How to Financially Navigate Your First Year as an International Student

This article is written by Anum Yoon. She is an international student currently working in the U.S. on her OPT. She spends all her free time running a personal finance blog for fellow millennials and international students over at Current on Currency.

Starting as a freshman at any college is always stressful, as there’s so many new experiences and responsibilities involved. If you’re an international student, it can be even more intimidating. As well as dealing with the pressures of college life, there’s the worries about living in a new country, using a second language and especially finance. The following tips will help you get to grips with your money, and make your first year as a student go smoothly.

  1. Understand Your University’s Payment Requirements

Payment options for your education will vary, depending on which college you decide to attend. These options will affect your financial planning for the year, so it’s worth finding out what’s needed from you as soon as you can. There are a few questions it’s worth asking before you start in the fall: Is payment for the fall semester required upfront in the summer? Is upfront payment required for each semester? Are monthly payments available, and are there international student fees to pay? Find out and then you can begin budgeting your tuition costs straight away.

  1. Open a U.S. Bank Account

If you have a bank account with a bank that only operates within your home country, it’s worth considering opening a bank account in the U.S. when you arrive. Otherwise, money withdrawals and transfers can become quite challenging. You’ll also notice that most citizens in the U.S. mostly use credit and debit cards to pay for things, even for small transactions. Having a U.S. bank account will make it easier for you to pay for necessities while you’re studying.

  1. Book Flights Early

International flights can quickly get expensive, especially when booked at short notice. To save money, book your flights for events such as moving in, orientation and college holidays as far in advance as you can. Your college may offer travel grants to international students, so it’s worth checking with them before you start booking your travel. If you’re planning to stay during holidays, make sure to check your accommodation regulations. Some on-campus housing closes during the holidays, so if you check first you can avoid paying out to stay elsewhere.

  1. Plan Your Getaways

There are multiple occasions during the school year that call for a getaway with friends. It’s not realistic for most international students to travel back home during every single break, so whether it’s a 3-day weekend or Thanksgiving break, it’s great to plan for these breaks ahead. Planning early will help you open up travel opportunities that are a lot cheaper and better organized. If you are on a tight budget, you can always see if any of your friends will be okay with inviting you over to their homes. Another fun idea that is good for low budgets are road trips. A road trip is a great excuse for you and your friends to explore your home-away-from home.

  1. Plan Your Indirect Costs

Your indirect costs are things like rent, groceries, and transportation. If you’re living on a budget, then there are lots of ways to save money. Having roommates is a good way of saving on household costs, and if you live on campus, you may be able to opt into a meal plan which will save money on food. Your college may offer all kinds of services for free or for a low fee, such as shuttle bus services and entertainment. Be sure to take advantage of them.

  1. Remember U.S.-Only Costs

There are a few financial customs that are particular to the U.S. you may not be familiar with. One example is tipping. In the U.S., gratuities aren’t added to bills in restaurants, so customers are expected to tip their wait staff 15 to 20 percent of the total to pay for their service. Not doing so can be considered rude, so it’s worth making sure what you should and shouldn’t be doing with your money while you’re studying in the U.S.

  1. Find the Best Options for Communicating With Family Back Home

While you’re away studying, you’ll want to stay in touch with your loved ones back home. Doing so can become expensive if you follow traditional routes, such as international phone calls or sending packages. If you want to call, consider using prepaid phone cards. If you’re sending packages, recycle packaging materials you’ve previously received, and research your best mailing options before you send them.

The Internet is a fantastic, and cheap, way to stay in touch. Social media sites such as Facebook allow you to chat online, and face call software such as Skype lets you make phone calls via your computer for free. Take advantage of what’s available online.

Managing your finances while living abroad can be a daunting thing to do. By following these tips, you can keep on top of both your tuition and personal costs, lifting one more worry from your mind.

How to Get Financial Aid as an International Student

Many colleges in the United States are making a big push to recruit international students to come and study. The sad truth is that this isn’t always an effort to diversify the campus. At some colleges, this is done to bring in more money. Unfortunately, international students often pay a lot more than U.S. citizens for the privilege of attending university thanks to fewer resources at their disposal.

Hope isn’t lost, however. While foreign students are at a disadvantage, financial aid is still available in different forms if you’re willing to look for it.

Merit-Based Scholarships

Tuition in the United States can be outrageously expensive at more than $50,000 a year. As shocking as that price is, discounts can be had through merit-based scholarships. According to U.S. News & World Report, 375 of ranked universities offered scholarships to international undergraduate students. The average amount of these scholarships was $18,790.

