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Good Financial Cents, and author of the personal finance book Soldier of Finance. Jeff is an Iraqi combat veteran and served 9 years in the Army National Guard. His work is regularly featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Inc.com and Entrepreneur.

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How we Paid off $78K of Debt With Average Incomes

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more information.

It’s a new year! And you’re probably reading this because you want to make a change with how you handle your money in 2020. You want to pay off your student loans, start investing, and maybe save up for a big girl vacation, like, to Europe or something.

You want to make big changes but very rarely do big things happen to move the needle. It’s the little things that sustain you when you’re trying to make big changes.

Like, pay off more money in debt than you make in a year.

My husband, Travis, and I paid off nearly $78,000 of student loan and consumer debt in 23 months. When we started, we were making less than $50,000 between the two of us. I have no clue what made us think we could do this.

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The story seems like a big deal now but it didn’t feel that way when we were in it. I remember being halfway through, tired, and hopeless because there was no light at the end of my tunnel.

It’s no wonder more people don’t pay off their student loans. According to the US Dept. of Education’s Direct Loan Portfolio by Repayment Plan, almost 3 million borrowers are in programs that offer a loan forgiveness option.

But… people’s reliance on the loan forgiveness concept is slipping. In the same report, you can see that the number enrolled in Income-Based Repayment has fallen every quarter since the end of 2016. People are realizing that the government is not going to take care of their student loan crisis.

So where do we go from here? You can’t go from drowning in debt to financially independent overnight. It’s a hard road. There’s a glamorous story to tell at the end but the process is anything but.

I’ll tell you honestly, it’s the everyday things that get you through this process.

There’s no magic bullet, there’s no personality, job, or location that makes someone better suited to pay off debt. It’s the small habits you build and perform day-in and day-out that make it possible. And there are dozens of them. But you can get started with just a few.

These are the 17 easiest and most import habits I’ve found that you can start to incorporate into your life to pay off debt and create the financial future you want. I hope you don’t think they’re trivial. Taking a small step forward is vastly more impactful than doing nothing and some days it’s all we’re capable of.

Even if you’re not getting there as fast as you think you should you’re still moving forward and it’s a better place than you were yesterday.

Daily Habits

  1. Drink a Glass of Water Upon Waking 

After 8 hours (hopefully) of sleep, your body is massively dehydrated. Drinking 16 oz. of water before you do anything will potentially aid digestion and other bodily functions.

But why in the world is this a good “financial” habit?

Your body can mistake thirst for hunger when you’re dehydrated. Being well hydrated in the morning can help you avoid that starving feeling that starts when you’re on your way to work and conveniently driving past a coffee shop or bakery.

There are tons of mornings that I have my perfectly portioned breakfast ready to go but my hunger is so big it doesn’t seem like enough. But on mornings I’m not hungry I don’t even think about stopping for coffee and pastry, which costs me $6 a trip.

  1. Eat Protein in the Morning 

For most people, our days are back-loaded with protein. We eat granola and the light turkey sandwich for lunch and a big ol’ steak for dinner. It should really be the other way around.

Protein stabilizes blood sugar levels, which strengthens your concentration and reduces brain fog. It also boosts energy levels and keeps you fuller longer. All this is essential for the avid side hustler.

When I have protein throughout the day I’m more productive at work and I could go home with enough energy to work my side hustle and not crash after. If I forgot about my diet I would feel tired, worn out, and eventually get sick.

  1. Do Your Least Favorite Task First

This one could also be “do your most inconvenient task first.” I’ll never say I’m perfect at these. I am still know for putting off important tasks for weeks when they could be over in 5 minutes.

Things always come up during the day and they always seem more important (translation: easier) at the time. Calls to creditors, applying for jobs, and completing freelance work are some of the tasks I’ve had to complete first to make sure they get done before the last minute.

  1. Respond Open Endedly to Invitations

We get invited to new things everyday. Whether it’s via Facebook events or in-person requests we want to do everything but we can’t afford everything. We’re those people who respond “interested” to events and say “I’ll check my calendar” to most invites.

If it’s free we won’t hesitate to say yes but anything that’s going to cost money has to thought about before agreed to. Eventually, we got good enough to immediately suggest free alternatives to coffee dates and expensive restaurants but some invites don’t have alternatives.

We’ve had to turn down wedding invites, out-of-state birthday trips, and dinners out. They were nothing to cry about but had to be thought through instead of impulsively agreed to.

  1. Track Spending Manually

Apps like Mint are nice because they track you spending automatically. But when you’re on a budget you shouldn’t be looking back at the end of the month to see where all your money went, you should be actively managing it.

Manually tracking your spending every night helps you see where you are on your budget and helps you know whether you can say yes or no to those friendly invitations. I like EveryDollar, it’s a beautifully designed app and it’s free.

  1. Admit & Respond to Your Mistakes

When you’re avoiding sweets and you find yourself eating a cookie do you give up and say “Oh well, I’ll try again next month” and proceed to finish the box of cookies? We are so prone to give up if we make a mistake; that is a seriously limiting mindset.

When you buy something you regret, miss a day of your side hustle, or fall short of your debt payment it’s not an excuse to quit. It’s also not a time to start justifying the reasons behind all your mistakes. Call it what it is, decide how you’re going to respond better next time, and move on.

This is a daily practice because I don’t know anyone, myself included, who can make it through a perfect day while paying off debt.

  1. Celebrate Small Wins

As frequently as we call out mistakes we need to be calling out wins. Every day has something that’s worth celebrating. I prepped all my produce for the week last night, I celebrated that, I was two days late in prepping it but I got it done.

When I say celebrate I don’t mean go out or throw a party. Simply saying out loud what you accomplished or writing it down will suffice. Just identifying the good and progress everyday is what you’re going for.

Weekly Habits

  1. Make Manual Payments

In addition to automatic payments for debt payments and savings goals it’s good to make manual payments too. This allows you to actively participate in reaching your goal.

Sure you could do all your payments automatically (and you should on some) but adding additional payments manually helped us regain motivation, make bigger payments, and pay off the debt faster.

  1. Meal Plan & Prep

Setting aside an hour each week to meal plan and make a grocery list is essential to paying off debt. Honestly it’s essential for anyone who doesn’t want to blow all their money on food.

Meal planning isn’t hard and there are options for premade meal plans if you absolutely hate it, but don’t use the excuse of “not having enough time” to skip this. It’s that important.

One thing I was missing for a while was actually cooking the meals I’d planned for with the ingredients I’d bought. I was too busy (or lazy) throughout the week to go through the monotony of cooking, until I started prepping.

Now after I get home from the grocery store I meal prep produce according to all my recipes and even pre-season vegetables so during the week all I have to do is dump and cook. It’s helped me reduce food waste, which has saved even more money.

  1. Always Check For Savings Before You Buy

Dont get in the checkout line or hit “Buy Now” before you search for a coupon, cash back, or cheaper option. Here are my favorite places to check for deals.

  1. Help Someone

When I was a year into our debt payoff I was feeling really hopeless. The first year was so hard and we were only at the halfway point. It was like finishing a half marathon and feeling accomplished only to remember you’re running a full marathon.

What helped me regain my motivation was helping people with the knowledge and skills I now possessed. I started a blog but you don’t have to, in fact I think you can help more people without one.

Facebook groups are a place people ask questions all the time and there’s a thriving #debtfreecommunity on Instagram where people are honest in their accomplishments as well as their shortcomings. These are great places to start and it’s energizing to find others with as much zeal for being debt-free as you.

  1. Write a Thank You Note

Sometimes living on a limited budget can feel isolating. Everyone is travelling, going out, and growing closer while you sit at home. That’s why it’s important to be intentional about cultivating the relationships you do have.

Saying thanks for little things and big things in a handwritten note or on Facebook is how you forge deeper relationships in less time. When you know someone is grateful for you don’t you go out of your way more to accommodate them?

Obviously your gratitude should be sincere and not to get something in return but don’t feel like your missing out on relationships if you don’t participate in everything.

Occasional Habits

  1. Put it On Ice

Huh?

Sounds funny right? I discovered Icebox, a free Google Chrome extension, last year and found it to be an awesome idea. The idea is to minimize impulse spending by replacing the “Buy Now” button on over 500 online stores with a “Put It on Ice” button.

This button saves the product in your “Icebox” for a period of your choosing, then it becomes available to buy. The hope is that after a cool down period you’ll rethink the purchase and save your money for something better. Watch the video to see it in action:

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Impulse shopping is a monthly obstacle for most millennials, and it actually affects more males than females. I’m all about working smarter, not harder, and anything that forces me to think more about my spending is a welcomed inconvenience.

  1. Automate Everything

Its 2018 and you might think you’re automating everything but this. But somehow we can’t find the 3 minutes it takes to set up auto-pay on something and we miss deadlines. It might sound silly but it’s worth the reminder.

We recently got a new debit card for Travis, we forgot to change the card number on our cell phone bill and got hit with a late fee. Our utilities don’t allow us to automate online and I had to go during working hours to set up auto-pay. Everyone should be regularly auditing their bills to make sure cards aren’t expired, numbers are up to date, and that you’re not incurring random fees.

  1. Unfollow People on Facebook

I did this regularly while paying off debt because I had a big ol’ case of FOMO. Friends were doing things and getting stuff that I wanted and I couldn’t participate. Well, I could but my bigger goals won out.

I never unfriended people, they weren’t doing anything malicious; I just wanted to live in ignorant bliss. And it helped a lot. Instead of following friends who were living their best lives now, I started following Instagram accounts of people paying off debt and it made social media an inspiring waste of time vs. a depressing one.

