Another year is coming to an end, presenting a chance to reflect on lessons learned during the past 12 months. From electricity costs to credit cards, Cheapism.com covered it all in 2015. This round-up of 100 money-saving, reward-earning, and frugal-living tips includes some of the best recommendations from the past year, along with some perennial favorites.
Photo by Maridav/shutterstock
Some major retailers, including Walmart, Target, Staples, Best Buy, Office Depot, and Toys R Us, now price match Amazon. There are many exclusions to watch out for, but checking prices with a smartphone before making an in-store impulse buy can yield savings.
Disney on a Budget.
Tickets to Disney World inched over $100 this year for ages 10 and up, but there are ways to save on a Disney trip. One of the best strategies: Bring your own food, beverages, and even Disney memorabilia purchased somewhere besides the overpriced gift shops (tell the kids a favorite character stopped by the hotel to leave them a souvenir). Disney World now allows outside food, and Disney cruises permit up to two bottles of wine or six beers in a carry-on (although the dining room corkage fee has gone up to $25).
Negotiating makes sense more often than you might expect. With market information in hand, go straight to the manager at a rental car agency or hotel and try to wrangle a deal. No luck? Try getting more value for the price with an upgrade.
Smart thermostats are hot right now — they learn residents’ preferences and can be controlled from afar — but even a cheap programmable thermostat set at a reasonable temperature can save a lot of money.
The age for senior discounts may be as young as 50 at some restaurants, grocery stores, and clothing retailers. With deals ranging from 5 to 50 percent off, make sure to ask.
Toy Rentals and Swaps.
Don’t waste money on toys that children will cast aside after a few months. Instead, consider toy swaps with local parents or rent toys using services such as Pley (for Legos) and Sparkbox Toys.
Generic Food and Drugs.
Doctors tend to buy over-the-counter versions of common medications. Chefs buy generic baking supplies such as brown sugar and baking soda. Follow the experts’ lead and save money.
Diamonds for Less.
Looking for a diamond ring for a holiday engagement? Get a good price by shopping online and knowing the five C’s: clarity, color, cut, carat, and certification. Don’t compromise on cut, which makes a diamond sparkle, but a low clarity or color grade is harder to notice and can make a large stone more affordable.
Veterans can take advantage of a slew of discounts year-round. Lowe’s and Home Depot, for example, offer 10 percent off to active and retired military and those receiving Veterans Affairs benefits.
Alternative Phone Service.
Escape the contract and switch to an ultra-cheap cellphone provider such as FreedomPop or Republic Wireless. They use the same towers as some of the big telecom companies but charge consumers just a fraction of the price.
Testing Out of College.
Yes, it’s possible to earn a bachelor’s degree for free by testing out of an accredited college. This path requires a lot of self-discipline but saves tens of thousands of dollars.
Even JetBlue has started charging for all checked bags, leaving Southwest the lone holdout, but there are ways to fit everything into a carry-on and otherwise eliminate or reduce airline baggage fees. Watch out for budget airlines Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit, which now collect fees even for carry-ons.
Cutting the Cord.
The new Apple TV has been getting buzz lately, but consumers joining the cord-cutting revolution can save $100 or more by opting for a streaming stick from Roku, Google, or Amazon instead. Without a cable subscription, monthly entertainment costs can dip to less than $10 a month, and there is still plenty to watch.
Detect fraud early by monitoring credit reports and checking your credit score for free using a site such as Credit Sesame, Credit Karma, or Quizzle. Some credit cards now come with a free credit score.
Paying Off Credit Cards.
It’s a myth that keeping a small balance on a credit card improves your credit score. On the contrary: Paying off balances can help cardholders boost their scores — and save money by avoiding interest payments.
Low Card Balances.
To maintain a high credit score, try not to use more than 30 percent of your credit limit. This percentage is known as the utilization rate, and lower is better in the eyes of credit scoring agencies.
Credit Card Debt.
Consumers who have good credit scores but have trouble paying off credit card debt can move the debt to a balance transfer credit card that charges zero interest on transferred balances during the promotional period. Some, but not all, such cards charge a one-time fee equal to a percentage of the amount transferred. Another option: Take out a personal loan with a lower interest rate than the credit cards and use it to pay down the debt.
