Category Archives: Articles

10 Ways to Lower Your Monthly Bills

green dollar sign

One simple way to make money is to save it. If you’re maximizing your money-making power in the workplace and at home, putting in long hours and working over the weekend, you should make sure that your hard-earned dollars aren’t being thrown away on bills. Try out some of these personal finance tips to make sure that you’re retaining as much income as possible.

Energy

1. Compare electricity prices. In most areas, there’s more than one option available, so shop around to find out how you can get the best possible rate. You might consider asking frugal friends and neighbors which electricity providers they’ve chosen to help you make the best decision. If you find a cheaper option but want to stay with your current company, call and let them know that you’ve found a competitive rate. Often, you’ll be able to get the same lower rate from your current company.

2. Use energy efficient light bulbs in your home. Look for the Energy Star seal and keep your eyes open for good deals. You can often buy in bulk online or find extra-low discounts at Salvation Army stores or outlets.

Insurance

3. You can lower your car insurance bill if you pay by the year rather than by the month. You’ll get a discounted rate for paying up-front because you’ll be saving your insurance company the trouble of monthly billing. Another way to lower this bill is to take a defensive driving class. This costs $25 in most states, but you might want to call your insurance company and verify that the discount will be worth your while.

4. Compare insurance prices, then bundle your insurance. Insurance companies offer multi-policy discounts, so take advantage of this by using the same provider for both car and homeowner’s insurance.

Phone/Cable

5. Cancel your home phone line and use your cell phone exclusively. Just check to make sure that it supports your local emergency services before you disconnect your home line.

6. If you’d rather keep your home phone line, call your provider and ask for help reducing the cost of your phone plan. Most companies are happy to help you find and cancel superfluous charges because it’s better business than losing a customer.

Other

7. Cancel your gym membership and walk or run instead. You can also purchase your own free weights and other exercise equipment, which will save you money over time. A one-time purchase is almost always preferable to repeated charges.

8. Limit your credit card use. Keep only one or two cards, using them for large purchases, emergencies, and travel only. Make sure you pay them off every month to avoid being charged interest.

9. Cancel monthly subscriptions that you can do without. Even if you’d like to keep a few, you can get a better rate by subscribing to online versions.

10. Pay all of your bills online to save on postage and checks.

Bio: Alexis Bonari is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident education blogger and performs research surrounding College Scholarships. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

Does Energy Efficiency Add Value To Your Home?

green home

Improving the value of your home is important for resale and investment purposes. One of the most beneficial ways to do this is to improve your homes energy efficiency. By doing this you will increase the value of your house, save money, and help to save our precious environment all in one swoop.

Value Added Efficiency

If you are considering making changes to your home before you put it on the market, your best bet is to make it more energy efficient. Most everyone will tell you that conserving energy is important to them, but it is hard to know if it really matters when it comes to making choices about actually purchasing a home. The short answer is that yes, it does. Although an increased awareness of the environment and the need to save energy is part of the reason, it really comes down to the all mighty dollar. Everyone knows that if your house is more efficient you will spend less to heat it, cool it, and keep all your appliances and computers running. That savings is the bigger driver of getting an energy efficient home then the idea of conservation.

We should not ignore the ever increasing conservation awareness either. Ever since the former Vice President Gore released his Inconvenient Truth film there has been a move toward greater conservation and awareness of our energy consumption. From installing more efficient windows and appliances to unplugging items around the house, loads of people have cut back on their energy use and seen the reward in their monthly bill.

General Appeal

But, it was hard to know if that awareness translated when it came to the actual value of your home to a buyer. Now there has been some research done that proves that indeed a more energy efficient home is more appealing to most buyers. In a recent poll more then half the people who were asked said that they energy rating of a home played a big part in their decision to purchase it. Just over ten percent said the energy rating of a home had no affect on their choice. However, people tend to talk a big game when it comes to ecology, but they do not always follow through which is why this needed to be further investigated.

