Thursday, April 09, 2009

Budget Trimming Tips for a Down Economy

I found this article a while ago, and it has some great ideas for cutting expenses in this challenging economy! I've taken the liberty to add some comments in red, too.


Budget Trimming Tips for a Down Economy

by Laura Rowley on Wednesday, November 5, 2008

There's plenty of advice out there to help slash your spending -- get rid of your car, throw out the television, grow your own vegetables, rent out the attic to a college student. But maybe you need a car to drive to work, have no time to garden, enjoy relaxing in front of the tube occasionally, and don't want to bump into an 18-year-old stranger in your bathrobe.

Here are eight ways to tweak your budget and save $500 by the year's end -- with minimum hassle, and without radically changing your lifestyle.

1. Cable TV: If you pay for premium cable services -- extra channels, HBO, etc. -- call your cable company and put your service on "vacation mode" between now and the end of the year. You'll still receive basic service, but save temporarily on the extras.

We did this recently because we were having work done in the basement/TV room. We eliminated the "preferred tier" for two months (we don't get the movie channels), saving $15.99/month. (Comcast charged $1.99 for the change, so the total savings was $30.)

I still pay $40 per month for the basic service. Who watches 200 channels a month anyway?

2. Prescriptions: Only about one-third of prescription drug purchases are mostly or fully covered by insurance, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey, and prices can vary by as much as $100 for the same drug. Always ask your physician for a generic equivalent, which can cost up to 40 percent less, then shop around.

About a dozen states sponsor websites that help you compare prescription prices. Discount stores such as Wal-Mart and Target offer the most popular generic drugs, including antibiotics and medications for asthma, arthritis, diabetes, and high cholesterol, for as little as $4 a month.

I tested out comparison-shopping on the web and phone to save on a common antibiotic, Amoxicillin (250mg, 30 capsules), and it took about five minutes. First I searched New York State's drug comparison website for amoxicillin at local pharmacies in New Rochelle, which charged from $13.64 to $17.09. Then I called Wal-Mart in nearby White Plains, which charged just $4, and Costco, which offered the drug for $6.90 (no membership required). Savings from highest to lowest pharmacy: $13.09.

Do qigong instead of taking drugs! Most drugs come with debilitating side effects and, in the long run, cause more problems than symptoms they suppress. The most powerful healing element you have is the power of your mind!

3. Cell phones: Take a look at your actual usage and make sure your plan matches your behavior -- are you using all your minutes? Wasting money on extra services or old ringtones?

For example, I used to pay $40 for unlimited megabytes to check email on my phone. But I realized I wasn't actually checking email that way very often. I called and asked for the cost of my actual megabyte usage the previous month: $6. By paying for the bytes used (and eliminating text messaging altogether) I save $30 to $35 a month.

If you tend to go over your allotted minutes (at a cost of 40 to 45 cents a minute), register for free with a service called OverMyMinutes. It will alert you by text or email when you're at your limit. you really need to use a cell phone so much, especially since they have been linked to brain and ear and eye problems?

4. Food: This one takes a little more effort, but with about an hour of planning, I typically cut my grocery bill by one-third. I start at my grocery store's online circular, creating five to seven dinner menus based on what's on sale and in season (click on the item and the site creates your shopping list for you).

Then I head over to CouponMom or MyGroceryDeals (both free, registration required). Click on your state and local grocery store, and the sites tell you specific bargains available that week so you can stock up. CouponMom also tells you whether a coupon is available and exactly where to find it (i.e., "Smart Source insert 10/5"). I just pull the coupon inserts out of my Sunday paper every week, date them, and throw them in a drawer. I only cut a coupon when CouponMom tells me where to find it; but you don't have to do this at all to save money.

In the store, I check the price of the sale/coupon item against the generic brand to make sure it's really a deal, and then use the store's loyalty card. Using this approach, I cut a recent grocery bill from $174 to $114 for a week's worth of groceries for a family of five. (I also do a monthly warehouse club run for low-cost staples like skim milk, which freezes pretty well.)

Eat organic!!! Fresh, organic foods have from 50% to 80% higher levels of nutrients than their non-organic counterparts. You eat less and get better food and nutrients!

5. Drycleaning: "Wool, cashmere, silk, rayon, polyester, and spandex can all be laundered," says Lindsey Wieber, of The Laundress, a collection of specialty fabric care products. Manufacturers actually wash the fabric before they construct it into a garment, she explains, and add the "dry clean only" label to avoid liability issues. Wieber and co-founder Glen Whiting, both Cornell University graduates, work with one of their former professors (who has a doctorate in fiber science) to create new enzyme formulas that clean without damaging clothing.

Hand-wash or use a mesh bag in the washing machine (delicate cycle on cool). Lay wool and cashmere flat to dry; everything else, including cotton and linen, can be thrown in the dryer on a low-heat setting, then pressed. Hang up and air out suits immediately; use a lint-free cloth and a stain-removing product to eliminate perspiration or other stains on the inside lining, and spot clean exterior stains. Using this method, Wieber says, suits only need to be dry cleaned two to four times a season. (Savings in our household: About $30 a month.)

I agree, and remember to use a fragrance-free, and chemical-free soap!

6. Utilities: You can get a basic programmable thermostat for as little as $23 at the hardware store, but can save as much as 25 percent on your energy bills by turning down the heat (or air conditioning) when you're away from home or asleep. For the average utility payer, that works out to about $250 a year, or $21 a month (so ideally, you roughly break even in November, and save $21 in December and thereafter).

In addition, water bills can be cut back 25 percent by replacing your old showerheads and faucets with low-flow aerating models. Look for 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) or less; Home Depot sells showerheads at 1.6 gpm for as low as $12. (Savings in our household after the initial investment: About $10/month.)

These are great! We have used programmable thermostats on both a gas furnace, and now gas-powered heating stoves (which look like wood-burning stoves and have the ambiance of a real fire with out the wood chips, and smoke, and soot).

7. Taxes: The market's steep decline this year offers many investors the opportunity to save by harvesting tax losses before Dec. 31. An investor can sell downtrodden securities held in taxable accounts to offset either capital gains elsewhere or as much as $3,000 in ordinary income. (Meanwhile, additional losses can be carried forward to future years. See this IRS publication for details.)

A study of 185,000 households by Fidelity found that only 10 percent of taxpayers took advantage of the full $3,000 deduction allowed under the tax code. Most of the households surveyed would have gained $500 in additional tax savings. Consider this example from the study: An investor buys a stock for $30,000, and sells it for $27,000, taking a $3,000 loss. If the household had $100,000 in adjustable gross income, harvesting the loss would have cut their tax bill by $450 if the position was held more than a year and $750 if it was held short-term. Click here for more year-end tax tips.

8. Money rituals: In their book "The Power of Full Engagement," authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz suggest that change is a matter of adopting new rituals rather than demanding we be more disciplined. "Building rituals requires defining very precise behaviors and performing them at specific times," they write.

Save money by creating quirky rituals: Save all the $5 bills from your wallet at the end of the day. Bring your lunch to work every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until the end of the year. Boost your 401(k) contribution by 1 percent every time you get a raise. Comparison shop for your auto or homeowner's insurance the day after your birthday each year.

This is very true...the more fun and quirky the practice, the more you will practice it and be engaged by it, and the more you will profit!

Small rituals become habits -- and take a lot less time and energy than watching every penny you spend. (For more savings tips, see my blog.)

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