  1. Look For More Money

Every opportunity we get Travis and I look for ways to make money. Whether it’s an online survey, mystery shop, or freelance gig we spend our free time productively.

Most of these side hustles are a refreshing change of pace from our 9-to-5’s so they don’t drain energy like a minimum wage hourly job would. But hey, if you like your hourly side job stick with it! But it should pay at least $10 p/h. 😉

  1. Shop Used First

One of the most deeply ingrained habits in American culture is that if you need something you go to Target or Walmart and buy it. Or if you can wait two days for it you order it on Amazon. But even though you think you’re getting a bargain, you’re probably still paying way more than you could if you got it used.

Instead of taking the easy way out check Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, pawn shops, consignment, and thrift stores for your needs before buying new. It only takes a few extra steps and you will save thousands of dollars by making this a habit in your life.

We didn’t adopt all these habits overnight. It snowballed with one here, one there, until we were practicing all of them. Start with two or three and work on incorporating more healthy financial habits for the rest of your life. Paying off debt is only the start of your prosperous financial journey.

<img data-attachment-id="2547" data-permalink="https://www.modernfrugality.com/9-2/" data-orig-file="https://i0.wp.com/www.modernfrugality.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/9.png?fit=735%2C1102&ssl=1" data-orig-size="735,1102" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta=""aperture":"0","credit":"","camera":"","caption":"","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"","orientation":"0"" data-image-title="One Couple’s Story of Paying off Debt Quickly" data-image-description="

One Couple’s Story of Paying off Debt Quickly

” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/www.modernfrugality.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/9.png?fit=200%2C300&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/www.modernfrugality.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/9.png?fit=400%2C600&ssl=1″ loading=”lazy” width=”400″ height=”600″ data-pin-description=”Do you want to learn how to pay off debt fast on average incomes? Here are 17 tips to implement today. #payingoffstudentloans #payingoffdebtquickly #howtogetoutofdebtfast #debtsnowball #debtpayoff” data-pin-title=”17 Things This Couple Did to Pay $78,000 of Debt on Average Incomes” src=”http://www.hanovermortgages.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/how-we-paid-off-78k-of-debt-with-average-incomes.png” alt=”One Couple’s Story of Paying off Debt Quickly” class=”wp-image-2547″ srcset=”http://www.hanovermortgages.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/how-we-paid-off-78k-of-debt-with-average-incomes.png 400w, https://i0.wp.com/www.modernfrugality.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/9.png?resize=200%2C300&ssl=1 200w, https://i0.wp.com/www.modernfrugality.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/9.png?w=735&ssl=1 735w” sizes=”(max-width: 400px) 100vw, 400px” data-recalc-dims=”1″>

<img data-attachment-id="4459" data-permalink="https://www.modernfrugality.com/we-paid-off-78k-of-debt-on-average-incomes/mf-17-strategies-we-used-to-pay-off-78000-of-debt-without-big-incomes/" data-orig-file="https://i1.wp.com/www.modernfrugality.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/MF-17-Strategies-We-Used-to-Pay-Off-78000-of-Debt-Without-Big-Incomes.jpg?fit=700%2C1350&ssl=1" data-orig-size="700,1350" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta=""aperture":"0","credit":"","camera":"","caption":"","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"","orientation":"1"" data-image-title="How to Pay Off Debt Fast on Average Incomes" data-image-description="

17 strategies one couple used to pay off $78,000 in under 2 years on average incomes. #getoutofdebtquickly #debtpayofftips #howtogetoutofdebt #debtpayoffhacks #howtogetoutofdebtfast #howtogetoutofdebtquickly

” data-medium-file=”https://i1.wp.com/www.modernfrugality.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/MF-17-Strategies-We-Used-to-Pay-Off-78000-of-Debt-Without-Big-Incomes.jpg?fit=156%2C300&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i1.wp.com/www.modernfrugality.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/MF-17-Strategies-We-Used-to-Pay-Off-78000-of-Debt-Without-Big-Incomes.jpg?fit=311%2C600&ssl=1″ loading=”lazy” data-pin-title=”How to Pay Off Debt Fast on Average Incomes” data-pin-description=”17 strategies one couple used to pay off $78,000 in under 2 years on average incomes. #getoutofdebtquickly #debtpayofftips #howtogetoutofdebt #debtpayoffhacks #howtogetoutofdebtfast #howtogetoutofdebtquickly” src=”http://www.hanovermortgages.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/how-we-paid-off-78k-of-debt-with-average-incomes-1.jpg” alt class=”wp-image-4459″ width=”276″ height=”532″ srcset=”http://www.hanovermortgages.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/how-we-paid-off-78k-of-debt-with-average-incomes-3.jpg 311w, https://i1.wp.com/www.modernfrugality.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/MF-17-Strategies-We-Used-to-Pay-Off-78000-of-Debt-Without-Big-Incomes.jpg?resize=156%2C300&ssl=1 156w, https://i1.wp.com/www.modernfrugality.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/MF-17-Strategies-We-Used-to-Pay-Off-78000-of-Debt-Without-Big-Incomes.jpg?w=700&ssl=1 700w” sizes=”(max-width: 276px) 100vw, 276px” data-recalc-dims=”1″>

Jen Smith is a personal finance expert, founder of Modern Frugality and co-host of the Frugal Friends Podcast. Her work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Lifehacker, Money Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, Business Insider, and more. She’s passionate about helping people gain control of their spending.

Source: modernfrugality.com

How to Remodel your Bathroom for Under $1000

Contrary to popular belief, updating your home doesn’t have to require a complete gut job. Often times just updating a few things can help change your perspective and breathe new life into your space. Bathrooms rank as one of the most important rooms in our homes, especially when you consider return on investment, but also in terms of comfort. Whether you’re looking for a spa like environment or a space that reflects your personal style, there are a lot of budget friendly ways to update your space. 

Read: 8 Signs It’s Time to Remodel Your Bathroom

spa bathroomspa bathroom
This post contains affiliate links, which cost you nothing extra, but help to bring amazing ideas your way. Read about Cribbs Style disclosure here.

Paint

It’s one of the most inexpensive, yet impactful ways to update any space, bathrooms included. If your room is smaller, paint the walls light and bright and do a fun color or focal treatment on the ceiling. It will help draw the eyes up making the room feel larger. Paint doesn’t stop just there. If you have an outdated vanity, spruce it up with a couple of coats of paint to give it a more updated look. 

Hardware

Don’t just stop with updating your vanity with paint, update the door and drawer pulls. You can go as inexpensive as spray painting the door and drawer pulls, or switching them out of a completely different style and/ or color. While you’re at it, don’t be afraid to update your tired towel bar, toilet paper holder, and don’t forget maybe giving your shower head an upgrade. 

Vanity Swap

Tired old vanities that can’t be salvaged with paint, can be swapped out for something that’s more on trend.

Before
After

What’s On Trend

Wanting to take things up a notch without breaking the bank? Peel and stick wallpaper is all the rage. Fashionable, functional, and perfect if you have no experience hanging wall paper. Best yet, peel and stick wallpaper won’t wreck your walls if you change your mind and decide later to remove it. 

If you like the look of this bathroom and want to draw some inspiration try incorporating this peel-and-stick wallpaper, my favorite shower curtain, and purchasing a floor stencil for added design.

Board and batten or shiplap can also be a great way to update your walls and you would be very surprised at how easy and inexpensive these wall treatments can actually be. Take it one step further and add these features half way up the wall, then either paint or add peel and stick wallpaper to the top of the wall. 

Update your flooring by adding some paint. Not only is it inexpensive, but you can totally change the look and colors of your flooring to better fit your space. Tile, linoleum, and wood can all be painted which is the perfect way to update without ripping out your floors. 

If this bathroom is more up your alley, you can start to update you space by using this peel-and-stick Wallpaper, this shower curtain, replacing your current hardware with this brushed gold hardware and creating a floor design with this floor stencil.

Accessorize

Bath mats, towels, and shower curtains have come a very long way. There are an array of colors and patterns out there to compliment any space. Switch it them out seasonally to keep your space fresh. 

Don’t forget that even swapping out your mirror can do a world of difference. If you’re still wanting to shine a new light on your bathroom, changing out your lighting may be a bright idea.

Freshening up the place where you freshen up can easily be done on a budget and without completely gutting your bathroom. Switching out your hardware, adding some paint or trying your hand at peel and stick wallpaper, can easily achieve a new look. Best part is, you can save yourself thousands of dollars and give yourself years of enjoyment in your new bathroom.


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Brooke has a lifestyle blog called Cribbs Style and currently lives in Charleston, SC. This wife, mom of two almost tweens, and mom of three fur children enjoys all things DIY and organizing. When she’s not helping others tackle the chaos of life, she’s either working out, at the beach, or just enjoying time with family and friends.

Source: homes.com

8 Ways to Use Synthetic Turf to Beautify your Yard

Choosing between installing artificial grass, also known as synthetic turf, and natural grass can be a difficult decision for some homeowners. While you may be drawn to natural grass for its feel and organic look, there are a number of benefits to choosing synthetic turf that may make you think twice. If you are too busy to upkeep your lawn, turf provides less maintenance and a longer lifespan compared to traditional grass. It’s also typically created from recycled materials, comes in a variety of textures and colors, and even has the potential to increase your home value.