As it turns out there was a study done just a few years ago that took a homes energy rating in terms of stars. one star meant that a home was not at all energy efficient and five stars meant it was very efficient. In this study, improving a homes efficiency rating by just one star increased its’ value by three percent. Broken down into money terms that meant you could spend $1200 to improve the insulation in a $360,000 home and see a return on that investment with an increased sales price of around $8,500. That is a big profit for just a small change in your home. Imagine how much value you could add if you made even bigger changes like installing solar panels or changing out windows and furnaces.

You will probably find that homes with a poor energy rating are not as saleable as they once were. Most buyers will not be inclined to consider a home that they know is going to cost them a fortune to run or that they will have to spend a lot of money on to make more efficient. This is especially true in areas of the country that face extreme heat or extreme cold, in those places buyers want to know they will not have to spend a fortune to keep their home at a comfortable temperature.

Before you consider making any improvements to your home you should look at ways to make it more efficient. Not only will this increase your homes value for resale purposes, but it will save you money right now on your monthly electric and gas bills.

The Perils of Tapping a 401(k)

by Nilus Mattive

Nilus Mattive

Fidelity just released a new report and it’s pretty depressing.

The upshot? A record number of Americans are making hardship withdrawals from their 401(k) retirement plans. Worse yet, the number of U.S. workers borrowing from their plans is also at a 10-year high!

I’ll get to why this is so disheartening in a moment. But first …

A Quick Look at the Ways to
Remove Money from a 401(k) Plan

The 401(k) plan is the most ubiquitous retirement account in the United States, and for good reason: Any money employees contribute is not counted for income tax purposes. Instead, it’s taxed — along with investment earnings — upon withdrawal.

So how and when can money come out of a 401(k) plan?

The first way is upon retirement, which is defined by the tax code as the contributor reaching age 59 ½. At that point and beyond, any money that comes out of a 401(k) plan is simply taxed as regular income.

The second way is through separation of employment. In this case, the contributor has four choices, which boil down to:

  1. Leaving the money where it is
  2. Rolling it over into a new employer’s plan
  3. Rolling it into an Individual Retirement Account
  4. Withdrawing it.

When done correctly, the first three options don’t result in any taxes or penalties. However, the fourth option DOES (unless the employee also happens to meet the conditions for retirement discussed above).

In short, money that comes out of a 401(k) plan before the contributor reaches age 59 ½ results in both regular income taxes being due but ALSO a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty.

The third way is through what is known as a “hardship withdrawal.” While they’re not required to do so, most 401(k) plans allow contributors to remove money under certain circumstances — including medical expenses, the purchase of a principal residence, tuition and related educational costs, and funeral expenses.

Individual plans have some leeway in how they specifically define “hardship” and what particular events can trigger withdrawals, but the IRS does provide the following guidelines:

“For a distribution from a 401(k) plan to be on account of hardship, it must be made on account of an immediate and heavy financial need of the employee and the amount must be necessary to satisfy the financial need. The need of the employee includes the need of the employee’s spouse or dependent.

“Under the provisions of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, the need of the employee also may include the need of the employee’s non-spouse, non-dependent beneficiary.

“A distribution is not considered necessary to satisfy an immediate and heavy financial need of an employee if the employee has other resources available to meet the need, including assets of the employee’s spouse and minor children. Whether other resources are available is determined based on facts and circumstances.”

In a few specific cases — such as death, permanent disability, or termination of service after age 55 — the IRS will not impose the 10 percent early penalty on these withdrawals. But in most other cases it will.

Worse, employees will also be required to pay ordinary income taxes on the amount removed.

And they will most likely be barred from contributing any new money to any employer retirement plan for at least the following six months!

The fourth way to remove money — temporarily — from a 401(k) is through a loan. Many plans will also allow participants to take out loans from their 401(k) accounts.

Generally, these loans have five-year terms — unless it’s for a primary residence — and carry fixed interest rates. Repayments must be made in regular installments, and everything goes back into the 401(k).

Now, Here’s Why I Find All the Current
Borrowing and Withdrawing So Troubling …

Obviously, a lot of Americans have hit rough patches lately … and other sources of credit remain in short demand … which is why hardship withdrawals are at an all-time high.