Some of the most generous scholarships came from the most prestigious universities in the country, such as Yale University – $56,630 average in aid to 349 students – and Harvard – $51,854 average in aid to 540 students.

Attending universities like those are out of reach for all but the absolute best and brightest students, whether they’re from the U.S. or not. Fortunately, all universities typically publish a list of many available scholarships, so check them closely and see if there are any you can apply for. Some of these scholarships are need-based and can be helpful depending on your background.

Outside organizations can also provide grants. The searchable database from the Foundation Center is a good place to start.

Student Loans

For U.S. citizens, federal student loans are fairly easy to obtain and often come with below-market interest rates. That support usually doesn’t extend to international students, but there are other avenues available depending on the country you come from or the program you use.

First, there is a way to get a U.S. federal loan if you’re an international student. Sallie Mae, the largest provider of federal loans, can provide you with a loan if you have a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen. This can be a trusted friend or a family member, but finding someone is often easier said than done. If you don’t pay the loan, then the co-signer who offered to help will be punished, so make sure you take that into consideration. Fill out an application on the Sallie Mae website.

Depending upon what country you come from, your own government or local bank might provide student loans to study outside the country. Check out this list from eduPASS to see what might be available.

Keep on Searching

Searching for financial aid can be overwhelming at times, but the end result will be worth your efforts. Even a tiny scholarship of few hundred dollars makes a big difference. Contact your university’s financial aid office for any opportunities. In addition to that, regularly browse the Internet to find any possible scholarships. Most students don’t even look, so you’re at an advantage if you’re always on the hunt.

4 Benefits of Student Loans When You’re an International Student

Student loans are an integral part of college, especially in a country like the U.S. where tuition rates are sky high. However, international students are at a disadvantage when it comes to obtaining loans to help pay tuition. Federal loans are off the table and can only be acquired by citizens. However, more and more private loans are becoming available to international students. This is great news, as are some important benefits from obtaining student loans. Here are the benefits of student loans when you’re an international student:

  1. They Fill the Gap That Scholarships Cannot

If you’re studying internationally, hopefully you’ve scoured all available options for scholarships. Many universities will have opportunities for you, while some are known for being extremely generous to their international students. Getting your education fully funded is still unlikely unless you’re one of the absolute top students in your class.

Student loans aren’t merit based, so anyone attending an eligible school can potentially receive what they need to pay for school regardless of their grades. However, if you’re looking to go to school in the U.S., you’ll need a co-signer who’s either a permanent resident or a citizen. Your home country might also have some financial aid for international students; do a search for those.

Regardless, having to pay back loans is a lot less fun than receiving the money outright in a scholarship. Don’t fret – this brings us to the next benefit of student loans.

  1. The Rates Are Usually Reasonable

When it comes to private loans, the interest rates will vary quite a bit depending on where you go. The good news is that interest rates in the past few years have been comparatively low compared to the past. These lower rates make an enormous impact over time and make it a lot easier to pay off since you won’t be stuck with too much interest.

On the downside, tuition prices in the U.S. are at an all-time high. The low interest rates don’t cancel out those prices, but it does help lessen the burden.

  1. You’ll Have Time to Pay It Off

Every student loan is different, but it’s common to have to start paying back loans six months after graduation. From then, loans can be paid back over the period of about 10 to 15 years, or longer if the debt is large. Having such big debts when dealing with an uncertain job market is stressful for anyone, but at least there’s time to sort things out while making the minimum payment. If you find yourself in rough financial shape, it’s possible to get forbearance for a year or two where you only need to pay interest. The extra time allows you to get your finances in order, hunt down better deals for yourself in terms of car payments, housing and utility bills. Once you get those trimmed down and figured out – you’ll be a lot better at budgeting for your debt repayments.

  1. They Build Credit

If you’re planning a future beyond graduation in the country where you’re attending university, student loans are useful. By taking out a loan and paying it back responsibly, you’ll build up your credit score. The same goes for paying your credit card and utility bills on time. Having a good credit score helps out in the next stage of your life. It’ll allow you to increase your credit card limits, receive favorable interest rates on car and home loans and even make it easier to lease an apartment – some places do credit checks on potential renters. This is a nice bonus to those big loans you took out that pretty much lasts a lifetime.

Anum Yoon is an international student currently working in the U.S. on her OPT. She spends all her free time running a personal finance blog for fellow millennials and international students over at Current on Currency.

The Complete Guide to Income-Driven Repayment Plans for Federal Student Loans

Student loan debt can feel like a huge burden, especially if your monthly payments are outrageously high. In some cases, your student loan payments may even be more than your rent.