In some locations, it might even make sense to install artificial grass over natural grass. For example, if you live in a city that has a hot and dry climate such as Las Vegas, NV or Austin, TX, having turf can prevent your lawn from wilting and dying due to the amount of sun those cities get annually. However, if you’re set on using natural grass for your lawn, there are still many creative and aesthetically pleasing ways to incorporate artificial grass into your lawn. Take a look at these 8 ideas on how you can work with an artificial grass company to beautify your yard.

1. Install a synthetic turf golf green 

Your short game is just as important as your long, so installing an artificial grass putting green is the perfect way to get some practice without leaving your home. Golf greens are easy to install and can be customizable. Typically, they are around 1,000-1,500 square feet. For best results, source out an area that is flat, has minimal bumps and extrusions, and gets just the right amount of sunlight. A local turf company can then help excavate, cut, and install the artificial grass and holes. Finished with the proper landscaping, golf greens can serve as a stunning backyard feature that is both aesthetic and fun for the whole family.

2. Build a dog area for play and potty time

If you own a dog and live in a small place like an apartment, having a synthetic turf potty pad for your dog can be a great solution. Typically, they are built with short bristles for cleaning and a drainage system to catch urine. Turf doggy mats are versatile in size and can fit on a sunroom, patio, terrace, or balcony. They are especially great for training puppies or older dogs with bad bladder control. When not in use, synthetic turf potty pads blend in to look like a patch of grass. Not to mention, it saves your real grass from developing brown spots.

If you have the outdoor space, you can use turf to create a play area for your pet. Pet-friendly synthetic turf is a great option if you are trying to keep your dog away from natural grass chemicals. Installing artificial grass for pets also helps prevent fleas and ticks, worrying about patches and brown spots, and digging unwanted holes. Give your dog the ability to roll around in the grass without the worry of getting sick.

3. Use synthetic turf walls and dividers for privacy 

Fences can be an eyesore. However, they are critical for privacy and to keep intruders out. Installing artificial grass fences or hedges is a great way to maintain privacy, while also elevating the look of your backyard by adding greenery. If you are looking for flexibility, some individual paneled artificial grass fences come on rollers that can be used to section certain parts of your yard if you are hosting a garden party or small get together.

4. Make an entertainment area for backyard hangouts 

Do you love to have people over for bonfires, casual wine nights, or backyard parties? Maybe you want to kick your feet up by the fire while you sip on a glass of wine. If you are worried about your feet suffering from uncomfortable surfaces, installing artificial grass around your bonfire pits and patio is a comfortable and stylish solution. Section off a small area, place patio furniture on top, and enjoy a relaxing hangout area on the turf.

5. Create an elegant driveway

For a touch of added elegance, use synthetic turf in between your driveway to bring in patterns and color to the exterior of your home. Real grass can become compact due to the weight of a car. Installing artificial grass between flagstones or concrete can make your driveway pop and always looks fresh.

6. Cover your outdoor furniture with synthetic turf

If you’re tired of boring patio furniture, a fun and unique way to include synthetic turf in your backyard is by purchasing turf-covered furniture. These pieces are designed for outdoor living, are low maintenance, and can be left outside year-round. They are a great way to blend nature with your home and can be designed to look good under a deck, gazebo, fire pit, or play area.

7. Design a multipurpose sports field

For the athlete looking for a way to get some practice in, installing an artificial grass sports field in a larger backyard can get you the training you need without having to go to the local park. Multipurpose sports fields can be used for soccer, lacrosse, or even spikeball whether you want to increase your skills or just get a friendly game in. 

8. Construct a playground 

When constructing your playground, safety will likely be top of mind. In that case, you’ll want to choose a surface that has some cushion to it and is free of chemicals. Synthetic turf is a great alternative to wood chips or gravel, as it has a soft texture and natural aesthetic feel. You can even include a shock pad underneath turf to reduce fall injuries. 

*Before attempting these projects, consult with a turf professional.

Source: redfin.com

Employee Offboarding Process – 15 Best Practices for a Positive Transition

A lot of employers put more focus on onboarding than offboarding. But creating a positive experience for departing employees can help to increase retention, keep morale high, and make for a smooth and straightforward transition.

As an employer, you may think you have nothing to offer an employee who has chosen to leave your company. You may even feel hurt or resentful. But it’s important that you put those feelings aside and focus on how to offboard your staff member without burning bridges and providing support and direction to all involved.

How to Positively Offboard an Employee

Here are some tips you can use to create an effective employee offboarding strategy as part of your company culture.

1. Consider Your Organization’s Reputation

Some employers are tempted to let personal feelings take over when an employee decides to leave, but turnover is inevitable in almost every company at one point or another.

Employees choose to leave for a variety of reasons, and it’s important that no matter why a team member decides to leave, you keep your personal opinions in check. Do this not only to encourage a positive offboarding experience for your exiting employee and the rest of your team but to build your company’s reputation as well.

Before applying for a job with your company, many potential employees will conduct a quick online search to see what shows up. If a negative Glassdoor review is front and center, and it details a poor offboarding experience, you’re likely to miss out on qualified, high-quality candidates.

Alternately, a former employee who has a large network or who is involved in different professional groups isn’t likely to speak highly of an employer who behaved carelessly during the offboarding process to other industry experts.

2. Meet With Your Exiting Employee

It may seem obvious, but you should meet with your departing employee after they give their notice. A friendly and informative meeting can help to set the tone for the rest of the offboarding process and let your colleague know where they stand.

Cover the following topics so that you’re both on the same page when it comes to offboarding expectations and responsibilities:

Remember to be kind, positive, and friendly during this meeting. The more support and guidance you offer, the more likely the employee is to help with training their replacement and wrapping up any final projects.

You can also use this as an opportunity to ask where they’re going, what their new position will be, and what made them decide to make a move. However, if you suspect that they’re leaving due to dissatisfaction or unhappiness, this is best left for the exit interview.

3. Meet With Your Team

When an employee quits, it affects your entire team. It can cause a lot of uncertainty and negatively impact morale and engagement. But one of the easiest ways to get ahead of any adverse effects is to communicate early and well with your entire team.

After you meet with the employee who is leaving and you’ve made a plan for handing off duties, you should plan for a group meeting with all of your staff members.

If you’d like, let your outgoing employee announce their departure at the beginning of the meeting and then go over any details that will affect the rest of the team, like your transition plan and whether you’ll be hiring a new employee to fill the open position or if you plan to fill the role from within your company.

This is also a good time to make a short, straightforward speech about your ex-employee by thanking them for their contributions and congratulating them on their new professional adventure. A supportive and encouraging message can go a long way, both for departing employees and your current staff.

Give everyone a chance to ask questions so that there’s no confusion surrounding any new roles or responsibilities within your team. Clear communication makes employees feel secure and eases changes in workflow and job duties.

4. Communicate About the Change in Staff

Once an employee leaves, you want to make sure that everyone knows they’re no longer with your company. This includes the rest of your staff as well as any clients, freelancers, partners, or business contacts outside of the company.

Send an email before your employee leaves notifying anyone relevant of their last day and who will be taking over their duties going forward. Make sure that the email is addressed to your entire staff, including department heads and junior employees. As much as possible, you want to ensure that no one is taken by surprise and that they know who to work with in the future.

Once your employee has left, set up email forwarding so that you can catch any important work-related emails that may be sent to their previous email address in error.

5. Keep Morale in Mind

The rest of the team’s morale can be affected when an employee leaves, especially if their coworker has a negative offboarding experience. Poor offboarding tactics — such as refusing to communicate, letting personal feelings get in the way, or failing to plan and organize a smooth transition — give the impression that you only value your team members as employees and not as people.

Alternatively, a positive offboarding plan can keep morale steady and show staff members that you genuinely care about them and that you take your role as a manager or business owner seriously.

Keep a pulse on morale to determine how your staff is being affected by your previous employee’s departure and address specific issues or problems by communicating openly and honestly with your employees.

If morale seems low and you aren’t sure what to do, try adding a few more ideas to your offboarding checklist to help with engagement and motivation.

6. Work With Your Human Resources Department

Your human resources (HR) department is an essential resource for both onboarding and offboarding.

For example, your HR professional can assist with:

HR can also provide guidance on how to keep communications positive and productive after an employee decides to move on.

7. Ask Your Departing Employee to Help With Recruitment

When an employee leaves, don’t only focus on transferring duties and redirecting workflow. Have your former employee help with finding their replacement. After all, who knows their job better than they do?

When appropriate, ask them to:

Involving your former employee in the hiring process for their replacement helps you to find better, more suitable candidates who will have an accurate and realistic understanding of the open position.

8. Conduct an Exit Interview

Although exit interviews should always be optional, they’re an important part of any employee offboarding process. They are a great way to encourage honest feedback and learn where you can improve as a manager and as a company.

Think of an exit interview as an opportunity for you to learn about your employee’s entire experience with you — from onboarding and training to reviews, office politics, company culture, and everything in between.

Some exit interviews are conducted by managers and others by HR departments. It depends on how your company is structured. Regardless of the logistics, exit interviews should be reserved for the last day or two before you and your outgoing employee part ways. If done too early, the employee who is leaving may not feel comfortable being completely upfront about suggestions or complaints.

Although your exiting employee may not have anything bad to say, encourage them to share any tips or advice they have related to their position, the company, their team, or their manager. If they do share negative feedback, remember not to take it personally and to remain professional.

9. Offer to Be a Reference

Depending on your company policy about work references, you can offer to be a reference for your departing employee for future jobs. Knowing that they can rely on you to provide an honest, helpful, and professional reference is a great way to ensure that your employee leaves on a good note.

Most companies prefer that candidates use previous managers or employers as references, so by making the offer, you’re letting them know that you care about their professional future. Plus, it saves them from having to ask you, which can be difficult if they’re not sure where they stand after handing in their notice.