Borrowing from a retirement account now could leave you struggling down the line ...
Borrowing from a retirement account now could leave you struggling down the line …

But with so many people nearing retirement already grossly underfunded, watching even more money flow out of their accounts is going to prove catastrophic down the line.

And since most of those withdrawals are getting hit with not just regular taxes but also the additional 10 percent penalty, we’re talking about a lot of nest egg money getting vaporized before it even goes toward their immediate needs!

Oh, and get this — Fidelity said 45 percent of the people who took a hardship loan last year took ANOTHER ONE this year!

What about all the 401(k) borrowing going on?

Well, on the surface it’s better to take a loan than an outright withdrawal because taxes and penalties aren’t assessed.

Still, there are a couple of things I find problematic:

#1. Unlike hardship withdrawals, there are no hard-and-fast rules on loans. So there’s no guarantee that this money is truly being borrowed for dire circumstances. People could simply be tapping their future retirements in the same way that they tapped their home equity a few years ago.

#2. While it’s true that this money should ultimately be repaid, and at least the interest will go back to into the retirement account, it essentially means that very little new money will be contributed. The end result will be a lower final balance and the loss of the very tax advantages that make 401(k)s attractive in the first place.

Look, if you’re absolutely stuck right now, then you’ve got to do what’s necessary. But in my opinion, you should avoid 401(k) hardship withdrawals at all costs … and think long and hard before you consider borrowing against your future retirement.

After all, the other typical sources of retirement income are looking shakier than they ever have before … and the folks tapping their 401(k)s may find themselves completely out of options in their golden years.

Best wishes,

Nilus

First Home Checklist That Won’t Fail

Choosing your first home is one of the most important investments you will ever make and for that reason alone it is something that needs a lot of thought and planning beforehand. This is the place where you are going to be bringing up your family, where you will be seeking refuge at the end of a busy work day, where you will be entertaining friends and family, and last but not least this is your own little corner of the world where you can relax and do whatever you like.

It’s very easy when you start house hunting to make the assumption that you will just “know” when you find the right house, and that might be true. But a more sensible approach would be to have a first home checklist that you can use to make sure the homes you view meet your essential criteria.

Key points for a good checklist

Size: Nothing could be worse than underestimating the amount of space that you need for yourself and family. Even though your budget might not stretch to the palatial mansion that you might like, it is still important to estimate exactly how much space you need. Don’t overlook that wasted space is a bad investment too; if there’s more room than you want or need, maybe this isn’t the right one.

Planning rates and taxes: Are you buying in the latest upmarket suburb or somewhere more family orientated and residential? The area you select can have a big impact on your future budget in terms of rates or taxes. The more expensive the suburb or land, the more you pay. Find out what the current rates on the property are and the predictions for the area generally. Is the area likely to become more expensive over time as it develops? How will this affect you? Are there any developments planned that could impact on your rates or taxes? Have a survey done so you know exactly what is planned for your new neighbourhood.

Travelling to work: How far is the house from your place of work? Given that you will be travelling each day it’s important to take this into account. Two factors to consider here are cost and distance. How long are you prepared to spend travelling back and forward each day? Is it going to be costly for public transport or parking every day, is there any public transport close by?

Location: Your choice of location can make a big difference to the cost of your home. For some, it’s important to be seen to be living in the “right” area whilst others are more concerned that the house is just right and the area doesn’t matter too much to them. If you want to live in a prestigious suburb this means you will pay for the privilege. However, if you choose to sell you will probably make a profit from your investment. For those who are not fussy about the suburb, keep in mind that if it’s run down or abuts a “bad” area, your house value might not improve too much over time.

Local area facilities: You need to know what is in your area in terms of facilities. What type of entertainment is available? Are there any clubs, theatres, cinemas or community centres where you can go to socialise and relax, where are the nearest medical facilities in case you need a doctor, hospital or dentist?

Parks and play areas: When you have children or pets it’s nice to know there is somewhere you can take them for a walk or to play, when the back garden just isn’t quite big enough and you need a change. Parks and public gardens are nice to visit when you want to experience a bit of nature and fresh air.

Shopping: A necessary part of our everyday lives is doing grocery shopping or filling the car with petrol. So make sure the nearest supermarket or service station isn’t too far away.