How are you expected to manage? Luckily, there are ways to make your monthly student loan payments more reasonable. If you have federal student loans, you can look into an income-driven repayment plan (sorry, private loan borrowers).

Income-driven plans, which include the Income-Based Repayment plan, base your monthly payments on your income, making payments more affordable than a Standard 10-year plan.

But with acronyms like IBR, ICR, PAYE, and more, choosing a plan can be a little overwhelming and confusing. We’re here to break it down for you, so you can decide which option is the best for you.

1. Income-Based Repayment (IBR)

Income-Based Repayment, which is commonly referred to as IBR, caps your monthly payments based on a certain percentage of your discretionary income. This plan is a good option for borrowers who are struggling with monthly payments and need something more manageable.

Eligible loans:

  • Direct Loans (both Subsidized and Unsubsidized)
  • Direct PLUS Loans (loans made to parents are ineligible)
  • Direct Consolidation Loans
  • Federal Stafford Loans (both Subsidized and Unsubsidized)
  • FFEL PLUS Loans made to graduate or professional students (FFEL PLUS loans made to parents are ineligible)
  • FFEL Consolidation Loans qualify for Income-Based Repayment
  • Federal Perkins Loans (if consolidated)

Note that nearly all federal loans are eligible for Income-Based Repayment, with the key exception that loans provided to parents are not. However, here’s the more important part: in order to qualify for IBR, your prospective payment must be lower than what it would be on the Standard Repayment Plan, and you must demonstrate financial need based on your income (more on that later).

Payment amount: 10 – 15 percent of discretionary income, depending on the date of the first loan.

Repayment period: 20 – 25 years.

Pros: IBR lowers monthly payments. Also, loans are eligible for forgiveness if borrowers carry a balance after the repayment period is complete.

Cons: Borrowers can end up paying more in interest over time. In addition, current IRS tax regulations may consider forgiven loans taxable income, which means that borrowers could be hit with a hefty tax bill.

2. Pay As You Earn (PAYE)

Pay As You Earn is one of the newest income-driven plans to help borrowers manage their student loans. Unveiled in 2012, this plan is similar to IBR but has stricter requirements.

To qualify for PAYE, you need to demonstrate need and be a fairly recent borrower — you must be a new borrower as of Oct. 1, 2007 (meaning you didn’t have any student loans before this time) and must have received a disbursement of a Direct Loan on or after Oct. 1, 2011.

There are plans to expand the Pay As Your Earn program so more students will become eligible. The Revised Pay As You Earn plan (REPAYE) would likely include all borrowers, regardless of when they took out their loans. It includes other provisions, too. We’ll keep you posted as changes take effect.

Eligible loans:

  • Direct Loans (both Subsidized and Unsubsidized)
  • Direct PLUS Loans (loans made to parents are ineligible)
  • Direct Consolidation Loans

Eligible only if consolidated:

  • Federal Stafford Loans (both Subsidized and Unsubsidized)
  • FFEL PLUS Loans
  • FFEL Consolidation Loans qualify for Income-Based Repayment
  • Federal Perkins Loans

Just like IBR, to take advantage of PAYE, your prospective payments must be smaller than what your payments would be on a Standard Repayment Plan.

Payment amount: 10 percent of discretionary income.

Repayment period: 20 years.

Pros: Allows for payments that are an even lower percentage of discretionary income. Also, these loans are eligible for loan forgiveness after 20 years.

Cons: You must be a new borrower as of dates above, so not everyone is eligible. As with IBR, forgiven loans may be considered taxable income.

3. Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR)

The Income-Contingent Repayment plan is a bit different from the other two income-driven plans as there is no income eligibility requirement.

But if you don’t qualify for those plans and still want a lower payment, the Income-Contingent Repayment plan is your best option.

Eligible loans:

  • Direct Loans (both Subsidized and Unsubsidized)
  • Direct PLUS Loans (loans made to parents ARE eligible if they are consolidated)
  • Direct Consolidation Loans

Eligible only if consolidated:

  • Federal Stafford Loans (both Subsidized and Unsubsidized)
  • FFEL PLUS Loans
  • FFEL Consolidation Loans qualify for Income-Based Repayment
  • Federal Perkins Loans

Under ICR, your monthly payment is always based on your income and family size and may even be higher than what it would be on a Standard Repayment plan.

Check out this repayment estimator to calculate your monthly payments (you must be logged in.) You’ll want to make sure that ICR is of benefit for you before choosing this plan over a Standard Repayment Plan.

Payment amount: 20 percent of your discretionary income.

Repayment period: 25 years.

