As the government and Federal Reserve campaign to head off a recession, many families are working hard to save money and reduce debt. Credit-card debts and other loans hang over us like a sword. By saving modest amounts, however, you can reap big rewards over time. And that doesn’t require clipping coupons and washing out used coffee filters. Here are easy ways you can save $100 or more this year:
1. Plug into bargain electricity.
Mickey Greenblatt was spending nearly $250 a month on electricity for his home in Potomac, Md. When the retired executive called his utility company to find out why his bills were so high, the company offered to do a free home-energy audit. Greenblatt learned that simple things such as running his dishwasher at night rather than during the day could cut his bill by 40 percent. Taking advantage of such options as off-peak rates can save most consumers $100 a year.
Savings are also possible under “load management” programs. You get discounts for allowing your utility company to put a device on your water heater and air conditioner that switches them off briefly during periods of high demand.
2. Hit the brakes on automobile-insurance rates.
You can save substantially by increasing the deductibles on the comprehensive and collision portions of your policy. According to the Insurance Information Institute, raising collision deductibles from $200 to $500 could reduce your collision and comprehensive coverage by 15-30 percent. Squeeze out additional savings by asking about every possible discount, such as for carpooling, air bags, annual mileage below 10,000 miles — even for teenage drivers with grade averages above a B.
3. Challenge your property tax.
Ruth Rejnis, author of Squeeze Your Home for Cash, recommends going to your local assessor’s office and finding out what property taxes your neighbors are paying. If your house is similar but your taxes are higher, you may want to challenge your bill. Also, read the description of your home. Errors in square footage or the number of bathrooms could mean an overcharge. The assessor’s office or local board of tax review can tell you how to file an appeal.
4. Shop for a bargain bank.
Look for free checking and no ATM fees. Also, if you have direct deposit of your paycheck, your bank might waive its monthly fee.
5. Remedy pricey prescriptions.
Cut your bills in half by buying generic drugs instead of name brands. Also, buy your prescriptions via mail order through a drugstore chain or your company health plan.
6. Pay off your plastic.
If you carry a credit-card balance from month to month, pay it back pronto. A $1000 balance at 18 percent blows nearly $200 a year in interest. If you can’t pay it off in full, transfer your debt to a lower-rate card.
7. Say no to car extras.
Your car dealer may sell rustproofing and fabric protection at $100 a pop, and paint protection for as much as $250. “Usually these extras are the dealer’s way to squeeze more money out of you,” says Bob Elliston, author of What Car Dealers Won’t Tell You. Do-it-yourself fabric protector costs about $10 a bottle. Paint protection is unnecessary, since most cars have many layers of paint. And skip rustproofing: cars come already treated so that they won’t need it.
8. Take a longer waiting period for disability insurance.
If you can’t work, disability insurance pays your living expenses. Many employers offer this. But if you must buy your own, accept the longest waiting period before benefits kick in — as long as you can cover those expenses, suggests Shelly Branch, author of Dollar Pinching: A Consumer’s Guide to Smart Spending. A healthy male carpenter earning $40,000 annually could pay up to $1800 a year for a policy with a 30-day wait. With a 90-day wait it could cost $800 to $1100.
9. Cancel mortgage insurance.
When you buy a house with less than 20 percent down, your lender may insist you buy private mortgage insurance (PMI) to protect against default. The average cost of this insurance is $45 a month, or $540 a year. However, once you have 20-percent equity (either because you’ve paid down your mortgage or because area property values have risen), you may be allowed to cancel the PMI.
10. Explore DRIPs.
If you buy stock, you can save on brokerage commissions by enrolling in a dividend reinvestment plan (DRIP). Offered by more than 900 companies, DRIPs allow shareholders to buy stock directly. You may have to be a shareholder of record, however, so find out if you’ll need to use a broker to buy your first few shares. Then enroll in the DRIP.
11. Buy straight from the Treasury.
Another way to bypass brokers and save money on fees is to buy Treasury notes, bills or bonds directly. The minimum investment is $1000 for bonds and for notes with maturities between five and ten years, $5000 for notes with shorter maturities and $10,000 for bills. Ask the nearest branch of the Federal Reserve Bank for an application for a Treasury Direct account.
12. Clean out your closet.
When you deduct charitable donations of clothing at tax time, do you just guess $100? William Lewis, author of Cash for Your Used Clothing, says most people underestimate the worth of such items.
Before you donate, price each item against similar ones sold at the store where you drop them off. If you’re in a 28-percent tax bracket, a donation worth $400 will earn you a tax deduction of at least $112.
13. Skip the service contract.
Extended warranties on electronics are rarely a good deal. According to Tom Garman, a Virginia Tech professor of consumer affairs, most product breakdowns occur in the first year and are covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.
14. Flex your company’s flexible spending account.
These accounts allow you to set aside part of your pretax salary for dependent-care costs and unreimbursed medical expenses. You decide at the beginning of the year how much money you want to set aside in the account. The downside is that if you don’t use all the money, you lose it. However, if you’re in the 28-percent tax bracket and allocate $500 to cover your health-insurance deductible, you’ll cut taxes by $140.
15. Buy in bulk.
Items you may use a lot, such as paper towels and diapers, are often far cheaper when you buy in quantity. For example, Alan and Denise Fields, co-authors of Baby Bargains, say new parents buy an average of 2400 disposable diapers in their baby’s first year alone. Diapers that cost 20 cents apiece in the packages sold at grocery shops and drugstores might go for 15 cents when bought in bulk at a discount store or warehouse club. Just a nickel a diaper could add up to an annual savings of $120.
16. Rethink your vacations.
“Homestay” programs offer free lodging all over the world to travelers who are themselves willing to host other members in their homes. Some groups charge an annual membership fee, but your savings can easily be worth more than a hundred dollars a day.