Boosting your savings sometimes means simply patching the small leaks. Take a tour through your home, and you’ll find savings in every room:
The average household spent $2,700 on food purchased away from home in 2007. If you can cut that by one-third by eating at home and bringing leftovers and snacks to work more often, that’s $900 a year. To avoid the take-out trap (and create lunch leftovers):
Plan at least four to five dinners for the week, basing menus on what’s on sale in your store circular (most are available online). Use the store’s loyalty card religiously, and be willing to buy different brands, based on lowest cost.
Register for free at a coupon site such as couponmom.com. It publishes weekly lists by state and store showing the best deals, and whether a coupon is available for an item by listing the circular name — such as “Smart Source” — and its date. Subscribe to the local Sunday paper, pull out the circulars each week, write the date on them and put them in a drawer. When it’s time to shop, clip the relevant coupon and go. You can also easily search for them online, download and print.
Buy ingredients in bulk at a warehouse club. Then double the recipe, freeze the second meal, and set up a meal swap with a friend so you have more menu variety. (You can also get produce cheaper at a warehouse club; I split the giant packages with my friend Kim to avoid spoilage.)
Media Room/Home Office
Americans pay an average of $60 for cable, but only watch 15 channels, according to the Consumers Union. If you pay for premium cable services, call your provider and put the service on “vacation mode.” You’ll still receive basic service but save temporarily on the extras – and get a good sense of whether you miss them. (If you don’t, call the cancellation department and say you’re considering eliminating service altogether – this department has the best deals on hand to keep you as a customer.)
Beware the “vampire” drain of electricity from appliances and electronics in “standby mode” — turned off but still plugged into the wall. One study found standby power consumes 5 percent of electricity and costs $3 billion. Plug items into fuse-protected power strips that don’t suck energy from the wall when turned off.
If you work from home part of the time but don’t have a fax machine, send faxes for free through faxzero.com. The service puts an ad on the cover sheet, and limits customers to two three-page faxes each day. An add-free option: Faxaway charges by the minute, and a typical fax costs less than a quarter (much less than a copy shop like Kinkos). Meanwhile, you can receive faxes for free through k7.net (you have to use it at least once a month to keep your account active).
Water bills can also be cut back 25 to 60 percent just by replacing your old showerheads and faucets with low-flow aerating models for $10 to $20 each. Look for a model that’s 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm) or less. The average household spends $474 a year on water, so your savings can be anywhere from about $120 to $285 a year.
Medicine cabinet: Only about one-third of prescription drug purchases are mostly or fully covered by insurance, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey, and prices can vary by as much as $100 for the same drug. Always ask your physician for a generic equivalent, which can cost up to 40 percent less, then shop around. About a dozen states sponsor websites that help you compare prescription prices. Discount stores and warehouse clubs offer the most popular generic drugs for as little as $4 a month.
Rethink grooming products. Americans spend an average of $577 a year on grooming supplies, but many people spend more without getting more bang for their buck. For example, Consumer Reports found a skin cream that sells for $19 in drug stores performed better than one that sells for $176 in department stores. A technical test conducted by Pantene found it performed as well as the top four salon brands. Just switching from salon hair care products to an affordable brand such as Pantene can save $80 a year.
Households spend an average of $1,500 a year on drycleaning, and 65 percent of those clothes are washable, according to Proctor and Gamble research. Wool, cashmere, silk, rayon, polyester and spandex can all be laundered. Assuming you begin to wash just half the clothes you dryclean, that’s $750 a year.
A few tips: Use the delicate or hand wash cycle and cold water, and a gentle fabric care product. Lay wool and cashmere flat to dry; everything else, including cotton and linen, can be thrown in the dryer on a low-heat setting, then pressed. Suits should be hung up immediately, aired out, and spot cleaned with a lint-free cloth. Follow that routine, and you can limit dry cleaning to two to four times a season.
In Every Room: Utilities
A programmable thermostat costs about $30 at the hardware store but can save as much as 25 percent on your energy bills by turning down the heat or air conditioning when you’re away from home or sleeping, according to the Energy Department. For the average utility payer, that works out to about $250 a year. Boost your savings even more by setting your water heater at 120 degrees.
Cell phone plans: The website letstalk.com offers an overview of various plans, and services such as Billshrink.com and Validas.com analyze your cell phone bill for a small fee and show you where to find savings. (Billshrink says its clients save up to $300 a year.) Alternately, use a pre-paid service such as Boost, a division of Sprint, which recently began offering unlimited voice, text and web browsing for $50 a month.
Finally, layoffs and job insecurity are prompting more people to look for opportunities to make extra cash on the side. Be wary of “work at home” scams. Instead, consider opportunities to sell household items on eBay or Craigslist; virtual call center companies such as Liveops.com, Willow.com, AlpineAccess.com and teamdouble-click.com; and sites such as guru.com, elance.com, and oDesk.com, where you can market accounting, graphic design and other skills on a freelance basis.
Do you have great ideas for saving and boosting income? You can comment here or email me at laura at laurarowley.com.