You Don’t Have to Change Your Lifestyle to Save
I’ll never forget my best money-saving moment. A few years ago, I went into an upscale boutique in New York City and tried on a gorgeous, floor-length, black-and-gold chiffon halter dress that was perfect for my friend’s upcoming black-tie wedding. It was the last one on the rack, in just my size and was on sale for $300 … which, unfortunately, was still way out of my budget. I was about to slip it back on the hanger and walk away, but then I figured — hey, I have nothing to lose. I might as well see if that price tag’s set in stone.
I’d been getting friendly with the salesperson, so I took him aside and discreetly asked whether he might be able to come down on the cost. To my surprise and delight, he slashed it by $100 on the spot and I stepped out of there with a head-turning gown. Lesson learned? Saving money doesn’t have to mean sacrificing your style — or your lifestyle. With a little creativity, you can score amazing deals on everything from your groceries to your gym membership.
Don’t toss out a container of yogurt that’s past its sell-by date or eggs that have been sitting in your fridge for a month — chances are, they’re still perfectly good. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, American families throw out 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy, which adds up to about $1,365 to $2,275 annually. Part of the problem is that people confuse “use by,” “sell by” and “best by” dates. The “best by” date suggests when a product is at peak quality, and the “sell by” date is intended to let retailers know when to replenish stock — neither are an indication of safety. To figure out whether something’s edible or not, check out StillTasty, which draws information from organizations like the FDA, USDA and CDC. (FYI: With adequate refrigeration, eggs can last three to five weeks after the sell-by date, and yogurt seven to 10 days.)
While we’re at it, chopping your own fruit and vegetables, rather than buying them pre-cut, is not only fresher and more nutritious, but yields big savings. For example, on online grocer FreshDirect, an 8-ounce container of grapes that have been plucked off the stem costs $3.99, whereas you could buy a whole pound of grapes on the stem for $3.79 — 20 cents less for twice as much. Likewise, 10 ounces of diced carrots will run you $3.99, versus $1.89 for a pound of regular carrots. Same goes for snacks: A five-pack box of “100-Calorie” Goldfish that totals 3.6 ounces goes for $3.29, compared to $2.49 for a single 6.6-ounce box … you do the math.
Whether I’m buying a Banana Republic sweater or snowshoes from EMS, I always Google the merchandiser’s name plus “promo code” before going through with the purchase online. It takes 10 seconds, and about half the time I come up with a deal. Cardpool, a service that lets people buy discounted gift cards for up to 35 percent off the face value, is another good option.
For ridiculous deals on designer goods, check out swap sites. SnobSwap lets you shop for items you can buy outright, swap for something of yours, or make an offer on with a combo of both. Items range from a vintage YSL jacket for $275 to a Kate Spade bag for $89.95. (They consult an independent expert authenticator so you can be confident those Chanel booties are the real deal.) On Bib + Tuck, users upload pictures of stuff in their closet and assign each item a virtual price in “bucks.” Every time someone buys your clothes or accessories, you receive bucks that you can put toward purchasing something else on the site (as the site’s tagline suggests, you’re essentially shopping without spending). A recent search turned up a Lanvin dress for 150 BT bucks and an Opening Ceremony bag for 275 BT bucks.
If you haven’t been to the library since you were wearing a mood ring and listening to the Spice Girls, it’s time to take advantage of this overlooked, totally gratis resource. Many libraries now carry ebooks (you can usually download them for two-week stints, the same as paper books), so you don’t even have to leave your house. And don’t forget they also have a wide collection of movies.
Prefer to own a book outright? Try PaperBackSwap: List titles you’d like to trade in on the site, or select one you want to read from almost five million options. You rack up book credits every time someone picks one of your books, which you can then use to order a new read.
Some health insurance providers will partly reimburse you for a gym membership, yoga classes, a personal trainer or exercise equipment. (After all, it makes sense: A fit member costs less in the long run.) I used to have Oxford Healthcare, and they sent me a $200 check every year. Additionally, your employer might pay for a portion of fitness-related activities; check with your HR department.
