This seems to be quite the topic and since I often brag on Facebook about my coupon prowess, a couple of people have asked what other things I do to save money. To me, money savings falls into two categories - really big changes and little changes that add up. Really Big Changes are things like giving up cable for Netflix. Little Changes that Add Up are things like getting McDonald's coffee instead of Starbucks.
Before undertaking any changes, it is important to understand your own deal breakers. For example, I will go without the fancy haircut and dye my own hair for $4, but I will not give up cable. In my experience, when I tried to severely cut across the board, I felt like I was deprived and ended up "rebelling" with a $200 Target shopping spree. Now that I give myself permission to spend on some things, I find I don't want to.
Do you find shopping to be a "fun" activity or a necessary evil? I find shopping to be a fun activity. I love walking around Target or surfing Amazon.com and filling my cart with "great deals" or "just what I didn't know I always needed." The difference now is that I realize that shopping is the activity, but buying doesn't have to be so I just put everything back. Sound crazy? Yes, but I spent $500 less at Target alone since I started doing that.
Really Big Things
Reevaluate your deductibles on your auto insurance - Increasing a deductible by $500 can save you between 5 - 25% depending on what you are paying. Only do this if you actually have an extra $1000 saved somewhere, but the savings in your insurance premium can really add up over time . Also, re-base your insurance to the value of your car. The coverage you needed when the car was brand new may not make sense now that the car is 10 years old.
Evaluate your phone, Internet and cable packages to see if there is a better deal out there or cancel cable all together and just use Netflix for $9/month and/or borrow your friends' DVDs. We would never cancel cable. We don't go out much and this is our entertainment budget. Every few months, my husband is able to negotiate getting a premium movie channel free and then we DVR movies to watch so no need for Netflix or rentals or even going out to the movie theater.
Make sure you can afford your car/house - You don't have to have a car payment. You can actually save enough money to buy a car outright. Used cars have come a long way since the advent of leasing. Now, you can easily find cars that are 1 -2 years old, you know have been maintained, still under warranty, and get an accurate Carfax report on any hidden damage. It's all about trade-offs.
Rent out a room in your house - Now, this isn't for everyone, but I know several childless couples who have rented out rooms in their home for a summer or 6 month period to someone who was looking for an apartment, in between college and grad school or some other transient circumstance.
Evaluate what you actually have - Under my sink, I had 24 bars of soap. I had over 100 DVDs that I hadn't watched in years. Don't even get me started on CDs. This has two benefits: 1. You find things you could sell or trade for other things you really want. 2. You stop buying those excess items. I have enough shampoo and conditioner to last me until 2012. Seriously.
Stop using credit cards - The temptation is just too great. You can use your debit card, but then you actually have to pay attention to make sure you don't overdraw on your account. If you are going to use a credit card, make sure you are getting points or cash back and you pay it off every month. I make a credit card payment every two weeks. This helps keep the spending in check while amassing points.
OK so that's it for really big things. In general, I don't think there are a ton of quick and easy solutions to getting a handle on your money. It basically comes down to spending less or earning more. In this economy, earning more is very difficult so it's about spending less. So here's some little things that really add up.
Little Things that Add Up
Kick the Starbucks habit - Seriously. It's not that good. Make your own at home, work with your office manager to get a blend you can stomach at your office, buy a frother and some flavored syrup ($4 a huge bottle) and make the fancy cappuccino noise while you whirl it yourself, or switch to tea - it's better for you. If this is your deal breaker, then buy a Starbucks card with how much you think you can afford for Starbucks for a week or month. When the gift card is gone - you are done.
Create your own go-to meals - I have found it is helpful to have a couple stand-by meals. Meals that you can quickly put together and always have the ingredients for. Ours are: frozen pizza with roasted red peppers, spinach pesto and whole wheat pasta, chicken with red sauce over couscous, chili salad, ravioli and vegetable fried rice. Since all of the ingredients for these dishes can be stored in the freezer or pantry, we always have them. This really helps for those nights we would probably go out because menu planning was the last thing on anyone's mind. It also means I can shop for the best deal on all these ingredients. I know I am going to need them. In fact, I barely pick a recipe to make.