Pros: It’s easier to qualify since there’s not an income eligibility requirement. You may also be eligible for loan forgiveness.

Cons: Highest percentage and payment amounts of all income-driven plans. Your payment on ICR may not be lower than what it would be on a Standard Repayment plan. Forgiven loans could be considered taxable income.

Choosing a Plan

Choosing an income-driven repayment plan that is right for you is important It can help you manage your payments. But which one is best for you? Here are some things you should consider before choosing a plan.

  • What will your estimated payments be? Find out here.
  • Will you be able to pay off your loan before the repayment period is over or will you have to have your loans forgiven? Consider the potential tax ramifications of your decision.
  • Do you qualify based on your income and family size?

Going on an income-driven repayment plan may seem like a great way to pay less on your student loans, but you may actually pay a lot more in interest over time. If you can afford it, it makes sense to go with a Standard Repayment Plan.

But, if you’re struggling with payments, an income-driven repayment plan can help relieve borrowers.

How to Apply

To apply for an income-driven plan, submit the Income-Driven Repayment Plan Request form online at StudentLoans.gov. You may also fill out a paper form, which you can get from your loan servicer.

For Income-Based Repayment and Pay As You Earn, you must demonstrate financial need to be eligible. Borrowers can submit their Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) through a federal tax return or online with the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which syncs your tax information to your application.

If you haven’t filed a tax return or have no income to report, you can provide alternative documentation such as pay stubs and unemployment benefits.

Bottom Line

Income-driven plans can be a great way to reduce your federal student loan payments, but it’s important to look at the long-term benefits and consequences.

On the one hand, these plans can help you in the present, but in the future you may deal with taxable income on forgiven loans and may pay more in interest over time. Be clear on your goals and choose the right repayment plan for you. For more information, check out these Income-Driven Plan FAQs.

Blog Smarter: 5 WordPress Plugins to Help You Make Money From Your Blog

Why do we blog? Perhaps you feel you have things to say which the world would be interested in, or maybe you’re very passionate about a topic and your friends are sick of hearing you talk about it! I have a blog like that; it’s simply a sounding board for me to jabber on about a particular hobby of mine which none of my friends take part in.

But the main reason for blogging, I think, is to make some money out of it. Let’s face it, we all enjoy blogging and we all enjoy making money, so why not combine the two? But as we all know, it’s not that easy to make money from blogging, at least at first. So I did some research and found some plugins which could make monetising a blog just that bit easier. Please note that I haven’t used every one myself yet, so I’d welcome your feedback in the comments if they’ve worked (or not) for you!

Amazon Associate

I use this one myself and it’s invaluable if you have an Amazon affiliate account. Once the plugin is installed and set up with your access keys (found on your Amazon affiliates profile) it’s really simple to add in affiliate links to your posts by way of a simple search box on the New Post screen.

Simply highlight the text you want as the link, enter the search term relevant to the post in the side widget, select the category and hit search. It will bring up a list of products from Amazon and you just click on one of the insert buttons to put it straight into the post you’re writing.

You can also enter sidebar widgets as easily as setting up any other widget; on your widget page you’ll see several available widgets that just need to be dragged and dropped into the relevant sidebar panel. You can set up product carousels, favourites, product clouds, MP3 clips and there’s also a search widget. Each one can be customised to match your site and is linked to your affiliate ID, generating revenue each time a user clicks and purchases.

The money you earn from this plugin can be sent to a bank account or as an Amazon gift certificate. Sadly there’s no PayPal support yet but this will hopefully be implemented in the future.

Ad Rotator

This is one I’ve recently been trialling and so far it’s working well. Once installed (in the usual way) it gives you a widget which looks like the default text widget box. You put your ad codes in here and use <!–more–> to separate each block. Each time your site is refreshed the ad will change.

You can have more than one Ad Rotator block in your sidebars so you could have static ads too. The widgets can go in sidebars and footers and work with any ad size.

As there’s no CPM system with this plugin you can charge for ads in whatever method you like. I personally charge more for a static placement than a rotating one but it’s whatever works for you. The best thing about this plugin in the flexibility it offers you.

Kontera

I installed this on a site I run which doesn’t use sidebars. As Kontera places contextual ads within the text of a page, the absence of sidebars didn’t matter. You need to register for a Kontera account first but that is quick and easy, and gives you your published ID which is then entered in the plugin setup. From there it’s simply a matter of choosing the colour of the links you want and adding the generated code into all the pages you want the ads to appear on.

It can take up to 24 hours for ads to appear within your site text, so don’t do what I did at first and deactivate in frustration because it didn’t appear to have worked!

