Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tips to Reduce Your Monthly Bills

Here's a nice little checklist on how to lower your monthly bills.

Learn your options for student loan debt repayment. That decision you made long ago (or the one you’re making now) to borrow all that money for your education was supposed to be an investment — not a burden. So it’s important to find a repayment plan that isn’t counterproductive to your greater goals. Considering there are about 37 million student loan borrowers with outstanding loans today, according to late 2011 statistics from the Federal Reserve Board of New York, many student loan providers are offering a variety of lower-cost ways to repay these debts.

First, check to see what type of auto-pay benefits your provider offers. Great Lakes, for example, may reduce your interest rate if you put your monthly payment on auto-pay. Next, find out if student loan consolidation makes sense for you. Depending on the current annual percentage rate, the number of years you have to repay, and the principal balance of each loan, you could end up lowering your interest rate by consolidating.

Look for promotional packages. Cable, wireless and other utility providers often advertise new promotional deals that will lower your monthly bill payment if you switch to that provider. And because you’re a new customer, the services offered are usually premium packages. DIRECTV’s Triple Savings Event, for example, allows customers to lock in three years of savings: You can save $33 a month in your first year as a customer, $10 a month in your second year, and $10 a month in your third year.

Search for hidden fees. When you’re opening a new bank account or credit card, read the fine print, or you may end up paying money for simply not following instructions. Some bank providers, for instance, require that you maintain a certain checking account balance each month. If you go below that number, then you could be hit with a hefty charge. Also, when opening a credit card, look for options that come without an annual fee — there are plenty to choose from, so there’s no sense in paying extra money just to have the card.

Plan meals weekly. “You may love to cook but trying to figure out how to feed your family a healthy, budget-friendly meal that they’ll actually want to eat can sometimes take the fun out of it all, especially with a busy work schedule,” said Linda Descano of Citi’s Women & Co. The key, she says, is to start by making a weekly menu, not just a shopping list. Once you’re in the store, save money by only shopping for what’s on your list, and be careful not to stray. You’d be surprised how much money you can waste when you spontaneously spend in a grocery store.

Also, Descano suggests having a plan B. You don’t always know when you’re going to have to stay late at the office, or when your kid’s soccer game is going to run over. Make sure your pantry is stocked with healthy non-perishables, such as tuna, beans and pasta, so that it’s easy to throw something together at the last minute. Finally, utilize your grocery store and credit card rewards programs. The Citi ThankYou Premier card, for example, can help you earn extra points on supermarket purchases.

SOURCE: Sarah Kaufman, Yahoo! Finance

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Energy Wasters

Energy doesn't come cheap.

According to Maria Vargas, spokesperson for EnergyStar, a division of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), energy bills can differ depending on the size and location on your home, but the average household spends $2,200 a year. The good news is these costs can be cut dramatically.

Energy Star, a program started in 1992 to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower energy costs for consumers, offers suggestions for how to reduce your annual electric costs by a third. In other words, you can save about $700 a year on electricity. Last year, Vargas points out, Americans saved about $17 billion on energy bills and reduced green house gas emissions by nearly the equivalent of 30 million cars.

Using data compiled by EnergyStar, MainStreet breaks down your energy bill and identifies the biggest wasters to help you save money (and reduce greenhouse gas emissions!) this winter.

HVAC Systems

"If you really want to cut back on your energy use, you need to focus on heating and cooling your home," Vargas says. That's because these two categories combined account for 46% of your overall electric bill. While most homeowners can't afford a complete overhaul of their homes' heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, some changes can increase energy efficiency and include:

• Installing a programmable thermostat, which lets you set temperatures for specific times of day. These devices can save about $180 each year on energy costs.

• Change air filters regularly. The harder your HVAC unit has to work, the more energy it eats away. Filters should really be changed out monthly, especially during the summer and winter months when the HVAC unit has a heavy workload. If you find this tedious, EnergyStar suggests changing filters a minimum of every three months.

• Seal your heating and cooling ducts, especially those running through the attic, crawlspace, unheated basement or garage, as that improves the efficiency of your HVAC unit by as much as 20%.

Water Heater

According to EnergyStar, your water heating system accounts for 14% of your energy bill. Monetarily speaking, the average household spends $400-$600 per year on water heating. To reduce this expense, lower standby losses, such as heat that escapes the water heater and seeps into the surrounding basement area, as well as the amount of hot water you use in your home.

When set too high, or at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, your water heater can waste anywhere from $36 to $61 annually in standby heat losses, and more than $400 thanks to overall consumption. Lower that expense by bringing the heater's thermostat to 120 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

Lights Out

In EnergyStar's breakdown, lighting accounts for 12% of bill, but it also represents one of the easiest fixes. In fact, by simply replacing five of your standard incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs, you can save $70 a year.

Hot Stuff

Appliances only account for 13% of electric bills, so naturally, most people don't upgrade to an energy efficient toaster. Still, if you are committed to reducing the amount of energy you use, you need to focus on larger appliances that use a heat coil, such as a refrigerator or washer and dryer. To do that, make sure that your fridge's filters are cleaned regularly, and consider using only cold water to wash laundry loads. That can save $30 to $40 each year.

But don't be too stingy, Vargas says. Replacing a major appliance, like a refrigerator that is 10 to 15 years old, may help you save in the long term as new technology is constantly subject to federal standards that adjust every year.

Energy Vampires

Any appliance or device that sucks up energy when it's plugged in, despite being turned off, is one of these money-draining culprits. According to EnergyStar, this includes most electronic devices, especially those that use some sort of display, like a television, laptop or DVD player.

Slaying energy vampires won't lower your energy bill significantly — electronics only account for about 4% of the total cost — but it's important to keep them in mind, as they consume 75% of the electricity used to power home electronics and appliances.

Powering Down

The best way to eliminate this phantom menace is not only to turn energy vampires off, but unplug them. This may be easier said than done, but unplugging a laptop in between uses isn't particularly problematic. However, doing so with your television would require you to wait for the cable to reboot every time you wanted to watch a program.

As an alternative, EnergyStar suggests plugging your television and/or DVD player into a power strip and then turning that off when your television is in stand-by mode. Put your computers on sleep mode, or manually turn off the monitor inbetween visits, as opposed to utilizing a screen saver, which, contrary to popular belief, does not reduce energy output. Also, make sure you unplug a battery charger of adapter as it continues to draw energy even when the product no longer needs it.

Put Stand By on Stand by

The final 11% of your electric bill comprises devices that don't exactly fit into any particular category. This includes dehumidifiers, external power adapters and video game consoles, which are all considered energy vampires.

An Xbox 360, for example, if left on the draws approximately 1,000 kWh/yr. The PS3 draws 1,300 kWh/yr. According to EnergyStar, these values drop dramatically when users routinely turn the device off after use, lowering annual energy levels down to 110 and 120 kWh/yr, respectively. Since it costs about 12 cents per kWh/yr in the average residential home in the U.S., it costs $120 if to leave your Xbox plugged in for the entire year.

To lower these costs, unplug the devices when you are not playing and only resort to stand-by mode as, well, a stand-by. Energy Star estimates that stand-by power accounts for more than 100 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of annual U.S. electricity consumption, and $11 billion in annual energy costs.
SOURCE: Jeanine Skowronski, Yahoo! Finance