Shop based on deals, not menus - I take about 90 minutes on Sunday, cut coupons, match my coupons to the ads and then buy what I can get the best deal on that I think I will actually use. I had a real wake up call on how useful this one a few weeks ago when I had picked out a recipe I wanted to try, bought all the ingredients and the bill was $40. The day before I had bought almost a cartful of on sale plus coupons items that cost $40 and those ingredients made 5 -6 meals instead of just one. Theoretically, you could even get the kids involved - matching the coupons to the pictures in the ad. Not having children myself, this seems like one of those piece in the sky ideas people without children come up with and try to sell it to parents. For more insight into this style of shopping - check out grocerygame.com. For online coupons - check out coupon.com; redplum.com;smartsource.com
Learn to make soup - Buy produce when it is in season and cheapest. Cut it up, add some seasonings, an onion, some broth and leave it in the slow cooker. Puree and you have soup. Then freeze and now you have more go-to meals for the rest of the year. Same with tomatoes and pasta sauce. Basil and pesto, etc.
Learn what is a good price for something - For a long time, I had thought we were not getting the best deal at our wholesale club. My husband started a spreadsheet to compare the prices we were paying for things to really understand what is a good price for certain items. Here are some of our findings for the Tampa Bay, Florida area:
Bread - $1.70 a loaf
Butter - $1.70 a pound
Frozen pizza - $3 a pizza
Diced Tomatoes - 75 cents a can
Coffee - 17 cents/ ounce
Tide - 11 cents/ ounce
Now, these aren't the best deals we have ever gotten, but these are a good indicator if we are getting a good deal. Sometimes, the best deal is at Walgreen's, sometimes it is at the wholesale club. Watch the ads.
Make the most of gifts - When people ask what you want for a gift and you know they are going to buy you something, ask for something that can help you say money:
- A Sunday subscription to the newspaper (for coupons and ads)
- A magazine subscription
- A bread machine
- A slow cooker
- An immersion blender (for soups and sauces)
- An ice cream maker (ice cream prices are INSANE!)
It will make a big difference - especially if you actually use them.
Have breakfast for dinner once a week - Breakfast foods are the least expensive. Think eggs, bacon, pancake mix, etc. Having breakfast for dinner once a week is cheap, quick and fun. Same thing goes for vegetarian meal once a week - healthy + cheap.
Cupboard challenge - My husband and I will have a cupboard challenge once every few weeks. It's clear we need to go the store because we are down to the bare bones, but we try to see how creative we can be and how long we can go without going to the store. Yes, that means defrosting that thing way in the back of the freezer and cooking it. It could mean making your own biscuits to serve with that dusty can of soup. Our longest record is 4 days, but at that point we were having breakfast for every meal so we went to the store.
Become friends with your local library - Libraries these days are amazing! Most libraries are totally online. You can make a list of what books, movies, CDs you want and then they call you when they come in and you just go pick them up. Some even have audiobooks you can download for free to your iPod. Really. Check it out. I have read tons of books this year. Sure, you have to wait a while. I am still waiting to get the latest Black Eyed Peas, Kelly Clarkson and Taylor Swift into my hot little hands. But at a savings of $30 - I can wait. Same with movies - the ones I haven't been able to DVR off free movies channels, I am patiently waiting for. I'll get the new James Patterson in about 6 months. In the meantime, I have lots of other books, movies and CDs to keep me busy. I also use it to preview cookbooks or reference books to see if I really like them and will use them. If yes, then I buy them.
Restaurant Eating - We rarely eat out. Between the go-to meals and the sagging shelf of cookbooks, there's really no need. However, I understand, this is not the way of the world for other families. Look for coupons. On restaurant.com, you can get $25 gift certificates for as little at $4. Just subscribe to couponmom.com and she sends out the code to get 80%. Now, these certificates usually have a minimum purchase so they are best used on 4 or more people or to get an appetizer and then bring home leftovers for lunch the next day. Also, research frequent visitor clubs for restaurants you like to frequent. TGI Friday's has a pretty good club. You get coupons like buy one, get one or free appetizer, or $10 off. If you are going to go out, might as well get something for it. The Sunday paper may also have coupons for restaurants. Nicer restaurants may also have price-fixed menus on a slow night during the week. It's worth a phone call.
Lower your utilities - Call your utility companies to see if there are ways to lower your bills or if there are rebates available for making efficiency upgrades. We installed new low-flow toilets at the beginning of the year. We have saved enough money on our water bill, they have paid for themselves at this point. Some counties offer a rebate. Again, it's worth a call. Most gas or electricity companies will perform a free audit for you. The federal government is also offering a number of tax incentives for efficiency improvements.
Entertainment - Check out high school and college activity schedules for plays and sporting events. It's a night out at a much lower cost. Also, look into free days/nights at local museums, art galleries, etc. Make sure you know all the discounts you can get through your memberships, employers, union or church. Triple A members can save 10% at Target.com - 7% at Dell.com.
These are all the tips I can think right now - What about you? What tips do you use to save your pennies, dimes or benjamins? I'd love to hear it!