10. Get Your Exiting Employee’s Contact Information

Don’t forget to get your outgoing employee’s new contact information, like an email or mailing address in case you need to contact them with questions related to their previous role. For example, you may need to get in touch about their benefits or to ask about a company account or password. Although you can plan for a comprehensive hand-off, some details can get lost during knowledge transfer, so it’s important to know how to reach your previous hire for a quick question.

And, if they leave on good terms, you may also want to use it to send a friendly message or invite them to a workplace social event down the road.

11. Welcome a Return

Boomerang employees are workers who leave a company only to return later. These employees learned that the grass isn’t always greener and came back to work for you because they had a positive experience at your company. These employees can be a boon to you since they already know the ins and outs of your business, your customers, and the role they held at your company.

But you’ll only get boomerang employees if you facilitate and participate in a proper offboarding process and let outgoing employees know that they’re welcome to return in the future.

If you’re open to having ex-employees work for you again down the road, make sure to communicate that during your offboarding process so that they know it’s an option. If you don’t make it clear, they may assume that you’re not open to it.

12. Connect on LinkedIn

LinkedIn is an ideal way to follow your ex-employee’s professional progress and to get in touch about work-related questions, references, or job opportunities. If you aren’t already connected with your departing employee on LinkedIn, send them an invite. You can take things a step further by providing a written recommendation on the platform as well, which can give them a boost during job searches and round out their profile.

And, as a bonus for you, giving recommendations makes you look like a stellar boss to your ex-employee’s connections and network.

13. Plan an Event

Planning an event like a lunch or after-work cocktail can give current employees a chance to say goodbye to co-workers and end the offboarding process on a happy note. Offboarding can be hard for both your former employee and their team members, so offering everyone a chance to have a casual get-together to reminisce and wish each other well can be a welcome change from typical last-day scenarios.

Involve your team in planning the event, and try to choose a venue that your previous employee enjoys. If possible, have the company cover costs for a meal or appetizers to make it even more enjoyable for everyone.

14. Purchase a Gift

A personalized gift from the company is the perfect way to express appreciation and gratitude for your departing employee’s hard work over the years. Some gift ideas for ex-employees include:

You can also get a cake, a framed picture of the team, or anything else you think they might like. Talk to their work friends for ideas and choose a gift that’s both appropriate and fits your budget.

15. Send Around a Card

A card is a cost-effective and common way to bid farewell to an employee. Give the whole team a chance to write a personal message and sign their name by sending it around in advance. If you have a good relationship with your departing employee, you may even want to give them a card yourself, expressing how much you have valued them and enjoyed having them on your team.


Final Word

When you offboard employees with morale, engagement, and professionalism in mind, you reap the rewards of being a thoughtful and desirable employer. Your company’s reputation is a powerful tool in attracting and retaining quality hires, and how you treat previous employees can have a significant impact on how you’re viewed by potential candidates.

Keep your offboarding strategy professional, communicative, and positive to facilitate a smooth transition for everyone involved.

Source: moneycrashers.com

Brutal Week For Rates But There’s Hope (Hopefully)

Rising rates have been on the menu for months, but the drama kicked into a higher gear this week.

Maybe you heard about this?  We’ve certainly been discussing it in recent newsletters (especially last week’s).  The rising rate narrative hit the mainstream this week as it was widely credited for doing damage to the stock market.

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Perhaps you even caught one of Thursday’s many mortgage rate headlines citing the spike in Freddie Mac’s weekly mortgage rate survey.  Freddie reported a jump in 30yr fixed rates from 2.81 to 2.97, their biggest in nearly a year.

Unfortunately, Freddie was low last week and they’re WAY low this week.  This is a common problem when things are this volatile.  Although their survey is published on Thursdays, most of the responses are in by Monday.  As such, their numbers didn’t capture the brutal spikes that came later in the week.

How brutal can a spike really be if we’re still talking about rates in the low 3’s?  That’s entirely a matter of perspective.  If you’d decided to float your rate back at 2.75%, figuring that rates only ever go lower, February hasn’t been great for you.  

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So why is all this happening?  And more importantly, is it going to KEEP happening?

First off, two separate things are happening.  On the one hand, we have the well-known, well-understood, and well-explained rising rate trend that’s been intact for months.  If you’re a regular reader of the newsletter, you might be tired of that one by now.  You can revisit one of any number of past newsletters for a refresher (here’s a good one from late January).  

In a nutshell, if covid caused a rapid surge to persistent all-time low rates, the improving outlook had the opposite effect–albeit a gradual one at first. 

The other thing that’s happening is a recent acceleration in the longstanding trend–first in 2021, but then to an even greater degree over the past 2 weeks. 

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Plummeting case counts played a big, logical role here as well as the Georgia senate election and progress on fiscal stimulus.  Stimulus hurts rates by increasing the supply of Treasuries, and higher supply means higher rates, all other things being equal.

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There was a fresh reminder about Treasury market supply at center stage for this week’s rout.  The 7yr Treasury auction on Thursday was the worst of its kind since its debut in 2009 (a bad auction speaks to an absence of demand, which has a similar effect on rates as an abundance of supply).  Bonds hit their weakest levels of the week/month/year immediately after that, but thankfully appear to have stabilized since then.

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The Treasury auction definitely wasn’t the only consideration this week.  After all, the volatility had already kicked into higher gear last week.  There aren’t any satisfying specifics though.  It’s a combo deal that all speaks to the improved outlook for covid and the post-covid economy. 

There are also some highly technical trading motivations for bond investors that have to do with the changes in the rate landscape.  These can force money managers to make big adjustments to their holdings, and those adjustments often play out in these sorts of “snowball selling” episodes when traders have the same collective realizations.

As for the mortgage market specifically, everything is happening exactly as we said it would more than 2 months ago.  Mortgage rates have increasingly been forced to pay attention to broader bond market volatility.  This week was the best (worst) example yet.  The cushion is deflated, and the mortgage market is no longer invincible.  

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Reasons aside, the big question is whether the drama continues, or the bounce back is just the beginning of a deeper recovery.  While there’s never any way to know for sure, what we CAN know is that our odds (of a recovery) improve as rates move higher.  In that sense, the brutality of the past 2 weeks is one of the best indications of potential support.  While that doesn’t necessarily make a friendly bounce likely, it’s more likely than it was after last week’s big rate spike.

Optimism aside, keep in mind that this is a rising rate environment in general, and we don’t currently have a reason to believe that trend is at risk of dying.  What we’d be hoping for here is a return to a more stable uptrend in rates.  That “return” could help rates move a bit lower in the short term before resuming their gradual uptrend.  Ultimately, it will be up to the course of the pandemic, the economy, fiscal spending, Fed policy, inflation, and other macroeconomic factors to determine the rate range through the end of the year.

Next week brings important updates as far as economic data is concerned.  There will be several reasonably important reports throughout the week culminating in Friday’s all-important jobs report.  

Source: mortgagenewsdaily.com

What’s the Best Online Tax Prep Software? – TaxAct vs TurboTax vs H&R Block

In recent years, it’s taken me much longer than I’d like to complete and e-file my state and federal income tax returns. That’s because I’ve spent some time evaluating the most popular online tax preparation software available to filers in the United States, including TurboTax, TaxAct, and H&R Block.

All three have a similar set of core features and capabilities, including the ability to e-file. That can make it challenging to differentiate among them at a glance. But there are differences.

Before choosing one, learn how TurboTax, TaxAct, and H&R Block stack up — and what’s new for the 2020 tax year.

Online Tax Preparation Software Evaluation Method

I’ve done my own taxes and run this comparison for several years in a row. As my tax situation has changed, so have my experiences. For example, during the 2014 tax year, I moved across state lines, forcing me to file two state tax returns.

For the 2020 tax year, I used the same mock tax situation for all three programs to ensure an apples-to-apples comparison. Though it’s a bit more complicated than my actual tax situation, it allows me to explore each platform in greater depth than I otherwise would. Its highlights include:

TurboTax, H&R Block, and TaxAct all have a maximum refund-minimum tax liability guarantee. That means each service waives your prep fees if you can prove another program produces a higher tax liability or lower refund on an identical tax situation.

With these three programs, my federal and state tax liabilities have always been identical across the board. However, the time and expense of preparing with each service vary considerably.


Key Features

TaxAct, TurboTax, and H&R Block have many features and capabilities in common. TurboTax and H&R Block are especially close cousins, offering tax prep assistance from human experts for users who want it. However, each program is distinct enough to warrant close examination on the merits.

DIY Tax Prep Plans & Pricing

Each of these tax prep services can handle virtually any personal income tax situation, from straightforward to very complex. All offer multiple DIY tax prep plans that correspond to general positions on the complexity spectrum. Notably, all offer a free plan for filers with relatively simple situations.

DIY Tax Prep Plans & Pricing for H&R Block

Pricing for H&R Block’s DIY tax prep plans rises as the tax season progresses. Early birds get better deals (at the lower end of the ranges specified here) than those who prep and file as the deadline approaches.

DIY Tax Prep Plans & Pricing for TurboTax

Like H&R Block, TurboTax varies pricing as the tax season progresses. But its plans are a bit more expensive than either H&R Block’s or TaxAct’s.

DIY Tax Prep Plans & Pricing for TaxAct

Like H&R Block and TurboTax, TaxAct pricing is subject to change, depending on when you file. Lower prices represent early-season discounts that may disappear at any time.


