Refinancing Your Auto, Student or Home Loans Can Help Save You Money

8/1/2017 in Money Management Tips

Refinancing your loans can be a way to help reduce your monthly payments and help minimize the amount of interest you’ll pay over the life of the loan.

Whether you’re looking to refinance automotive, home or student loans, they each come with pros and cons. This ClearCheckbook Money Management Tips post will help you figure out if refinancing is right for you. Keep in mind that refinancing at the beginning of your loan while you’re still paying heavily toward interest is the best time to refinance. The closer you get to paying off your loan, the less a refinance might help.

The three most common types of loans you might have are automotive, student and home. Each of these loans has different requirements and fees associated with refinancing. We’ll cover each of these loan types and go into whether refinancing the loan might be right for you.

Why you might consider refinancing:
It might be wise to research refinancing your loans if you’ve match any of these criteria:

1. Your credit score has improved since taking the loan.
The interest rate you get on your loans usually has a very strong correlation to your credit score. If you took out a loan while your credit score was low (699 or below) but your credit score has raised up into the 700’s or higher, your chance of getting a lower interest rate is a lot higher than if your credit score was still low.

2. Interest rates have dropped since you took out the loan.
Interest rates have been at historic lows recently, but they fluctuate all the time. Assuming your credit score remained the same, refinancing when interest rates drop 1% or more from what you’re currently paying could mean a big reduction in monthly bills and interest over the term of the loan.

3. You didn’t get a good interest rate, even though you had good credit.
Just because you had good credit doesn’t mean you got the best rate when you took out your loan. Whatever the circumstances were, if you ended up with a higher rate than you think you can get now, refinancing at a lower rate could be a good choice.

4. Your financial situation has changed and you need to lower your monthly payment.
If you’ve run into some hard times financially and need access to as much cash as possible, then refinancing could potentially help get you some extra money each month.

5. You want to change your loan duration (eg: going from a 30 year fixed to a 15 year fixed mortgage).
Refinancing with a shorter term loan can help save you lots of money in interest over the term of the loan. If you’re financially stable enough and would like to pay off your home quicker, refinancing to a shorter loan term could be a good choice.

6. You’re currently facing hard times and need to reduce your monthly payments
Refinancing a loan doesn’t have to be entirely about saving money in the long term. Refinancing can also be a great option if you’re going through tough times financially and need to lower your monthly payments. This can usually be done by refinancing your loans for a longer duration. The downside is you’ll probably end up paying more over the course of the loan, but it can help alleviate any immediate financial issues. Then, when you get yourself back on solid ground you can work on refinancing again or paying off the loans faster.

How does refinancing a loan work?
No matter what kind of loan you have, refinancing works by taking out a new loan to pay off your old one. This new loan comes with a new interest rate and terms. You can refinance through your existing loan holder or with a different company. When refinancing, it’s always good to shop around and try to find a lender with the best rates and terms that fit your needs.

Automotive Loan Refinancing
Compared with other types of loans, refinancing an auto loan is about as easy as it gets. There is no appraisal and usually no fees associated with refinancing your auto loan. Credit unions usually offer some of the best interest rates when it comes to refinancing auto loans. The credit unions might require you to create a checking or savings account with them if you don’t already have one.

Assuming you meet one or more of the criteria above in the "Why you might consider refinancing" section, one of the first things you’ll want to do is get the current payoff amount from your existing lender. This is the amount left on your current loan and is the amount you’ll use when refinancing. If the payoff amount is higher than the value of your car then you might have trouble getting a new lender to refinance your loan.

You can find out how much you can potentially save by using a calculator like Bankrate’s auto loan calculator to determine what your new monthly payment might be and then subtract that amount from what you’re currently paying each month.

Like we mentioned earlier, refinancing in the first half of your loan’s term is going to save you the most monty since during that time you’re mostly paying interest. After that you’ll be paying more toward principal and refinancing will have less of a benefit.

If you need to lower your monthly payment but your payoff amount is worth more than the value of your car or you can’t find a lender to give you a new loan at a lower interest rate, you can try negotiating with your current lender to lower the rate or to extend the term of the loan. Extending the duration of your loan means you’ll be paying more in interest over time but it could lower your monthly payments.

