We're all looking to keep a few extra greenbacks in our wallets, but for many of us who have too much month at the end of our money, it can seem impossible to do more with the money we're already making.
The truth is, there are always ways to pinch a penny, particularly if you're willing to invest a little time. Here are 70 ways you can save money in your four biggest budget categories: food, transportation, housing, and health.
Food Money-Saving Tips
According to a recent Gallup Poll, the average American family spends $151 per week on food, including restaurant eating. That adds up to a cool $7852 per year. Here are 20 ways you can keep more of that money in your pocket:
1. Make meal plans. One of the biggest food budget busters is when you have no answer to the question "What's for dinner?" Rather than get in the habit of ordering pizza or going out for fast food when you're stumped by the dinner question -- which is infinitely more expensive than cooking at home -- get used to planning out your meals for the week or month. Not only will this save you money on take out, but it will also put you in a good place to actually use all the food you buy at the grocery: 2. Make a grocery list and stick to it. Once you know what you plan to make for dinner each night of the week or month, make a grocery list based on your meal plans, and only buy what is on your grocery list! Meal planning ninjas can get to the point where they buy certain ingredients on sale to be used in multiple meals, but even just starting with meal plans and a list for the week will save you money. Having a specific list of items to buy can even combat the grocery mistake of shopping while hungry. It doesn't matter how tempting the apricots jarred in honey may sound, if it's not on the list, it's easy to say no.
3. Cherry pick the grocery deals. As you get better at meal-planning and list-making habit, you can start using your local grocery chains' loss leaders for bigger savings. Each week, grocery stores publish their sales -- and some of those advertised prices are so low that the store would be losing money if all the customers were to only buy the sale items. Making your meal plan with the grocery circular in hand will allow you to figure out what meals will be cheapest for you to make that week, based on each chain's loss leaders. Then, buy only those loss leaders at each grocery store, and get the rest of your ingredients at whatever supermarket generally offers the best prices. This turns grocery shopping into a much longer affair -- it takes several hours to pore through the circulars, make your plans, and then go shopping at several different stores -- but the savings are certainly worth the time.
4. Buy generic. With the exception of a few notable items (Pop-Tarts come to mind), most generic products are almost identical to their brand name counterparts. Do you buy Cheerios just because you always have? Try the Generic Os and see if they're not exactly the same, for a fraction of the price.
5. Pay attention to unit costs. The one caveat about buying generic is that sometimes it actually is cheaper to buy the name brand. This is why you have to keep an eye on the unit cost of anything you buy at the grocery. The generic cans of soup selling 3 for $5 sound like a great deal, but the Campbell's soup selling for $1.50 each is actually cheaper. Most grocery stores offer a unit price listing, so that you can compare apples to apples (so to speak), but some do not. Get in the habit of carrying a calculator with you to the grocery store (or using the calculator function on your cell phone) to figure out what product gives you the biggest bang for your buck.
6. Buy in bulk, but be careful. This is a money saving tip that could potentially bite you in the butt. It is much cheaper to buy most items in bulk, from crackers to cereal to toothpaste to shampoo. However, some individuals (including yours truly) cannot handle the temptation of having a 144 count package of cookies in the house, and end up overspending on food that's eaten far too quickly. So only purchase in bulk if it is something you know you can handle storing in your house before use. In my case, that means I buy cleaning and personal care items in bulk, and I buy a week's (or at most a month's) worth of food at a time.
7. Pay attention to expiration dates. I once bought a gallon of milk that soured before I got it home. We may have grand illusions about returning to the store and demanding a replacement or a refund, but I know that I never made it back to the store. It's much easier to just keep a close eye on expiration dates as you put the items in your cart. Similarly, double check that the carton of eggs you're choosing is free of cracked eggs, and that the cans you want are undented, and everything in a jar is well sealed.
8. Speed up your grocery shopping. If you try to squeeze in your shopping between other appointments, then you're more likely simply get the items on your list and go, rather than meander through the store and get tempted by unnecessary items.
9. Sign up for the free loyalty cards. Grocery stores offer loyalty cards that make you eligible for additional savings. If you've skipped the loyalty card in the past because you don't want extra cards in your wallet (or on your keychain), now you have no excuse. Smartphone apps like Key Ring now make it possible for you to always carry your loyalty cards without having to keep track of yet another card.