Tax Prep Assistance From Human Experts

H&R Block and TurboTax both offer varying degrees of hands-on tax prep assistance from in-house trained tax preparers, Enrolled Agents (EAs), or certified public accountants. H&R Block makes these resources available online and in-person (albeit at a much higher fee), while TurboTax limits hands-on assistance to the online realm only. TaxAct does not offer expert tax prep assistance.

H&R Block’s Expert Tax Prep Assistance Options & Capabilities

H&R Block offers two online expert-assistance packages: Online Assist and Tax Pro Go. Online Assist only provides human experts to review the client’s return for accuracy and tax optimization. Tax Pro Go is a true full-service package in which remote human preparers complete clients’ returns for them.

H&R Block also offers in-person tax prep assistance at thousands of storefront office locations across the U.S. If you find yourself at a tax prep impasse at any point and don’t want to use one of H&R Block’s digital expert-assistance packages, you can make an appointment at an H&R Block office and complete it with truly hands-on help.

TurboTax’s Expert Tax Prep Assistance Options & Capabilities

TurboTax also offers two expert tax prep assistance packages: TurboTax Live and TurboTax Live Full-Service. TurboTax Live involves on-demand consultation with and tax advice from TurboTax CPAs or EAs as you prepare your own taxes. TurboTax Live Full-Service is a hands-on prep package that only asks the filer to upload their tax documents and sign off on their completed returns.

TurboTax does not have a network of brick-and-mortar locations and thus does not offer in-person tax prep. However, TurboTax Live Full-Service can accommodate virtually any prep-related issues, no matter how tricky or unusual.

TaxAct’s Expert Tax Prep Assistance Options & Capabilities

TaxAct doesn’t offer expert tax prep assistance, making it best for experienced DIY filers who are confident they won’t need professional help. If you get stuck while prepping with TaxAct, you can always take what you have so far to a professional tax preparer in your area.


Federal Tax Prep Process

I’ve prepared my taxes with these three programs for several years running. What follows is a condensed summary of my experience with each, including total prep time, total cost, version used, and observations of key features and functions.

H&R Block’s Federal Tax Prep Process.

H&R Block is one of the most popular online tax preparation programs around. Despite its plethora of brick-and-mortar offices, filing online is both more convenient and — in most cases, at least — significantly cheaper than filing in person. H&R Block’s software uses an interview-style process that takes you through your taxes step by step, ensuring you don’t miss any crucial forms or schedules.

The platform’s drag-and-drop return upload feature is a big time-saver over the more cumbersome importing tools common to truly bare-bones discount tax prep platforms, such as TaxHawk and FreeTaxUSA.

Also helpful is the last page of each section, which includes a concise summary of the information you enter. If anything looks amiss, you can go back to the corresponding page and edit the erroneous information with one click.

These features also appear in H&R Block’s mobile-friendly Web version and its powerful mobile tax prep app, which has all the main features and capabilities of its standard Web version. You can move seamlessly between the mobile app and Web version to work on your saved return as needed. And you can e-file your return right from the app if that’s most convenient for you.

Another bonus of the service is H&R Block’s transparent pricing. You know exactly how much you’ll pay to file before you do so, and H&R Block makes any pricing increase crystal-clear before you upgrade.

But thanks to the impressive help button on the left sidebar, you may not need to upgrade. When clicked, it produces a pop-up window that lists popular help topics in question form and features a search bar for less common queries.

That makes it easy to get clarification without having to exit your work or open a new window. I’ve played around with this feature quite a bit in the past and never failed to learn something new each time.

TurboTax’s Federal Tax Prep Process

TurboTax is another top-rated online tax filing program owned by Intuit, one of the country’s best-known financial software firms. Appropriately, its interview-style preparation process is extremely intuitive, demystifying tax issues for novice filers.

TurboTax also has a clean, mobile-friendly layout and a high-quality mobile app, not to mention excellent customer support at all plan levels. Phone support is available only with deluxe and higher plans, but it also has a dynamic, user-supported knowledge base.

I have experienced some functionality issues with TurboTax in the past, but these haven’t been disruptive of late. Overall, TurboTax seems to grow more user-friendly every season.

One feature that sets TurboTax apart is the ability to import prior-year returns from any tax prep service as long as the return is in PDF format. TurboTax has long been a leader in this respect, with competitors — namely H&R Block — only belatedly joining it. (To be fair, H&R Block now offers seamless prior-year importing as well.) Robust PDF importing capability is hugely helpful for first-time users.

TurboTax eases you into the interface with helpful pop-up windows that explain the platform’s key features, such as the help bar and internal navigation tools. TurboTax has consistently been (and continues to be) among the most user-friendly tax prep programs around.

TurboTax’s prep interface is blissfully easy to navigate. Its questions are more pointed and easier to understand than H&R Block’s, and the platform rarely presents confusing or vague information. At the beginning of each section, TurboTax takes care to call out less common situations and forms, subtly directing you toward tax forms or rules that are more likely to apply.

The platform also places helpful pop-up buttons next to elements that may require explanations, such as schedules and types of income. Clicking on the button creates a pop-up window that explains the topic in detail. For filers in a rush, it’s a time-saving alternative to searching the knowledge base.

TurboTax waits until you’re done with state taxes to review everything. It’s a marginal time-saver compared to H&R Block’s federal-only and state-only reviews. However, when I attempt to move backward in my federal return to check something manually, I’m occasionally stymied by an HTML error. It happens less frequently than it used to but is worth noting nonetheless.

TurboTax Live — first introduced in the 2017 tax year — is a huge help for filers with complicated situations and comes at a substantial discount to the cost of filing with a CPA. TurboTax Live Full-Service, a new addition for the 2020 tax year, costs still more but is ideal for taxpayers who don’t want anything to do with the prep process but don’t want to visit a CPA in person.

TaxAct’s Federal Tax Prep Process

TaxAct’s prep process and fee structure have changed significantly since the early 2010s, when the free version supported the vast majority of available tax forms and schedules and could therefore accommodate virtually any individual tax situation. Today, its pricing model and process are much more in line with TurboTax’s and H&R Block’s, albeit at a slightly lower price point.

TaxAct’s prep interface uses interview-style questions, but the interface is more exhaustive and less responsive to user answers than TurboTax’s or H&R Block’s. Specifically, the system may ask you questions about specific situations that don’t apply to you based on previous answers, whereas TurboTax and H&R Block seem to learn better from earlier responses.

This aspect of TaxAct is less tedious and time-consuming than it has been in the past, though overall prep time is still higher than with TurboTax or H&R Block. With large text and buttons and straightforward navigation, TaxAct’s main website is nearly as mobile-friendly as TurboTax’s and H&R Block’s and significantly more so than true discount programs, like FreeTaxUSA. TaxAct also has a dedicated mobile and tablet app that supports relatively simple tax situations, but this solution isn’t appropriate for filers with self-employment income.

No matter how you choose to use the platform, TaxAct has long had some free or low-cost features designed to simplify and streamline the tax prep process. For instance, early-bird filers can lock in their pricing at the beginning of tax season, even if TaxAct raises its prices in the interim.

The at-a-glance help feature gives you real-time advice and commentary from tax experts as you work through your tax return. The bookmark feature lets you flag interview questions for review at a later time. And it’s easier than ever to call up prior-year tax returns as you prepare your current-year return.


State Tax Prep Process

Some people are fortunate enough to live in a state with no income tax. The rest of us must prepare and file state income taxes every year. All three programs support that endeavor at roughly equivalent cost.

H&R Block’s State Tax Prep Process

H&R Block’s state preparation process unfolds similarly to the federal return — except with state-specific questions. Once you check your federal return for accuracy, the program immediately whisks you into the state section and automatically imports all relevant information from your federal return.

During the 2014 tax year, when I lived in two states, I found it simple to fill out my second state return. H&R Block remembered I’d moved during the year, and the software automatically brought me back to the beginning of the state return process after completing the first. I haven’t moved since and can’t claim income in any other states, so this hasn’t come up since, but the process appears to work much the same today.

TurboTax’s State Tax Prep Process

As with H&R Block, TurboTax automatically transfers all the information from your federal return to your state return. The process for adding a second state, if necessary, is slightly more cumbersome, as you have to navigate an additional drop-down menu. But that’s a pretty minor issue most taxpayers (being single-state filers) don’t have to worry about.

TaxAct’s State Tax Prep Process

TaxAct’s state return section is similar to the other two services’, with automatically imported information and thorough, state-specific questions. As with the federal return, it’s sometimes too thorough. It starts immediately after you finish your federal return, though you’re free to leave it for later.


Accuracy Check

All three programs include a post-prep accuracy check designed to ensure your return is prepared correctly and you’re not set up to pay more than you should.

H&R Block’s Accuracy Check

Every year, before filing, H&R Block has rechecked my entire return for accuracy. I can view my federal and state returns and specify how I want to pay the tax I owe. When I’m eligible for a refund, which doesn’t happen every year, it asks how I’d like to receive it as well.

The process ends smoothly and takes less time — without being any less thorough — than the other two options.

TurboTax’s Accuracy Check

TurboTax follows your state return by reviewing the entire package for accuracy and assessing your audit risk with a handy thermometer graphic. And TurboTax is nothing if not thorough, presenting each accuracy- or audit-related issue and recommended solution in turn before walking you through how you’d like to pay your taxes or receive your refund. Though this thoroughness does lengthen the process of filing taxes, it’s a trade-off some filers may be willing to make.

