Author: Joel Hilton


Traveling Abroad on a Budget

When people think of visiting popular overseas destinations like London, Paris or Japan, they’re often concerned with extravagant hotels, overpriced food and costly flights. However, a big trip doesn’t have to bring big expenditures. In fact, with a little planning and some self-discipline, traveling abroad on a budget can be relatively simple.

Economical Travel

One of the easiest ways to save is by going during the off-season. In Europe, for example, this is between October and April. Flights are usually cheaper, as are hotels, restaurants and fuel.

Don’t just take the first flight that fits your departure and return dates — do your research. If you’re willing to sacrifice some time, it can be cheaper to have some layovers. For instance, it may cost less to fly into Ireland, then catch the connecting flight to Paris, than it is to go directly to Charles de Gaulle.

If you’re traveling alone or as a couple, use public transportation when possible. In London, an Oyster Card gives you access to the subway, bus, railways and boats for less than the price of renting a car and paying for gas. On the other hand, if you’re with a group of adults, splitting the price of a single rental car could be more cost-effective.

Modest Accommodations

Skipping the main tourist season means you’ll already spend less on accommodations, but you don’t have to rely on hotels. Many bed-and-breakfasts offer rooms at lower rates and sometimes provide plenty of free amenities. Hostels are an option, and you can look up pictures and reviews online before booking. You can also try home exchanges or hospitality services, such as Airbnb to see what kind of deals are available.

Cheaper Cuisine

If you have access to a kitchen, consider buying groceries and making your own meals instead of eating out. Look for what’s in season and take advantage of the local produce. Additionally, you can pick up groceries that don’t have to be cooked and stop for a picnic.

If you’re vacationing on a budget, three meals a day isn’t necessary. Dinners at restaurants is usually the most expensive, so by eating a big lunch and only snacking for the rest of the day, you’ll save some money and some calories, too.

Inexpensive Entertainment

Check out a guidebook — printed or online — before beginning your journey and look for free tours, good hikes, scenic locations and other inexpensive excursions. Search for deals and discounts on entertainment. Once you reach your destination, talk to locals about their favorite sights and activities. You may discover adventures, vistas and prices most tourists don’t find.

If want to bring souvenirs home, avoid airport and hotel gift shops. Look for flea markets, farmer’s markets and swap meets. Not only will you be able to purchase handmade items from local residents, many vendors are open to bartering, letting you walk away with a great bargain.

Finally, if you’re planning on international travel, make sure to notify your financial institution. This will help prevent any unnecessary issues with your credit cards. America First is also part of the CO-OP Network, which allows you to get cash from any ATM in that partnership without paying fees.

Traveling to another country does require some financial preparation, but these money-saving tips should help the price tag become more manageable.


Six Tips for First-Time Homebuyers

Buying your first home can be intimidating. After all, making the leap from renting to ownership should not be taken lightly. However, with proper preparation and planning, you’ll find it’s not as scary as it seems. Here are six tips for first-time homebuyers.

1. Make Sure You’re Ready

Before purchasing a house, you’ll need to be willing to plant some roots. It takes time to build equity and experts suggest staying in a home for at least five to seven years to make it worth the investment. Plus, selling isn’t as easy as not renewing the lease on your apartment.

Next, check your credit score. A good one — 700 or above — usually means you can get a lower interest rate on your mortgage loan. And that means a smaller monthly payment. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll be paying utility bills, insurances and, in some cases, association (HOA) fees. Figuring out how much you can afford now will help prevent financial stress down the road.

And you’ll have to plan for a down payment. Most mortgage lenders require 3% to 5% of the price up front. However, you don’t want to completely deplete your savings, because it’s important to maintain an emergency fund. Steady income and smart spending are essential when you make the decision to become a homeowner.

2. Prioritize What You Want & Need

Come up with a list of features you want in your future residence. This may include size, design, location and area crime rates. This will help narrow your search. Differentiate between needs and wants. There’s no such thing as the perfect house, so you also need to decide what’s flexible and what are deal-breakers.

3. Find a Real Estate Agent

It’s crucial to work with a Realtor you trust. Choose someone with experience in the neighborhoods you’re considering, then talk to friends and family about their past buying and selling situations. Interview several real estate agents to find someone with whom you are comfortable.

4. Get Pre-Qualified

It’s important to seek loan pre-qualification to know what you can afford. This also makes the mortgage application go faster when you find the property you want. America First can help you through this process and determine which loan best meets your needs and financial goals.

5. Make an Offer

Once you find the house you love, it’s time to make an offer. Your Realtor can help you in coming up with something reasonable and communicate it to the seller. It’s acceptable to offer slightly less than the asking price, but some sellers are willing to negotiate and others are not.