10. Bring your own grocery bags. Not only is this better for the environment, but many stores will also offer you a small discount for every reusable bag you use. The discount may not be much -- generally about 5¢ per bag -- but even 50¢ saved with each trip to the grocery can add up. After all, you'd be thrilled to save 50¢ on any one item on your list.
11. Have a bi-monthly "clean out the pantry" week. We all have random cans and packages in our pantries, freezers, and fridges. Often, we end up throwing that food out later because we've forgotten about it until after it expired. Make sure you use up the food you've already purchased by planning a no-shopping week once every couple of months. That week, your mission will be to eat up all the food you already have without adding to the stockpile. This is a great time to practice some culinary creativity.
12. Brown bag your lunch. It's easy to make a little extra food at dinner, and package up the leftovers for your next day's lunch. Not only does it take care of those pesky leftovers that can sometimes just stay in the fridge until they become a science experiment, it's also much cheaper than buying lunch every day. Even if you do not have leftovers from dinner, it's relatively simple to put together a decent lunch for much cheaper than fast food: grab a hard boiled egg, an apple or a banana, a cheese stick, and a granola bar, and you've covered every food group for a lot less than it costs to buy lunch.
13. Learn to use up leftovers. When you are doing your meal planning, add some of the great fridge-clearing recipes for making sure you use up everything. For example, quiche is a delicious (and easy) meal that can handle any meat and veggie odds and ends you want to put in it. Stews and casseroles are also good ways to use up the tail end of Tuesday's green beans and Thursday's ham.
14. Plan for "I don't feel like cooking" nights. There is a definite time and place for convenience foods. On those days when you would rather go back to work than face the kitchen, you can have some frozen meals already set aside that you can just heat and eat. To be ready for those inevitable nights, just make a double batch of any kinds of meals that freeze well -- lasagna, tuna noodle casserole, chicken and rice casserole, and the like -- and freeze the one you don't eat that night. If you do this every time you cook a freezable meal, you'll soon have plenty of convenient options on harried nights, and you'll have saved money on each casserole, to boot.
15. Get a slow cooker. One of the easiest ways to make inexpensive and filling meals is with a crock pot. You can find these appliances for as little as $10-$15 on sale, and there are countless slow cooker recipes online. You can put the ingredients together in the morning before work, set it to simmer, and come home to find dinner done at the end of the day.
16. Become a vegetarian (some of the time). Meat is often the most expensive part of any particular meal. Even the most dedicated carnivore can find some favorite vegetarian recipes, and switching to at least one meatless dish a week can really help to bring down your grocery bill.
17. Drink water. Every nutritionist seems to agree that drinking calories in the form of soda or juice is a terrible idea for our waistlines -- and apparently diet options aren't that much better. Rather than spend money on your beverages, why not develop a taste for water? If you're used to sweet drinks, you can wean yourself off the stuff by mixing water and your favorite beverage, slowly changing the ratio until it's just water.
18. Eat in season and locally. You may know that watermelon is going to cost a mint in February, but most of us are so used to all produce being available year-round that we've forgotten what is in season when. Reacquaint yourself with the growing season. The cheapest way to buy produce is to only get what is naturally growing in your area. That doesn't mean you have to start shopping at farmers' markets (which can sometimes be more expensive just for the quaintness factor) -- it just means that you use the produce that is abundant in your area.
19. Dine out intelligently. When you do decide to enjoy a restaurant meal, you can still save money. Order an appetizer as your main course. They are generally more than large enough to fill you up, and will be much cheaper than the entrees. Another option is to split an entrée. Even if the restaurant charges you for splitting (as some do), this will still be a cheaper option than both of you getting your own meal.
20. Eat less. There are very few Americans who couldn't stand to take in fewer calories. If you're already thinking about trying to drop a few pounds, you could also save yourself some money at the same time. Rather than spending money on diet programs or foods, why not just reduce your portions? Use the recommended portion sizes to determine the size of your meals, and you'll save money.
Transportation Money-Saving Tips
The average sedan-owning American who drives about 15,000 miles per year will spend $8,946 in one year to own and operate that sedan, according to AAA. Here are some ways to make that cost a little more manageable:
1. Maintain your car. One of the most important aspects of inexpensive car ownership is proper maintenance. This includes everything from keeping your tires properly inflated in order to help maximize your mileage, to getting your oil changed and your engine tuned up at the required intervals. This will keep your car from "surprising" you with a preventable problem.