TaxAct’s Accuracy Check

Like TurboTax, TaxAct waits until you’ve completed all your returns to review them for accuracy, saving some time. However, the review process is more complicated than TurboTax’s and H&R Block’s, with different alert levels (red, yellow, and green) that identify issues of varying severity. TaxAct uses these alerts to assess your overall audit risk, though it doesn’t display this risk in a handy graphic like TurboTax.

You can also skip the alerts altogether if you’re confident you’ve kept everything aboveboard — a nice perk for seasoned filers. One drawback is that there’s no easy way to run your completed return by a professional tax preparer. Both H&R Block and TurboTax offer that option for an additional fee.

Once you pay for TaxAct’s prep services, the platform asks you how you’d like to receive your refund or make any tax payments you owe, then walks you through how to prepare for next year’s taxes. That includes introducing its Donation Assistant app, which can help you track and quantify noncash charitable donations throughout the year, and DocVault, a secure mobile-friendly storage service for important tax-related documents. Despite these services’ genuine usefulness, this part of the process drags on too long when the end is in sight.


Additional Features & Capabilities

All three platforms have some additional features and capabilities worth noting. These include the ability to pay tax prep fees with your tax refund (if you’re entitled to one), digital self-help resources and tax reference materials, and optional tax audit assistance or defense add-ons.

H&R Block’s Additional Features & Capabilities

H&R Block’s refund bonus and user-friendly online help database set it apart.

TurboTax’s Additional Features & Capabilities

TurboTax doesn’t have a refund bonus, but its reasonable pay-with-your-refund fees and extensive online help resources shine.

TaxAct’s Additional Features & Capabilities

TaxAct doesn’t offer a refund bonus but does have a cheap pay-with-your-refund option and a reasonably priced audit defense add-on.


The Verdict: Should You Choose H&R Block, TurboTax, or TaxAct?

None of these tax prep platforms is perfect. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and you should choose the software you use based on your tax situation and personal preferences.

You Should Use H&R Block If…

H&R Block is relatively easy to use and has moderate pricing and robust customer support. The experience is straightforward, with none of the bugs that plague TurboTax and without the overwhelming detail inherent in TaxAct’s interview process.

However, H&R Block could be a bit more friendly — and a bit more cost-competitive for filers who need some extra help. In general, H&R Block is suitable for people who have some tax filing experience and comfort with the basic contours of the process, including choosing the appropriate filing status and selecting the correct forms.

H&R Block might be the right choice for you if:

  1. You Value Transparent Pricing. H&R Block has transparent pricing. You always know exactly how much you’ll pay to file — and how much you’ll add to the final cost of your return if you need to upgrade to a higher-priced plan.
  2. You Want to Save Time. H&R Block has consistently been the fastest of these tax prep programs, at least for me. It hasn’t won by a mile, but the difference is notable enough to mention. The contrast with TaxAct is particularly acute.
  3. You Want a Refund Bonus. H&R Block continues to offer a refund bonus to filers who consent to transfer their tax refunds to Amazon gift cards. It’s impossible to say how much longer that will continue, but for now, it’s an advantage over TurboTax and TaxAct.
  4. You Need In-Person Support During or After Filing. H&R Block has a network of more than 10,000 branches across the U.S., making it easy to switch from online to in-person preparation if needed. TurboTax and TaxAct can’t say the same. H&R Block also offers free in-person audit assistance for all online filers, a key perk for folks who worry the IRS will audit them.

See our full H&R Block review for a complete analysis.

You Should Use TurboTax If…

TurboTax is significantly more expensive than H&R Block or TaxAct. Though its free plan has grown more robust in the past couple of years, it’s still lacking.

That said, you do get what you pay for: an intuitive interview process, a user-focused (and mobile-friendly) layout, and lots of support. It’s nice to be able to import from so many sources too. So TurboTax is ideal for novice tax filers as well as more experienced filers for whom affordability isn’t a top concern.

TurboTax is the right choice for you if:

  1. You Value User-Friendliness. TurboTax is the most user-friendly of these programs. Its design and aesthetic are intuitive and easy on the eyes, unlike the more cluttered, less intuitive TaxAct. Its questions are both simply worded and logical, whereas H&R Block’s interview questions and explanations can be confusing. And in addition to offering a powerful app, TurboTax’s regular version is very mobile-friendly. That’s good news for taxpayers who prefer to prepare their returns on a tablet.
  2. You Like Impressive Importing Capabilities. TurboTax has long been a leader in prior-year tax return importing. If you can upload your return in PDF format, you can import it to TurboTax without manually reentering information.
  3. You Depend on Good Customer Service and Help Functions. TurboTax has some useful support features, including a customer service hotline with extensive hours and a comprehensive knowledge base. I’ve referred to TurboTax’s knowledge base more times than I can count and have almost always had my questions answered to my satisfaction.

See our full TurboTax review for a complete analysis.

You Should Use TaxAct If…

TaxAct has always been the cheapest option of the three, and its functionality has improved significantly over the years. Now, it’s nearly (but not quite) on par with TurboTax and H&R Block.

That said, my TaxAct return has consistently taken longer than my TurboTax and H&R Block returns. The support infrastructure is unimpressive, though the tax audit defense no longer costs an arm and a leg — just $10 when you upgrade to the premium plan.

But TaxAct is no longer the best game in town for ultra-frugal filers.

In general, TaxAct is ideal for somewhat more experienced filers who don’t mind exchanging time for money. Though its interface has gotten more user-friendly over the years, it’s still not the best software for first-timers.

TaxAct is a solid choice if:

  1. You’re Set on Paying Less. TaxAct is the cheapest of these services. I have a complex tax situation, but I was able to walk away from my most recent filing without spending more than $79.90 (though that would have been $114.90 had I waited until later in the season to file). That’s less than I spent for tax prep with H&R Block and TurboTax. So while TaxAct has grown more expensive in recent years, it’s still the cheapest option among them.
  2. You Want a Price-Lock Guarantee. TaxAct offers a price-lock guarantee to all customers at sign-up. Once you create your account, you’re locked into TaxAct’s pricing at that moment, even if you leave your return for months and TaxAct raises prices during the intervening period. Since tax prep companies frequently raise prices close to the filing deadline, that’s great news for frugal filers. One caveat: TaxAct’s first price-lock step-up happened extremely early in 2020 (for the 2019 tax year), in late January. Another step-up occurred in mid-March. It’s likely the 2020 tax year will play out similarly.
  3. You Crave Useful Apps to Help You Keep Track of Important Forms and Records. TaxAct has useful tools that help you keep track of any necessary documentation you need to complete your return, including receipts, bills, and tax forms. You can add photographic records to a secure, mobile-accessible storage area (DocVault) throughout the year, potentially eliminating the need to file tax-related papers for reference at tax time. You can use a separate app, Donation Assistant, to calculate the fair value of noncash charitable donations, an extremely helpful tool for filers who donate valuable items, such as vehicles and furniture. In the past, I’ve had to scour the Internet for fair-value charts from reputable sources without any clear guarantee they’re accurate.

See our full TaxAct review for a complete analysis.

All Are Great If…

Despite clear differences, all three of these tax prep software programs have some selling points in common. If you have a simple tax situation or don’t want to visit a tax preparer’s office in person but otherwise aren’t too picky about how you get your taxes done, you can’t go wrong here.

Any of these tax prep options are good if:

  1. You Have a Simple Tax Situation. Whatever else you can say about TaxAct, TurboTax, or H&R Block, all three are effective — and dirt cheap if not free — for simple tax situations that don’t require attached schedules.
  2. You Need to Import a Prior-Year Return From Another Tax Prep Program. Although this hasn’t always been the case, all three programs now have robust prior-year return importing tools that make it easy to switch from another provider.
  3. You Don’t Want to Visit a Tax Preparer’s Office or Pay CPA Prices for Tax Prep. With the exception of TurboTax Live Full-Service and H&R Block’s Tax Pro Go, you’ll pay far less to prep your taxes with any of these services than with a full-service human tax preparer. And you won’t have to visit a physical office location, either — unless you’re prepping with H&R Block and decide you’d like to do that before filing.

Final Word

TurboTax, TaxAct, and H&R Block are three of the most popular online tax software options, but they’re not the only ones out there. A bevy of other options exists, from relatively well-known providers like TaxSlayer and eSmart Tax to lesser-known options like Circle CPA and FreeTaxUSA.

And the federal government can help with free tax preparation options thanks to the Free File Alliance (a consortium of about a dozen tax prep companies that offer free filing services to filers who meet certain income and residency criteria) and Free Fillable Forms, which are available to filers regardless of income or residency.

With all these options, depending on your tax situation, you might find one that’s easier, faster, or simply less stressful to use.

And if you don’t want to face a potentially hefty processing charge to pay your tax prep fees with your tax refund but don’t want to pay out of pocket immediately, use a rewards credit card to pick up the tab. If you stay within your card’s spending limit and pay your balance in full by the statement due date, you avoid processing fees and earn a small return on your outlay. Check out our roundups of the best cash-back credit cards and best travel rewards credit cards for ideas.

Source: moneycrashers.com

Sign up for the Self-Publishing Success Summit for FREE!

July 7, 2015 | Crystal Paine

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Sign up for the Self-Publishing Success Summit for FREE!

Have you ever considered writing a book? If so, you’ll want to sign up for the FREE Self-Publishing Success Online Summit being held July 12-23.

This Summit features interviews from 37 different authors and entrepreneurs and will give you lots of valuable information to help you write, market, and publish your book.

Here are the three main topics this online event covers:

Step 1 – Writing You Book – You’ll learn how to easily & effortlessly write your first book and how to overcome the doubts and fears that keep you from writing.

