The same gremlin that shrinks your jeans, hides your forks and runs your gas tank on empty is probably laying waste to your bank account. If your funds somehow dwindle to a few lonely dollars by the end of every pay period, it's time to regain control of your spending, cut a few costs and vanquish the gremlin for good. After all, he'll have his work cut out for him wrestling with your missing socks.
There are two ways to look at saving money: as a punishment, or as a reward. If you opt for the former, the continual squeeze will feel like a series of painful sacrifices. However, if you embrace the latter, making small budgetary concessions will help you reach your goals, whether it's hiking the Arctic Circle or enrolling in a master's program. Better still, saving money can be surprisingly painless, and you can take the first step by turning down the thermostat and then reading the first of our 10 tips on the next page.
Keep Your Cool
If you're fond of chilly temperatures in the summer and toasty temperatures in the winter, regulating your home environment accordingly will mean you'll pay the price each time your energy bill is due. By making a slight adjustment of the thermostat, however, you can shave 1 percent off your monthly bill for each degree that you reduce your home's temperature in the winter or increase it the summer -- so long as you make the change for eight hours straight. The U.S. Department of Energy says that the cost-savings sweet spot occurs when you cool your home to only 78 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celcius) or warm it to only 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celcius). If your home isn't already equipped with a programmable thermostat, you can install one for about $50 [source: Energy Savers].
You may need to don a sweater in the winter, but you could put the money you save on energy costs toward a tropical getaway. Which is sure to make the cooler (or warmer, for that matter) interior temperatures easier to accept.
Ditch the Dry Cleaning
If paying your dry cleaning bill makes you feel like you're being taken to the cleaners, it's time to reconsider. Your bottom line isn't the only thing being harmed. The chemical-laden dry cleaning process relies on perchloroethylene, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer reports is a potential carcinogen to humans, although some dry cleaners are switching to less toxic formulas like C02 [source: Chan].
If you're ready to ditch your dry cleaning bill, reading the label on your clothes is a good first step. Clothes labeled "dry clean" can be washed by hand or machine in a gentle detergent. "Dry clean only" clothes are usually made of silk, rayon or other materials that don't stand up well to detergent and water [source: Moreno]. However, even these fabrics can be cleaned at home by purchasing an at-home "dry cleaning" system. Most are comprised of a bag into which you place your clothes, along with a moist sheet infused with cleaning solution. You zip the bag shut and place it into your dryer, where the combination of heat and moisture create a cleansing steam [source: Bissonette].
Brush Up Your Barista Skills
We'll freely admit that the missive to give up your daily latte purchase is tired advice. And for those of us who happen to function more efficiently with a caffeine buzz, being asked to give up our daily dose is as much a threat as welcome help. What we didn't realize, however, is that the latte factor isn't really about the extra whipped goodness we're sipping from a paper cup. It's about cutting back on small, frequent expenses in order to take one large step ahead in your financial future.
A $5 to $30 investment in a French press or drip cone plus filters will make even inexpensive ground coffees taste pretty good, and adding a $20 grinder to your arsenal will give you access to the freshest (and therefore tastiest) coffees. A $5 to $10 bag of grounds or beans should last through a couple weeks of daily consumption, meaning that your home café will pay itself off in less than two months if you're currently buying a few $1.50 coffees or a couple $4.00 lattes per week.
And let's say you spend $100 in coffee shops every month. If you invested that $100 per month at a 10 percent interest rate for the next five years, you'd end up with more than $7,800 [source: Bank Rate]. The same holds true for brown-bagging lunch instead of dining out or mixing up your appletinis at home instead of buying them at the chic downtown watering hole. The savings will add up (painlessly) before you know it.
Stop the Cable Box/DVR Drain
You don't leave the TV blaring while you're away at work, even though your dog does like to watch Animal Planet's "Hillbilly Handfishin'." It may seem like no matter how careful you are about electricity usage, your bill stays the same. The culprit could be the cable box or DVR. This box, which uses electricity even when not in use, consumes more kilowatts than a refrigerator. In fact, the estimated 160 million set-top boxes in the United States consume about $3 billion in electricity each year -- 66 percent of that when you're not even using the box [source: Kaiser].
One simple, money-saving solution is to unplug the cable box or DVR when you're not using it, although this will make it difficult to automatically record programs you'd like to view. You could switch to a streaming-only device like Roku or Apple TV, which requires much less electricity [source: Ogg]. An increasing number of new cable box/DVR models are expected to have an Energy Seal rating, thanks in part to the addition of standby modes that consume less electricity.
Stock the Cabinets
You use a reward card at checkout and redeem an occasional coupon, but don't have the time to scan grocery store circulars or the rash of frugalista Web sites devoted to good deals. Does this mean slashing grocery costs are out of the question? Fortunately, no. There are still many ways to save on household goods.
In most cases, you can save money by purchasing paper and nonperishable items in bulk at a warehouse club or on sale at your regular grocer. The items won't expire before you can use them and can be stored at home until you need them [source: Hamm]. Reserve items that are perishable, like fruit, and of which you'll only need a small amount, like pickles, for buying as you need them.