2. Improve your gas mileage. Many articles will recommend that you buy a gas sipper instead of a guzzler. However, that ignores the fact that it can be difficult to put together the money to buy a new (to you) car when the gas guzzler you have is perfectly serviceable. So, find ways to maximize the mileage you can get. This includes doing things like keeping extraneous items out of the car (as the extra weight makes the engine have to work harder), planning out the most efficient route around town for your errands, cleaning your car's air filter, and driving the speed limit, as most engines operate most efficiently between 40 and 60 miles per hour.
3. Shop around online for gas. Have you ever noticed that gas stations within a few blocks of each other can have 10¢-20¢ differences in price? Rather than just stop for gas at whatever station's convenient, use websites like gasbuddy.com to find the cheapest fuel around.
4. Don't wait until you're running on fumes to gas up. Beggars can't be choosers, and riding on E will mean you have to accept whatever gas price you run into. Plan your fill-ups enough in advance that you can choose which gas station to go to -- whether because of their good prices or your rewards card.
5. Car pool. Sharing a ride can not only break up the tedium of your commute, but it can also help to cut your gas costs in half. Even if you don't know anyone who lives and works in the same places as you, you can find a fellow commuter through sites like www.erideshare.com and www.carpoolconnect.com.
6. Public transportation isn't just for New Yorkers. Not only will taking the bus or subway lower your gas consumption and reduce the wear-and-tear on your car, but it can also potentially lower your insurance premium, as you'll be using the car less often.
7. Shop around for the best insurance rate. It's easy to simply renew your insurance each year without deciding if you are really getting the best rate. Websites like www.insweb.com can compare rates from many different insurers and can help you save as much as hundreds each year.
8. If your car is worth less than $2000, drop collision and comprehensive coverage. One benefit to driving a jalopy is that you no longer need to have these types of coverage. It will cost you more to pay for collision and comprehensive coverage than you'd receive if you needed to make a claim.
9. Increase your deductible. Raising your deductible from $250 to $1000 can save you as much as 15% on your premiums. Wait to take this step until you have a comfortable emergency fund, however, because it wouldn't be good for your wallet to have to make a claim and have no way to pay the deductible.
10. Check for multi-policy discounts. If you have your car insurance with one carrier and your home or renter's insurance with another, look to see if either will offer discounts for putting all of your policies under one umbrella.
Housing Money-Saving Tips:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics annually compiles the cost of consumer expenditures. According to their most recent report, the average American family spends $16,803 per year on housing. Our homes are clearly the biggest chunk of our expenditures, and there is plenty of fat we can trim from our housing and utilities budgets. Here are 25 tips for reducing your housing costs:
1. Live small. One of the biggest things we can do to tame the cost of housing is to live in a home that actually fits our needs. A family of four does not need 5000 square feet. When choosing your home, remember that a smaller house will cost less to heat and cool, will be easier to clean and maintain, and will add to the sense of family togetherness (whether you like it or not).
Even if you are already living in a Tara-like mansion and have no intention of moving, you can still minimize. Take a page from old-fashioned climate management and close off some of your house that you don't need to use -- just like Scarlett O'Hara would have done. You can focus your utilities on the parts of your house that you're actually using, and lower your utility bills to a more manageable level.
2. Insulate. Most houses have drafty areas, and not all of them can be blamed on ghosts. Insulating your home can be as involved as blowing cellulose insulation into hollow walls or as simple as rolling out a few more of those Pink Panther spools in the attic.
3. Find air leaks. This is the biggest energy suck in houses, particularly ones that have seen a few presidents go by. The low-tech way to find air leaks is to use your hand or something like an incense stick to see which way the wind is blowing. The high tech method is to call for a blower door test, which will scientifically pinpoint your biggest problems. Generally, your solution will include weather stripping and covering windows with plastic.
4. Get an energy audit. Many utility companies offer free energy audits to their customers to help them conserve energy. The audit will tell you exactly where your energy leaks are, so that you can focus your improvements on the places that will have the highest return.
5. Make like your dad and turn off all lights. There was a reason why the old man stalked through every room of the house, turning off lights and muttering about not being made of money. Leaving lights burning wastes energy and money.
6. Install CFL bulbs. While compact fluorescents do not quite have the longevity that we were promised, they still beat incandescent light bulbs by a mile. They also use a fraction of the electricity that incandescent bulbs needs, and thereby cut your energy bill.
