5 Ways to Save Energy During the Dog Days of Summer

“Holy crap.” That was my shocked response to the first utility bill of summer.

A month of running the air conditioner jacked my bill up by over $100. I suddenly found myself considering the pros and cons of living in the basement until Labor Day.

If summer utility bills are scorching your budget, take heart. With these low-effort ways to save energy, you can spend less without moving underground.

1. Hang sun-blocking curtains

When summer sunlight hits your windows, much of it enters your home as heat. High-quality blackout curtains can reduce this heat gain by up to 25%, Dave Lincon, director of product management and business development at Sears Home Improvement, said in an email. Cellular shades with a honeycomb design are more expensive but can slash unwanted solar heat by up to 80%.

Basically, anything you can do to block direct sunlight — closing shutters, deploying an awning or adding white liners to your existing drapes — will keep things cooler and help you save energy.

2. Turn your water heater down

Water heaters account for about 18% of total home energy use, often because they’re set too high. The default temperature for most water heaters is 140 degrees, and when I checked, mine was set to a skin-peeling 150.

Turning the water heater down to 120 degrees protects your plumbing, saves energy and reduces risk of scalding. Who wants boiling hot showers in the summer anyway?

To adjust the temperature, look for a thermostat knob on the front of your water heater. If it has Hot, A-B-C and Very Hot settings instead of numbers, set it to Hot to achieve 120-degree bliss.

3. Switch to a reusable air filter

It’s a good idea to change the air filter on your heating, ventilation and air conditioning system every 30 days, says Todd Washam, director of industry and external relations at the Air Conditioning Contractors of America. But buying stacks of disposable air filters gets expensive fast.

Permanent electrostatic air filters may cost more than disposables initially, but they’re washable and can last up to 10 years. By cleaning your reusable filter often, you’ll ensure more air gets in while keeping efficiency-killing particles out. A win-win.

4. Turn up your thermostat

With summer heat in full swing, this energy-saving tip may sound crazy, but hear me out. Your air conditioner’s main job is to control indoor humidity. When set to 78 degrees, a properly installed air conditioning system will limit indoor humidity to 50% or less, keeping you comfortable while using less energy.

If you usually like things on the frigid side, 78 degrees may feel like the Sahara. Ease into it by nudging the thermostat up a little each day. It’s surprising how quickly your body adapts. And even a small change makes a big difference: You could spend 3% to 5% less on air conditioning by turning the thermostat up just one degree, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a nonprofit that advocates for efficient technologies.

5. Opt for flat-rate utilities

Also known as “budget billing” or “balanced billing,” flat-rate utility programs split your annual energy use into equal monthly payments.

A flat-rate plan smooths away seasonal bill spikes, but make sure you understand the terms before signing up. Ask about service fees, how often rates readjust, and what happens if your actual energy use differs from the power company’s estimate.

Bonus: Learn to read your meter

Much like checking your bank account balance, reading your energy meter gives you a better understanding of real-time usage and may help you spot billing errors.

If you have a digital meter, reading it is easy: Simply record the numbers you see, from left to right.

If you have an analog meter, do-it-yourself readings take a bit more work. You’ll still read the numbers from left to right, but if a dial hand is between two numbers, record the lower number. And if a dial hand points directly at a number, check the dial to the right before recording it. If the dial to the right is on 9, subtract one from the dial you’re looking at before recording it. Otherwise, record it as is.

Once you’ve recorded two readings, subtract the first reading from the second to see how much energy you’ve used in the interim. You can record readings on a regular basis to keep tabs on your consumption over time.

The article 5 Ways to Save Energy During the Dog Days of Summer originally appeared on NerdWallet.

Ways to Save in College

Going off to college is an exciting time! Your world is about to open wide, providing you with new opportunities to expand your mind, meet new people, and begin the groundwork for your career (or figure it out). One very important skill you’ll need is learning how to save while living on your own. The easy first step is finding out what you don’t need to buy.

• A printer. They take up too much space, and the cost of ink and paper can add up. Check with your college to see if they have a printer allowance (usually included in the school’s technology fee), giving you access to the school’s printers. Also, many professors prefer that you turn in your papers electronically through the school’s educational portal (e.g., Blackboard or Moodle.)

• Computer software. Most schools have special arrangements with Microsoft to provide the Office Student to their students for free. For virus software, if you have cable at home, virus software is usually available to download through the cable provider.

• Toilet papers and bathroom cleaning supplies. If you’re living in a dorm, you won’t need these products. But if you’re living in a suite style dorm with its own bathroom, check with the school to see if room and board fees include janitorial services.

• Television. First of all, with classes, homework, and studying, you’ll have very little free time to watch TV. Second, your laptop will be able to stream most of your favorite shows. Third, most colleges have TVs in common rooms.

• Ironing board and iron. They take up too much space and you’ll likely use it…maybe never. If wrinkled clothes really bother you, get a small steamer instead.

• A car. You’re going to spend most of your time on campus, so there’s little reason to pay for monthly loan payments, parking fees, gas, and insurance. Use public transportation or a bike to get to places too far to walk.

Another way to save is to keep track of small expenses, like eating out or buying cigarettes. Those expenses add up over time. For instance, just buying a Starbucks latte (around $4.00) every day means you’ll spend $300 on coffee in one semester! Make a budget and do your best to stick to it. It’ll make saving money much easier and make living on your own a little less stressful.

Copyright 2018 Credit Union National Association Inc. Information subject to change without notice. For use with members of a single credit union. All other rights reserved.

Understanding how to refinance intelligently

The landscape of mortgage refinancing is shifting, but that shouldn’t necessarily scare homeowners away from considering this financial move.

