Dec. 22, 2010 -- If you saw my latest "GMA Savings Makeover," you know that I saved the Gunn family of Oswego, N.Y., more than $58,000 by using six simple strategies. Their monthly savings will be $847 -- really meaningful money for them. This was my fourth Savings Makeover, based on the strategies in my book, SAVE BIG. Frankly, I started doing them because people were skeptical and I wanted to prove that the techniques in my book really do work and aren't hard at all. The Gunns approached me because their 2010 New Year's resolution was to pay their bills on time and start saving. Our story aired on Dec. 22, so we just made the cut off!
Tom and Nancy Gunn have always wanted to make their finances fit their family -- not the other way around. They have two sons of their own and over the years have adopted or taken in three other kids.
"We love the opportunity to help other children," Nancy said. "That's how our family ticks. The more the merrier. The more we can help the better we like it."
So my challenge was to find a way to stretch the salaries of a self-employed hairdresser and a school bus supervisor. I did it! Here are more details about how to duplicate these savings in your own life.
New Tech Accounts: Savings = $4,632/2 years
When I do these savings makeovers, I look for painless savings people can achieve with savvy tweaks. But I was worried about Nancy Gunn because she's in her 40s and self-employed and hasn't started saving for retirement, because she and her husband have always put the kids first.
So I suggested the Gunns cancel their cable TV service for aggressive savings. Actually these days it's not such a sacrifice because it's possible to watch nearly all of your favorite shows in other ways. The website www.CancelCable.com has a show-finder tool that tells you how. Many shows are available online and with a couple of simple cables, you can connect your computer and TV and watch on the big screen. Plus in the era of digital television, you can get 30 to 50 channels with a basic antenna. To my delight, the Gunns were totally open to the idea. They just hadn't thought of it!
By canceling cable, then bundling their home phone and internet service through their phone company they will save an impressive $128 a month -- $3,072 over the course of the two-year contract! I wanted the Gunns to drop their home phone service too, but unfortunately they don't get good cellular service in their own home.
I also found the Gunns terrific savings on their cell phone plan with the help of the indispensable website www.Validas.com. Here's how it works: You upload your cell phone bill to the website where special software analyzes it every which way. There are hundreds of factors that a human brain just can't compute, but a machine can. (Also check out the new Validas "My Peeps" App that helps you choose which people to put on your AT&T or Verizon friends and family free calling list for maximum savings.)
Validas found that the Gunns could save $65 a month by switching providers and plans. Lucky for them they were not under contract, so they were free to go without any termination fees. One interesting note, the Gunns were also paying about $20 a month for a prepaid cell phone for their daughter. Often prepaid cell phones are a good deal, but their 8-year-old hardly uses hers. Instead, they will be able to add a phone for her to their new plan for just $5 a month. Their total savings over the 2-year contract will be $1,560. And if their new cell phones get a good signal in their house, maybe they can drop their home phone after all and save even more!
Copycat Grocery Shopping: Savings = $3,900/year
The Gunn's big, blended family needs a lot of groceries but Tom and Nancy only have a little bit of time to shop for them because they're busy with said family. So I introduced them to the concept of "Copycat Grocery Shopping." All over the country, grocery gurus who know how to get rock bottom deals blog -- and brag -- about their best finds in great detail. They list the store, the type of product on sale and any coupons available for that same product. Rather than frantically clipping coupons in advance, all you have to do is save all the latest circulars. The bloggers tell you which circulars contain the coupons you need to pull off the deals they have found. Just cut 'em right before you head to the store and go.
The Gunns will copy the blogger who covers their store, Price Chopper. She is Michelle Hovestadt of www.WickedCoolDeals.com. Michelle has mastered the art of combining store sales with coupons, the key to getting groceries at a deep discount. You can make that discount even more meaningful by stocking up with enough of the item to last you until that sort of product is deeply discounted again. Michelle says she often gets her supplies for as much as 70-percent off, but always at least half off. All the Gunns have to do is copy her and I figure they can save 50-percent too! For their family that is a savings of at least $3,900 a year -- and even more when the boys are home for the summer! Nancy Gunn's reaction when I told her? "To save that kind of money? We'll take the time and do that," she said.
I found Michelle Hovestadt through the phenomenal coupon education website www.BeCentsAble.net, which aggregates lots of these grocery guru bloggers in one place. If you don't see a blogger there who covers your store, just Google the name and location of the chain and you are likely to find somebody who writes about it independently.