Kontera works in multiple blog platforms, so if you’re a fan of Blogger or Drupal you can also use this nifty plugin. Payments can be made via PayPal for best security.

MediaPass

If you have content on your website which you’d rather keep behind a pay wall, then this plugin would seem to be an easy answer. I say “seem” only because I haven’t used it myself.

Once you’ve registered for a MediaPass account and the plugin is installed, it’s as simple as highlighting the content that you want to put behind the pay wall and choosing the subscription option to apply.

MediaPass take 35% of the revenue the plugin generates, which sounds like a lot, but you do get a lot of support and behind-the-scenes processes for that commission. Their technicians handle all the merchant fees, database management and all the other techy stuff so the blogger can just concentrate on the actual content.

Skimlinks

If you want to earn your money through affiliate marketing, Skimlinks looks to be the tool to go for. The plugin will convert any product links and references in your posts into affiliate links, which can be from any one of over 17,000 merchants on the Skimlinks database.

The advantage of using Skimlinks is that it allows the busy blogger to free up the time otherwise spent seeking out affiliate schemes, setting up tracking codes and maintaining the accounts. Skimlinks does all this for you, and you only need the one account with them to get access to all those different merchant programs.

Skimlinks takes a 25% commission from the merchant, but because of their standing with the merchants they can often negotiate a better rate so overall, you’d probably end up getting more money than if you’d set up all the links yourself. Plus, all the time it saves you means you have more time to write great content!.

Again, I haven’t yet used this one but I am thinking of trying it; has anyone has experience with this?

I’d love to hear feedback about all of these plugins, and if there are any which work especially well for you that you feel should be included. Please let me know your opinions in the comments!

All images taken at the WordPress Plugin Directory.

Louise is a financial writer for MoneySupermarket.com and a freelance copywriter/web designer. In her spare time she runs her wrestler husband’s website and blog. You can find her on Twitter: @louisetillotson.

Blog Smarter: Turn Your Blogging Skills into Successful Affiliate Promotions

Like most bloggers, you probably want to make some money from your blog. Chances are good you’ve tried things like writing product reviews or putting banners or links to affiliate products into your sidebar.

But while many bloggers have mastered the “Art of Blogging” (or at least the basic principles) successfully, earning money from your blog doesn’t seem to be that easy. So what could be better for you than to use your blogging experiences and skills to improve the results of your affiliate promotions?

In this post, I’ll show you how you can re-purpose three of the most successful blogging strategies to get more out of your affiliate promotions. As a nice extra, these tactics will also have a positive effect on your blog. But more importantly, you’ll learn how you can merge them into a combined and even more powerful strategy for your affiliate promotions.

While some of what I write may seem simple or self-evident to the more experienced affiliate bloggers, it’s this way of tying it all together into one strategy that will make the affiliate promotions on your blog really stand out.

Let’s look at the three important blogging strategies on their own first.

Write (and promote) for your audience

You know that well enough—if you want your stuff to be read, it has to match your audience’s interests. The same is true for your affiliate promotions, in particular for the products you choose to promote: they have to be relevant for your audience.

This sounds self-evident, but frankly I’m stumped at the number of bloggers who have an affiliate banner for a hosting company on their blog—even though their audience clearly isn’t thinking about computers or internet when visiting their blog.

So instead of promoting your hosting company on your garden blog, why not try it with an affiliate link for garden tools, or link to an ebook about gardening?

Publish (and promote) quality

You know the game… Quality content attracts real readers which are interested in the topic. An excited and engaged audience. (Just look around here on ProBlogger if you don’t believe me.) It also makes people stay on your site longer, come back for more, engage with you and others, and recommend you to friends.

Just the things you want for your blog.

The same holds true for any products you promote: choose quality. Again, this seems to be self-evident. But take a look around at some blogs and see what they promote. (Or take a close look at your own blog, just for good measure.)

A lot of times, I see just the same banners or “product reviews” for the same old products. It seems that a lot of affiliate bloggers don’t bother to pick a product by its quality. Nor do they care about the “quality” of the vendor, i.e. about his integrity, and about how much he cares about his customers.

In the long run, your readers will notice the difference. And they will trust your recommendations just because they know you watch out for them.

Even the quality of the affiliate program should matter to you as affiliate. After all, you can and should expect a fair treatment for your efforts. Affiliate promotions are a business deal between the vendor and you, the affiliate. If a vendor doesn’t care about the success of his affiliates, why should you bother to promote his products?

So, again, be picky. Choose the right kind of products to promote.