6. Inspections are Key

Never buy a home until you have it inspected. There could be serious flaws, such as mold, structural damage, wiring issues or plumbing problems that could end up costing you in the long run. Hire a professional inspector and make sure to read the report thoroughly. Resolve anything major before you close.

Following these guidelines should provide first-time homebuyers with some stress relief. You can also check and search for local homes by location, price and type, as well as bathrooms and bedrooms.

Happy house hunting!


Standby Power: Unplug & Save

Take a moment to think about every device you have plugged in at home. Now consider how many of those actually need to be.

The truth is, most electronics don’t always have to be attached to outlets. In fact, many of these perpetually plugged-in gadgets still use power when they’re turned off, costing you money you didn’t even know you were spending.

What Is the Standby Power Price Tag?

The average household routinely leaves around 40 appliances plugged in 24 hours a day. The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that standby power — also known as leaking electricity, phantom load or vampire draw — can account for up to 10% of your annual electric bill. That means you could be throwing over $100 annually down the electrical drain.

What Are the Culprits?

Certain things like refrigerators and DVRs need to stay hooked up, for obvious reasons. However, identifying problem electronics can help you save some money. Older items with manual knobs, switches & dials, didn’t use a lot of standby power. Almost everything these days comes with a digital display. LED lights don’t use a lot of energy by themselves, but if you see a light on when something is turned off, it’s a power sucker. Computers, laptops, TVs, cable boxes, gaming consoles, coffeemakers and iPod docking stations are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to standby power usage.

How Do I Prevent Power Leaks?

The simple answer is to unplug devices when you’re not using them. While this seems like common sense, it can be a little tricky in practice. After all, no one wants to do that with 40 products when they leave for work, then hook them back in when they get home. The idea is to determine what you can unplug and connect those devices to a power strip. That way, you can easily switch all of them on and off as needed. If a daily disconnect is too daunting, consider doing it when you go on vacation or take a weekend getaway.

As you can see, unplugging unnecessary electronics is not only good for the environment, it’s also beneficial for your wallet. Plus, once you’ve gotten into the habit, you can take that extra money and invest it in an America First dedicated savings account, earning dividends instead of letting it slip away through a power outlet.


HELOC: Use Your Home’s Value to Improve It

With spring around the corner, many homeowners start thinking about the improvements they’ve been putting off all winter. If your to-do list is long, but your cashflow is short, you might want to consider a home equity line of credit, also known as a HELOC.

These loans give you access to the value you’ve worked so hard to build and they provide the flexibility you need to make your projects a reality.

Many people don’t take advantage of their equity until it’s time to sell. With a HELOC, you can borrow up to 100% of your home’s value, minus your mortgage balance, right now. You can then use those funds to make unexpected repairs, complete residential enhancements to increase the resale value or accomplish pretty much anything you see fit.

One of the nice things about a HELOC is that it’s open-ended, meaning you can draw out money up to the approved limit and pay it back as needed — similar to a credit card, but with much better rates and terms. So, for example, if you’re remodeling your bathroom and you discover that your water heater needs to be replaced, your line of credit could cover that expense as well, without any additional applications or processing.

America First offers an interest-only HELOC, which gives you the lowest possible monthly payments for the first five years. During that time, called the draw period, you’ll only pay the loan’s interest back. When the draw period ends, the loan balance converts to a 10-year repayment plan. At that time, you can start paying down the principal or refinance your interest-only HELOC and start another five-year draw period.

However, please keep in mind that any interest-only HELOC principal balance still needs to be paid at some point. And defaulting on any home equity loan could result in foreclosure. You should practice responsible borrowing and only tap what you can reasonably pay back during the loan’s term. Using a HELOC in this way will help keep you out of financial trouble and give you short-term cashflow for home repairs and improvements.


Charitable Contributions: Financially Sound Generosity

We all know it is better to give than to receive. And, of course, the point of giving to a worthwhile cause is not expecting anything in return. Nevertheless, there are financial benefits to charitable contributions when you file your taxes. Here are a few tips & guidelines regarding taxes and charity.

What Is Deductible?

The IRS doesn’t allow deductions for funds given to specific individuals or families. Meaning, if you give a friend in need some money to help them pay for a medical issue, it doesn’t apply. The contribution has to be to a qualified organization, such as the Red Cross, public schools, churches and many other non-profit organizations. If you have a question a group’s tax-exempt status, contact the IRS online or call 1-877-829-5500.

Keep Detailed Records

If you deduct charitable donations on your return, you’ll need more than just a scribbled note on a napkin. There should be a written communication from the organization, including its name, the date and the amount you contributed. Detailed receipts will ensure you have accurate data and are invaluable in case of an audit.

How Much Can I Deduct?

