Look for dealer cash when buying a new car. / C.J. Burton/USA WEEKEND
There are two ways out of a financial slump: You can earn more money, or you can spend less.
Given that the first is tough to do these days, let’s focus on the latter. Not only is spending less completely within your wheelhouse, but there are ways to do it without actually getting any less. Here’s how to save 10% on (almost) everything:
According to JD Power, the average monthly cellphone bill is $73. One way to shrink it — almost in half — is to wait for your contract to end, then switch to a no-contract provider such as MetroPCS or StraightTalk where unlimited talk, text and data are $40 to $45 a month. The downside? “The latest, greatest phones will not ever be available with the no-contract carriers,” says consumer expert Clark Howard, author of Living Large in Lean Times. If you can’t live without the iPhone, you can still cut your bill with your current provider by using a free (or very cheap) app for your texting, which typically runs anywhere from $5 to $20 a month (not counting overages, which run 20 cents a pop). TextPlus is a particularly good one — it works on Droids as well as iPhones, and it gives you a free phone number from which you can text (and friends across platforms can text back). TextPlus CEO Scott Lahman says it is particularly popular with military families and overseas business travelers, because you can use the app over Wi-Fi and not even eat up valuable data.
In the market for a new car? Look for dealer cash, says Phil Reed of Edmunds.com. That’s unadvertised money that manufacturers use to get dealers to move particular models. You can find out what’s available on Edmunds.com under the heading “manufacturer to dealer.” If, for example, a car costs $15,000 and you know there is $2,000 in dealer cash on the model, you could get that car for as little as $13,500 (and the dealer will still make a profit). You just have to know what to ask for. Also go through the Internet department of a dealer — not into a showroom — to buy. Internet salespeople are paid based on the number of cars they sell rather than on the prices of those cars, so their goal is to move volumes. That means they’re likely to give you a better price faster. If you need a test-drive, an Internet salesperson can set one up as well.
Consumers spend $2 billion a year powering set-top cable boxes that aren’t even in use, according to the National Resources Defense Council. Do the math (the average kilowatt-hour costs about 9 cents; most boxes eat up 446 a year) and you see it’s costing you $40 per box.
You can cut the cost by buying an inexpensive lamp timer, says Lou Manfredini, host of the syndicated TV show House Smarts. Consumers don’t turn off cable boxes because of the 10-minute rebooting process when they turn them on. “Put the timer on the cable box and program it to shut down when you know you won’t be watching TV, say at midnight. Then program it to kick back on before you wake up.”
As for your other plug-ins, Manfredini suggests buying a meter to measure how much energy each appliance is draining (he likes one called the Kill-a-Watt, which is $18 on Amazon.com). Once you see how much chargers eat up by being plugged in all day, you’ll unplug and cut your bill in no time.
Follow your favorite clothing retailers on Twitter and sign up for their e-mail list. You’ll get notifications of sales as they happen (and sometimes before the general public), says Debbie Weisberg, author of The Fashion Lover’s Guide to Incredible Bargains. You may get offers of free shipping or personalized discounts. (Bluefly.com recently offered me a $30 credit because the website hadn’t “seen me in a while.”) Another suggestion: Shop unconventional places. Weisberg notes that the on-trend maxi dresses are much cheaper in beach stores than boutiques, where they’re just long dresses — not high fashion. And if yours is one of 20 states that offers sales tax free holidays, take advantage. Erin Huffstetler, frugal living columnist for about.com saves more than 9% in her state of Tennessee. You can find a list of tax holidays for 2011 here: singleparents.about.com/od/cuttingcosts/qt/TaxFreeHoliday.htm.
Save on gifts for others (and items for yourself) by buying gift cards at a discount online. At plasticjungle.com recently, there were Home Depot gift cards for 6% off, Bath & Body Works for 12% below retail and Kohl’s at a 15% discount. Giftcardgranny.com is another good site. And if you receive gift cards you aren’t likely to spend, sell them on these sites. You won’t get full freight, but it’s better than letting them gather dust in a drawer.
Some people are ditching cable and satellite television — and their $75 average monthly tab. Instead, they’re signing up for HULU Plus ($8 a month), Netflix streaming (another $8) for movies, and renting $1 DVDs from the Redbox in the supermarket.
Not for you? You could still save by shedding premium channels and supplementing with some of these services — particularly if you are not watching many of them anyway. A recent Nielsen study showed Americans now have about 130 channels available on average, but they watch only 18.
When you’re flying, take alternate routes and consider making a stop, says Peter Greenberg, travel editor for CBS News. Flying from New York’s JFK airport directly to LAX is often much more expensive than going from LaGuardia, another New York airport, to Chicago to LA. “It’s counterintuitive,” he says. “But going from LA to Phoenix to Hawaii saves money.” As for hotels, they’ve gotten as fee-happy as airlines, Greenberg notes. But many of their fees can be negotiated away advance of your stay. Call the hotel directly (i.e., not the 800-number) and ask for complimentary breakfast, free parking, and the other amenities you know will be on your list. Free parking alone saved Greenberg $62 a night on a recent stay at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco.
Veterinarians, it turns out, are as discount-happy as insurance companies, says veterinarian Karen Halligan. Many vet hospitals offer discounts to senior citizens or if you bring in more than one pet at a time. Some also offer reduced rates on procedures during certain times of the year. For example, February is national dental month, and most clinics are offering discounts on dental work. And “friends and family” discounts can net you 20%. Additionally, just like doctors, vets receive free samples of often pricey medications and supplies. So ask for freebies.
And, if your veterinarian prescribes medication for your pet, ask for the human/generic version.“ About 75% of medications used for cats and dogs were originally developed for humans. If a human drug equivalent exists, your vet may write a prescription for the generic form.” Then take it to Costco or some other inexpensive pharmacy to have it filled.
The next time you’re headed out for dinner, spend some time online first. Just as you can get discount gift certificates for stores, you can do the same for eateries at restaurants.com. Generally, $10 will buy you a $25 gift certificate. Read the fine print for limitations. Next, sign up to follow your favorite restaurants on Twitter and Facebook; many will use those channels to shoot promotions your way, as Chili’s did by offering 10% off gift certificates this past Father’s Day. Or, if you want to see what restaurants are offering deals on a particular night, several sites including dineoutcheap.com and eatdrinkdeals.com aggregate the deals from Groupon, Living Social and other group buying sites on one page. As for those nights you’re cooking at home – or making a shopping list for the week – start with a trip to recipe.com, which cross-references recipes with information on what’s on sale that week via an online coupon or discount at your local store.
Give yourself a 2% head-start
Finally, one way to save 2% on just about everything right off the top, says consumer expert Clark Howard, is to have the right credit card. He suggests Fidelity Investments Credit Cards issued by American Express, which give you a clean 2% back and deposits it in your IRA, 529 or brokerage account. Says Howard: “The reason I love it is that I’m hoping once they have the 2% in the account, it becomes a head start on a savings habit that will last for life.”
Research assistance from Maggie McGrath