Student Loan Consolidation / Refinancing
Before we get into the details a little more, let’s clear up what the difference between consolidation and refinancing is. Student loan consolidation is combining multiple student loans into one single loan. This makes it easier to have one monthly payment at one interest rate instead of multiple loans at varying rates. Consolidation takes the weighted average of your interest rates to come up with the new rate. Student loan refinancing on the other hand works by taking one loan out to pay off all of your existing loans, leaving you with just one payment. Refinancing has the benefit of letting you seek out better interest rates and loan terms.

Student Loan Consolidation
Like we said above, consolidation simply takes all of your existing loans and consolidates them into one single loan using a weighted average of your interest rates to determine the new rate. Consolidation can be done with federal loans through a Direct Consolidation Loan. By doing this you’ll keep all the benefits of your federal loans and might be necessary for enrollment in federal programs such as income-based repayment plans. Another drawback is that you cannot consolidate private and federal loans into a single loan.

Consolidation won’t save you any money and could potentially cost you more in interest. Consolidation makes sense if you’re struggling to pay your minimum requirements each month and want to extend the terms of your loan. You might also become eligible for income-driven repayment plans where you pay less each month if you’re not making much money, but more once you start earning more.

Student Loan Refinancing
Refinancing is a way to take out a new private loan to pay off all your existing student loans. There is no federal loan refinancing program so you’ll have to use a private lender which means you might miss out on any federal loan benefits you might be receiving. Loan refinancing has the added benefit of letting you negotiate a lower interest rate and different repayment terms which has the potential to save you a lot of money in interest.

Refinancing makes sense if you’re looking to lower your interest rates or switch to different repayment terms. Just like other loans, the rates and terms you’ll get will depend on your credit score and current income.

Why you shouldn’t refinance or consolidate your loans:
If you’re currently part of a loan forgiveness program through your work, you might want to skip refinancing or consolidating your loans or else the forgiveness terms might start over. You should check with your workplace to find out what the terms are for your specific loan forgiveness program. Additionally, loan consolidation might lead to the loss of some borrower benefits, such as interest rate discounts, principal rebates, or loan cancellation benefits as a result of switching lenders.

Home Loan / Mortgage Refinancing
Being one of the biggest purchases you can make with one of the longest repayment terms, a home loan can have a dramatic effect on your finances. This makes home loans a great option for refinancing in order to save you money each month.

Like other loan refinancing, when you refinance a home loan you’re taking out a new loan to pay off your old one. There are many reasons you might consider refinancing your home loan and may include lowering your interest rate, shortening the loan term, switching from/to an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM), consolidating debt or taking equity out on your home (cash out).

The old rule for refinancing a home loan was when the interest rate was 2% lower than what you’re currently paying. Now, most lenders will advise you to refinance even if you can only save 1% on your interest rate.

Home loan refinancing has a few drawbacks to consider. First, refinancing a home loan often includes closing costs that can be 3-6% of your mortgage. Second, you might be required to have an appraisal, title search and pay for application fees. All of these can be combined into an amount called the "break even point" which will help you determine if refinancing is right for you. The break even point is calculated by dividing the total closing costs by the amount you’ll save each month. For example, if you refinance and have $3,000 in closing costs and save $100 per month, it will take you 30 months, or 2.5 years, to break even on the cost of refinancing. If you plan on staying in your home longer than that then refinancing is probably a good option.

Another thing to consider is the rate and term of the new loan. It’s possible that refinancing your existing 30 year loan to a new 30 year loan could cost you more in interest over the lifetime of the loan. This is less of an issue if you refinance early on, but looking at these numbers will also help you figure out if refinancing is right for you.

Depending on your current interest rate and what the going rates are for loans, you could potentially switch from a 30 year fixed rate mortgage to a 15 year fixed rate mortgage with a much lower interest rate but not pay much more per month. This is the best way to dramatically reduce the amount of interest you’ll pay over the lifetime of the loan.