7. Install a programmable thermostat. Dad's other endearing habit was having a cow whenever anyone touched the thermostat. He set it at a thrifty 64 in February for a reason, dadgummit, and you can just put on a sweater. Now you can make like dear old Pop and keep your home's temperature within your financial means, without actually having to touch the thermostat. The programmer will allow you to keep the temperature low (or high, if we're talking about the summer) during the day, when no one is home, and bring the temperature to a more comfortable setting when everyone gets home.
8. Unplug energy vampires. Keeping your television, computer, stereo, blender, microwave, toaster, coffee maker, and other non-essential appliances plugged in at all times means that they are drawing energy from the wall without using it. Plug these items into a power strip and you can easily turn everything off with a single button.
9. Maintain your appliances. Dust can build up in vents on refrigerators and dryers. Not only does this mean those appliances will need more energy to run, but the dust build up is a potential fire hazard. Regularly checking your appliances can keep your home safe and your bills low.
10. Rent out unused space in your home. Whether you have a mother-in-law suite that is going unused, or half of your garage is completely empty, there is likely someone who is willing to pay you for the privilege of using your empty space.
11. Install a low-flow showerhead. This quick weekend project will make your shower more efficient, and you won't feel a difference in your water pressure. Low-flow showerheads can save up to a gallon a minute (typical showerheads use about 2.5 gallons per minute). This can add up to huge yearly savings on water usage.
12. Downgrade your cable, phone, and internet. For most families, these three services equal big bucks every month. Monitor your use over a month or two, and decide what you actually need and what you could cut. Do you really watch any premium channels? Is the landline doing anything other than collecting dust? How fast do you need the internet to be if you're only checking Facebook and email?
13. Replace single pane windows. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, windows can account for between 10% and 25% of a home's heating costs by letting heat out. Replacing poorly performing windows will eventually pay for itself, although the initial outlay for new windows may be prohibitive. The Department of Energy has several suggestions for improving window performance without replacing them:
14. Use shades judiciously. Tight-fitting, insulating window shades can help to reduce drafts in the winter if other weatherizing measures haven't fixed the problem. In the winter, closing your curtains and shades at night can help to keep drafts out, while opening them during the day can help sun-warm the house. In the summer, close south- and west-facing window shades during the day to keep the sun from over-warming the house.
15. Install storm windows. These insulating windows can reduce heat loss through windows by 25% to 50%.
16. Boil water in the microwave, rather than on the stovetop. Using your nuker to boil water can use up to 60% less energy. If you do need to boil a pot on the stove, make sure you always place the top on the pot -- it keeps you from wasting energy on heat loss.
17. Keep your freezer full. Your freezer works much more efficiently if it is full. The cold items help to keep each other cold, and the freezer doesn't have to work as hard. You can use bags of ice to help keep the freezer at capacity if you don't quite have the food to fill it, but just make sure you leave about 1 inch on each side of the interior for better air exchange.
18. Install a low-flow toilet. If you don't have a low-flow model, installing one can save you a great deal in water usage. Even if you can't afford a new toilet, you can reduce the amount of water you use per flush by placing a plastic bottle full of water and weighted with pebbles in your water tank.
19. Line dry your clothes. Your clothes dryer is a utility hog. It takes a great deal of electricity to heat up your clothes to dry them. According to EnergyMiser 101, it costs $16.98 per month to run your dryer, which makes it the most expensive appliance to run in your house -- even more expensive than your refrigerator. In addition to that, clothes that dry on a clothes line tend to last longer than those that go through a dryer, so line drying will also reduce your clothing expenses.
20. Use your dishwasher. This is one area where the new-fangled gadget actually saves you money and energy (not to mention time), over the old-fashioned way. Just be sure to fill up the dishwasher, since the appliance uses the same amount of water, whether it's full or half-empty.
21. But turn off the dishwasher's heat dry function. This is energy that doesn't need to be used -- just allow the dishes to air dry for 20 to 30 minutes before you put them away.
22. Fix leaky faucets. This is an easy DIY project that will save you hundreds of gallons of water a year.
23. Change your HVAC filter once a month. This will keep your system working at peak efficiency.
24. Lower your water heater's temperature. 13% of your home's energy goes to heating water, so setting your water heater to 120° will reduce your energy expenditure -- and lessen the risk of scalds.
25. Wash your laundry in cold water. Unless you are laundering cloth diapers, there is very little need for you to wash your duds in hot water. Turn the dial to cold, and you'll see your clothes last longer and your energy bill lowered.