Establish expertise—not only for yourself

This powerful blogging strategy has several facets which can all play together:

  • You can establish yourself as expert on your own blog by posting the right kind of content.
  • You can establish yourself as expert to a wider audience by guest posting on other blogs.
  • You can establish other people as experts on your blog by publishing their guest posts.
  • And you can establish yourself as a “meta expert”, as the go-to guy/girl of the experts in your field, by publishing a selection of guest posts by recognized experts in your field and/or by interacting with them on your blog, e.g. through interviews.

Again, you can make use of the same strategy in your affiliate marketing. If you want your readers to buy the products you’ve selected for them, they need to do two things: trust your judgement, and trust the vendor to deliver quality. A big step towards the first is if your readers see you as the expert. That will make them much more likely to trust your recommendations.

But don’t forget about the second part, about trusting the vendor. Before somebody buys from a vendor you recommend, they have to be reasonably sure that this person will be honest, and that (s)he will deliver quality.

To some extent, you can establish that trust towards the vendor with your recommendation: if readers see you as trust-worthy, your recommendation carries some weight, too.

But you should also consider establishing expert status for the product creator on your blog. Then when a reader clicks on your affiliate link, he will already be prepared to trust the vendor whom he sees as expert.

Tie these strategies together for even more power

Just by using these three strategies, you can improve the results from your affiliate efforts a lot. But there’s a very simple, though rarely used way to combine these strategies into something even more powerful:

Publish guest posts by product vendors on your blog, and include your affiliate link in the byline.

Now, just to be clear about it: I’m not talking about promotional content or “product reviews”. I’m talking about guest articles with real, quality content. And about establishing the vendor as the expert (unlike a product review, where you are the “expert” who reviews). And, of course, about picking and promoting the right kind of products in the first place.

To fully understand the power of this strategy, put yourself in the shoes of your readers for a moment:

They come to your blog. They know you publish good stuff, and you’re an expert in the field—you’ve done your best to establish that status. On your blog, they read a guest article by another expert. It contains great content, is helpful, informative, and entertaining.

They like the style and want to read more of the same.

Do you think they’re likely to click on the link (your affiliate link) in the byline? And do you think they might be willing to spend money on a product by this expert?

To achieve this, you only need to re-purpose and tie together the three simple strategies you’re already following when you blog: write for your audience, publish quality, and establish expertise. Do this by choosing the right products, and then publishing informative guest posts by product vendors with your affiliate link included.

In return, you get more out of your affiliate promotions for everybody involved:

  • Your readers get to read great content.
  • You recommend a good product which will improve your readers’ lives in some way.
  • You make it easier for your audience to trust your recommendation, to buy the product and thus to improve their life.
  • The vendor has a chance to make more sales and get happy customers.
  • And you? You benefit from fresh quality content. You have a chance to enhance your reputation even further. And of course there’s the thing with the affiliate commissions…

In short, it’s a win-win-win. What I like most about this strategy is its simplicity. Despite being a really powerful strategy, it’s also about as simple and easy as it gets.

To show you just how easy it can be, I’ll give you the outline again in eight simple action steps. Why don’t you just give it a try and actually do the steps while you read along?

1. Choose a few good products to promote

By “good”, I mean quality products from trustworthy vendors with a quality affiliate program. And of course products which fit the interests and needs of your audience.

2. Sign up for the affiliate programs of the vendors

Make sure you read the terms of the affiliate programs, and are happy with them.

3. Check the existing promotional material

If the vendor offers promotional material for his affiliates, browse through it to check if there are any suitable articles you could use.

Don’t be disappointed if there aren’t any, though—usually vendors provide what is most asked-for by affiliates, and most affiliates don’t use this strategy… (bad for them, good for you!).

If you find ready-made articles by the vendor anywhere, make sure you’re allowed to enter your affiliate link. If in doubt, ask. If no suitable articles are readily available, go to step 4.

4. Get in touch with the vendors

Introduce yourself, and give them the URL of your blog. Be professional: you’re contacting a potential business partner.

Ask for suitable articles, and explain what you want to do with them (establish the vendor as expert on your blog, give your audience good content, and generate sales for both of you). It should be clear that you’re not looking for purely promotional material, but for actual content.

Make sure it’s absolutely clear that you will use your affiliate link in the resource box and/or the article content—you don’t want to risk any misunderstandings about this.

To increase your chances of getting suitable material, you can also point out that the articles could have been published elsewhere before. Most vendors, especially the more established and successful ones, won’t provide each affiliate with a different set of “unique” articles.