Instead of buying bottled juices or doing a pricey, prepackaged cleanse, use a home juicer. The time commitment and cleanup are not for everyone, so start with a cheap juicer and upgrade if juicing turns into an ongoing thing.
When shopping online, check sites such as RetailMeNot, DealNews, and Brad’s Deals for coupon codes before checking out. Netting a discount can be as easy as typing the retailer’s name and “coupon codes” into a search engine.
Gift Card Shopping.
Gift Card Granny shows where to buy gift cards online for less than face value — and who says a gift card has to be a gift? Shop at a discount by paying with gift cards at your favorite retailers.
Cash-back shopping sites such as Mr. Rebates let consumers earn a percentage of their money back when shopping at thousands of ecommerce sites. Many rewards credit cards offer a similar perk for online and offline purchases.
Savings need not stop after clicking “buy.” Several price-tracking services alert shoppers to after-the-fact price drops. The shopper may be able to request a refund of the difference or get one automatically (minus a cut for the service). Dream Cheaper does this for hotels. Paribus and Slice monitor select retailers, including Amazon, through users’ email accounts.
Energy Efficient Upgrades.
Upgrade a home and reduce utility costs with energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances. The initial investment will pay for itself over time and the planet will benefit. Not sure where to start? Enervee rates electronics based on their efficiency relative to similar products.
Cheap Luxury Hotels.
Want a taste of luxury travel on the cheap? Locales where travelers can lodge at 4- and 5-star hotels for 3-star prices include Las Vegas, Bangkok, Shanghai, Cairo, and Mumbai.
Some hotel minibars have a built-in sensor that may be triggered by moving items. Look over the bill before checking out to make sure there aren’t any accidental charges.
Avoid buying things that probably will not be used more than once, such as formalwear (rent instead), specialty kitchen appliances (which lose their novelty quickly), power tools (rent from home improvement stores or borrow from local sources), and items that are attractive only because they’re deeply discounted.
Common medicines and personal care products often are cheaper at the Target and Walmart pharmacies than at Rite Aid, Walgreens, and CVS — and often cheaper still at Costco and Sam’s Club, where consumers can use the pharmacy without a membership.
Credit Card Perks.
Many credit cards offer extended warranties, full refunds if items are damaged or stolen up to 90 days after purchase, zero liability for fraudulent charges, and rewards programs that earn the cardholder money back on every purchase. Look at what’s included before buying additional coverage.
Libraries do more than offer free books. Save money by renting movies and ebooks and taking classes. Libraries are also accommodating workspaces — they’re quiet and there’s no need to buy coffee or a snack every few hours.
Looking for inexpensive date ideas? Instead of dinner and a movie, try a happy hour, wine tasting, dog park meet-up, picnic, volunteer project, or local tourist attraction that’s often overlooked by people who live nearby.
Modems and Routers.
Stop renting a wireless router or modem from your Internet service provider and buy your own. The purchase often pays for itself in less than a year.
Switch to a bank with fee-free checking and ATM use such as Charles Schwab, Ally Bank, or USAA Bank (for members and relatives of military members and veterans). Credit unions often offer checking accounts with no minimums and lower fees than large banks.
Foreign Transaction Fees.
Get a credit card that does not charge extra for foreign transactions. This can come in handy while traveling or when making purchases in a foreign currency while at home.
Save money on razors by drying them after each use. This simple step can prolong the life of a razor blade by months. For more savings, consider switching to a service that delivers inexpensive blades.
Earn extra cash by selling unwanted clothing on Poshmark, Vinted, Carousell, ThredUp, Twice, or Threadflip.
Price Code Secrets.
Many retailers use price codes (for example, a price that ends in .97) on their tags to indicate whether an item is a final markdown or may be discounted further.
Buy in Bulk.
Save on school lunches by buying ingredients in bulk and packing in reusable containers. Prepare dinners that can double as tomorrow’s lunch for the family.
Influenster, BzzAgent, and PinchMe send free samples, and sometimes free full-size products, to consumers who write short reviews or tell friends about the products.
Consumers looking to score free samples of facial creams, toners, mascara, and other everyday cosmetics and essentials should check Nordstrom, Belk, and Sephora. Beauty magazines often host giveaways for online readers.
Considering a new pet? Experts say purebred cats and dogs are most prone to illness — and accompanying vet bills. In general, the least expensive animals to care for are small, female mixed breeds that have been spayed.
