My husband and I didn't start out as savers. We were happy-go-lucky spenders, especially in the early days of our marriage. But gradually the reasons to save started to outnumber the impulses to spend: We had a child, we wanted a bigger house, the retirement fairy wasn't showing up... Then the economy began to unravel, and we all know what that meant. Although we've gotten better acquainted with the Art of Saving -- and come to love her cranky twin, Spending Less -- I increasingly believe that saving is like a set of muscles that needs constant toning: It takes practice and diligence. Yet even in the best of times, we all have so many demands on our money that when we do find ways to cut back, it's hard to stash away any extra cash before the next priority gobbles it up. But whenever you can, put a little away. Soon you'll be covered for an emergency. And that general feeling of panic about cash flow? It may start to subside. Here, some easy ways to cut back without feeling the pinch.
Be a Coupon Queen
Secrets from clipping mavens:
Clip newspaper inserts. They're usually the best source of deals in your area, says Sandra Gordon, coauthor of Consumer Reports Best Baby Products. And some websites offer printable coupons for food and other merchandise (like sporting goods and books). For our favorite sites, check out Parenting.com/coupons.
Collect them only for items you need and use. Toss the others without a shred of guilt: You're not saving if you're just buying extra stuff.
Store them alphabetically by type of product (coffee, wipes) in a small accordion file. It's easier to carry around and then find the coupon you need when you're at the store.
Combine coupons with other discounts, sale prices, or double coupon days at the store. Not sure when those are? Ask the checkout clerk next time you're there.
According to a 2008 government study, Americans are paying some $36 billion a year in various banking fees. Clear those unwanted charges out of your accounts:
Ask your bank if it signed you up for automatic overdraft protection (ODP), and what it will charge you if you use it (the average penalty is $27, according to the FDIC). Then, cancel the ODP, be more vigilant about your account limits, and save on those sneaky fees.
Pay bills electronically Most banks offer free bill-payment services, so take advantage of this money saver. No more stamps, save on paper waste, and avoid late fees -- it's all automatic.
Check Bankrate.com for banks that offer better deals for checking, savings, and money market accounts (look for higher interest rates or lower or no-minimum balance requirements). Sometimes a local credit union has the best terms.
Make a Deal
Smart shoppers are always bragging about how they got a lower price -- but if you're not a born haggler, how do you know when to negotiate the price? And what do you say, anyway?
"There's often a sliding scale that you can tap into, but it's not always on the radar," Gordon says. She's a believer in simply asking. Below, some ways to do just that:
"I was wondering if we could get a discount on her ballet class because I can't do the full fee right now." If that feels too revealing, just ask for a price reduction.
"Is this your best price?" I found the sales guy at Lowe's remarkably flexible when we were shopping for a dishwasher last year. We got 15 percent off!
"We were thinking of paying cash -- can you offer us a discount?" Gordon notes that there's often more wiggle room in the price with big-ticket items.
"I'd like to lower my bill. Do you have a better package?" And use leverage: If you can save money elsewhere (on anything, from cable service to swim classes), mention the competition.
Slash TV Costs
With most premium cable packages running $100 or more, it's hard for some families to justify that monthly chunk -- but it's even harder to live without HBO and Nickelodeon. Fortunately, there are low-cost alternatives, says Serena Mershon-Lohkamp, a mom in Wakefield, MI. "We canceled cable and just watch shows from the networks' websites right on our home computer," she says. Other sources of amusement:
Noggin.com and Nickjr.com The online versions of these fave cable channels offer games and videos. And they're free.
2Redbox.com A cheaper version of Netflix, this site doesn't have older movies or TV shows, but you can reserve newer films for only a dollar a day each, with no late fees.
Hulu.com If you have high-speed Internet and a decent-size screen on your computer, this fun site offers a variety of TV shows, including classic Saturday Night Live, Family Guy, The Daily Show, Nip/Tuck, and some older movies.
Shop 'n' Save
Cash-back credit cards require a little financial discipline, but they can really boost your bottom line. "We put everything on a cash-back card, then pay it off each month," says Mershon-Lohkamp. "We never pay finance charges -- and at the end of the year, we get a check for $150 to $200 from our credit card company." It's important to keep up with payments, like Mershon-Lohkamp does, though: Most of these cards carry a high interest rate, so you won't be able to reap the rewards if you're always paying those extra monthly charges. Check out Cardweb.com to find cash-back cards. And sign up for Parentingprivileges.com, which is a great way to get cash back no matter what card you use (one of our editors saved hundreds on a vacation!).
Save Big on Food Shopping
...At the Grocery Store
Opt for store brands Today's store brands offer brand-name quality at lower prices (because you're ot paying for fancy packaging and advertising).
Know the lowest prices The price of a half gallon of organic milk can vary a dollar or more depending on the store. Shop around when you can.
If you live in or near an ethnic neighborhood, like a Chinatown, don't pass up those grocery stores. Often, the overhead is lower, so the prices are, too.
...Wherever You Go
Marks put together a list of 30 standard family items -- from coffee to disposable diapers to mustard to cereal -- and tried four shopping methods. (Bulk-club shopping, store-brand shopping, savvy shopping, and impulse shopping.) Not surprisingly, the impulse method (buying without regard to price) was most expensive, but sticking with store brands and shopping at a warehouse club were almost identical. Amazingly, simply being a savvy shopper (using coupons, store bonus cards, and sales) saved more than $100. A triumph for smart shoppers!
...At the Warehouse Club
The hazard of shopping at a warehouse club "is that the theme-park atmosphere makes it hard to stick to your list," says Consumer Reports senior editor Tod Marks. Still, the prices can't be beat -- even when you take the membership fee into consideration. "Look for products that don't go on sale too frequently at your supermarket," he says. That includes not only classic warehouse items like toilet paper, but cereal, coffee, canned tomatoes, meats and fish, cream cheese (it can be frozen!), or staples you can still use in six months, like kitty litter, shampoo, and toothpaste. Clubs also offer deals on prescription drugs -- and Costco and Sam's Club pharmacies are open to anyone, not just members.
Modern life is packed with monthly fees. Check out some you can lose:
Ringtones, wallpaper, and other cell-phone frills (be sure to scour your bill; you may have forgotten what you signed up for!).
Random Services Thirty-day trials often rope you into a monthly charge (credit monitoring, that homework website your daughter used once).
Gym Membership Feeling guilty you never go? Kill two birds with one stone.
One of the easiest ways to save money is to prevent yourself from spending any. How? Swap for whatever it is you need. Moms in my area sometimes organize an informal "books, clothes, and toys swap," which is like a giant yard sale, but everything is free. Bring stuff to share, take what you want, and leave the rest (or cart it to the local thrift shop). If you're looking for specific items, try Swapbabygoods.com or Freecycle.org -- both free websites where you can list stuff you want to pass along and find the stroller or hockey skates you need. (Just make sure, especially with used baby goods, that the item hasn't been recalled.) And if you aren't already swapping childcare, give it a try. Babysitting co-ops have been around for years, but there's never been a better time to start one up. Parents "pay" each other for sitting with points or poker chips. Everybody saves!