Cash-out or home equity loans are a different type of refinancing where you take out a new loan for more than your existing loan amount. You can then use the difference in amounts for home improvements, college tuition or paying off other debts. Keep in mind that you’ll still be paying interest on this money so using a home equity loan to pay off something like credit card debt will still result in paying interest on that. Another potential issue is transferring from an unsecured to a secured debt. If you miss a payment on your credit card you’ll lower your credit score and get calls from debt collectors. If you miss payments on your mortgage you’re at risk of foreclosure and losing your home entirely.

How much can refinancing save me?
While there are too many variables at play to give you a straight answer, there are many calculators available online that can help you determine if refinancing one of your loans is right for you. Simply do an online search for "xxxx loan refinancing calculator" and you’ll find several different tools that can help you make the decision. Keep in mind that refinancing isn’t always about saving you the most money. If you’re going through tough times and are having trouble paying your minimum monthly payments, refinancing at a longer term can help dramatically reduce those monthly payments while you get yourself back into a stable financial position.

This is part of our weekly Money Management Tips series that aims to help you take more control of your finances. This series gives tips on everything from tracking your spending to improving your credit score.

Save Money by Making Smarter Meal Choices

7/20/2017 in Money Management Tips

Cutting down on your food expenses is one of the easiest ways to save extra money each month.

In this blog post we’ll use some eating habits that we believe are about normal for a single adult living and working in the US. Then, we’ll show how you can save nearly $100 each week by simply doing a better job of buying and cooking your own food. Everyone is different and your daily habits might not fall in line with the example but we hope you can take some of these ideas and apply it to your situation.

Breakfast:


Expensive
Fast food breakfast on the way to work: egg muffin w/ coffee or juice = $5
Frugal
Similar breakfast at home: 2x eggs ($0.28), piece of toast ($0.20) and coffee ($0.22) = $0.70

This is a savings of $4.30 per day. If you don’t want to purchase a coffee maker, there are good and inexpensive alternatives for making a single cup such as the Aeropress or a french press. The cheapest solution would be to use instant coffee.

Lunch:


Expensive
Fast food combo meal = $8
Frugal
Pack your own lunch. There are a huge choice of options here but we’ll stick with an easy to prepare lunch. Sandwich w/ apple and chips. Water to drink = $3.35 ($0.40 for bread, $1.50 for meat, $0.20 for tomato, $0.10 for onion, $0.20 for lettuce, $0.70 for apple, $0.25 for chips)

This is a savings of $4.65 per day. While microwavable meals may seem cheap and easy, we don’t recommend them because they usually aren’t that filling and are generally not that healthy. Another great way to cut your lunch costs even more is to eat leftovers.

Snacks:


Expensive
Crackers or candy bar from vending machine = $1.00
Frugal
Buy snacks in bulk from the store instead of buying individually when hungry. For example, buy nuts in bulk for $4/lb = $0.50 per snack

This is a savings of $0.50 per day. Another alternative is to eat your lunch gradually throughout the afternoon so you don’t have to purchase additional food for snacking.

Dinner:


Expensive
Grabbing fast food or eating at a restaurant = $8-15
Frugal
Making a dinner that will last several days (see assumptions at bottom of post). Chicken, veggie mix and rice = $4.70

This is a savings of around $10 per day. The added benefit is you now have 2-3 extra meals for lunches or dinners later in the week. If you already eat dinner at home try to plan and cook meals that will last several days instead of buying a frozen dinner that will only last you one meal.

Adding all of this up will save you $19.45 per day. Over the course of a 5 day work week this will save you just shy of $100 per week. You can increase the amount saved by spending a couple hours once per week making a lot of food that you can refrigerate or freeze and then eat throughout the week. Investing in a slow cooker and making a hearty stew or slow cooking some meat and then pairing that with some rice and veggies makes for a filling and extremely cheap meal.

If you need to eat out at a restaurant, you can always save a couple of dollars by ordering water instead of a soda.

We recommend setting up your Spending Categories to really drill down into where your food spending is going. If you’re already categorizing all of your expenses then the next step is to set a budget for both your eating out and your groceries and work on spending less money eating out and shift that over to groceries where every dollar you spend goes much farther.

If you’ve changed your eating habits and have noticed the changes in your budgets, we’d love for you to share your experience in the comments!