Large hotel chains often have locations on the outskirts of the city. Save up to $189 a night by lodging farther afield and commuting into the city with everyone else.
Price vs. Value.
Being too cheap may not be financially wise. Don’t blindly choose the least expensive item; opt for well-reviewed products that promise good value. Sometimes spending a few extra bucks up front is worth it.
Microfiber cleaning cloths generally cost more than standard cotton towels, but even the priciest options pay for themselves over time when factoring in durability and savings on cleaning products.
Looking for an interesting vacation spot that’s cheap or free? There’s something offbeat or off the beaten path in every state, from Death Valley in California to free kayaking and canoeing in New York City.
When Walmart Wins.
Many retailers compete with Walmart on price, especially online, but a Cheapism price survey identified 10 types of merchandise that are cheapest here: school supplies, air conditioners, brand-name groceries, baby products, razors, cleaning supplies, feminine products, contact lens solution, sunscreen, and laundry detergent.
Grocery Store Savings.
Use the following mobile apps to help save money while shopping for groceries, clothing, and everything else: RetailMeNot, Ibotta, Checkout 51, Snap by Groupon, Grocery Smarts, SnipSnap, SmartSource, and The Coupons App.
To prolong the life of clothing, set the dryer on low or hang dry washables.
Small business owners looking to attend conferences can save money or even go for free by volunteering or speaking. Book early and split the cost of transportation or accommodations with other attendees. If the conference price is still out of reach, head for the after-parties and networking events — often the most valuable parts.
A DVR cable box, computer, and other idle appliances cost about $200 a year to power, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Unplug these devices and other electronics when not in use to eliminate “vampire drain” and reduce utility bills.
Forget about spending hundreds of dollars on a wedding cake. Ask skilled friends or family members to bake the cake(s) as a wedding present. Gussy up one small cake for presentation and keep simply decorated cakes out of sight to cut for guests.
Buy Abroad to Save.
Shopping while traveling abroad can yield savings. In Italy, look for leather. Electronics are cheap in Singapore. Antwerp is known for deals on diamonds. Another potential money saver, albeit with some risk, is traveling abroad for medical procedures.
When Paying More Pays Off.
Don’t go rock-bottom-cheap on these household items: skillets, knives, storage containers, furniture, and vacuums. Stepping up a bit in price is worthwhile to net goods that will last and save money in the long run.
For a way to see the world and also give back, consider a volunteer vacation. The experience can be personally rewarding and much less expensive than a resort.
Whole Foods Is Cheap?
Whole Foods does not always eat a whole paycheck. In side-by-side comparisons, Cheapism has found dozens of items that actually cost less at Whole Foods than at stores such as Safeway, ShopRite, and even Trader Joe’s, although conventional stores and warehouse clubs are getting more competitive when it comes to organic and specialty foods.
Chrysanthemums, carnations, and alstroemerias (Peruvian lilies) cost less than roses and last longer. No matter what type of flowers you want to send, call a local florist near the recipient instead of ordering online. The florist may offer savings or prepare a better bouquet for the same price.
Electric bikes and scooters offer an inexpensive and relatively sweat-free alternative to a car for consumers eager to cut transportation costs.
Some weight-loss methods are too good to be true. Avoid paying for creams, seven-minute workouts, shakes, pills, and fad diets that do not address the needs of the body as a whole. Choose a plan that emphasizes healthy eating and exercise over a quick fix. The instilled habits are priceless in the long run.
Priceline, Hotwire, and other travel sites aren’t the only ones that let consumers name the price they want to pay. Score Big does the same for event tickets. Greentoe offers photography equipment, home theater items, appliances, and more. No guarantees that it will be easy to close the deal.
Kids Eat Free.
At least five days of the week (i.e., generally not Friday and Saturday) there’s a restaurant chain that lets kids eat for free. The purchase of an adult entree is usually required.
Private Student Loans.
Consider refinancing private student loans if interest rates have dropped or your financial situation has improved since the loans were first taken out. Lenders look beyond credit scores to the borrower’s income, job, education level, degree, and other financial obligations.
Federal Student Loans.
Refinancing federal student loans can also lead to lower interest rates, which can save borrowers money. Think long and hard first, though. After refinancing with a private lender, borrowers are not eligible for federal payment plans based on income or forgiveness programs.
