DVD, computer, microwave and other appliances use electricity only when you are using them. Well, it is wrong: The phantom load, or standby charge, is the amount of electricity used by appliances when they are plugged, regardless of if they are used or not. You’d be surprised by how much energy phantom loads represent. Try and unplug all your appliances when you do not use them or when you leave the house. If the plugs are hard to reach, try and plug as many as possible on a power bar that you’ll place in an easily reachable spot and switch it off when needed.

2. Install Programmable Electronic Thermostats

An electronic thermostat is good: It’ll allow you to control the temperature of a room very precisely. A programmable electronic thermostat is even better: It’ll allow you to lower the temperature when you are not home, or during the night, which can make you save a lot of money.

While we’re on the subject of heating, know that lowering your thermostats by no more than one degree will help reducing your energy bill considerably.

3. Use Your Dryer As Less As Possible

Along with your refrigerator, your dryer is the most energy-consuming appliance in your home. If you can, try and line dry your clothes as often as possible. If you don’t have a yard or any outdoor space to line your clothes in, no worries: Buy a drying rack and hang your clothes inside – you can also do that on rainy days and during winter. Not only will you save up a lot on energy costs, but you’ll also keep you clothes in good condition for a longer time.

4. Fight Heat Naturally During Heat Waves

Forget bout cranking up the AC! Fight heat by shutting all windows, curtains and blinds during the day to avoid hot air to come in your home. When the night falls and the temperature cools off, open your windows wide and let the fresh air in. You’ll be surprised by how cool your house will remain just by doing this.

5. Insulate Your Windows During Winter

Air drafts can be the cause of considerable heat losses during winter, increasing your energy bills faster than you can account for. Make sure you seal your windows perfectly before the cold season comes. There are plenty of products you can use: Self-adhesive foam strips, clear plastic window films, etc. Ask for advices at your local hardware store.

6. Wash Your Laundry in Cold Water

About 80% of the energy used by your washing machine is used to warm up the water. If you buy a cold water detergent, there’s no reason why your laundry should not be perfectly clean when washed in cold water.

7. Wrap Your Water Heater In An Insulating Jacket

You can buy an insulating jacket for a few bucks in many hardware stores. It’ll help your water heater maintain the temperature of the water and it’ll reduce your energy bill considerably.

8. Turn Off The Lights When You Exit a Room

Lighting counts for about 10 to 15% of our energy bills. Taking the habit of turning the lights off the minute you exit a room is a great way to save some money. In places such as the bathroom, you could even install a timer. Be careful though: If you intend to come back in the room in a few minutes, leave the lights on. Switching lights on and off repeatedly can increase their energy consumption and reduce the useful life of your light bulbs.

9. Switch To CFLs

If you haven’t yet trade your old incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent ones, do it now! A CFL can last up to 30 000 hours! And, unlike the common belief may suggest, they don’t create a cold, white, crispy lighting: They come in various tones and shades.

10. Install Ceiling Fans

Not only will a ceiling fan freshen your house during hot summer days, it will also help evenly distribute heat during winter. As a matter of fact, hot air has a tendency to rise up and get stuck close to the ceiling: With a ceiling fan turning very slowly, the hot air will spread all over the room, heating it more effectively.

Caroline Simpson is a writer; a translator and a travel addict who’s always looking for ways to make life easier. She works as a freelance blogger for Standard Life, a leading long-term savings and investment company providing useful financial tools such as their annuity calculator.

Saving in the City: Ways to Lower Mortgage Costs in an Urban Area

When the economy takes a nosedive and the unemployment rate remains at all-time highs, homeowners begin to scramble to look for real ways to lower their mortgage costs. Before refinancing a home, homeowners often search for other avenues of cash to help with mortgage cost such as increasing savings, applying for loans, or pursuing a second job. These can be especially difficult for home owners who reside in large cities and other urban environments as demand for low interest loans and competition for available job vacancies are high. Mortgage holders in a city or section of a city are often in the same boat—looking for ways to pay off their home loans by finding more work or securing a loan. In a down economy with a high unemployment rate, acquiring these can often feel like an exercise in futility. Nevertheless, there are things that homeowners can do to lower the cost of their mortgage.

Know Your Situation

Before you make any drastic moves, know what you can and can’t do when it comes to your mortgage. If you have little to no experience with this sort of thing, your best avenue would be to contact an approved housing counselor that is accredited with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This government agency provides homeowners and mortgage holders with free advice on what you can do to lower your mortgage without having to refinance. Once you receive some guidance from a counselor, you will probably be instructed to contact your lender’s loss and mitigation department. In many cases in which you can prove you are suffering some form of financial hardship, mitigation offices can help restructure your mortgage that will benefit both parties. Mortgage holders who have consistently paid on time will have an easier time doing this than those who are often delinquent and waited to contact a public counselor. If you are able to get your loan restructured, this could have negative consequences for your credit score, but it is better to be able to pay off the loan comfortably than to default and damage your credit score to an even worse degree. Mortgage holders should check out the FDIC’s Loan Modification Program Guide for more information about restructuring.

