GIVE YOUR HOME AN ENERGY AUDIT
Once you have set a budget, your next job is to figure out the most cost-efficient green projects. According to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, if all the homes built before 2000 used as little energy per square foot as those built in the past decade, our national residential energy consumption would decline by about 22 percent and owners of older homes would save about $400 a year on average. To get a sense of how energy-efficient your home is and what projects are worthwhile investments, use the free online Home Energy Saver tool at (HES.LBL.gov).
You can also pay for a professional energy audit that scours every nook and cranny of your home to determine exactly where it is losing energy (and money). But these thorough checkups can cost $300 or more, so go this route only if you plan to spend a few thousand dollars in upgrades. Even better, check your local utility to find out if it is offering subsidized or free energy audits. You should also contact your state's energy department to see if it has any programs to help defray the costs of audits or energy improvement projects, and search the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency at DSIREUSA.org. To find a qualified auditor, go to EnergyStar.gov, click on Home Energy Audits, and use the Energy Star for Homes Partner Locator tool.
MAKE CHANGES-FOR LESS
If you're in the market for a home appliance, check your utility company's Web site for the latest information on what rebates may be available for energy-efficient models. Last year's massive federal stimulus package earmarked $300 million for states to offer rebates to residents who purchase qualified Energy Star appliances-those programs are being rolled out in 2010. Each state has a finite amount of money it can dole out; once that money has been spent for a given year, the rebates cease. So if you intend to replace an appliance in 2010, the sooner you apply for the rebate, the better.
In addition to rebates, you can also claim a credit on your federal tax return for energy-efficient home upgrades. I love this because a tax credit is far more valuable than a tax deduction, which only reduces your taxable income; a $1 credit reduces the tax you owe by $1. This program is good through the end of 2010 and can be used to recoup up to 30 percent of the cost of energy projects such as stuffing walls with new insulation and upgrading heating and cooling systems. To claim the maximum $1,500 credit, you need to spend at least $5,000 on qualified projects. This credit program was also in effect in 2009; if you claimed the full credit in 2009, you can't come back for more in 2010. That said, as I write this, Washington is contemplating a new stimulus program that would offer another round of tax incentives for energy-efficient projects. I'll post information on my Web site if that program takes off. To learn more about federal tax incentives for green projects, go to EnergyStar.gov/TaxCredits.
If your car tops the list of things that need improvement, tread cautiously. I wish we all had the money to drive the most efficient vehicles, but a new car-even a green one-is still a depreciating asset. Some ground rules: If you can't pay in full, take out a loan. Do not lease! (Leases have hidden costs like assessed "wear and tear" charges and extra fees for miles above the allotted yearly amount, plus you won't get a good deal at the end of the period if you want to purchase the car.) Go ahead and take out a loan for that hybrid you've been eyeing only if you follow the same rules I listed for taking out a HELOC or HEL, your FICO score is at least 700 (which will mean a low interest rate), and the loan term doesn't exceed 36 months (again, to keep interest to a minimum). If you can't afford a new car with these terms, check out certified pre-owned models from dealers-yep, there's now a market for used hybrids with manufacturer's warranties; contact a dealer to see what is available.
Check out tips on how to make green investments or ask Suze a question.