Assumptions:
  • Breakfast:
    • 18 pack of eggs costs $2.50
    • 18 slice loaf of good bread costs $4
    • 1 lb of ground coffee costs $8 (36 servings per pound)
    • Assumes you already have butter / jam for toast
  • Lunch:
    • Costs for sandwich ingredients depend on how much you use per sandwich.
    • Drink water to save even more money
  • Dinner (enough for 3-4 meals):
    • 3 lbs chicken thighs @ 2.50/lb = $7.50
    • 1 onion = $1
    • 1 bell pepper = $1
    • 1 broccoli crown = $2
    • Box of seasoned rice = $2.50

This is part of our weekly Money Management Tips series that aims to help you take more control of your finances. This series gives tips on everything from tracking your spending to improving your credit score.

Save More by Setting Up Weekly or Monthly Goals

7/11/2017 in Money Management Tips

Challenge yourself to save a few extra dollars each month by creating some easy-to-complete goals.

Now that you’ve already started meticulously tracking your expenses, why not take the next step and work on reducing your spending even more on one or more of your spending categories?

These goals don’t need to be difficult. They can be something as simple as buying one less coffee per week or seeing one less movie per month and watching that money stay in your bank account. The real reason you want to set some short term goals is to test yourself and see if you’re able to cut certain things out of your lifestyle or reduce spending in certain areas. If you find that making those changes is easy then you can incorporate the change permanently and have even more money available to you later on.

You can either make a mental note to spend less this week or you can adjust your budget by a few dollars and work on keeping under budget for this week or month. To edit your budgeted amount for your spending category, open up your budgets and click on the budget you want to change. This will expand the budget and you’ll see an option to Edit the budget.

When the Edit Budget form appears, simply reduce the Budget Amount by the amount you want to save and then update the budget.

Edit a Budget on ClearCheckbook

We hope that by challenging yourself to spend a little less every now and then you’ll learn that it’s actually easy to keep those changes in full effect for the future. Once you start cutting back on your spending some more you can take that extra cash and apply it toward reducing your debt or putting it away into your rainy day / emergency fund.

Let us know in the comments below what you’ve decided to cut back on and if it’s helped you put a little more towards your savings or toward reducing your debt.

This is part of our weekly Money Management Tips series that aims to help you take more control of your finances. This series gives tips on everything from tracking your spending to improving your credit score.

Check Your Bank Statements for Any Forgotten Subscriptions

7/5/2017 in Money Management Tips

Don’t throw away money by letting unused memberships continually withdrawal from your account.

With so many different companies and services charging a recurring fee for upgrades or service (yes, including ClearCheckbook), there are bound to be some that you’ve forgotten about and don’t use. Cancelling these unused services can potentially save you a lot of money.

Some of these recurring fees will be from companies you recognize, like a monthly Netflix or Hulu charge. Others might be for services you no longer use, like if you have an Xbox live or Playstation Network account that you don’t use. You might have simply forgotten about some like a gym membership that you signed up for at the beginning of the year and haven’t used in a while. The hardest to catch are ones that you didn’t even know you signed up for or were tricked into when entering your billing information online. Keep an eye out for fees from companies that you don’t recognize.

How can you find these recurring membership fees? The easiest way is to stay on top of entering your transactions into ClearCheckbook and Jiving them against your bank statement. If you follow the instructions in our Jiving walkthrough then you’ve probably already found some.

If you’re just getting started with ClearCheckbook or you import your transactions via our Import Transactions tool, looking for these transactions is as easy as going through the last few months of your bank statements looking for fees from companies you don’t recognize or for services you no longer use. Remember that some services renew annually while others can renew monthly. Regularly keeping an eye on your transactions will ensure you catch any of these quickly.

What should you do when you find one of these charges? Don’t immediately file a chargeback with your credit card company against the recurring fees you don’t want. Doing so actually violates how chargebacks should be handled and can result in the chargeback being reversed and the billings continue. Instead, make sure you attempt to contact the company either via email or phone first. If you can retain proof of this attempted contact or the company responses and they still refuse to cancel your membership then you’re well within your rights to file a chargeback.

Have you found any tricky hidden recurring fees on your statements? If so, let us know in the comments below so others can be aware of them!

This is part of our weekly Money Management Tips series that aims to help you take more control of your finances. This series gives tips on everything from tracking your spending to improving your credit score.