Healthcare Money-Saving Tips
It can be expensive to stay healthy. MainStreet.com recently reported that the average American family spends $962 per year for out-of-pocket health expenses on top of the $4,129 they spend for health insurance premiums. And these numbers do not include other health costs like gym memberships. Clearly, there needs to be a way to lower the bite of health care:
1. Stay healthy. This sounds like a no brainer, but many chronic conditions can be prevented or lessened by eating right and exercising. There's something to that old adage about an apple a day. The exercise-and-nutrition-industrial complex would have you believe that you have to spend money to stay healthy, but nothing could be further from the truth:
2. Get in the habit of walking. All you need for this ideal exercise is a pair of shoes. Walk to go on errands instead of jumping in the car, or start a walking club with some friends to explore the local neighborhoods.
3. Bike to work. This is a double-whammy of helping you stay fit while also decreasing your commuting costs.
4. Garden. This exercise will not only keep you shape, it will also help lower your grocery bill. And anything you can grow in your back yard is going to be a nutritional powerhouse -- especially compared to pre-packaged processed food.
5. Quit your bad habits. No one would claim that it is easy to quit smoking, drinking, using drugs, or overeating, but these habits are costing you more than just the price of your vice. Quitting destructive habits will improve your health, and your bottom line.
6. Don't let your doctor be a stranger. Even healthy individuals need to see their doctors regularly. Making sure that you get your regular physicals will help to catch any potential health problems before they become crises.
7. Ask questions. Being your own advocate is an important part of medicine. So, when your doctor recommends a procedure or a medication, ask questions about it. Find out why the doctor believes its necessary, and whether there are alternatives. Blindly following what your doctor recommends might be costly, and possibly unnecessary.
8. Go generic. It might seem as though generic drugs are somehow inferior to their name brand counterparts, but that simply is not true. The generic version has to meet the exact same standards as the original, and you can get it for a fraction of the cost.
9. Ask about discounts and samples for medication. If you are not able to get a generic version of your medication, you still might be able to save money. Ask your doctor to write you a prescription for three months' worth of a regular medication, which generally means you will only have to pay one co-pay instead of three. Alternatively, many doctors will try to help out their patients by giving them samples of expensive meds. Ask your doctor if there are samples available that you can use to help make your overall medication costs lower.
10. Try home remedies. Honey really can soothe a cough, and ginger really does work wonders for nausea. Often, home remedies will work as well as (or even better) than their over-the-counter cousins, for much less. The next time you're feeling ill, try a home remedy before heading to the pharmacy.
11. Understand your coverage. Before making any appointments with doctors, make sure you spend time on your insurer's website to know exactly what your insurance covers and what you will need to pay out-of-pocket. It can be a major hit to your wallet if you don't find out that your insurance doesn't cover new glasses until after you have already ordered a new pair.
12. Shop around. Believe it or not, you can check the rates for various procedures at hospitals just like you can check insurance rates. If your doctor has recommended a procedure, find out the current procedural terminology (CPT) code for that procedure. This is the standard billing code that will be the same across the industry. With that code in hand, you can contact the billing department to find out the cost of the procedure, although this could take some persistence. If you find another hospital charges less for the procedure, ask your original hospital if it will match the price.
13. Ask about a prompt-pay discount. Again, if you have to pay out-of-pocket for all or part of a procedure, you may be able to negotiate a lower price by offering to pay quickly. Hospitals don't want to chase patients for money, even though they often have to. Prompt payment is definitely worth something to hospitals and can result in a 10% to 40% discount.
14. Have your hospital bill itemized. Because of the number of people involved in any one patient's care -- nurses, doctors, specialists, etc -- the rate of errors on hospital bills is relatively high. Anytime you have to pay for a hospital stay, request an itemized bill and ask questions about any items you do not understand. And be sure to dispute any errors.
15. Enroll in a Healthcare Flexible Spending Account. These can seem like more trouble than they're worth, but they are an invaluable tool for keeping your healthcare expenses low. Flexible Spending Accounts allow you to put aside pre-tax dollars into an account for healthcare costs -- but any money you haven't used by the end of the year is forfeited. Until you get the hang of estimating how much money to set aside, use an FSA calculator to determine how much to put away.
The Bottom Line
Many times, we end up paying more than we need to because of apathy and habit. If we change our outlook to see everything as an opportunity to save money, it can revolutionize our budgets -- without adding a single extra dollar.
Special thanks to Emily Guy Birken for assistance in researching and help writing this post.