You can actually deduct up to 50% of your adjusted gross income when it comes to charitable contributions. It’s one of the few itemized deductions that doesn’t have a floor, or lower limit, meaning you get to deduct every dollar that you give to qualified organizations until you reach half of your income level. Every dollar that you donate to charity beyond that 50% of your income will still give you warm fuzzies, but you don’t get to deduct it on your taxes.

It’s Not Just About Money

Cash contributions aren’t the only things that can lower your tax bill. You can also deduct the value of donated clothing, furniture, vehicles and more. To do this right means you have to get a receipt when you donate and determine fair market price of the item — which is, essentially, a reasonable price if you were selling it. There are also cases when you can deduct the cost of travel to and from a place where you volunteer your time, the price of a volunteer uniform and other endeavors.

Please remember that this article is for information only. We recommend consulting your tax advisor with questions regarding specific deductions and charitable donations. However, if you want to start donating today, the America First Community Assistance Program is a wonderful — and tax-deductible — effort you can join. Simply log in to your online banking account and make your contribution.


Valentine’s Day Single and on a Budget

St. Valentine’s Day can be a divisive holiday. On one hand, there are couples who have already set up a wedding savings account and love Cupid, flowers, chocolates and romance. On the other hand, there are people who are single and on a budget — who want to mark the occasion, but won’t be spending money on extravagant dates or giant teddy bears. If you’re in the latter group, here are a few ways to enjoy February 14 without breaking any hearts or the bank.

For the Single Ladies

To celebrate girl power and your love for all of your lady friends, “Galentine’s Day,” popularized by the television series Parks and Recreation, is an excellent option. Bust out your favorite pink and red dresses to really get festive. And if you don’t have a cute dress in the right color, visit a local thrift store to find something fun and affordable.

You’ll also want the surroundings to match the festivity. Here are some budget-friendly DIY decoration ideas for your celebration:

  • Fringed photo backdrop — cut several large strips of pink, white, and red crepe paper, then trim for a fringed border. Attach one side of each to the ceiling and twist the bottom for a great background for your photos.
  • Garland — cut out some felt hearts and hot glue them to a long ribbon or piece of twine. Then you’ll have something to hang over your windows and doorways.
  • Hugs & kisses — take a basic red, white or pink cotton tablecloth and use acrylic or fabric paint to draw simple Xs and Os on it.

We all know food can make or break a party. Brunch is great because it’s affordable and easy for everyone to contribute. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive:

  • Waffles — this staple is always a favorite. Have everyone bring their favorite waffle topping (whipped cream, chocolate, strawberries, etc.) to save some money.
  • Omelets — find items at the supermarket to create an omelet bar. Simple ingredients such as mushrooms, peppers, onions, tomatoes, spinach and cheese are inexpensive, yet delicious.
  • Add granola and dried or fresh fruits to a small bowl of yogurt for a hearty and satisfying snack that is also easy on the pocketbook.

You can also gather to binge-watch your favorite chick flicks via streaming services; it’s much cheaper than heading out to the theater. Give each other Valentine’s-themed manicures as you’re watching. Another idea is to end the evening with a lip-sync battle featuring the all-time greatest girl power songs.

For the Single Men

Don’t worry, guys, we didn’t forget about you! This season is also a good time to celebrate your bromance with your friends! Here are some suggestions for you.

Have a tournament. You probably already own most of the necessary equipment, so it shouldn’t cost much. Just print out a bracket, invite some of your guy friends over, pick a team name and show who is the best at:

  • Basketball — play three-on-three, H-O-R-S-E, or lightning in your driveway or at a nearby gym or blacktop where you can play for free.
  • Football — flag football is fun for large and small teams. You can also search online for pick-up games happening in your area.
  • Ping-pong — go one-on-one in single elimination or compete in doubles. Blast the Rocky soundtrack to make it even more epic.
  • Foosball — you’ll have to determine if your house rules allow spinning or not, but this is even a crowd pleaser for those who don’t like sports.
  • Video games – host a LAN party or dust off your old N64 and play some Goldeneye.

Food is also essential here. Pizza is a good, inexpensive way to feed a large group. Here are some other dishes that you can bring to a bromantic potluck:

  • Seven-layer dip — as long as you have beans, sour cream, guacamole and cheese, people usually won’t count the actual layers. Don’t forget the chips!
  • Pulled pork — shoulder (or Boston butt) roast usually goes for about $2 a pound. Watch store prices and buy when it’s on sale.
  • Hot dogs — add some diversity to your dogs with inexpensive toppings such as ketchup, mustard, Dijon mustard, pickles, relish, onions, sauerkraut, chili, banana peppers and BBQ sauce.

So instead of feeling sad or lonely on Valentine’s if you’re single, have some fun with your friends and do it without spending too much.