Meet the neighbours: Now you might be anti-social and not really care who you live next too. But meeting the neighbours is the best way to get a feel for the neighbourhood and learn about the area generally. Having a good neighbour can be very helpful when you move into a new area, till you find your way round. They might even give you ideas for more things to add to your first home checklist.

Whilst there are many things to take into account when choosing your home the first home checklist above covers the basics and will give you some guidance before making your final choice.

How to Turn Blog Readers into Loyal Customers

Written by: Nathan Hangen, Guest Blogger

If you’re a blogger who’s thought about creating and selling your own product, you’ve probably heard that in order to make sales you need to get a lot of traffic. What I’ve learned, though, is that there’s a difference between getting a lot of traffic and getting valuable traffic. There’s even a difference between getting a lot of valuable traffic and getting a lot of paying customers.

For some reason, people automatically assume that if you build up your traffic, via comments, email, social media, etc., you will automatically start seeing your bills get paid and your bank account grow.

I wish!

The truth is that converting traffic into customers is a lot more difficult than it seems, especially if you don’t have a solid product to offer up to that traffic. The following steps will help you develop and launch your first product, while keeping your readers happy.

Step 1: What are You Selling?

Sure, you need traffic in order to sell stuff, but how are you going to sell anything unless you have a good product?

You’re going to have a hard time converting traffic into sales if all you’re offering is a “me-too” ebook or the same PLR content as everyone else. Make sure you take the time to develop a product that can really solve problems and offer practical advice to your readers.

Step 2: Identify Your Market

Technically, you should do this part first, but as I’ve learned over the past few years, you sometimes won’t know your market until you’ve tried to sell something and failed.

I’ve had a lot of failed products, but instead of just quitting and closing up shop, I’ve learned to re-evaluate and adjust based on what I learned from my mistakes.

My Experience

For instance, when I had the idea to write Beyond Blogging (co-authored with Mike Cliffe-Jones), I didn’t have an audience in mind; I just had a general product concept.

From there, though, I spent time sending surveys and talking with my readers on Twitter and in my blog comments. This isn’t something you can skip—you have to really get in the trenches and hang out with your audience.

In doing that, I learned what my audience wanted, which was a product that was inspirational, wasn’t a typical “how-to” blogging book, and had information and advice they could use right away. I used my research to create my product specifically for this group of people, instead of trying to make my book “everything for everyone.”

Step 3: Respect Your Audience

Some people are successful using “hit and run” sales tactics, but that’s not my style. Quite frankly, that shouldn’t be the style of any blogger that wants to build a long-term relationship with their audience. Blog audiences are fickle, and if they start feeling like your values aren’t in line with theirs, they’ll drop your blog in a heartbeat.

How To Build Relationships While Selling

Building relationships is easy, but it takes time and dedication. It starts in your comment section, by providing your readers with replies and feedback to their questions or concerns.

From there, you should make sure your email newsletter so that it provides maximum value to your readers. Keep in mind that value doesn’t always mean commercial-free content. Sometimes, value means relevant affiliate offers. People don’t mind this as long as you aren’t contacting them only when you have something to sell.

Finding the balance between selling and relationship building is tough, and will likely take some trial and error to get right. Some people will absolutely never want to be sold to, and it’s OK if you lose a few people as long as the vast majority of your audience sticks with you. If you get lots of feedback that people aren’t interested in what you’re selling, you might want to consider whether your product is really addressing the needs of your audience.

How I Sold to My Readers

When I started selling Beyond Blogging on my site, I spent a few weeks telling my subscribers and my blog readers that I was working on a really cool book.

I built up anticipation over time so that they not only knew it was coming, but so that I could pre-qualify them ahead of time.

Once the launch started, I gave my readers a head start to an early link and a discount code. They appreciated that I rewarded them for being a regular reader of my blog, reinforcing our relationship.

Although I sent reminders every few days until the end of the launch, I never acted desperate or forceful. Again, readers responded well to being treated like we had a valuable relationship, rather than just being targets for sales.

