Next to last installment. Actions 23 -26 deal with cutting utility costs.
Shop for the Best Deal on Utilities – did you know that 28 states allow you to select an electric and/or natural gas provider? (Click here to check whether your state offers such a program.) If so, spending a few minutes several times a year could cut your utility bill by hundreds of dollars. There are two components to a utility bill: the supplier portion – the actual gas or electrical power consumed – and the transmission or distribution charge. The distribution portion is billed by your local utility and the price set by state regulators. However, you may be able to select a supplier with lower prices. Generally, each provider offers a guaranteed rate for a given term: 3 months, 6 months, a year, or more. The shorter the term, the better the price, but that means shopping for rates – probably switching suppliers – several times a year.
To give you an idea about how it works, here’s an example from our PECO electric bill (Philadelphia area – kWh = kilowatt hour):
Annual Electricity Consumption:
‘Default’ Rate from PECO if no supplier chosen:
7.467 cents per kWh
Our supplier’s rate for a 3 month contract:
4.150 cents per kWh
Estimated annual savings:
Note this is just the ‘commodity’ portion of the bill. PECO charges an additional $8.43 per month plus 6.795 cents per kWh for distribution charges. Ouch.
One caveat: The 3 month terms are something of a ‘teaser’ rate. Once the term ends, the rates could really shoot up, probably even higher than the utility’s default rate. Be vigilant about renewing with another supplier when your contract ends. You could choose a 6 or 12 month contract but at a higher cost. On the other hand, even a penny saving per kWh would result in a $120 annual savings for 12,000 kWh consumed.
Check with your local utility about energy-saving incentive programs— These could include:
A home energy audit free or at a reduced cost
Rebates for purchasing energy-efficient appliances, furnaces and air conditioners
Recycling of older appliances – PECO, in fact, will haul away your old refrigerator for free and pay you $40!
Install a programmable or smart thermostat – depending upon which study, programmable and smart thermostats can reduce heating/cooling costs by 10 – 20%. Note: while smart thermostats cost up to ten times what conventional, programmable thermostats cost, they do not necessarily provide any greater energy savings. Furthermore, there are some security concerns about Internet of Things (IoT), of which, smart thermostats play a part.
Swap out heavily-used incandescent light bulbs for LED bulbs – the cost of LED light bulbs have dropped so far and the energy savings is so great, you should be replacing all the frequently-used incandescent bulbs in your home. NOW! Don’t even wait for the existing bulbs to burn out before replacing. Do you need more facts to convince you? Review FW&W posts Dawning New Light – LED Light Bulbs Can Brighten Your Finance Part 1 and Part2 as well as the LED Bulb Calculator.
Congratulations, dear readers. You have just about made it through longest month of the year! But I still owe you five more Essential, Frugal and Wise actions. Sorry about that. The last installment will be posted in a day or two.
Open a Flexible Spending Account (FSA)– wouldn’t you like to save thousands of dollars annually by paying for everyday expenses pretax rather than post-tax? (For a review of the value of money pretax vs. post-tax, re-read A Penny Saved is NOT a Penny Earned.) To refresh your memory: a dollar post-tax (the net proceeds of your paycheck) could be worth a $1.50 or more pretax (depending upon your tax bracket, state and local taxes). Here’s the skinny on FSAs:
FSAs are only offered through employers. If your employer doesn’t have an FSA program, lobby the HR department to set one up. Signing up for an FSA may only be allowed during the benefits open enrollment period. Ask. If you missed getting in on an FSA for 2017, make sure you get signed up in time for 2018!
Your FSA is funded through payroll deductions. This lowers your income used to calculate Federal, Social Security, Medicare, and (in some cases) state/local taxes. It’s a wonderful thing!
There are actually 3 separate FSA programs: (1) Out-of-pocket healthcare expenses – for 2017, up to $2600 annually per household (2) Dependent Care/Child Care – $5000 annually per household (3) Parking and public transportation commuting costs – ($255/month) Note: not all employers offer all three.
As you incur healthcare, dependent care or commuting expenses, submit documentation to be reimbursed from your FSA. Some programs even provide a debit card for convenience.
What if you took advantage of all 3 programs to the max? That would be a total of $10,600 paid pretax. Let’s say that your take-home pay after taxes is only 70 cents on a dollar pretax (pretty common). You would have saved approximately $3200 in taxes!
