An important way to save money is to reduce expenses. There are a lot of ways you can stretch your dollars and help avoid that "too much month at the end of the money" feeling. Some of these steps will take a bit of planning and investigation but they will be well worth the effort. Others you will be able to implement immediately. Some will require a small up-front investment but have a substantial long-term payoff. Your ability to implement those will depend on available cash and your budget.
What you’ll need first, is a clear idea of where your money is going; then you can look at ways to cut fluff and lower the cost of your required living expense. Always keep in mind that it’s not just about cheaper; it’s about efficiency. Analyze your needs and do the math. Most importantly, however, is to understand that reducing expenses is a lifestyle change and a change in your thinking patterns. Never let yourself believe that pennies don't count.
1. Determine where you spend your money. If you don’t know where your money is going, you are most likely spending too much. You can get a solid idea in as little as one month and as you continue, you’ll see patterns develop that you can address. Write down everything you buy down to the last dollar. Don’t stop at the obvious things like rent, utilities, gasoline and food – include the ancillary items like sodas and snacks as well as gum or tobacco. What about happy hour? Did you rent a movie? Use a Row-by-Column ledger, spreadsheet or other software to keep track every month.
2. Immediately eliminate unnecessary routine purchases. While it’s likely this won’t be the largest savings area, it’s important and easy. Is the coffee shop on your way to work really necessary? How critical are the three sodas or snacks a day you buy from the office vending machine at $1.50 each? A cup of coffee that you made at home is only 25-35 cents, as is a soda you bought in a store as part of a 12 pack. Do you seriously have to rent all those movies (and pay those late fees) each month? Have you checked to see whether your library has movies, or calculated the cost of switching to Netflix? Those ten lottery tickets… the odds against you are astronomical. This is quick and most of it is habit. There will be some psychological pain at first but when you add up the dollars you’ll see a big difference instantly.
3. Address your utilities: - Heating and cooling (gas or electric): When you leave the house, set your thermostat to an "away" setting (a note of caution here: don’t set it so far from comfortable that it takes an inordinate amount of time to return to comfort when you get home: 65°F or 18°C in the winter and 80°F or 27°C in the summer might be reasonable numbers to use). Consider investing in ceiling fans – you can get these for as little as US$20 and they dramatically reduce cost of heating and cooling by circulating the air more efficiently. If your expenses are already low, and you won't be staying where you are for long, you may not save enough to pay for the fan, however. - Electric: Lighting is expensive. When you leave a room, turn off the light. The idea that it takes more energy to turn on a light than to keep it on is completely false, as turning on a light only burns as much electricity as burning it for fractions of a second. Energy efficient bulbs really work. This is an investment that will pay off over time but there is a significant savings to be gained. Turn off your computer/laptop when you’re not using it – (probably) the only reason you leave it on is convenience. Any voltage adapters (including the ones in stereo components) still use electricity even if they're not charging or plugged in to the device. If you have a digital box with an auxiliary AC outlet, plug your TV into it, and program the box to shut off the outlet when the box is turned off. For stereo components, plug them all into a power bar that can easily be switched off when not in use. Open the drapes during the day for light instead of burning electricity. Only use electricity when you absolutely need it. - Water: Save water, save money. Invest in a shower-reduction kit – they cost nearly nothing and will start saving you money immediately. They work by reducing the flow to the shower head and the change is barely noticeable. Learn to take quicker showers – an inexpensive egg timer is a good way to help. Repair leaky toilets and faucets – this is an enormous waste of water and easy to fix. Reduce your lawn watering to minimum needs. If you have a pool, keep it covered when it’s not in use to reduce evaporation – also, if it’s heated that will dramatically increase evaporation as well (only heat your pool to keep it from freezing, and invest in a thermal blanket). Also if you're not using the faucet turn it off -- e.g., when brushing teeth do not leave faucet running. - Gas and Miscellaneous: Do laundry as often as necessary but as little as possible – for a lot of people this is a pleasant step. Reduce the temperature of your shower by a couple of degrees; the less work your water heater does the more money you’ll save. Use the microwave instead of the oven whenever possible – the cost just to preheat an oven is more than the cost to cook a meal in the microwave. Open the windows when it’s nice outside to reduce heating (and cooling) costs. If you live where natural gas is used only in the winter months, arrange with your local utility to do a seasonal shutoff so that you are not saddled with fixed monthly service charges for the "privilege" of being connected to the gas service even though you are not using it. With one supplier, it is $17/month. In the 8 months that you don't need the service, you're charged $17 X 8 = $136, but the season shutoff and turn on costs $54. - Cable and Telephone: Seriously, do you really, really need a thousand channels and every single premium channel available including the high definition packages? You can save the full $100+ on your cable bill every month by watching TV for free online. If you want to save money take a close look at your priorities. For your telephone, shop around based on your use. If you make a lot of long-distance calls to family and friends, perhaps one of the unlimited plans would save money. If all your calls are local you probably can get by with a bare-bones option. Consider that your cell phone may have free long distance; therefore, removing the necessity of having long distance on a land line. - Cell phone: "wat r u up 2" "nm gtg ttyl" Text messages cost money. "Oh no, I have unlimited text!" Oh? How much does that option cost you? Do you actually even need a cell phone? Does everyone in your family actually need a cell phone? Parents – lay down the law on cell phone usage – is your eleven-year-old sitting around the house texting… are you? Another thing to consider is if you really require a cell phone then do you really need a land line at home? Consider consolidating. If your cell phone use is occasional only, consider a pay-as-you-go plan.