Most stores publish items' price per ounce or unit on shelf tags so that shoppers can make a quick comparison between brands and sizes, so check a few tags before tossing things in your cart. In addition, be sure to take generic or store brand items into consideration. According to Consumer Reports, buying store brands instead of name brands at the grocery store can save an average of 30 percent [source: Consumer Reports. In many cases, the quality is equal to that of higher-priced name-brand items.
It's all too easy to fritter away discretionary funds. However, setting up automatic payroll deductions can keep your income from being applied to your biggest expense: your wish list. Instead, consider setting up a payroll deduction to fund a savings or retirement account.
If your employer doesn't offer this service, or if you're self-employed, you can set up an automatic transfer to move money into a savings account and pay it just as you would a recurring bill. And if you've been known to pirate your savings accounts for one expense and then wish you hadn't, consider setting up separate savings accounts for vacation, holiday, medical, car repair or other savings [source: Mueller]. In just a month or two, you won't even miss the deductions, and you'll have increasingly robust savings to boot.
Cook Up Some Savings
A typical meal at a fast casual restaurant -- that is, a chain restaurant without a drive-through window and table service, such as Moe's or Pita Pit -- will typically cost $8 to $15 dollars [source: Franchise Direct]. However, in many cases, whipping up a meal at home will cost a fraction of the restaurant price, and you'll end up with a fresh and appetizing plate full of food.
Learning to cook delectable meals doesn't have to be expensive, complicated or time consuming. You can start by buying fresh, in-season ingredients and preparing them using simple methods. For example, instead of spending $10 or more on a Cobb salad, you can make one by cutting up half a head of Iceberg lettuce and topping it with avocado, tomato, egg and cheese. The total for this DIY meal? About $4.
Planting a few vegetable seeds will give you eventual access to really fresh ingredients. Even if you don't have access to a garden or a compatible climate, you can grow fresh herbs indoors. They're one of the most inexpensive plants to grow and, with the right amounts of sunlight and water, will produce abundantly [source: Herigstad].
If you'd like to save some money, a few cost-cutting exercises can make a big difference. Literally. The fact is, your daily workout could save you money by resulting in lower health insurance premiums, fewer sick days and fewer health care costs overall.
People who regularly exercise save about $500 each year in expenses related to health care [source: Fit Sugar]. If you're obese and significantly reduce your weight through exercise and other lifestyle changes, you can expect to save as much as $10,000 in medical costs over time [source: Philipson].
You could also manage to look younger for a longer period of time, which could have positive social and workplace benefits. A 2011 study published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" reports that mice that exercised regularly "reduced or eliminated almost every detrimental effect of aging" [source: Reynolds].
Rethink Your Ride
Not everyone can opt to walk or ride a bicycle to their job instead of firing up a four-wheeled gas hog. If your climate and proximity to work offer the opportunity to walk or pedal during your commute, however, you could save $100 or more each month thanks to not having to fuel up your vehicle to get there.
You also could cut a few hundred dollars from your annual fixed expenses by shopping around for lower auto insurance rates. The key isn't to switch to a liability-only policy, which doesn't pay to repair your vehicle after an accident. Instead, compare a standard or basic policy across several different auto insurance providers. You're sure to discover a range of rates for similar coverage [source: Kristof]. And if you make this an annual habit, you can keep the rates low by getting the best deal year after year. Just check with your current provider first to make sure you won't be missing out on even greater loyalty benefits if you switch.
Go for Cheap Thrills
We're creatures of habit, but these habits can cost a lot of money in the long run. Instead of the usual dinner and a movie, try a variety of free activities and pocket the savings. You could start by hosting a potluck and then screening a movie that you borrowed for free from your local library. And rather than paying $80 or more for a concert packed with screaming fans, seek out free music performances in your community. Art museums and local venues, as well as upscale shopping centers, often host free concerts on weekends [source: Derrick].
You also could save big by becoming a tourist in your own town. Most local art museums, historical sites and homes offer admission for a nominal donation or, in some cases, for free. And if your city offers walking tours, take advantage of them. You can discover more free or low-cost attractions by visiting the Web site of your local chamber of commerce or convention and visitor bureau.
Dollar stores — where most items cost just a buck — always seem to make money. HowStuffWorks finds out how they do it.
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- Mueller, Karin Price. "Stop Living Paycheck to Paycheck." Better Homes and Gardens. (Oct. 24, 2011) http://www.bhg.com/health-family/finances/tips/stop-living-paycheck-to-paycheck/
- Ogg, Erica. "Study: DVR, Set-Top Boxes Use Most Energy at Home." CNet. June 14, 2011. (Oct. 24, 2011) http://news.cnet.com/8301-31021_3-20071139-260/study-dvr-set-top-box-use-most-energy-at-home/
- Philipson, Tomas. "The Economics of Obesity: A Report on the Workshop Held at USDA's Economic Research Service." May 2004. (Oct. 24, 2011) http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/EFAN04004/
- Reynolds, Gretchen. "Can Exercise Keep You Young?" New York Times. March 2, 2011. (Oct. 24, 2011) http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/02/can-exercise-keep-you-young/