Use it or lose it! The one downside to FSAs. If you don’t spend all the money in your FSA by year end, you lose it! But even if you have to walk away with some money remaining in the FSA, you may still come out ahead on tax savings. In recent years, the Use It or Lose It rules have been relaxed somewhat. Some plans allow you to claim expenses into the first few months of the following year. Others plans allow carrying up to $500 over to the next year.
Open a Health Savings Account (HSA) – FSAs and HSAs easily confused but are actually two completely different programs. But in some respects, an HSA is an FSA on steroids. Here’s the scoop on the differences and HSA advantages:
A Health Saving Account can only be used in conjunction with a “high-deductible” health insurance plan. For 2017, a high-deductible policy means a minimum deductible (that you pay) of $1300 per person or $2,600 per family.
It’s an either/or choice for an FSA or HSA. They are mutually exclusive. However, you could have an HAS for healthcare and FSAs for dependent care and commuting costs.
HSAs do not have a Use It or Lose It provision. You can accumulate funds in an HAS and use them years or even decades later in retirement.
HSA contributions may be invested or kept in an interest-bearing account, so the balance grows over time.
HSAs can be offered by employers or opened by individuals (provided the high-deductible policy requirement is met).
HSAs offer these tax advantages: (1) contributions up to the annual limits are tax deductible (2) earning and appreciation are tax free. (3) withdrawals for medical expenses are tax-free.
HSAs have much higher annual contribution limits compared to FSAs. As of 2017: $3,400 per person or $6,750 per family. If you are over 55, add in an additional $1,000 as a ‘catch-up’ contribution. For couples with no dependents on their health coverage, I recommend maximizing contributions by setting up two individual accounts rather than a single, family account.
Contributions can only be made until age 65 (when you become eligible for Medicare.)
Increase 401K/403B contributions – at a minimum, you should be contributing enough to your 401K or 403B to get the full employer match (typically 6% of your salary for a 3% employer match) failure to do so means losing out on a huge sum of money over a lifetime. This year, try to ratchet up your contribution another 1 or 2 percent. Such a small reduction in take-home pay likely will not be missed but could significantly accelerate your retirement savings. (go back and read You can’t spend what you ain’t got: Why You Need to Automate Your Savings.)
Open a Roth IRA – a Roth IRA is beautiful thing indeed! While contributions are made with after-tax dollars, Roth IRA appreciation and retirement withdrawals are tax-free. There is also some flexibility for withdrawing contributions penalty-free prior to retirement (although I wouldn’t recommend it.) Unlike conventional IRAs, there are no minimum withdrawal requirements in retirement. Contribution limits are $5,500 or $6,500 if you are over 50. Be aware: eligibility to contribute to a Roth is phased out or eliminated at higher income levels ($117,000 for singles or $184,000 for couples as of 2017). And how would you contribute to your Roth? With an automatic deduction, of course! (Note, some employer 401K and 403B plans also offer a Roth option.)
Start saving for the children’s college education; open a 529 Plan(s) – money contributed to a 529 grows tax-free. Many states also permit 529 contribution to be deducted from state income tax (but no such luck on federal tax). Generally, as much as $14,000 per child can be contributed each year (limited by federal gift tax exemptions). 529 Plans are administered on a state-by-state basis. However, you are not confined to your state’s plan; you can chose to go ‘out-of-state’ Here’s one article about the Best 529 Plans (Forbes, March 2016)
Set up automatic transfers to a savings account – there are many reasons for bulking up your savings: establishing an emergency fund in case of layoffs or unexpected expenses, saving for a house down payment, saving for a replacement auto or a major appliance, even a vacation. The list goes on. Set up an automatic transfer to the savings account. Better yet, divert part of your paycheck directly to a saving account. A great place to keep said savings account: the Capital One 360 Money Market account. It’s pays 0.60% interest for balances under $10,000 and 1% for balances over $10,000. And it’s FDIC insured.
Review last year’s expenditures – when it comes to managing your finances, it’s difficult to know where you’re going, when you don’t know where you’ve been. Tally up your spending activities from last year using records and statements. Which categories of spending ‘jump out’ at you? Where are opportunities to cut back? How much were you able to save? Don’t have any idea where your money went last year? Skip Immediately to #13 and get this year off to a good start!
