The economy's officially in recovery, the stock market has stabilized, the unemployment rate is dropping. But what's that? You still don't feel flush? Well, that may have something to do with the holiday spending binge you just went on. Or it may be that you just haven't buckled down and tightened up your budget as much as you could. To help, we've consulted some money experts for their best ideas on how to rein in the spending, and jump-start your savings in the process. Here's to a financially sound 2011!
1. Make a bucket list ...
er, budget list.
Kick off your new austerity plan by listing your monthly cash requirements to cover shelter, food, clothing, insurance, healthcare, transportation, child care and modest entertainment, suggests one Fort Worth CPA. Then -- give yourself access to only that amount of cash each month. (If you don't see it, it's easier not to spend it.) Put the excess in your employer's payroll savings plan or in a savings account you won't be tempted to tap for nonemergencies. The self-employed can follow a similar tack by setting up an account for household expenses and transferring into it only the amount necessary for monthly expenses.
Estimated savings: Save even 2 percent of a $50,000 annual salary, and you're looking at $1,000 cash in one year's time.
2. Cut your electricity bill.
In Texas, consumers are free to choose their electricity provider. Go to powertochoose.org and see how your current plan stacks up. Offers are based on the cost per kilowatt hour -- an average home may use at least 2,000 in an average month --and currently range from 6.4 cents to nearly 15 cents. Caveats: Read the fine print on your current agreement; it may cost up to $200 if you break it. Additionally, note whether the plan you choose is fixed or varies by month; it will cost a little more to lock in a rate for 6-12 months, but it prevents sudden increases. And remember costs may rise after the initial six-month or 12-month period is up; remember to check, and be prepared to switch plans again before the rate increase kicks in.
Estimated savings: If you trim 3 cents per kilowatt hour and use 2,000 monthly on average, you'll save $60 a month -- $720 in a year.
3. Control grocery spending.
A 2004 USDA-funded study found that the average household throws away 14 percent of the food purchased. Fourteen percent! Waste less by better planning, counsels personal finance coach and pastor Amie Streater. "By carefully planning your meals, using up first what you already have in your pantry and freezer, and buying in bulk, most families can cut their grocery spending by 50-60 percent without clipping a single coupon," says Streater, a former Star-Telegram reporter who wrote Your Money God's Way, (Thomas Nelson; $14.99). She suggests visiting discount clubs and making just one large grocery trip a month -- which also cuts down on the risk of unneeded impulse purchases -- and then ducking in for produce and milk, as needed, in between.
Estimated savings: If your family's grocery bills average $700 a month, cutting by even 10 percent will net you $70 monthly, or $840 in one year's time.
4. Downgrade or drop cable or satellite TV subscriptions.
The average U.S. cable bill was $75 monthly in 2009, the most recent year available, according to the research firm Centris. And while cable may seem like a need, not a luxury, how many of those 200 channels do you really watch regularly? Consider drawing up a list of your can't-miss shows, and checking whether you can watch them for free through your computer via the network's own website or on hulu.com, which shows the most recent episodes of many popular series for a limited time. Hulu's premium membership -- $7.99 a month -- shows entire current seasons of water-cooler shows like Glee and Modern Family, on many platforms including iPad, Playstation 3, and, soon, Xbox 360 and Tivo. Finally, consider the one-time investment of a Roku ($60 to $100), which lets you stream video either through subscription (like Hulu premium or Netflix.com) or on demand. Roku keeps adding content partners, too; you can sign up for access to NHL or MBL games, for instance, for about $25 a month.
Estimated savings: Assume you replace your $75 cable bill with $25 in Netflix, Hulu and/or sports subscriptions -- you're still saving $50 a month, or $600 a year.