I’m not going into the depths of the “unique content” discussion here, but since this is not primarily an SEO strategy, it may not matter for you whether the guest articles on your blog have been published in other places, too. The quality of the articles is much more important! The internet is a huge place, and chances are very high your readers haven’t seen them before.

5. Read between the lines

Not every vendor will send you suitable articles. But regardless of that, their replies might tell you a lot about how they do business, and how they treat their customers and affiliates. Even if somebody can’t provide you with articles, he/she might be a great guy or girl, and there might be options for other business ventures in the future.

Just be open for ideas.

6. Check the material you get

Seriously. You want to feature the vendor as expert. So to make this strategy work, you have to stick to your standards. Make sure you only publish articles which:

  • are a good fit for your audience and topic
  • contain real content, are entertaining, informative, or helpful
  • aren’t promotional
  • meet your quality standards

A good test is to ask yourself if this article would be worth publishing without your affiliate link. If an article doesn’t match your requirements, don’t use it.

7. Insert your affiliate link

Insert your affiliate link for the vendor in the places you two agreed upon. Then double-check the link, just in case.

8. Publish

To add even more leverage, don’t just publish the article on your blog. We’re talking about serious, quality content here—about guest articles you could and should be proud to anounce to your audience and to the world.

Use social media to point people to the article. Link to it in your newsletter, or publish it in your ezine. Add it to an autoresponder sequence for your mailing list, so that any future subscribers can read it, too. Or link to it from your “thanks for opting in” page.

After all, if you’ve chosen the right kind of guest article, your audience will love you for the pointer to the post! Once you’re done with all the steps, go back to step 1 and start over.

The biggest enemy of success…

We’ve all been there: you read about a great new strategy that would move you forward quite a bit. You’re very excited about the idea, and make plans to implement it as soon as possible. Only “asap” usually turns out to be tomorrow. Then next week. Then next month. And then never.

Sound familiar? Why don’t you do it a bit different this time? I’ve given you eight action steps above. Take a piece of paper or open a file right now and start a list of suitable products and affiliate programs. If you’re already signed up for such affiliate programs, go straight to step 3. Check the available content for suitable pieces. And if you can’t find any, don’t pass go, proceed with step 4 and send a note to the vendor(s). Right now.

Worst case is you’ll spend the next hour getting in touch with potential business partners—not the worst thing that can happen to you today, is it?

Editor’s note: tomorrow, our final posts in this series look at blogging smarter (and more profitably) with WordPress.

Regine Becher is an affiliate manager and JV broker. To help affiliates and bloggers get more out of their affiliate promotions, Regine runs a service called Syndicated Partners, where affiliates can download quality articles and publish them with their affiliate link inside.

10 Popular Affiliate Programs for Small and Medium-sized Blogs

As we’ve already seen today, affiliate marketing is a relatively trouble-free way for bloggers and other website owners to earn money. In fact, these days, even social media sites can become lucrative platforms for affiliate marketing campaigns.

Because affiliate marketing doesn’t require affiliates to offer their own products or services for purchase, but only to place promotions on their sites for other merchants’ products, it frees affiliates from many of the responsibilities and complications of traditional sales models.

Affiliate marketing programs typically work by having the merchant handle all the logistics involved in selling products or services, processing customer orders and payments, and shipping merchandise—all while the affiliate sits back and collects a commission for each agreed-upon action completed by the visitors the affiliate sends to the merchant’s website via an affiliate link. As long as the affiliate has done her homework and chosen a trustworthy affiliate program, she needn’t worry about non-payment.

Affiliate networks administer programs for individual merchants, handling all the work involved, while generally providing tracking and reporting capabilities to their affiliates to help them keep tabs on their revenues and determine which products or services are producing the best returns. These tools can be helpful to an affiliate in fine-tuning the line of products she decides to promote on her site and, ideally, increasing revenues as a result.

However, all affiliate programs are not created equal. Which are the most popular programs available today?

1. LinkShare

Reportedly the largest affiliate network, with over 10 million affiliate partnerships, LinkShare took the number-one spot in the Blue Book of Top 20 Affiliate Networks for platform strength, support quality, and international capabilities.

LinkShare offers over 2,500 affiliate programs and lets you choose whether to have every aspect of your affiliate channel managed for you or whether you would rather manage your own program using the company’s various service and support options.

2. Commission Junction

Said to be the largest affiliate marketing network in North America (though it operates globally) and claiming the number-two spot in the Blue Book of Top 20 Affiliate Networks for being “the best at balancing the relationship between the merchants, the network, and the affiliates,” California-based Commission Junction, owned by ValueClick, Inc., offers affiliate, media, and tracking services and provides either a self-management or company-managed option for your affiliate relationships.