5 Ways to Reduce Energy Costs at Home

6/27/2017 in Money Management Tips

Reduce your energy costs at home to help keep money in your pocket. Changing a few habits and upgrading some outdated items can have a significant impact on your monthly energy bills.

In this Money Management Tips post we’ll cover 5 topics you can use to help dramatically reduce your energy bill each month. Some of these tips might seem like common sense while others you might not have thought about.

1. Replacing old inefficient incandescent light bulbs with CFL or LED lights
Countries around the world have passed or are working on legislation to phase out the use of incandescent light bulbs due to their inefficiency and short lifespan. The lifespan of bulbs is usually represented in the number of hours the bulb will provide light before burning out. The lifespan of your typical incandescent bulb is 1,200 hours. CFL bulbs have an average lifespan of 30,000 hours while LED bulbs can last upwards and exceeding 50,000 hours.

CFL (Compact Fluorescent) Bulbs
Rather than passing electricity through a coil of wire, CFL bulbs pass an electric current through a tube filled with argon and mercury vapor and are up to 70% more energy efficient than an incandescent bulb. CFLs can run about $1 more per bulb than an incandescent but the cost savings over the lifetime of the bulb can be about $150 less than an equivalent number of incandescent bulbs.

The downsides to CFLs are the fact that they do contain small amounts of mercury, cannot be used with dimmer switches and can take a few seconds to reach full brightness after being turned on.

LED (Light Emitting Diode) Bulbs
LED bulbs use a number of small LED lights to output an acceptable amount of light. LED bulbs are more expensive than incandescent and CFL bulbs but have a lifespan of 50,000+ hours and use less energy than CFL bulbs and far less than incandescent.

The downsides to LED bulbs are the price and some people have reported some buzzing or flickering from their bulbs when used on a dimmer switch.

The savings
Assuming 25,000 hours of usage (about half the life of an LED bulb) and the cost of $0.12 per kilowatt hour, you can consider the following costs per bulb type: $201 for incandescent, $48 for CFL and $38 for LED. Source. These are for ONE BULB so imagine the cost savings if you changed over more of the bulbs around your house. Even if you don’t have the means to change every bulb in your house over to CFL or LED, simply changing the most used ones (like your kitchen, living room and bathroom) could save you nearly $50 per year.

2. Better management of your heating and cooling
According to the Energy Information Administration, about 42% of home energy costs go to heating and cooling. This leaves a lot of room for improvement and areas to save money.

A 1978 research paper (“Energy Savings through Thermostat Setbacks" by Nelson and MacArthur) found that in the winter, on average, if you turn the thermostat down by one degree Fahrenheit for eight hours every night, you’ll use about 1% less energy. If you raise the temperature in the summer and lower it in the winter while you’re not home or in bed you can dramatically cut back on your energy costs.

If you install and properly use a programmable thermostat you can also easily save on energy costs without having to remember to adjust your thermostat throughout the day. Several studies have found that many people improperly use programmable thermostats however and actually end up with higher energy usage than without. This comes down to people overcompensating the assumed savings from adjusting the temperature during the day or night with dramatically more usage in the morning and evenings. Just because you have the potential of cutting back on energy by reducing demand when you’re gone or sleeping doesn’t mean you can now use more energy in the morning and evening when you’re home.

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) document from 2004 describing the Energy Star programmable thermostats specification [PDF] summarizes the research into their efficacy:

Consumers are often advised that installing a programmable thermostat can save them anywhere from 10 to 30% on the space heating and cooling portion of their energy bills. While reliant on proper use of the programmable thermostat, such savings are easily true in theory; however, there needs to be more field-tested data to better substantiate savings claims. Analyses from recent field studies have suggested that programmable thermostats may be achieving considerably lower savings than their estimated potential.

In 2000, the Energy Center of Wisconsin published a report entitled “Programmable Thermostats Gone Berserk? Taking a Social Perspective on Space Heating in Wisconsin" [PDF]. The study found, in part, that:

Despite the emphasis that has been placed on the use of programmable thermostats to reduce thermostat setpoints and so save heating energy, respondents with programmable thermostats report thermostat setpoints that are not substantially different from those of respondents with manual thermostats.
[…]
These details and the conclusions above lead us to suspect that the aggregate savings that can be expected from the installation of programmable thermostats in residential housing is probably quite modest.