5. Bundle up your insurance.
Are your car and homeowner's insurance policies with the same company? If not, you could be in for a 5 to 10 percent discount if you get them bundled by the same provider, says Laura Adams, who wrote Money Girl's Smart Moves to Grow Rich (St. Martin's Griffin; $14.99) and hosts a weekly Money Girl podcast at SmartMovesToGrowRich.com. If you're already with one agent for everything, Adams suggests you meet with your agent annually, before policies come due, to review your policies and increase or decrease coverage. "A good agent can help you find that sweet spot, where you've got adequate coverage but aren't paying for coverage you don't need," she says, adding that many people skip this step because policies renew automatically, and may be tied into their mortgage, so they don't pay attention to rates. Make sure you're getting all available discounts, such as safe-driver and burglar-alarm specials, and aren't paying for coverage you don't need, such as insuring your car for business use when you no longer use it that way. And if you aren't happy with the recommendations? Shop around and get bids from competing agencies, rather than just letting coverage renew automatically, she says.
Estimated savings: Assume you're paying $3,000 annually on policies for your home and two cars; cut that by 5 percent and you're looking at $150.
6. Don't pay too much
At nerdwallet.com, compare hundreds of credit-card offers, including many no-fee cards and reward cards. Look for those with a 0 percent introductory APR, no annual fee and a low ongoing APR -- 10 percent or better, Adams suggests. The best offers, however, are reserved for those with good or excellent credit.
Estimated savings: Depends heavily on your level of debt. If you pay off cards monthly, you may only save your $75 annual fee. But if you're carrying a balance with an 18 percent APR and transfer it to a 10 percent card, you could save $1,000 in interest fees in a year.
7. Keep a clean, organized and orderly home.
That may not sound like a money-saver, says Streater, but think about it: How many times have you run to the store for batteries only to discover a week later you had three dozen in the junk drawer? Or bought your 5-year-old another sweat shirt because she couldn't find the one you bought two weeks ago? Streater says that many families she counsels end up wasting money because they simply don't keep track or take care of their belongings. "If you don't know what you have, you'll forever be buying things you don't need," she says. Consider a "one in, one out" rule - you can't buy another T-shirt, pair of shoes or toy car unless you give away, sell or throw out one already in the house.
Estimated monthly savings: Streater estimates a family with kids at home could save $250 a month by avoiding duplicate purchases; even saving 50 bucks per month nets you $600 annually.
8. Bank on savings.
Earn more interest on the money you already have. At sites like depositaccounts.com and checkingfinder.com, search for free high-yield checking and savings accounts, Adams suggests. Usually from online banks that do not have a brick-and-mortar location, these accounts are still FDIC insured, and usually reimburse ATM fees, have no minimum balance, may pay interest rates of 4 percent (higher than many CDs) and charge no annual fees, she says. However, they may require direct deposit and a minimum number of debit-card transactions monthly. If you prefer to stay with your bank, it can't hurt to meet with a banker and see if they can upgrade your account to one paying higher interest, or at least drop certain fees.
Estimated savings: Depending on your current ATM and checking-account fees, you may save $25-$40 a month.
9. Save your 2011 payroll
Working taxpayers will get a small, temporary raise this year, with Social Security taxes reduced 2 percent. If you get paid by direct deposit, Adams counsels, have the extra money deposited into a separate savings account every payday, so you don't even see it.
Estimated savings: On a salary of $25,000, you'll see about $500 in savings over the year, up to a maximum of about $2,150 for a worker making the maximum Social Security wage of $106,800.
10. Go on a spending fast.
Still distressed by how fast the cash seems to fly out of your pocketbook? Streater suggests this trick. Gas up the car, buy groceries, pay the bills -- and then "promise as a family that you're going to go a certain period of time without spending a dime. Then do it," Streater says. "It's amazing how much money we spend without even thinking about it. Movies, meals out, incidentals at the store, random gifts and school-related expenses, those little expenses add up to big bucks a lot sooner than you think."
Estimated savings: Streater's five-member family has lasted as long as three weeks, saving up to $100 each week. Do that for one week, every other month, and you'll have $600 in extra cash.