In addition to its regular pay-per-action affiliate program, the company also offers a convenient PayPerCall program to help affiliates “ensure they get paid commission for the leads they generate, thus further monetizing existing ad placements and having the opportunity to expand their promotional…online and offline campaigns.”

3. ShareASale

Claiming the number-three spot in the Blue Book of Top 20 Affiliate Networks for being the “overall best performance marketing network in the world today,” Chicago-based ShareASale has over 2,500 merchant programs and features brands such as HootSuite and PS Print.

ShareASale has received excellent ratings, with the company’s reputation/security, ethics, customer service, and ease of commission payment receiving glowing reviews.

4. Amazon Associates

Placing fourth in the Blue Book of Top 20 Affiliate Networks, for a reporting system that “far surpasses other big networks,” this is one of the largest and most diverse affiliate programs available.

As most people know, Amazon.com offers such a wide array of products that there’s bound to be something to fit your niche. In fact, they offer over a million products from which you can choose to monetize your website or blog. Amazon Associates is a pay-per-sale affiliate program.

5. Google Affiliate Network

According to the network’s Overview page, “Google Affiliate Network helps advertisers increase online conversions on a performance basis and enables publishers to monetize traffic with affiliate ads.”

Google Affiliate Network is a pay-per-action network that pays commissions to its affiliates for driving conversions (sales or leads). The network requires a Google AdSense account for posting ads to the affiliate’s website or blog and facilitating affiliate payments.

6. ClixGalore

ClixGalore is an Australian PPA (pay-per-action) affiliate network that also has offices in the US, UK, and Japan. The company offers various types of programs, including PPM (pay-per-impression), PPL (pay per lead), PPS (pay-per-sale), and PPC (pay-per-click). Many programs pay in US dollars.

Some well-known brands that use ClixGalore for their affiliate offerings are Bluehost, Time Life, Trend Micro, Citibank, and Fox Sports Shop. While not as widely known as some of the other affiliate networks, ClixGalore is a solid network that offers thousands of potential merchant programs. The network also offers a two-tier network. By referring other affiliates to the network, current affiliates can receive a portion of their earnings.

7. PeerFly.com

PeerFly is a PPA network with its own proprietary software system. The network made the Blue Book of Top 20 Affiliate Networks, which stated regarding them, “They are courteous, helpful, and point you in the right direction.”

The network also took the number-four spot in the Blue Book of Top 20 CPA Networks, for its high popularity, great staff, and excellent platform. PeerFly accepts publishers from all over the world and offers thousands of merchant programs.

8. ClickBank

A well-known affiliate network, ClickBank features digital products, such as e-books, software, and membership sites. The program reportedly offers up to 75% commissions on its tens of thousands of products. Commissions are paid weekly, and direct deposit is available to its affiliates.

Over the years, this network has remained popular, though some have questioned a few of its practices. Despite this, the company enjoys an A- rating with the Better Business Bureau.

9. MaxBounty

MaxBounty came in sixth in the Blue Book of Top 20 CPA Networks, though it didn’t make a showing in the Blue Book’s top 20 affiliate networks. In business since 2004, the network was founded on the philosophy of paying its affiliates more.

MaxBounty pays affiliate commissions weekly, and the company appears to have a good reputation among its affiliates. In fact, the network is popular among many top affiliate marketers and has received numerous positive reviews and writeups and critiques over the past several years.

10. Neverblue.com

Neverblue is a pay-per-action affiliate program that pays its affiliates for lead, download, and sale generation, as well as for new affiliate referrals. While Neverblue didn’t make the Blue Book of Top 20 Affiliate Networks, it did take the number-one spot in the Blue Book of Top 20 CPA Networks.

Note: Neverblue’s parent company, Velo Holdings, Inc, filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy earlier this year and now plans to sell the network at auction to pay its debts.

Despite this, the affiliate program has stated the following: “This filing will not impact Neverblue’s ability to meet client needs in any way—we intend to continue to operate business as usual without interruption. Neverblue’s business is fundamentally strong and we intend to make all affiliate payments on schedule, in a timely and reliable manner.”

Its management is just as confident that the sale will not affect Neverblue’s ability to meet its affiliates’ needs in any way. While this company tends to inspire high confidence among affiliates, you’ll have to decide whether to jump in now or wait a while to see how things go after the sale.

What’s your favorite network?

If you’ve been thinking of trying affiliate marketing to monetize your blog, consider testing these ten programs to see whether they fit your niche and audience. If you’ve used any of these programs, we’d love to hear your thoughts on them in the comments.

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