This post was originally published on Good Housekeeping.com.
First things first: Dream big.
Your new year should actually begin sometime in December — with a list of your most juicy financial dreams. Before you begin identifying ways to overhaul your budget, look at your big picture: What’s the point of penny pinching? That’s right: We’re talking about incentive. As in getting out of debt. Or finally taking that dream vacation to Paris. “When you have something really great to save toward,” says John Wedding, creator of MightyBargainHunter.com, “it gives you a purpose.” So just before the new year, sit down with a pen and paper and set some financial goals.
January Resolution: Get a Grip on Your Gas Costs
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) most recent data on how Americans spend their money, the largest spending increase (an 8 percent rise between 2010 and 2011) came in one area: transportation. What’s behind much of that increase? Petroleum costs. While we can’t do much about price hikes, we can determine how much gas we’ll use, and how often. Gina Lincicum ofMoneyWiseMoms.com uses her family’s second car—a sedan that gets much better gas mileage that the family’s mini van—to run all of her errands. Another smart way to cut fuel costs: Find discounts on your gas, through services like FuelRewards.com. Also, check sites like GasBuddy.com to find the cheapest prices in your area, says Andrew Schrage, the founder of MoneyCrashers.com.
February Resolution: Book your travel early.
You can save a heap simply by strategizing about your travel dates and then booking something early in the year. Travel expert Rick Steves, author of Europe Through the Back Door, says that the off-season and the shoulder season—mid-April to June and then September and October—are often less expensive times to take a trip, depending on your destination. And this isn’t true for just Europe: Flying during the slower seasons saves you money no matter where you’re traveling. Do you research to determine low season for your planned destination. Set up “price-drop alerts” on sites like Kayak.com and AirfareWatchdog.com to get notified when the airfare for your dream vacation dips. And when you book your airfare, choose the cheapest days to fly—that’s usually Tuesday or Wednesday, says Schrager.
March Resolution: De-clutter for extra cash.
Do you really need all those books, toys, or furniture gathering dust around your house? Lincicum suggests selling what you’re not using. She was able to tuck away $2,000 in a year by gathering her household’s little used items and then selling through consignment stores, yard sales, and on Craigslist. While you’re riffling through your attic or closets to pull out your oldies, keep an eye open for buried treasures: If you think you’ve stumbled on an antique or valuable, have it appraised by more than one local appraiser (and never the person you’re selling it to!). Your “junk” could be worth thousands or even more.
April Resolution: Slash your phone bill.
Forbes.com reports that Americans are chatting it up at an exorbitant price: The average family now spends $760 a year for service, as compared with $210 in 2001, according to the BLS. Make your talk a tad less painful with these strategies: Look online for a free smartphone that comes with signing up for a wireless package; only choose a phone and plan that has the features you’ll actually use; call your phone company and ask for a lower rate; sniff around for corporate discounts (major carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile often offer price breaks to the employees of companies that use their services).
May Resolution: Spend your tax refund wisely.
While it’s nice to have a little fun with that refund check, consider using some of that money in a financially savvy way. Some ideas: Pay off any high-interest credit card balances; put your money into a CD or a high-yield savings account; or, look for ways you can score a discount by paying for something annually, such as insurance. Sites like LearnVest.com, DailyWorth.com, Mint.com, and FinancialIntegrity.com will help you find other ways to make your tax refund reap dividends.
June Resolution: Save your energy.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the typical American family spends about $1,900 a year on utilities. Now here’s some better news: You have a lot of power to reduce energy costs, simply by implementing key habits. Start slashing your energy bill with these tips from the government site Home Energy Saver: Turn off an appliance while not in use; dial down your thermostat or AC by a few degrees; use fluorescent lamps and light fixtures; increase wall and attic insulation.
July Resolution: Watch summer blockbusters for less.
The BLS reports that about 5 percent of Americans’ annual household budgets goes toward entertainment—and that includes movies. Wedding says that he and his family opt for the matinee. “My wife is planning to see The Hobbit—and simply because she’s going early, it’ll be half-priced,” he says. Other ways to cut your entertainment bill: If you watch movies frequently, consider a Netflix, Amazon Plus, or Hulu subscription; or pick up a movie from a RedBox location. Take in most of your entertainment on cable? Cut back to just one box rather than having one in every room of the house. And if you find out a competitor of your provider is offering a cheaper rate, pick up the phone: “By investigating the competition, you can reduce what you pay for cable TV by as much as $25 per month,” says Schrager.
August Resolution: Eat in more than you eat out.
“If I could pass on just one idea to you about how to immediately free up more of you money, it would be this,” say Lincicum, “stop eating out so frequently.” According to Bundle.com, an online consumer spending guide, the average American family spends $232 a month dining out. And while we’re on the topic of food budgets, consider this: Taking your lunch to work just one day a week ($2 a meal versus $10, for instance) could save you as much as $400 a year. The point: Make dining out a special event—as in once a quarter rather than once a day or week.
September Resolution: Keep the lid on your clothing budget.
It’s awfully tempting to stock up on all fall’s latest fashion trends but you can get your kids what they want and stick to your budget. Buy just the basics and then spice up your wardrobe with lots of accessories. Meg Favreau, senior editor at WiseBread.com, suggests adding splash with new belts and scarves found at second-hand and consignment shops. “It’s amazing just how different an outfit can look just by adding a colorful belt,” she says. Still want the newest styles? If you typically budget, say, $40 a month for clothing, why not hold onto that money between January and September and then blow your stash during the fall season? That way you’ll feel like you’ve splurged while staying squarely within your means.
October Resolution: Let go of that car lease.
Financial expert Dave Ramsay believes that there are more downsides to leasing than upsides. For one, you’re renting a car and spending money to maintain it as if it’s your own—yet at the end of the lease term, you won’t actually own a car that you can re-sell. And, you’ll be charged a hefty fee for every bump, dink, and scratch when you return the vehicle to the dealer. “Car companies make more money on leasing you the car than if you bought the car with cash, according to the National Auto Dealers Association,” writes Dave on his site, DaveRamsey.com. For instance, when you lease a car, you may pay $400 a month over 60 months—which would total $24,000; you’d then turn the car in at the end of the 60 months and own nothing. Alternatively, you could spend $400 a month to finance the car and then own it outright once it’s paid off. A better idea than either? Save up for a used vehicle in good condition and pay cash if you can.
November Resolution: Pay attention to your bank fees.
When it comes to saving money, every little bit counts, which is why you should pay attention to the rising cost of banking. According to a 2012 MoneyRates.com survey, checking account fees rose across the board—including minimum required to open an account, overdraft fees, ATM fees, and minimum balance for a fee waiver. The average monthly maintenance fee was $13.88 at large banks with $25 billion or more in deposits. Shop around to choose the bank in your area that charges the least. Small banks, for instance, are much more likely to offer free checking, shows the survey’s results. You should also consider an online bank—the survey showed that two-thirds of online checking accounts were free of monthly maintenance fees.
December Resolution: Shop around for insurance.
The BLS reports that in 2010, Americans spent just over $5,000 on personal insurance and pensions—and that doesn’t even include what we spent on all other kinds of insurance. So how do we slash the price tag? By never getting too cozy with what we’re forking over. At least once a year, re-evaluate your insurance policies and then do some comparison shopping. Try raising your deductible to lower your rates. Also, ask your agent whether you qualify for any discounts. Check out possible car insurance discounts on UsNews.com.
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