Lastly, I didn’t harass them or annoy them if they didn’t buy. When the launch was over, I simply added an email to my autoresponder sequence and went on with my blogging as usual.

If you spend all of your time promoting products, people are going to get tired of hearing from you. If you mix it up with good advice, you’re not only helping them, you’re creating a need and a desire to learn more. It’s like building blocks. You’ve got to build them up one level at a time.

The Results

When all was said and done, we sold 5 figures in the first 24 hours, and doubled that by the end of the launch. Our names were all over the blogosphere, and people were asking their favorite bloggers to do a review, without us having to prod them. That’s some true social proof.

From there, we’ve built a strong customer list that still wants to do business and is ready to learn more. Our next step is to use what we’ve learned to take them to the next level with a more advanced product, resulting in a second product with a built-in audience.

When it comes right down to it, you need traffic, but you also need to make sure you’re making something worth buying. Don’t go with big ideas—go with what people need. Once it’s ready, launch with as much hype as your audience can tolerate, while still maintaining the integrity of your relationships. After all, we’re building businesses here—not selling used cars!

What strategies have you used to turn your readers into customers? What mistakes have you made that you’ve learned from? Please share them in the comments!

About the Author

Nathan Hangen teaches people how to build digital empires, helps them rock through their workday, and works with small businesses to implement digital marketing campaigns.

Pitch Page Design Success Using the Block Approach

Written by: Lars Clausen, Guest Author

If you’re a new ClickBank vendor, writing the text for your Pitch Page can be an intimidating task. When you’ve got nothing but a blank page on your screen, it can be tough to know where to start. One technique that I’ve discovered over the years for writing effective Pitch Page copy is what I call the “block approach.”

Basically, it just involves breaking your Pitch Page text and design into separate blocks of content, which you can easily rearrange and edit separately. Block designing gives you layout flexibility, easier editing, and a solution for writer’s block. To successfully create a Pitch Page using blocks, all you need is a clear sense of who your product is intended for (your target audience) and the difference it will make in their lives (value).

Here are the 5 steps to take to build your Pitch Page using the block approach:

Step 1 – Create primary blocks

During creation, the order of these blocks doesn’t matter much. If you get stuck, put aside the block you’re working on and start on another. At this stage, perfection isn’t the point, as you’ll do your editing later.

You’ll want to create:

  • 3-5 headlines consisting of problem, solution, and benefit statements
  • 3-5 text blocks focusing on benefits and descriptions
  • 1 bullet list of thought-provoking questions
  • 1-3 bullet lists that focus on benefits
  • 1-2 testimonial blocks, preferably with pictures. Before you ask for a testimonial, write down what messages will be helpful and invite your testimonials to include specific statements. Once the testimonials arrive, edit them if necessary and ask for permission to use the edited versions.
  • 1 set of images that support your product’s value

Step 2 – Arrange these blocks into an initial layout

Again – don’t worry about perfection in this step. Just test out a sample layout that you can read over to see if it flows well and makes sense to the reader.

Step 3 – Evaluate as if you were a member of your target audience

Does your rough draft connect with your target audience? Does your Pitch Page clearly deliver the benefits and the value of your product? If you had the problem or concern they have, would your sales copy address that need and make it clear why your product solves the need?

Step 4 – Add secondary blocks to the page

First, you’ll want to create subheadings that emphasize benefits, smooth transitions, and create page flow. Next, create “urgency messages” that raise the purchase priority for your reader. These elements tie your primary blocks together and add to the strengths and urgency of your arguments.

Step 5 – Edit

Many successful authors live by the credo that “writing is editing.” A block approach makes editing simple. You can edit individual blocks to increase their clarity. You can rearrange blocks to increase the power of the Pitch Page. If something is missing, you can just create and insert a new block, rather than having to completely redo your page content.

Try out the block approach when you design your next Pitch Page. I think you’ll find that getting in the habit of working one block at a time will help you avoid writer’s block, keep you from throwing away your whole project and starting from scratch, and let you get your Pitch Page finished faster!

About the Author
Lars Clausen works on the team of PitchMagic, an automated Pitch Page and Thank You Page creation tool.