4. Reconsider Gasoline and Miscellaneous Auto: When gas was rationed during World War II, a popular slogan was "Is this trip really necessary?" Ask yourself that every time you get in your car. Make a list before you go to the store so you don’t have to make additional trips. Don’t go for a drive for pleasure – walk instead or choose other forms of entertainment (reading, exercising for example). Check the pressure in your tires. Convertibles get better mileage with the top up. A poorly running engine is a huge waste – even a spark plug change can make a big difference, as can clean oil. Also, the less you drive the less frequently you’ll change tires, oil, require maintenance, etc. That’s a savings-over-time, of course, but it will mount up. Another way to save gas (and money) is to change your driving habits. By simply driving more slowly, and/or less aggressively, you can save significant amounts of money (calculate for yourself at this web site).
5. Cut Down on Entertainment: It’s astounding how many people complain about money then describe the latest release of a movie along with the cost of theater popcorn. Also, professional sports event, a music concert or tickets to a play can run hundreds of dollars for a couple on a date. Seriously, can you really tell the difference (blindfolded) between a $30 bottle of wine and a $9 bottle of wine? When you do dine out, actually think about the prices on the menu first. Consider a meal share if the restaurant offers that option. Never, ever order delivery. Look for vacation bargains – consider taking the kids camping instead of one of the super expensive amusement parks.
6. Focus on Food: The only real difference between a $1.99 can of corn and a $0.63 can of corn is $1.36 (sure there are exceptions; people on low-sodium diets will definitely have to pay more). The grocery store is a place you can save big. - Look for foods that are marked "WIC" for savings. Those have been approved for the Women, Infants and Children program by the USDA Department of Food and Nutrition Services… healthy, nutritious and inexpensive. That ring of cooked shrimp is on sale and sure looks tasty… how about a nice grilled chicken breast with green beans and rice? Make dining in an experience instead of just a convenience. It’s quite possible to spend as much on home food as you would by eating out if you are wasteful. - Consider taking your lunch to work instead of buying lunch each day. Even an inexpensive lunch out is several dollars a day – do the math. - Use coupons whenever possible. Make sure these are on items you would normally eat so you don't purchase things that will be wasted by sitting in your cupboards forever or spoil in your refrigerator. Also use buy store specials and use store customer cards when possible toward food purchases. - Look into joining a warehouse club. The price of the membership is usually made up in the first shopping. They carry name-brand products and will take coupons. Also, by not having to shop as often, you spend less money by not being in the store every week and risking impulse purchases. Warehouse club shopping must be done with discretion or you will not save money. - Avoid large packages of fresh produce to avoid spoilage; frozen produce will extend the shelf life of all your fruit and vegetables. - Measure product use carefully (like soap powder); don't be wasteful with the products just because it comes in a large container. - Buy products you will actually use instead of substituting just because it's on your list and the only item available. Are you really going to enjoy that box of cereal that's not your regular brand, or is it going to sit on your shelf?