Also, don’t hesitate to negotiate. “Sometimes, finding great deals is about simply being willing to put your pride aside and ask for a discount,” says Anna Newall Jones who blogs at AndThenWeSaved. Just the other day, she called up her gym, spoke with a manager there and told him, “I won’t be able to go to the gym in the upcoming months as often as I usually do. Would you be able to give me a discount?” He shaved $20 off her monthly fee. And once you join, don’t forget to take advantage of “first class free” offers and free introductory training sessions.
Buying plane tickets is a crapshoot — the prices can change, sometimes drastically, in a matter of minutes. Here’s how to protect yourself: After purchasing a flight, enter the details into Yapta. They’ll alert you if the price of the ticket goes down, and depending on how much it falls, some airlines will refund your money. (JetBlue, for example, will give you money back on any price dip, whereas United and Delta will only refund drops of $200 or more.)
It’s also smart to check out affinity group discounts — you can get decent deals on rental cars and hotel rooms (plus loads of non-travel related stuff) through groups like AAA and AARP. And you can find amazing discounts on flash vacation deal sites, like JetSetter, Groupon Getaways and Living Social Escapes. Just to give you a sense of the savings potential, Groupon Getaways recently featured an all-inclusive five-day vacation in the Dominican Republic for $849, including airfare — savings of 41 percent — and Gilt had rooms at the swanky hotel, The Standard, in New York City going for $195 a night (compared to $275 on the hotel’s website).
And if you’re going skiing this season, bookmark Liftopia: you can save up to 80 percent on lift tickets by booking through the site.
If you want to get truly savvy about shopping, try stockpiling. “It’s the single strategy that saves the most money,” says Chrissy Pate, coauthor of “BeCentsable: How to Cut Your Household Budget in Half.” “The idea is to buy items when they are at their lowest price and to purchase enough to last your family until the items are at their lowest price again (usually three to six months later). Recently I was able to get Kellogg’s cereal for just $0.08 a box by combining a great sale with coupons. Cereal stays fresh for several months, so I took advantage of the stock-up principle and saved 98 percent on the cost of cereal for my family.” And since you’re scoring the stuff at rock-bottom prices, you only have to spend a few extra dollars a week to build up a good stash.
Not big on coupons? Consider buying in bulk from wholesale club like Costco, Sam’s Club or BJ’s. You can purchase a membership with a friend and then split the benefits so you won’t have five bottles of laundry detergent lying around the house.
Slash your bills by stacking new member deals: For instance, after your Fios contract is up, switch to DirecTV in order to get their new member package. Then, when you’ve run through all your options, sweet-talk your way into extending a discount. I signed up for the Internet with TimeWarner under a $24.99 per month plan for the first year. When the contract expired and my rates doubled, I asked if they’d continue the deal for another year. Without much balking, the representative agreed.
Jones used a similar tactic with her cell phone company. “A month before my old plan expired, I called up and told the associate that I found a month-to-month plan online and would like to switch to that since it offers more than what I'm getting now and it's $30 less," she says. And as with gym reimbursements, if you work for a big company, it’s worth checking in with HR to see what discounts they offer. My husband gets deals on everything from his mobile plan to electronics. (If you work for yourself, you can deduct some of your cell phone and Internet costs when you file your taxes, if you’re using them for business.)
If you have a landline (no judgment!), consider switching to a VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol, which allows you to make calls via the Internet instead of a phone line), such as Vonage ($26.99 a month) or Ooma (you have to buy a box for around $150, but then all U.S. calls are free — aside from shelling out a few bucks in taxes).
Not only do online banks tend to offer higher-yielding savings accounts than their brick-and-mortar counterparts, but they also usually give you free checking and ATM transactions. I use Charles Schwab, and can take money out of any machine without being docked a fee — they even reimburse the $2 fee that the participating bank extracts on their end. And since you can now take pictures of checks and upload them using your phone for fast, wireless deposits, there’s little benefit to sticking with an old-school bank.