Smart Buying

Don't Waste Your Money: You Have to Play to Win

You left money on the table: We found 32 ways you may be inadvertently throwing cash away.

TIPS 1-6

Flexible spending spree

According to one calculation, Americans forfeit $86, on average, in their health care flexible spending accounts under the "use it or lose it" rule. That's no big deal when you consider that many employers allow up to $4,500 a year in contributions to be shielded from taxes. But after my flex-account funds came up short in 2009, I overcompensated with my 2010 contribution.

In June, I realized I had yet to spend a cent and started a hypochondriacal spending spree. I even opted to get my wisdom teeth pulled. Now I'll have to kiss only about $50 goodbye. It's worth it -- my husband and I saved about $550 on our tax bill. -- Stacy Rapacon

Neglected rebates

Admit it: Sometimes the process of filling out a rebate form, finding the receipt and UPC, and mailing it all before a deadline passes is just too much trouble -- even for a reward that's often $50 or more. Although retailers are tight-lipped about response rates, Hal Stinchfield, CEO of Promotional Marketing Insights, a marketing firm, estimates that 50% to 60% of buyers don't submit rebate forms. Tim Silk, an assistant professor of marketing at the Sauder School of Business, has three general rules about rebates: Don't procrastinate. Leave rebate forms where you won't overlook them. Be honest -- is it worth the effort? If not, the product with the rebate may not be the best deal.

Going it alone

Maybe, like some other fifty-somethings we know, you've been tossing out those solicitations to join AARP. But such memberships can give you access to more than retirement advice -- or a tire change or that fuzzy feeling of belonging. For an annual fee of $16, AARP members enjoy up to 30% off the price of FDA-approved prescriptions at Walgreens and up to 25% off car rentals. For $65.50 a year, AAA members get discounts on travel, dining, shopping, medicine and more. For example, they slice an average of 24% off prescription drugs not covered by insurance (including for pets) and 10% off Target purchases online.

Untapped apps

If you have an iPhone or Android phone, a dead battery is probably your only excuse for failing to save when you shop. With Google Shopper or ShopSavvy, you can scan an item's bar code with your phone's camera and view a list of prices for the same product at other stores. (One ShopSavvy user says he saved $1,000 with the app last year.) Or look for discounts at the store you're visiting or at nearby competitors with free, location-based apps, such as ShopKick and Yowza. Check your phone's app market or store to find other money-saving apps.

Unclipped coupons

A typical "couponer" saves $50 on groceries and $25 on drugstore purchases per week, estimates Stephanie Nelson, of CouponMom.com, and savings increase when coupons are coupled with sales and rebates. Navigating the scores of coupon Web sites can be daunting, though. Try Coupons.com, CouponMom.com or RetailMeNot.com.

Smart-phone users can also download coupon apps, such as Coupon Sherpa, which calls up discount barcodes on the iPhone or iPod Touch. If all else fails, simply ask at the register if there's a discount for your purchase.

Overlooked tax breaks

Instead of trashing stuff you no longer use, give the items to charity. If you itemize, you can take a deduction on their fair market value -- generally thrift store prices (for values, see www.itsdeductible.com). If you donate a car, investigate how the charity uses the vehicle: You may get a bigger deduction if the organization keeps the car for, say, meal deliveries rather than selling it at auction.

See more ways to stop wasting your money.

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