Track expenses –tracking expenses is essential for taking control of your finances and planning for future. Do you need to keep such meticulous records that you know where every penny went? Well, no. But the more accuracy, the better. Recording expenses can take many forms: a notepad or journal, a spreadsheet, online (mint.com, budgetpulse.com), a PC program (Quicken, Microsoft Money) or any number of smartphone apps (Mint, GoodBudget, Mvelopes). Personally, I’m old school and use Microsoft Money. It was discontinued years ago but copies are still available on ebay and, it works fine installed on modern PCs. It fits my needs. I am also a little bit leery about keeping financial records in the cloud, or apps such as Mint that directly access accounts,. However, Mint is well regarded.
Set a budget – not to worry. Establishing a budget does not have to be as tedious and painful as you fear. Step one: begin by recording on-going, necessary monthly expenses: mortgages, loans, tuition, phone and internet. Step two: estimate variable expenses based on last year: auto repairs, gas, utilities, house maintenance. Step three: estimate necessities where there is leeway for spending, such as clothing and food – these are areas where spending can range from basic to lavish, from Mac’n’cheese to Porterhouse steaks. Step four: estimate spending for purely discretionary items: vacations, dining out, entertainment, hobbies. Add it all up and adjust the items in steps 3 and 4 to fit your income. Allow (plenty of) room for saving and giving.
Set goals for big-ticket items – some goals may have a timeline of decades (saving for retirement, attaining financial independence). Some last a decade or so (kids’ college education). Others are a few years or even months (replacing a car or appliance, home renovation, down payment on a house, a vacation.) Dream a little, but then prioritize. Evaluate the viability of your goals and what it takes to achieve them.
Set up automatic bill payment to save time and postage, avoid late fees – this action is as much about quality of life as it is about saving money. Life is simply too short to spend it writing checks and stuffing envelopes. Moreover, the cost of postage and stamps can really add up. Say you write 10 – 15 checks a month for recurring bills and donations. A first-class stamp is currently 47 cents. An individual check may cost 10 cents, or more. Altogether, you could needlessly be spending $60 – $100 on stamps and checks every year! Worse yet, what if you overlook or forget a payment and get socked with a late fee? Late payments can also adversely impact your credit score. Set up as many automatic payments as you can for (1) charitable donations, (2) utilities (3) internet and phone (4) credit cards (5) mortgages and loans (6) insurance (7) rent, (8) IRA and HSA contributions, and more.
All for now. Look for Actions 17 – 21 early next week. Cheers, Paul
Make a list of all your newspaper and magazine subscriptions; cancel any that are not regularly read. Take action if you have a stack of periodicals piling up in a corner, untouched and unread. This ‘stack’ could represent hundreds of dollars wasting away every year. Chances are you only have time to read a handful of magazines each month. Frugal alternatives: (1) catch up on your reading for free at the local library (2) ‘share’ subscriptions or swap magazines with friends.
Review all recurring expenses (monthly and annual). Cancel any that are no longer important. These are expenditures that can add up but are easily overlooked as regular charges. They can include (but are not limited to):
Gym, YMCA or health club memberships
Pool or golf club memberships
Any other association or club memberships where you rarely participate
Credit alert or credit score services (of minimal value, provided you routinely review statements and your credit report)
Credit or mortgage life insurance – incredibly expensive for what you get. Better to buy a term life policy.
Subscriptions to video or music providers (Netflix, Sling, Pandora, Sirius, etc.)
Annual credit card fees (unless the rewards exceed the annual fee)
Monthly checking account fees – time to find a new bank or a credit union!
Contemplate whether it’s time to cut (or cut back) the cable. Here are several strategies for scaling back or eliminating the cost of cable:
Cancel premium packages for channels rarely watched.
Replace cable with a combination of over-the-air broadcasts and streaming services. Attention sports fans, click here for ways to get your sports fix – without the expenses of cable.
Go old school: rent DVDs from RedBox or check out DVDs from the local library.
Limit TV viewing – engage more in productive and healthy alternatives. Another advantage: you are less inclined to buy so much stuff when you are no longer being bombarded by commercials.
Investigate dropping the telephone land line – given the pervasiveness of cell phones, do you still need a land line? It depends…
Pros: (1) dropping the land line could save several hundred dollars each year (2) lose the telephone ‘spam’: all those annoying telemarketing and robo calls. (3) simplify your life
Cons: (1) there may not be much savings if your phone line is bundled with internet service (2) a land line typically has better sound quality; cell coverage is still spotty in many areas (3) emergency response for 911 calls is faster, since your address pops up in the 911 response center.