Turn the Tables

Mortgage holders who are seniors can consider a reverse mortgage which allows homeowners over 62 to convert their home as an asset directly into cash before any loan is repaid. This allows seniors—who generally are not working—to remain in their homes and still be able to afford it. But be careful. There are costs associated with reverse mortgages that may not be in your best interest if you are a senior. Many of the costs can outweigh the benefits in this regard, so it is important you do as much research as possible before you sign up for a reverse mortgage.

Obama-ize Your Mortgage

If your mortgage dates back to before January 1, 2009, you may be eligible to take advantage of the federal government’s Making Home Affordable Plan to reduce your monthly payments. Total housing costs (including taxation, insurance, and any other costs associated with your home) must sum over 31 percent of a mortgage holder’s total monthly income. The home in question must be owner-occupied, is plan can help American families reduce the amount of money they pay each month on their homes. The was the plan is structured also benefits your lender in some ways, so it would be wise to contact them to see if and how you qualify for specific federal programs that were put into place to help people with their mortgage costs.

Enhance Your Credit

Doing whatever it takes to beef up your credit score can help you secure a loan with a low interest rate that you can use to pay off some, or all, of your mortgage. While these may be difficult to find (in terms of reasonable interest rates), it never hurts to shop around and seek out loans that can possibly help cut the costs of your mortgage. As the economy rebounds, more lines of credit will begin to open up with lower interest rates. When this time arrives, you will want to be at the front of the line with an attractive credit score in order to secure a line of credit that is attractive and efficient in decreasing your mortgage cost.

Angie Picardo is a staff writer for NerdWallet. Her mission is to help consumers stay financially savvy and save money withNerdWallet’s best credit cards for bad credit.

Should You Use a Realtor or Sell Your Home Yourself?

When you’re selling your home you want to try and get as much money as possible.  You also want to minimize your expenses, which means you may be tempted to sell your home without the aid of a realtor and his 6 percent commission.  After all, if the house sells for $300,000 giving up $18,000 in realtor commissions can feel like a kick in the butt.

Nevertheless, the decision to exclude an experienced realtor should not be taken lightly.  Personally, when we put our house on the market, we wanted to time the transaction so we could move over the summer because we didn’t want to pull the kids out of school.  But even though I wanted to sell my house quick, I never even considered selling it on my own because I just didn’t have the time or expertise to do it properly.

Before you make a decision, let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of selling your home without a realtor.

Advantages

As we mentioned above, the biggest advantage of selling your home on your own is that you don’t have to cough up the standard 6 percent commission to the realtor.  Of course, you won’t get off totally free.  If you expect other agents to show your home to potential buyers you will have to offer them their 3 percent.

The other big advantage is that you will have total control over the process.  You get to dictate when people can or can’t view the house, you take your own pictures, and you have total control of all advertising and signage.

Disadvantages

All of that control comes at a cost as you will spend countless hours showing your home to multiple buyers.

An experienced realtor can probably negotiate a higher selling price for your home, so going solo might not save you as much as you’d think.

Selling a home is a complicated transaction full of paperwork and legalities.  Without the experience and knowledge of a realtor to fall back on you could end up making a costly mistake.

Some brokers don’t like to show homes that are for sale by owner.  They don’t want to deal with potential headaches and complications of dealing with a non-professional.

Four Things First Time Home Buyers Don’t Always Consider

For millions of people, buying a house is like a dream come true.  They imagine themselves sitting in their backyard drinking cocktails with their friends while the kids play on the swing set and nothing could be better.

But for all too many people the house becomes like a noose around their neck.  Usually this is because they bought more house than they can afford or they underestimated the costs involved.

Here are a few things first time home buyers often forget about:

Property Taxes.   The tax man always comes to get his share and you had better be prepared to pay him.  When you are figuring out how much home you afford you need to add property tax into the equation.  You can look up the current tax bill to get an idea of how much you’ll need, but keep in mind that property taxes usually only go in one direction, and it’s not down.

Home Insurance.  Property insurance is another expense that generally only goes up so you’ll need to keep some wiggle room in your budget so you’re prepared for the inevitable rate hikes.

Private Mortgage Insurance.  If your down payment is less than 20% of the home’s value you may be required to pay private mortgage insurance.  The purpose of PMI is not to protect you, but instead to protect the lender in case you default on the loan.  PMI can be costly so shop around.  Some lenders have more creative mortgages for first time buyers who can’t afford a large down payment so it may pay to do a little research.

Escrow.  Man, I hate escrow accounts.  We had one with our first house but I hated it so much I refused it when we bought our second home.   Escrow accounts are used when the lender pays your property tax and insurance for you.  It’s nice to not have to worry about those bills since they’re built into your monthly mortgage payment, but there is a trade-off.

To ensure they have enough money to cover expected expenses, your lender will require you to keep an extra amount in the account to serve as a cushion.  Once a year or so they look at the payments and determine if an adjustment to your payment is necessary.  Do you want to guess which direction they adjust it?  In the seven years we owned our first home we received the dreaded Escrow Shortage Notice six times.  In each case we found our payment being raised anywhere from $35 to $200 a month.

When you’re already stretching yourself thin just to pay the mortgage every month, finding out that your payment is increasing because of taxes, insurance, or an escrow shortage can be like getting kicked in the gut.  If you’re a first time home buyer you want to make sure you keep these expenses in mind or you could end up over your head.

Next Page »