7. Address your insurance costs: The fastest way for some people to reduce monthly expenses will be in the area of health, auto and life insurance. Companies that sell those are incredibly competitive. Get some bids from different companies. When you do this, bear in mind that lower initial premiums will not always be the most cost efficient! - Auto Insurance: Look at your deductible. Don’t jump to increase your deductible – analyze the entire plan based on your needs and expectations; do a risk analysis first. If you have an inexperienced driver in your house and you don’t have savings, having a high deductible might not be the best choice – also if your car is financed you may have minimum insurance requirements. However if you have a long history of good driving and you own your car, outright, you might consider a high deductible to save on premiums. - Health Insurance: Investigate alternatives. Shop around for plans that are consistent and cost efficient with your lifestyle. Consider your actual needs vs. what you have. A single man in perfect health in his mid-30’s might choose a plan with a higher copay or co-insurance and lower premiums, whereas a married couple wanting to start a family might do better with higher premiums but more extensive coverage. In other cases, prescription benefits might be the most important. The point is to look at what you must have. - Life Insurance: There is no question that this is important – for many people. The rule of thumb for someone with a family is three to five years' replacement income. However, if you’re a 20ish single consider carefully and determine if you’re over-insured. If you’re married in your mid-60’s have you looked at comparative plans from places like AARP? If you’re most interested in "burial policies" then, again, these companies are incredibly competitive. We all would like to leave our loved ones wealthy in the event of our demise, but not at the expense of your quality of life right now. - Home (and Renter’s) Insurance: This can be a large expense and many home owners have no idea how much they’re paying because it comes out of their house payments – out of sight, out of mind. Review your plan with your agent. Are your personal possessions really and truly worth the $250,000 you have on the policy? Also look for areas that are lacking. Is water damage covered; snow damage; hail damage? Think whether or not you’ll need those. Is anything important excluded? Is anything irrelevant included? Yes, Great-Aunt Martha’s rocking chair has sentimental value but do you really need a special rider to cover it?
8. Consider pre-owned items: This is a great way to save significant amounts of money while recycling! If you absolutely must buy something, there are options other than a mall anchor store or a big-box superstore. There are large thrift stores (e.g. Goodwill) and smaller church-run stores that have some incredible bargains on everything from home knickknacks to appliances to clothing. It’s amazing how fast a 4-year old will outgrow shoes (when that happens, re-donate them so somebody else can benefit). Look for garage sales – your neighbors will definitely not think less of you because you bought the winter jacket they are trying to sell – hold your own garage sale and they just might want what you no longer need. There are online sites that often have bargains (like Craigslist.org, Overstock.com and eBay.com).
9. Actively manage your credit: A poor credit score costs tens of thousands over the years in increased interest rates and insurance costs. You may even lose your job or lose out on a job application. Pull all three reports; challenge everything that appears incorrect. Pay all bills on time or early. Pay off revolving debt (credit cards) and put those cards away.
• Recycle and reuse. The plastic bags for your groceries make good trash bags too. If you really want to become efficient, consider things like saving your cooking grease (baby boomers already know that) or reheat that half-full pot of coffee… if you want two cups of hot tea tonight, one bag is probably sufficient. • Insulate. Insulation for your attic, walls (even electrical outlets) will absolutely save you money over time. Much of this, you can do yourself. • Consider investing in reusable items. Rechargeable batteries are a good option if your battery consumption is high – the question you should ask yourself is: why is your battery consumption high and what can you do to reduce that? • Quit smoking. OK, this is obvious. Aside from the $150 a month, there are the enormous added costs to your health and life (and possibly auto and home) insurance and a very strong (almost guaranteed) potential for extraordinary health costs. • Limit alcohol. Alcohol is an added expense you may be able to eliminate altogether, or at least significantly reduce. • Stop gambling. If you gamble (unless you are consistently making money and you know that from tax returns, of course)… stop. Quit. Nix. Never. The odds against winning the Powerball lottery are around 150 million to 1 against you. • Stop using paper napkins and paper towels. Cloth towels are more absorbent and can be used over and over again. Cloth napkins can be made from an old table cloth. They also clean much better than paper. • Think about every purchase before you make it. Ask yourself whether you need it or simply want it. Do you already own something that will perform the same task? Is it of good quality or will it need to be replaced after a few uses? Most importantly, are you willing to put off your savings goals to have it? If an item is superfluous, just say no. • Use the 24 hour rule. Wait 24 hours before making the purchase for non-critical items. • Grow a garden. Even a small plot can yield significant amounts of fresh food. You can of course spend a fortune at the garden store but shop around, ask neighbors and grow your own starts.
• Do not only consider the least expensive option – that is certainly not always the best option. Many, many times, an initial savings will cost you more later. Carefully consider life cycle cost in addition to the acquisition cost. • If you buy pre-owned, check carefully… this is especially true of cars. It’s worth the investment to have a mechanic check the car (unless you’re perfectly competent in that area – are you sure?). • Don’t go completely overboard. It’s great to be frugal; it’s not great to be a mean-spirited miser. If your child (or you) must have new shoes or new glasses then definitely look for bargains but keep your priorities straight.