Review cell phone plans – cell phones, particularly those with data plans have become a big monthly expenditure. If you’ve had your plan a while, it’s time to shop around. Just be aware of any early termination fees. Take advantage of family plans where data and airtime can be pooled.
January is the longest month of the year. Granted, six other months also have 31 days. But none last as long as January. To help pass the time, I present you with 31 Frugal and Wise action items. Make that long, slow slog through January (and February) profitable. Enhance your finances.
I’ll be breaking down the recommendations into six installments between now and the end of the month. (Unfortunately, 31 is a prime number and can’t be evenly divided.) Here are Actions 1 – 6:
Review Auto and Home Insurance Policies: Call your current insurer and ask about reducing premiums; get quotes from competitors. Some of you might have experienced what I have: premiums go up year after year but then you phone your insurer and somehow, they find a way to reduce your premiums. Definitely worth a 10-minute call. If your present insurer can’t do much for you, it’s time to shop around. Possible ways to save: (1) increase deductibles (2) cancel comprehensive and collision coverage on older cars (3) ask if you are you eligible for discounts because of your employer, alma mater, memberships or affiliations (4) get a discount purchasing home and auto policies together from the same insurer (5) ask about discounts for teen drivers with Driver’s Ed and good grades. But avoid skimping on liability coverage limits. Here are the J.D. Power rankings for auto insurance: and homeowners insurance:
Consider Umbrella Liability Insurance: As you faithfully practice Frugal and Wise ways, your savings and net worth are bound to increase. You should consider adding an umbrella liability policy to augment the liability coverage provided by your auto and home policies. Typically, an umbrella policy brings your total coverage up to one or two million dollars. Yet, the cost is reasonable, perhaps several hundred dollars to around $1000 per year. Just remember: a million bucks ain’t what it used to be…
Start Gathering Tax Records: For most folks, preparing a tax return is less painful than a root canal, but not by much. Be on the lookout for 1099 and W-2 forms arriving in the mail or made available online. Tally up last year’s charitable contributions and other deductions. If you are getting a refund, you’ll want to file as soon as possible. If you owe taxes, you don’t want surprises – better to know sooner than later and be prepared. Make an appointment now with your accountant or tax preparer. If a Do-It-Yourselfer, start your return online or with tax preparation software. Here are tax prep software reviews from two sources: http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,1904319,00.asp , http://www.thesimpledollar.com/best-tax-software/
Check Your Payroll Withholdings: If you anticipate getting a BIG tax refund this year, congratulations! You just gave Uncle Sam an interest-free loan for the year with your hard-earned money. I realize that many, if not most, taxpayers prefer large refunds. But as the Frugal and Wise, you should be taking a different tack: increase your take-home pay by reducing tax withholding. Then immediately save or invest the difference. Just don’t overdo it; withhold too little and you could end up paying a penalty. Come every April, you ideally should owe Uncle Sam a modest sum, say, a hundred dollars or so. Ask your payroll or HR department for a W-4 form to increase the number of exemptions you claim (the more exemptions, the less taxes are withheld from your paycheck.)
Resolve to NEVER Pay ATM Fees Again: Believe it or not, the average ATM fee is now $4.57 per transaction! This is SO unnecessary. You might as well be tearing up Five Dollar bills and scattering them in the gutter! Tips for locating surcharge-free ATMS: (1) Convenience stores – 7-11, Wawa and Sheetz among others (2) Drugstore chains: CVS Walgreens, Rite Aid (3) Your bank or credit union’s website may have a directory of free ATMs. Note: some “free” ATMs might ask if you want your account balance. Just say No! Otherwise you could get dinged 50 cents or a dollar. If it’s your bank that’s charging the fee, it’s time to switch banks or, better yet, join a credit union.
Pull Your Credit Report: You are entitled to a free credit report every year from each of the 3 major credit agencies: (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion). It’s important to verify the accuracy of your credit record as well as to detect any signs of fraud or identity theft. Visit the online portal annualcreditreport.com – you can either access your credit reports online or download a form to mail a given agency. I suggest staggering the three agency reports so that you are reviewing your credit record every four months.
That’s all for now. As always, your input and suggestions are welcome. The next installment will include Actions 7 – 11. Cheers, Paul