Save Money with a Spending Freeze

Have you ever taken a break from spending money? If so, for how long? One or two days? Three? What if we told you that it’s possible to not spend money for an entire week? Of course, everyone’s financial situation is different, but if you’re up for the challenge, here’s how to complete your seven-day spending freeze.


First, choose your starting date and mark it on your calendar. If you don’t know what your weekly budget is, track your spending for a few weeks beforehand. This will give you an idea of how much you can save and it will make you more aware of unnecessary spending.

Just before you begin your freeze, gas up your car and go grocery shopping. Plan a menu for the week and only buy what you’ll need. Don’t stock up on excessive amounts of food the day before — that would defeat the purpose of this exercise. Your goal is to use what you have for the next seven days.

Exclusions & Exceptions

Your monthly bills need to be kept current, so make sure to take care of those. If possible, choose a period when you don’t have to pay any reoccurring payments. Additionally, you should always pay the necessary costs of emergencies (basement flooding, broken bones, alien invasion, etc.) and move your spending freeze to another time, if necessary.

Next, set aside your estimated weekly budget and put those funds in a separate account such as money market savings. This will be your backup fund, but otherwise it is off limits. And now, with your gas tank full, your refrigerator full, your bills paid and your money set aside, you are ready to begin.

Get Going

Spend each of the seven days using what you already have. Follow your meal plan, pack lunches from home and don’t stop for fast food on the way home from work. You may even have unexpected leftovers from dinner that can double as lunch for the next day — which will extend the life of your pantry supplies.

Try to avoid unnecessary travel during this week. Oftentimes, we don’t think about the gas we use when we’re out and about. If you can, walk or use a bicycle to run errands. And instead of driving to the city to see a movie, for example, watch something at home that you already own. It’s perfectly acceptable to be a homebody during your freeze.

Follow Up

You did it! And you now have a full week’s budget available to pay off debt, complete a home repair, or put toward a long-range goal. Resist the urge to spend your newfound funds on something frivolous. Keep increasing your savings to you can make your money work harder.

Spending freezes are like juice cleanses — they should be done in moderation. But if you were able to handle a week, you might want to consider periodic freezes several times throughout the year and use the money to make deposits in an America First dedicated savings account for future needs. You’ll be surprised how quickly your financial resources grow when you’re not spending them.


How to Live on Only One Income

Are you preparing to become a stay-at-home parent, dealing with a recent layoff or saving up for a big purchase? Even though it may sound impossible, you can live on only one income and make it work.

Whether you’re single or married, have children or not, these three simple ideas are essential: create a plan, spend less and save more.

Before you think that sounds too easy, let’s break down the specifics:

Create a Plan

Successful single-income families don’t just happen — they require a strategic evaluation. First, create a realistic budget to better manage your money and stick to it. If you need to review it later on, that’s fine, but be sure to get off on the right foot.

Next, stay on top of your bills. Ensure your regular financial obligations are a priority so you don’t end up paying any unnecessary fees or fines. You can also focus your efforts on paying off debt initially, which will free up resources later.

Finally, if you have too many credit cards and loans to keep track of, consider consolidating them at America First. Our low rates and flexible terms will help you save time and money. Plus, having all of your loans in one place will require significantly less mental effort.

Spend Less

If you are moving from multiple incomes to a single income, you’re going need to make significant financial changes. Don’t try to maintain the lifestyle you had with two incomes. Instead, try to make spending sacrifices — such as buying generic instead of brand-name products, or scaling back a planned vacation. It’s much easier to save more when you spend less.

And when it comes to shopping, determine if you really need to go at all. Can you put together some meals using what’s already in your pantry? Do you really need a new pair of shoes? When you head out, always look for the best deal and use coupons or discount codes.

Also, take a look at your housing situation. If necessary, consider moving into a more affordable living space, or refinancing your mortgage to a lower rate. If you already have a reasonably priced home with affordable monthly payments, fix things yourself instead of immediately calling a professional.

Save More

Even though you’ll be cutting down on what you spend as a one-income family, you should still regularly save. A rainy-day fund can give you peace of mind if any unexpected expenses or emergencies pop up. America First has just the right tool to help you set aside some funds, too — dedicated savings accounts, which provide competitive dividends on automatic transfers that you can set up.

Additionally, you can actually save money by not working. If just one of you is going to the office every day, that means only one vehicle is commuting — set aside what you used to spend on gas and upkeep. Those at home will also eat out less than someone at an office and the entire family should do the same — leftover food helps create leftover funds.

Whether your single-income status is temporary or permanent, this advice applies for the short term and the long haul. Making a plan, spending less and saving may seem intuitive — because they are. It’s very similar to the “secret trick” to losing weight: diet and exercise. However, putting these principles first, discussing your strategies and writing things down can truly make a difference.