3. Unplug unused electronics
One thing you might not think about is the power your various devices and appliances use even when “turned off". This power draw is called standby power and can account for up to 10% of your home’s energy usage (source). This can add up to $100 per year just to power unused devices.

Which of your devices and appliances might be consuming power even though they’re off? Here are some basic rules you can look for:
  • Anything with a remote control (TV, VCR, cable box, stereo)
  • Anything with an external power supply
  • Anything with a digital display, LED status light or digital clock
  • Items that contain battery chargers

What can you do to cut back on standby power? The best way is to simply unplug the unused or rarely used items when you don’t need them. One tip is to use power strips with an on/off switch so you can easily turn on or off clusters of electronics (like a TV, VCR and gaming console) without having to physically plug and unplug them.

Here are some common devices you can unplug when not being used:
  • TV in a second bedroom or basement that gets used a few times a year
  • Gaming consoles (Xbox, Wii, Playstation, etc)
  • A printer that doesn’t get used regularly
  • DVD / Blu-ray players
  • Any kitchen devices with a clock or LED status that you don’t use daily

4. Changing your water usage habits
Being aware of how you use your water can affect both your power and water bills. Energy.gov has a list of 15 ways to save on your water heating bill. Some of the tips we believe will be the most beneficial are:
  • Reduce your hot water heater temp to 120’F
    • Every 10’F reduction can save 3-5% on water heating costs
  • Use cold water for most laundry loads and in the rinse cycle
    • This can be a difference of around $0.65 per load
  • Fix any leaks. A leak of 1 drop per second can cost $1 per month and might be as easy to fix as tightening the connection on a pipe
  • Don’t let the faucets run while brushing your teeth or cleaning dishes
    • Letting the faucets continually run while brushing your teeth or cleaning your dishes can waste several gallons per day. Over the course of a month this can really add up quickly and affect your water bill.

Simply being cognizant of how you’re using your water and when you’re using your hot water heater (every time you use the hot water the tank will get refilled and needs to be reheated which uses power) you can help cut back on your costs. While each of these alone might not add up to a lot, when combined and used with other tips they can help you save over time.

5. Air seal your home
Sealing your home to prevent drafts is important to keep hot air inside during the winter and cold air inside during the summer. Energy.gov has a lot of information and tips on air sealing your home.

There are a few easy fixes to help seal your house and help prevent your conditioned air slipping through the cracks.

Caulking around stationary joints
There might be gaps around your door or window frame and the wall where air is seeping through. To fix this problem, add caulk to any gaps around the frames where they meet the wall. Doing this can save 10-20% on your heating and cooling bills. Here’s an Energy.gov article that covers how to caulk around these joints.

Add weather stripping to moveable joints
After sealing around the frame and wall with caulk, the next step is to eliminate any gaps between your doors and windows and their frames. Weather stripping is usually rubber or foam that has a sticky backing that fits around the frame and will fill the gap between a door or window and frame that aren’t properly fit. If you look at your door and can see light or gaps between the door and the frame then that means air can be seeping through. Adding weather stripping can save between 5-10% on your heating/cooling bills. Here’s an Energy.gov article that covers weather stripping.

Install insulation film over windows during winter
Window insulation film is a plastic sheet that you apply to your windows in the winter to reduce heat transfer. There are two types of insulation film generally available. The first is a solar control film that works by reflecting infra-red light and absorbing UV light. This film sticks directly to the glass. The second is called a convection control film and is simply a piece of plastic that covers the window to trap a pocket of air which acts as insulation. Some types of this film are shrink wrapped by heating with a hair dryer after taping to the frame.

Summary
There are many ways to reduce your energy costs by changing some of your habits around the house or from buying some more energy efficient items. While it might be difficult to use and apply every one of these tips, we encourage you to give some a try.

If you’ve found ways to cut back on your energy bills please share your experiences in the comments below!

This is part of our weekly Money Management Tips series that aims to help you take more control of your finances. This series gives tips on everything from tracking your spending to improving your credit score.

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