Saving Money

Beyond Coupons: Ten Surefire Ways to Save Money

Thanks to the TLC show Extreme Couponing, the practice of scouring through one’s local newspaper and clipping coupons is suddenly in vogue.  Although achieving the monumental savings depicted on TV takes a great deal of dedicated effort, most of us are aware that using coupons–whether they be grocery store printables or promo codes for online retailers–can be an easy and smart way to save money. But coupons only scratch the surface of money saving opportunities that savvy shoppers can take advantage of to fortify their finances.  There are a number of other tactics that can help consumers make the most of their hard-earned money—no scissors required.

Here are ten surefire ways to save money:

Have a Plan

According to the 2010 survey conducted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, 56% of Americans don’t have a budget. Without a firm grasp on income vs. expenses, it’s easy to get stuck in a routine of spending money as fast as it’s earned while neglecting to build up savings for emergencies, large purchases or retirement. Use a tool like Mint.com to track spending habits, and then revise and refine to make sure you have a realistic plan in place to “pay yourself first.”

Downsize

If after tracking your spending and saving you find too much emphasis on the former, it could be time to put your “living large” lifestyle on a diet. This could entail trading in the oversized, gas-guzzling SUV for a zippy, little economy car or your drafty McMansion for a cozy condo or even just eliminating thousands of unwatched channels from your cable package and scaling down a more reasonable and affordable plan.  Too often consumers become prone to “lifestyle inflation” and find their savings decrease even as their income rises.

Plug leaks

It’s not just that leaky faucet or running toilet that’s costing your bank account; late fees, interest charges, penalties and even the occasional parking or traffic ticket can eat away at your savings. While some interest charges are unavoidable–such as a home mortgage–others are completely within your control. Scoring a sweet deal on a brand new laptop is meaningless if you’re paying revolving interest charges on your credit card. Setting up autopay is preferable to incurring late fees. In addition, buying lunch vs. brown bagging, cancelling subscriptions you never use/read, eliminating daily visits to the vending machine all qualify as areas where small outlays here and there can add up to big bucks over the course of time.

Do the Research

After putting a budget in place to let you know what you can and cannot afford, it’s important for consumers to educate themselves on what the price range is for items they are purchasing. It’s not just that a pair of shoes can range from anywhere to under $20 for some Payless knock-off to hundreds of dollars for Manolo Blahniks, even the exact same make/model LCD TV can vary widely in pricing. That hot sale price means nothing if the retailer has artificially inflated the “original” price to begin with, so make sure to investigate price comparison websites, competitors or other research resources before shelling out any money.

Invest Wisely

This has nothing to do with the stock market but rather with making smart decisions regarding how you spend your money. Spending wisely means taking into account value, quality, flexibility, longevity, etc. For example, you can probably find a great bargain on a winter coat–but if it falls apart after one season, how much did you really save? Non-refundable airline fares can save a ton of cash, but if your plans get upended, you’re out of luck and out the money. Being frugal is about being smart enough to know that cheaper isn’t always better.

Never Pay Retail

Consumers have been more actively seeking out deals and coupons due to the recent recession, but that’s not the only way to obtain goods and services at a discount. Mastering the art of negotiation (aka “haggling”) is another. Believe it or not, cars dealerships aren’t the only place you can counter offer on sticker price. You can often get a sales person at an electronics or furniture store to knock off at least 10% just by asking. The tactic also works for service contracts–especially if you’re just signing up or if your current contract is expiring. Paying too much for cable? Sure you could downgrade your plan or go the Netflix/Hulu route, but you can also call up the customer service department and ask if there are any promotions that they can offer a loyal customer. If the customer service agent isn’t able to help you, politely ask to speak to a manager. Most service providers are willing to give a discount as retaining a current customer costs less than acquiring a new one. If you don’t have health insurance, ask the person in charge of billing at your doctor’s office if they give any discounts for paying in full and in cash at the time of the visit. Heck, my father’s been known to haggle successfully over the price of pants at Macy’s.

Less than Perfect

The easiest way to negotiate a discount is by being willing to accept merchandise that isn’t in brand new condition. Floor models, demo cars, irregular or secondhand goods in many cases can be just as serviceable as their more pristine counterparts–but at a deeply discounted price. Many imperfections can be easily corrected or are fairly unnoticeable. Take for example the Christmas tree that’s half price due to being a bit mangled on one side. If you put your tree up in a corner, the mangled side is easily hidden from view. I got an instant 10% off a dress at Marshall’s that had an imperceptible snag. If you’re handy at fixing the odd ding, dent or scratch, you can negotiate significant savings.

Timing is Everything

In addition to taking advantage of January White Sales, stocking up on wrapping paper and holiday decorations the day after Christmas or waiting end of model year end clearances in September to buy a new car, there are other ways to leverage seasonal pricing. Whether it’s off season travel, day old bread or an original iPad in the wake of the newly released version, patience can pay off in big savings. For 364 days a year, a dozen roses are fairly affordable. If you could convince your significant other to delay celebrating St. Valentine’s Day until February 15th, think of how much you could save on a 1 lb. heart-shaped box of chocolates?

Impulse Control

Like magpies, we humans have a weakness for shiny objects. If it’s new and improved, if it’s the latest, greatest, best and brightest, we must have it. Impulse purchases account for a large portion of personal expenses and marketers know just how susceptible we are to being parted with our hard-earned money. This is the reason for the gum, mints, candy bars and trashy magazines as we stand in line at the grocery store, the attractive display of colorful sweaters or the bold and bright “SALE” signs enticing us to walk into the store. Control your impulse to spend and you’re well on your way to mastering the art of money management.

Focus on Needs

Food. Shelter. When it comes right down to it, those two things–along with some clothing to keep us “decent”–are really the only categories one needs to spend money on. After you’ve paid your rent or mortgage and stocked up on some groceries, you’ve pretty much taken care of the necessary. Almost everything else falls under “wants” rather than “needs”–and what we want is heavily influenced by advertising and our peers. So if you’re really serious about saving money, before making a purchase ask yourself if you REALLY need whatever it is you’re buying. If you’re honest with yourself, the answer will most likely be “No.”

Ten Surefire Ways to Save Money was written by Stella Louise, Editor of the Savings.com Blog & Save.