Step 2 – Marketing & Publishing – Learn how to successfully launch your book once it’s written…including revolutionary “outside of the box” tactics today’s top authors are using to sell more books.

Step 3 – Monetizing (Making Money) – Take your book to the bank. Speakers share their top strategies to build passive income, even a business, from your first book… including how to use a book to drive 1,000’s of leads & customers.

Sign up for this event for FREE here.

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Source: moneysavingmom.com

MBS RECAP: Surprisingly Swift Selling in The Bond Market; What’s Next?

This week has been one of the most surprising selling sprees in bonds in the post-covid era.  Just when you think we’ve surely seen enough selling to bring buyers in, it’s right back to new long-term high yields and significantly lower MBS prices.  That bounce is coming, to be sure, but it’s a risky proposition to bet on it.  Moreover, when it happens, it changes nothing about the broader trend toward higher yields that’s been intact for more than 6 months.  This week just happens to offer a more abrupt adjustment to the pace of that trend.

Econ Data / Events

  • Fed MBS Buying 10am, 1130am, 1pm

  • Markit PMI Composite 58.8 vs 58.7 prev

  • Existing Home Sales 6.69m vs 6.61m f’cast, 6.65m prev

Market Movement Recap

08:28 AM

Treasuries opened modestly stronger in Asia, but 10yr yields failed at 1.28% again.  Steady-to-stronger data in Europe pushed yields higher heading into the domestic session.  10yr is up 1.4bps at 1.311% and 2.0 UMBS are down nearly an eighth.

10:25 AM

After an underwhelming attempt at a friendly bounce after 9:30am, bonds are on the back foot again and MBS are quickly down to new lows (and 10yr up to new highs of 1.336+).  There are no new market movers in play in terms of data or headlines (but big trades hit TSY futures at 10:08am and added to the weakness).

12:23 PM

1.338 ceiling held up against multiple breakout attempts but finally gave way a short while ago.  Yields are doing what yields do after a technical breakout (moving higher).  Currently over 1.35%.  MBS aren’t happy about it.  2.0 coupons are down 3/8ths and the increasingly relevant 2.5 coupons are down almost a quarter point.

02:51 PM

More minutes on the clock, more bond selling.  Highest highs of the day shortly after the last update with 10yr hitting 1.36+.  UMBS 2.0 coupons were as low as 101-16 (101.5) briefly.  Both have bounced modestly since then, but the damage is done as far as rate sheets and reprice potential are concerned.


MBS Pricing Snapshot

Pricing shown below is delayed, please note the timestamp at the bottom. Real time pricing is available via MBS Live.

MBS

UMBS 2.0

101-20 : -0-11

Treasuries

10 YR

1.3480 : +0.0610

Pricing as of 2/19/21 3:20PMEST

Today’s Reprice Alerts and Updates

1:18PM  :  ALERT ISSUED: If You Haven’t Seen a Reprice Yet, You Probably Will

12:10PM  :  ALERT ISSUED: Negative Reprice Risk Increasing

10:17AM  :  ALERT ISSUED: Negative Reprices Already A Possibility

8:35AM  :  Slightly Weaker After Another Failure at 1.28% 10yr Floor


MBS Live Chat Highlights

David Gaffin  :  “For what its worth it is doing serious damage to MY agenda”

Matt Graham  :  “but if they see rates doing damage to their agenda, then things could easily change”

Matt Graham  :  “Good question, but they don’t seem too concerned about rising rates for now. Moreover, they were exceptionally cool on the idea of YCC based on comments over the past few months”

David Gaffin  :  “MG- may have missed this discussion, but will the rapid rise in rates add ammunition for the Fed to use yield curve control in buying?”


Economic Calendar

Time Event Period Actual Forecast Prior
Friday, Feb 19
9:45 PMI-Manufacturing (Markit) * Feb 58.5 58.5 59.2
10:00 Exist. home sales % chg (%)* Jan +0.6 -1.5 0.7
10:00 Existing home sales (ml)* Jan 6.69 6.61 6.76

Source: mortgagenewsdaily.com

Smart Ways to Cut Your Utility Bills

​A big slice of the cost of owning a home is what you spend on energy. Average annual energy spending in the U.S. adds up to $1,472 for electricity, $416 for natural gas and $113 for fuel oil and other fuels, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. (Your own expenses will vary depending on utility costs in your area, the size of your home and how heavily you use energy.)

The federal government encourages energy-efficient home improvements by offering tax credits for certain upgrades. For existing primary residences, putting in energy-efficient windows and doors, furnaces, air conditioners, insulation, water heaters, roofs and some other items qualifies you to take a tax credit of either 10% of the cost or specific amounts ranging from $50 to $300, depending on the improvement. The credit is currently set to expire at the end of 2021, and a lifetime cap of $500 applies to the total value of credits you can get in all tax years after 2005. (A credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction of your tax bill.)

You can snag a more lucrative tax credit for certain renewable-energy systems—including solar panels, small wind turbines and geothermal heat pumps—on new and existing residences, including second homes. Congress recently extended the tax break; now you can get a 26% credit for projects placed in service by the end of 2022, or 22% for projects placed in service in 2023.

Check for state and local incentives and rebates, too. Massachusetts homeowners, for example, can take a tax credit of $1,000 or 15% of the cost (whichever is smaller) for installing solar- or wind-energy systems. Some utility companies offer rebates for buying energy-efficient appliances and equipment or making other improvements. To see incentives available in your area, enter your zip code at www.dsireusa.org and www.energystar.gov/rebate-finder.

With Earth Day around the corner, now is a good time to take a look at how you can make your home more energy-efficient. We’ve listed several upgrades that qualify for a federal tax credit and can pay off over time in energy savings (as well as a few that don’t come with a tax break from Uncle Sam but still trim your energy bills; see below). Cost estimates and tax credit amounts include installation unless otherwise noted.

Before you get started, consider investing a few hundred dollars in a home energy audit, performed by a pro who will identify problem areas in your house and suggest fixes. With a blower door test, for example, a powerful fan set in an ex­terior door frame lowers air pressure inside the house, causing higher-pressure air outside to stream in through the house’s openings so the auditor can spot leaks. Auditors may also use infrared cameras, thermometers and furnace-efficiency meters to detect areas that need improvement. You can find a certified auditor in your area through the Residential Energy Services Network at www.hersindex.com. Your utility company may offer energy assessments or rebates for having one performed.

Insulation and air sealing

Cost: From a few hundred dollars for basic, do-it-yourself weather stripping and caulking to a few thousand dollars or more to upgrade insulation in your home.

Savings: An average 15% on heating and cooling costs—or an average 11% on total energy costs—for those who air seal their houses and add insulation in attics and crawl spaces or basements, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tax credit: 10% of the cost of bulk insulation and air-sealing materials (installation costs are not eligible).

Ensuring that the inside of your home is protected from exterior cold air in the winter and warm air in the summer is one of the most cost-effective ways to save energy. That’s especially true in colder climates, although homes everywhere benefit from better insulation. “The more a house exchanges air with the outdoors, the less efficient it is,” says John Hensley, quality assurance director for consulting and inspection company Building Performance Solutions. Sealing and in­sulating your home may even allow you to invest in a smaller heating and air conditioning system when you upgrade it.

Adding weather stripping and caulk around window and door trims that are leaking air is a relatively easy and low-cost place to start. When it comes to larger sealing and insulation projects—for which you’ll likely want help from a contractor—focusing on the attic, which tends to have greater exposure to heat, cold and moisture than other parts of the house, often makes sense. Basements and crawl spaces are prime places to beef up insulation, too. And when you replace your roof and siding, you may want to add insulation over the roof sheathing or to your walls, says Jennifer Amann, buildings program director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Heating and air conditioning

Cost: About $5,000 to $12,000 to upgrade both heating and cooling systems, depending on the size and efficiency of the units.

Savings: Replacing a heat pump or air conditioner that is more than 10 years old with a high-efficiency unit can save up to 20% on heating and cooling costs, according to Energy Star. Certified gas furnaces are up to 15% more energy-efficient than standard models and can save up to $85 a year in energy costs.

Tax credit: Up to $300 for qualifying central air conditioners and air-source heat pumps; up to $150 for qualifying gas, oil or propane furnaces and boilers.

If your heat pump or air conditioner is more than 10 years old, or if your furnace or boiler is more than 15 years old, it may be coming due for a replacement. Along with choosing an energy-efficient unit, “one of the most important things is to make sure a contractor comes out and does a full assessment of your current equipment needs rather than just saying that you have a 4-ton system and need to replace it with a 4-ton system,” says Amann. To start, it’s possible that your current unit was not sized or installed properly. A professional should ensure that your new system is the appropriate size for the ductwork and refrigerant lines connected to it, says Hensley. And if you’ve made other upgrades that enhance your home’s efficiency, such as putting in new windows or adding insulation, that may affect the size of the equipment you need, too.

A professional can help guide you through the best options to update your heating and cooling system and whether switching from one type to another makes sense. You might want to consider replacing both your air conditioning and heating system with an air-source heat pump, which can produce significant energy savings. (We’re not talking about underground, geothermal heat pumps, which can cost $10,000 or more with installation.) Air-source heat pumps use the surrounding air to heat and cool your home, so they rely on electricity to move heat rather than to generate it, making them highly energy-efficient. Historically, such heat pumps have been best suited to warm and moderate climates. But thanks to advances in the technology, they’re becoming a more feasible option in areas where temperatures frequently dip below freezing. When an air-source heat pump replaces heating and cooling units in the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions, annual savings average $459 compared with electric resistance heaters and $948 compared with oil systems, according to Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships.

