Smart Buying

10 Things We Overpay For

You can save a lot by buying cheaper alternatives.

Especially in these tough economic times, you don’t want to tear through your hard-earned cash. Here are ten ideas to cut costs by paying less for everyday purchases and even little splurges:

SEE 10 THINGS WE OVERPAY FOR AS A SLIDE SHOW

Gift cards

For the person who has everything (or whose tastes you simply cannot fathom), gift cards are a safe bet. You can find cards on discount at www.giftcardgranny.com.

The site pulls prices from six gift card discounters, which buy unwanted cards from other people that they then resell for less than face value. Discounts can be as much as 50%, although most are in the 15%-to-20% range. And the rules for gift cards just became more consumer-friendly (see Gift Cards: A Better Deal Now).

Closing costs

If you’re buying a house or refinancing a mortgage, you can save by negotiating down the lender's origination fee and other closing costs. Lenders will be willing to strike a bargain for your business if you have great credit and adequate equity. And if you’re prepared to walk away unless they offer you a great deal, you’ll have even more leverage in negotiations.

Also try hitting up the seller to pay some or all of the closing costs -- which average about 3% of the purchase price, and go as high as 6% in higher-tax areas. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae allow sellers to pick up closing costs worth 6% of the purchase price for loans with 10% or more down; the Federal Housing Administration allows up to 6% (but is considering lowering the limit to 3%); and the Department of Veterans Affairs allows 4%. You even get a tax break for mortgage points the seller pays (each point is 1% of the loan amount).

Checking accounts

Banks everywhere are eliminating free checking accounts, but with a little creativity you can still avoid paying that extra $8 to $15 a month. If you arrange for direct deposit or maintain a minimum balance, or bank online and skip the paper statement each month, your bank is likely to waive the fee.

About 750 community banks and credit unions offer free checking accounts with no minimum-balance requirement. They’ll also pay as much as 3.5% interest if you use your debit card ten to 15 times a month, arrange for one automatic payment or direct deposit each month, and receive your statement electronically. A partial list is available at www.checkingfinder.com.

Groceries

For many families, a bulging budget is the result of excess spending at the supermarket. 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 using its service -- or your next month’s membership is free.

Connectivity

Bundling your cable-TV, phone and Internet service can save you -- dare we say it -- a bundle. For example, you pay just $85 a month for 12 months if you sign up online with Verizon for unlimited local and long-distance calling, high-speed Internet service and DirecTV with DVR service. That saves $50 a month compared with buying the same services separately.

Long-distance calls

E-mail and Facebook are great ways to stay in touch with friends and family, but sometimes you simply need to hear a familiar voice. With Skype and Google Talk (you’ll need a Gmail account), you can “call” anyone in the U.S. for free via your computer as long as they have the same software in their computer. If the computers have a built-in camera (webcams cost as little as $30), you get video as well as audio. Logitech webcam owners can also use the free Logitech Vid service for video calls.

Cell-phone plans

Wireless carriers keep you tethered to them with two-year contracts and tempt you to renew with snazzy new phones or monthly discounts. But you can slash your costs with a prepaid plan, especially if you’re paying extra for text messaging and data plans.

All of the major carriers plus a number of smaller firms offer prepaid plans. Compare them at www.prepaidreviews.com/compare, then check the carrier’s Web site for more details. Before you compare plans, decide what is most important to you. For example, some providers offer free talk on nights and weekends, no activation or roaming fees, or free 411 calls.

Greeting cards

We’ve been listening to that Hallmark slogan “when you care enough to send the very best” too long. You don’t have to spend $3 to $5 for a greeting card. You can find hundreds of free cards online that you can send via e-mail. And hand-made cards from your children wishing friends or family members Happy Birthday or Happy Anniversary or inviting them to a party will mean more than a store-bought card. (If you’re hosting an event, don’t forget about Evite.)

Water

A low-flow shower head is easy to install -- just screw off the old shower head and twist on the new. Because it restricts the water output to no more than 2.5 gallons per minute (older shower heads send as many as 5.5 gallons per minute down the drain), you can save 25% to 60% of the water and 50% of the energy it takes to shower and shampoo you and your family. The shower heads generally run $10 to $20 a pop (some utility companies give them away) and screw into existing fittings. The new fixtures -- labeled WaterSense -- go as low as 1.5 gpm, saving 7,300 gallons and $30 to $100 a year over their 2.5-gpm counterparts.

For gardens, consider installing a drip irrigation system, which maintains moisture in the soil. Drip irrigation can reduce water loss by 50% to 60% compared with hand-watering or sprinkler systems. A drip system consists of a tube or hose with holes or emitters along it. It uses a timer to deliver water to plants. By maintaining the moisture level of the soil, less water is lost to the sun and the wind.

Jeans

Suppose you try on a pair of True Religion jeans that look great and fit you perfectly. But they cost $200. Go home and log on to a discounter site, such as UpscaleJeans.com or Bluefly.com and save as much as 50%. Or check out a consignment store near you for a gently worn pair.

SEE 10 THINGS WE OVERPAY FOR AS A SLIDE SHOW

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