MAKING YOUR MONEY LAST


Stretch Your Paycheck

It's a snap

Trim your grocery bill. For many families, a bulging budget is the result of excess spending at the supermarket. But until you track your purchases, you may not even realize how much you shell out each month. To get a handle on your habits, use a free online budgeting site, such as Mint.com or Buxfer.com. Then ditch the gourmet grocers and shop at Trader Joe's or warehouse stores. While you're at it, use coupons, which you can find online (at CouponMom.com, Coupons.com and CouponCabin.com). Or, for $5.95 a month, you can get customized coupons from Shopping Nanny. Shopping Nanny recently guaranteed that if you spend more than $90 a week at the grocery store, you'll save $40 a month -- or your next month's membership is free.

Cut your cell-phone bill. An acute fear of running out of minutes drives us to sign up for cell-phone plans with a block of time we'll never use in a month. At the very least, scrutinize your bill to make sure you actually need all the features you're paying for. You may be able to save with a prepaid plan. To get a handle on which plan is best for you, go to BillShrink.com or MyRatePlan.com.

Boost your deductibles. An easy way to cut what you pay for auto and home insurance is to raise your deductibles. You can trim your auto-insurance premium by 15% or more if you boost your deductible from $250 to $1,000. Increasing your homeowners deductible from $250 to $2,500 can cut your premium by 30% and discourage you from making small claims that could boost your premiums. And if you have policies with more than one insurer, you may want to put all of them under one roof. That way, you're likely to get a discount. How much you can save depends on where you live, so ask your insurer about the markdowns you qualify for.

A little effort

Switch your TV package. If you haven't shopped for a new cable or satellite package in a while, now is a good time. Competition among providers is running high, and they're offering some sweet deals. Visit the Web sites of the cable and satellite companies that serve your area to compare plans. Or use the TV tool at BillShrink.com, where you enter key tidbits such as your address, your must-have shows and channels, and the TV equipment you own. If you have one TV, a satellite plan may be the winner, says Schwark Satyavolu, BillShrink.com's chief executive. But if you have three or more TVs -- as more than half the homes in the U.S. do -- your savings depend on the offers du jour. The good news is, those who switch to a lower-priced plan save an average of $425 a year, Satyavolu says.

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Rein in your eating out. We know, we know. You've heard us say "cut the daily latte" before. But consider the benefits (again): If you get a large morning latte and an afternoon pick-me-up, you may be spending nearly $10 a day on java. And then there's lunch, which can run another $10 if you don't brown bag it. Spend that every working day for a month and you've got a $400 leak in your wallet. To stanch the flow of cash, brew coffee at home and pack a Thermos -- along with a sandwich and a piece of fruit. You could save more than $200 a month (and just possibly cut some calories as a bonus).

For a more precise idea of what you'd save, plug your daily eating-out costs into the "Lunch Savings Calculator" at FeedthePig.org, a savings Web site. And while you're at it, put a lid on restaurant meals. If you must go out, keep it to once a month (or week) and watch the extras. For instance, if the average family drank tap water instead of soda at restaurants, they'd save $800 a year, says Jeff Yeager, author of The Cheapskate Next Door.

Get rid of your stuff. That Ikea couch from 1996 that's been sitting in your basement? Sell it on Craigslist.org. Same goes for other unwanted furniture, baby gear, pianos -- and an untold number of household items. Include photos of your wares in your postings so that potential buyers have an idea of their general appearance and condition. If Craigslist isn't big in your neighborhood, try eBay. Depending on what you are selling, you could easily net enough to skip your weekly trip to the ATM.

Bigger payoff

Refinance your mortgage. Of the items on our list, this one probably requires the most time and energy. But it also has the biggest potential payoff. With interest rates at their lowest levels in decades, it's a good time to refinance -- if you can handle the headache of shopping around for the best deal and gathering all the necessary documents. The interest rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage for $417,000 or less is hovering around 4.5%, and the rate on a five-year adjustable loan is at about 3.8%, according to Freddie Mac. For deals, check with several lenders, including credit unions, local and community banks, and online mortgage brokers. The smaller players may have more attractive rates than the big national banks. Then, to determine whether it's worth it, use the Are you better off refinancing? calculator. You could save several hundred dollars a month.

Unload your second (or third) car. If you have a car sitting in your driveway that you don't use much, sell it and bank the bucks. Even if you don't get a lot of cash for it, you'll save money simply because you don't own it anymore. The average car that is driven 15,000 miles annually costs nearly $8,500 a year to own, says AAA, once you add up taxes and fees, insurance, maintenance and repairs, depreciation, and gas. A car you don't drive every day won't save that much, but selling it will still put money back in your pocket. To see what you could get for your vehicle, go to car-research site Edmunds.com. Edmunds recently put the value of a 2005 Honda Civic EX at $9,500; a 2001 Infiniti I30 was $5,800. Then, place an ad on AutoTrader.com, Cars.com or eBay (you'll pay at least $15) or post it free on Craigslist. Not up for doing it yourself? Take your car to any CarMax for an appraisal; you might not get your best offer, but you can sell it on the spot.

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