Windows

Cost: Replacing all of the windows in your home is one of the most expensive improvements on our list, but the savings on your energy bills and increased comfort make it worth serious consideration. Double-hung replacement windows with frames can range from $400 to $1,600 or more per window (including installation), depending on the brand and whether you choose vinyl or wood. Vinyl windows cost less and require less maintenance, and the frames can be filled with insulating foam.

Savings: Replacing single-pane windows with Energy Star–certified windows can save you from about $100 to nearly $600 in household energy bills a year for an average-size home, according to estimates by D&R International, an environmental consulting firm.

Tax credit: 10% of the cost of any Energy Star–certified windows (not including installation), up to $200. Energy Star skylights and doors are also eligible for a 10% credit.

Look for the Energy Star label, which means that the products meet the energy-saving criteria set by the Environmental Protection Agency. In the case of windows and doors, the key performance parameters are U-factor and Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC), according to Enesta Jones, senior press officer for the EPA. U-factor is a measure of heat flow through the product (insulating power), and SHGC is a measure of the amount of heat from the sun that will pass through a window. Skylights, or tubular daylighting devices, which gather sunlight at the roof and transmit it down into the home through a diffusing lens, use the same technology as energy-efficient windows, and they naturally light your home.

All Energy Star windows, doors and skylights save energy (and help the environment), but the standards vary by region. Windows that meet the Energy Star specification in the southern U.S. generally cost less than windows that meet the standard in the northern U.S., which require more-expensive glass. To find your zone, go to www.energystar.gov and search for “climate zone.”

Water heaters

Cost: From about $1,000 to $2,000 to install a tank heater; up to $5,000 for a tankless heater.

Savings: An Energy Star gas storage water heater uses 10% less energy than a standard model, and a family of four can save hundreds of dollars in energy costs over its lifetime, according to Energy Star. With an electric heat pump water heater, a family of four can save as much as $3,750.

Tax credit: Up to $300 for qualifying gas, oil, propane or electric heat pump water heaters.

Heating water uses a significant amount of energy in many homes—an average 12% of residential energy consumption, according to Energy Star. In most climates, it’s the second-highest component of residential energy bills, after heating and air conditioning, and in mild climates it may be the biggest energy user, says Amann.

New gas water heaters are considerably more efficient than past versions and may save you about $25 per month when you replace an older model, says Hensley. And tankless water heaters are worth a look, although their up-front costs are higher than tank heaters. They heat water on demand instead of regularly warming it in a tank, which means they can be about 24% to 34% more efficient than conventional tank heaters, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

You may see substantial energy savings by switching to a heat pump for water heating. “If you’re in a home with an electric resistance water heater, in almost all situations a heat pump water heater will be a beneficial investment for you,” says Amann. They typically cost at least $1,200 without installation, compared with as little as a few hundred dollars for a standard electric heater. But they use about one-third of the electricity, she says. Because a heat pump uses the air surrounding it to heat water, you can’t put it in a tight space, such as a small closet. But it should be a viable option in most homes.  

Roofing

Cost: About $120 to $150 or more per 100 square feet for asphalt shingles. Metal roofing may cost $200 to $900 per 100 square feet. With installation, total costs may run $5,000 to $15,000 or more.

Savings: About 7% to 15% of total cooling costs, according to the Cool Roof Rating Council.  

Tax credit: 10% of the cost of certified metal and asphalt roofs with pigmented coatings or cooling granules to reduce heat gain (installation costs aren’t eligible).

“Cool roofs” reflect sunlight more effectively than standard roofs, cutting down on heat absorption and potentially lowering surface temperatures by 50 degrees or more. Energy Star–certified roof products may reduce peak cooling demand by 10% to 15% in the hottest months. On the downside, cool roofs can increase heating costs in the winter, although “this annual heating penalty is usually small compared with the annual cooling savings, because roofs in cold climates tend to receive much less sunlight in winter than in summer,” according to the Cool Roof Rating Council. Using cool materials often makes the most economic sense if you have a flat roof because of how heat is distributed underneath it in your home.

White roofs are the most reflective, providing the greatest potential for energy savings. But you may be able to find qualifying materials in darker, more traditional colors. Asphalt roofs cost less than metal roofs, but metal is more durable, potentially lasting for decades longer than asphalt roofs.

Solar panels

Cost: An average $2.81 per watt, according to Energy­Sage. Many homeowners install a system of about 8 kilowatts, for a total of $22,480 before tax credits and other incentives.

Savings: As much as 100% of the cost of your electric bills. Recouping the cost of installing solar power in savings on your energy bills typically takes anywhere from five to 12 years.

Tax credit: 26% for solar projects placed in service by the end of 2022 or 22% for projects placed in service in 2023.

Harnessing the sun’s rays to power your home has become a more appealing prospect thanks to falling prices for solar panels, as well as tax credits and other breaks that take a significant chunk out of the bill. The 26% federal tax credit would cut the $22,480 average price for installing an 8-kilowatt system down to $16,635, and your state, locality or utility company may offer more incentives.

In deciding whether and how to install solar panels, you have a few major considerations, says Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder of EnergySage, an online marketplace where homeowners can collect bids from solar-energy installers. First, you need somewhere to put the panels—most homeowners install them on their roof, but those with plenty of land may put them in their backyard. If you want to place panels on your roof, it must have enough space to accommodate them and receive adequate sunlight, with minimal blockage from trees or buildings. Panels are typically installed on the south-facing side of a roof.

You also have to evaluate the size of the system you’ll need, based on your electricity consumption. Generally, you can get by with a smaller system in a sunny climate than you can for a similar home in areas that receive less sunlight. Energy­Sage has a calculator to help you judge how large of a system you may need and how much you could save by installing solar panels.

Overall costs will typically be lowest and savings highest with a solar-power system you purchase outright. With a lease, you host a solar-power system and send the solar company a fixed monthly payment. With a power purchase agreement (PPA), you pay the company for the electricity that the system you host generates. A lease or PPA may have no up-front cost for you, but you don’t get the tax credit because you don’t own the system.

Alternatively, you can finance a solar system with a loan. Tapping a home-equity line of credit (recent average rate for a $30,000 line of credit: 4.73%, according to Bankrate) is often a good option. Or you may be able to obtain a solar loan through your installer or from a bank or credit union. Online lender LightStream recently offered rates ranging from 3.99% to 14.49% for a term of 24 to 36 months for a solar loan of $10,000 to $24,999, or 6.99% to 16.29% for a term of 73 months to 84 months.

Solar renewable-energy certificates, or SRECs, allow homeowners in some areas—including Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.—to sell the energy their solar power systems generate to utility companies. Each 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity your system produces is one SREC, and each SREC may be worth anywhere from about $10 or $20 up to a few hundred dollars.

Is a wind turbine right for you?

The potential for wind power isn’t limited to the massive wind farms scattered across the U.S. plains or the clusters of windmills in farmers’ fields. In fact, the federal government offers a tax credit of 26% through 2022 (dropping to 22% in 2023) for those who install a small wind turbine at their residence. But unless you have a lot of land, consistent winds and significant cash to invest, a wind-energy system probably doesn’t make sense.

Generally, you need at least one to two acres of clear land to put up a wind turbine. It should be placed upwind of buildings and trees and stand at least 30 feet higher than any object within 300 feet of it, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Many towers are at least 80 to 100 feet tall. That may be a problem if your community has zoning requirements that restrict the height of structures on residential properties. Your region should have average wind speeds of at least 10 miles per hour to power a turbine.

For a turbine that can produce 10 kilowatts of power—which could supply enough energy for a 2,500-square-foot house that uses about 2,000 kilowatts of electricity per month—you may pay upward of $50,000 before tax breaks or rebates.

Other ways to trim your energy bill

These environmentally friendly products don’t qualify for a federal tax break, but check EnergyStar.gov or your utility provider for rebates.

Light bulbs. Although compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can initially cost a little more than standard light bulbs—typically about $2 more for each CFL and $4 more for LEDs—they ultimately save you money because you spend less on your energy bill. They also last longer than incandescent light bulbs. The Department of Energy says that households that replace incandescent bulbs in the five most-used fixtures with Energy Star bulbs can save $75 annually.

Energy Star appliances. Energy Star–rated appliances are another great way to reduce your energy bill. For example, using soil sensors, improved water filtration and more-efficient jets, the latest Energy Star dishwashers (ranging from about $700 to $2,000) will save, on average, 3,870 gallons of water over their lifetime. A list of the most-efficient Energy Star appliances is at http://energystar.gov/most-efficient.

Power strips. Even electronics that are turned off use electricity when they are plugged in, typically accounting for as much as 10% of your electric bill, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. A power strip ($10 to $15) lets you easily turn off appliances plugged into it, reducing “vampire” energy usage. Smart power strips, such as timer power strips or motion-sensor power strips, can automatically turn off outlets.

Programmable thermostat. Smart therm­ostats, such as the Google Nest and Ecobee, which cost about $130 to $250 (check your energy company for rebates), let you control and schedule your heating and cooling settings using voice control or via an app. Many smart thermostats also come with motion sensors to help optimize your energy use. If you don’t want to tie your thermostat to your Wi-Fi (some homeowners have reported being hacked), you can also realize savings with a simple programmable model (about $20 to $150).

Home energy monitor. To get a bead on your home’s energy use, try a home energy monitor. It will provide details on your energy usage and recommendations on how to save. Some energy monitors, such as the Sense energy monitor, also allow you to monitor energy production of solar panels. Cost: $299.

Source: kiplinger.com