According to the Ohio Credit Union League’s 2018 Mid-Year Consumer survey, 57 percent of respondents have refinanced a mortgage. And most Ohioans, 81.7 percent, believe the best reason to refinance a mortgage is to take advantage of better interest rates, payments, or loan terms.

Fewer Ohioans are comfortable utilizing a cash-out refinance option to pay for home improvements (8.6 percent), to pay off higher debt (6.7 percent), or to pay for a big purchase (1 percent).

Conventional wisdom says respondents have the right idea about the most beneficial use of refinancing. It’s typically considered a better idea to refinance to save money on the loan, rather than use the equity in a house for debt or purchases.

A common way to save money through refinancing is to find a loan with a lower interest rate, but that method may be more difficult to find these days. The improving economy has led to increasing interest rates on a variety of loans, including mortgages, noted a recent report from Back Knight, a real estate data provider.

According to Freddie Mac, a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage had an average interest rate of 4.59 percent in May. That’s an increase of 0.58 percent over last year and a rise of nearly a percentage point since May 2016. The country is still enjoying a relatively low mortgage rate environment – the same loan had an average rate of about 6.04 percent in May 2008 and a whopping 16.4 percent in May 1981.

But, the gradually rising rates does mean fewer Americans have the incentive they need to refinance to a lower mortgage rate. According to an Investopedia article, consumers have historically been guided to look for a 2 percent interest rate decrease before refinancing. Today, some investors say 1 percent is enough of an incentive.

With interest rates climbing in the first six weeks of 2018, those rates are becoming increasingly difficult to find. But the key to successful refinancing, even in a rising-rate environment, is for consumers to look carefully at their individual situation. Falling interest rates may be a common reason to refinance, but it isn’t the only one.

For example, if the homeowner originally opted for a 30-year loan with relatively small monthly payments, but is now in a better financial position to make more substantial payments each month, it might make sense to refinance to the mortgage with a shorter term. The interest rate might not be significantly lower, and monthly payments may increase, but the customer will save money on interest over the shorter lifetime of the loan.

Perhaps a current loan is structured to include a balloon payment at the end, and the homeowner wants to refinance to restructure the loan terms. Or, consumers may have a genuine interest in putting the equity in their home to use to pay off debts or pay for home improvement projects, in which case a cash-out refinance would be attractive.

Consumers shouldn’t discount refinancing their mortgages solely because of rising interest rates. Here are some tips for smart refinancing.

  • Be sure refinancing is the right choice for you. Refinancing isn’t the best option in every situation. Before considering refinancing your mortgage, make sure you know the rate and term of your current mortgage, as well as how that compares to present rates at various terms in the market. It’s important to understand how much you stand to save by refinancing before making the decision.
  • Understand why you’re refinancing. Make sure you have a clear goal in mind for your refinance. If you need to free up money in the short term, you may want to consider shopping for a loan with a significantly-lower interest rate or monthly payment. If you can afford larger payments each month, and want to save over the life of the loan, shopping for a shorter-term loan may make more sense.
  • Raise your credit score. Make sure your credit score is in good shape before deciding to refinance your mortgage so you can get the best possible interest rate. A credit score in the mid-700s will serve you well. To raise your credit score, pay down credit cards, make on-time payments, and avoid taking on new debt before refinancing.
  • Shop for the best loan originator. There’s more to take into consideration than your new loan’s interest rate. Make sure you’re shopping around for institutions offering the best loan origination and document fees. It can also be valuable to search for a loan agent you trust to help you find a mortgage loan that best serves your financial position.
  • Buy mortgage points. Homeowners can buy mortgage points, also known as discount points, to reduce their interest rate. Mortgage points are fees paid directly to the lender at closing in exchange for a lower interest rate. One point costs 1 percent of your mortgage amount – so $300 on a $30,000 loan. “Buying down the rate” basically allows you to pay some interest up front to achieve a lower rate over the life of the loan.

Credit unions are uniquely equipped to help members understand how to find the best loan for them. To find a credit union near you, visit asmarterchoice.org.

Four Signs You Need to Clean Up Your Finances

It’s easy to see when you house needs cleaning: clothes are on the floor; dirty dishes are stacked in the sink. But it may be a little harder to know when to “tidy up” your finances. Here are a few signs:

1. You’re living paycheck to paycheck
If you barely make ends meet at the end of the month, it’s time to buy yourself some wiggle room for unexpected events. Start by cutting back on at least one major expense and putting that money into an emergency fund. The goal of an emergency fund it to be able to cover a three-month period of unemployment. at a minimum. Consider downsizing to a smaller home or apartment, going from a two-car household to one, or commuting by bus or bike. Getting a side gig is another way to boost your emergency funding.

2. You’re not saving for retirement 
According to Northwestern Mutual’s 2018 study, 21% of Americans have not saved for their retirement. If you’re one of those people, it’s time to start. Your goal should be to save 15% or more of your monthly income for your retirement. If you’re not used to saving, going from 0 to 15% might be hard. So, start small and simply set aside $50 each month. Increase that amount when you get a raise or get a better handle on your expenses.

3. You’re carrying credit card debt
There is good debt—mortgages for homes and loans for education—but there is also bad debt. Credit card debt is the worst kind of debt you can have, and the longer you carry it, the more money you end up losing in interest. If you’re up to your chin in credit card debt, maybe it’s time to create a budget and move to a cash-only system until your debt is under control.

4. You don’t have a budget in place. 
Do you follow a budget? Many Americans don’t, even though it’s probably the most effective way to manage money. Without a budget in place, you’ll have a hard time seeing where your money is going, where you’re overspending, and where you can make changes.

If any of these signs apply to you, it’s time to clean up and learn how to manage your money. You’ll be thankful in the long run.

Copyright 2018 Credit Union National Association Inc. Information subject to change without notice. For use with members of a single credit union. All other rights reserved.