Shop Around for Insurance: Savings = $2,082/year
The Gunn's car insurance seemed high to me, so I invited independent Trusted Choice agent Brendan Higgins of the Thousand Islands Agency in Clayton, N.Y., to shop around among the many companies he represents. Contacting an independent agent for help is a great time saver because it's like comparing prices all over town, but with one phone call. It was amazing. Not only did Brendan find the Gunns great savings, he got them better, more complete coverage. Their liability limits, in particular, were too low for today's litigious world and he upped them from $100,000 to $500,000 while still saving them money. Total savings? An impressive $2,082 a year for their two vehicles. Brendan says he often scores savings like that for his clients by switching to other reputable companies and also by analyzing their specific coverage to see if cost-saving changes can be made. Trusted Choice, an alliance of independent agents can refer you to one near you.
No Cost Refinance = $33,473/11 years
Tom and Nancy Gunn had never tried to refinance their house and take advantage of today's historically low interest rates because they didn't have the cash for closing costs. I asked them if they belonged to a credit union. They do! But they had never approached their credit union about refinancing. So I took the Gunns to Oswego County Federal Credit Union to see what we could cook up. Loan officer Aimee Johnson suggested taking the Gunn's two mortgages –a first at 6.75 percent and a second at 13.84 percent -- and refinancing them both into a new loan at 5.35 percent! Then she wowed me with a concept I had never heard of before: the loan would be a home equity loan rather than strictly a mortgage. It really is a mortgage, because you use it to finance your entire house, but Oswego County Federal Credit Union calls it a "Home Equity Loan" because it has zero closing costs. Perfect for the Gunns! Basically, to thank you for bringing in your loan business, the credit union pays the closing costs for you.
This is a concept unique to credit unions that other consumers can inquire about. (Commercial banks also offer no-cost refinance deals, but they charge you a slightly higher interest rate to cover the closing costs they are paying for you.) The Gunn's monthly payment will remain exactly the same but they will be done paying their house off in 11 years – 8 years early! Their total savings by switching to such a competitive interest rate? $33,473! "That's so huge! So huge!" Nancy exclaimed. "Maybe we'll actually be able to retire some day!"
Roll Cars/Cards into Home Equity Loan = $13,684
Oswego County Federal Credit Union also offered to roll the Gunn's car loans and credit cards into a second, more traditional home equity loan at 8 percent for three years. Currently their car loans are at 13 percent and 14.75 percent, so that's a dramatic improvement. They only have modest credit card debt, but the rates are as high as 29.99 percent, and it would take 30 years to pay off the existing debt by making minimum payments. The rollover plan will save them $13,684 and get those debts paid off in just three years! It will also save them $155 a month, loosening their purse strings a bit.
A couple of important notes about rolling other debts into home equity loans. On the one hand, they are the best kind of loan because the interest is tax deductible. On the other hand, if you burden your home with too much debt, and you are unable to make your payments, you could lose your house. I asked loan officer Aimee Johnson why she felt comfortable offering the home equity loan as a debt management tool in the Gunn's case. She explained that they have a healthy loan-to-value ratio of about 50 percent. They have been making payments on their home since 1999 and it has also gone up in value since then (despite a dip in 2008) so they have already paid off about half the value of their house. That gives them a lot of equity to tap into. The Credit Union also structured this second home equity loan as a three-year loan, so the debts are put to rest quickly and efficiently. That way there is less time for something to go wrong.
Do these offers seem over-the-top generous? Oswego County Federal Credit Union CEO Bill Carhart assured me that his people provide affordable products like these to their members all the time. It's startling in an era when many people are frustrated with big banks, but it makes sense when you consider that credit unions are non-profit companies essentially owned by their members. If you do not belong to a credit union you are missing out. And contrary to popular belief, they are not hard to join. It used to be that you had to work for a certain company or be related to someone who did, but now there are all sorts of creative ways to join. To find a credit union near you, visit www.FindACreditUnion.com.
Appeal Your Tax Assessment: Savings = $517/year – plus or minus.
There is one final savings strategy I suggested to the Gunns that I did not cover on the air because the precise savings figure is hard to predict. I want them to appeal their property tax assessment. Here's why. Using addictive real estate website www.Zillow.com, I checked twenty different properties on their same block and only two were assessed for more than theirs – and both were far bigger. I also spotted several that are very similar in size and amenities but are assessed for much less. And I found a recent comparable sale that should be very helpful: a house a couple blocks over that has 3 bedrooms and 2 baths just like theirs just sold for only $40,000, even though homes in the neighborhood generally go for $100,000 plus. Very few people appeal their property taxes, and this is how you do it, by analyzing neighboring assessments and recent sales. If the Gunns can knock $15,000 off their assessed value, they will save $517 each and every year. And there's one other benefit to a successful appeal: it resets your rate, so that even when your assessment starts to creep up again, it is a creeping from a lower point.
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