The new myRA retirement account requires no fee and no minimum balance, and the federal government guarantees the principal plus interest in the account. This is a simple, risk-free way to start saving for retirement. Add as little as $1 at a time.
There are many ways to get discounts on auto insurance policies. Take a defensive driving class, install an anti-theft device, or use the same insurance company for several types of insurance.
Teen drivers often must pay more for auto insurance, but some providers offer discounts to teens who maintain good grades or take driving courses or online classes.
Renters may benefit from an insurance policy even if they don’t have many possessions. Renters insurance often covers theft of personal property, even if it occurs outside the home, and liability protection in the event someone is injured and sues. Installing smoke detectors, buying a fire extinguisher, or paying the premiums for a full year all at once usually generates a discount.
A sure way to lower health insurance premiums is to quit smoking. Renters and homeowners policies also often cost less for non-smokers.
Many insurance policies have a deductible (the amount the policyholder must pay before the insurance company starts to cover costs). Raising the deductible is one way to decrease premiums.
When the cost to replace possessions or fix a vehicle is less than an insurance deductible, it may make sense to refrain from making a claim. The policyholder has to pay for the damages out-of-pocket either way, and reporting the incident may result in higher premiums.
Car Resale Value.
Most people know a new car’s value drops as soon as it’s driven off the lot. Help maintain the value by taking the car in for regular checkups, waxing the exterior, and avoiding eating, drinking, or smoking in the vehicle.
Standing desks can encourage workers to be less sedentary and offer a nice change from sitting in front of a computer all day. Retail prices can reach into the thousands, but there are many cheaper alternatives, including a wall-mounted shelf or stack of books or boxes for raising the height of a laptop or monitor. Keep feet relaxed by standing on a folded yoga mat or anti-fatigue mat.
Some basic lifestyle changes can improve your health as you age. Work in 30 minutes of physical activity a day, get plenty of sleep, and try to minimize sugar intake.
Refinancing a mortgage can lead to more than $100,000 in savings. Shop around to get quotes from different lenders and consider different loan terms.
Last-Minute Tax Savings.
Get a tax deduction for the current year by contributing to an Individual Retirement Arrangement through April 15 of the coming year. The IRA contribution limit for 2015 is $5,500 ($6,500 for taxpayers 50 and older).
Red Carpet for Less.
Want the outfit you saw a celebrity wearing at a red carpet event? It may be possible to find a similar look for a lot less at a low-price apparel chain such as Forever 21 — or rent the very same look at a site such as Rent the Runway.
Save on a DIY bathroom remodel by keeping the basic layout the same and making other improvements. Install a new vanity countertop, paint the walls, put up a new mirror, and regrout the floor and other tile.
Small business owners who record the miles they drive for work can take a deduction of 57.5 cents a mile in 2015. Taxpayers who don’t own a business can deduct 14 cents a mile driven for charitable purposes, or to and from a volunteer event.
Track prices for products on a shopping list and pounce when the price drops. Sites such as PriceZombie, CamelCamelCamel, and The Tracktor monitor the price of goods at Amazon, Best Buy, and Newegg.
Before hiring a contractor, figure out if someone with specialized training is needed and get recommendations from friends and family. Set a budget and ask contractors for an itemized task and quote list. To be safe, budget for cost overruns up to 20 percent of the initial quote.
Preparing a home for potential buyers or visiting relatives doesn’t have to involve expensive improvements. Clear the driveway and walkways, clean the windows to let in natural light, and decorate the front with all-season plants.
For long-haul moves, the cost of shipping may be less than renting a truck, but that’s often the case only for people without large furniture. Before packing up and moving, compare quotes from local moving companies with the cost of shipping.
Best Places for Entrepreneurs.
People interested in starting a business and willing to relocate might consider the Lone Star State. After comparing per capita income, unemployment rates, cost of living, and other factors, Cheapism identified Houston, Austin, and Dallas as best for entrepreneurs. Outside Texas, Denver and Columbus, Ohio, are good options.
Lululemon and Athleta may be in vogue, but frugal fitness buffs can turn to plenty of places for deals on workout clothes. Check out websites such as The Clymb, Mod Deals, and Steep and Cheap, or inexpensive retailers such as Old Navy.
A few simple kitchen hacks can save money and time. To cite just a few: Wrap banana stems in plastic to keep them fresh longer (keep plastic wrap chilled to make it easier to separate and tear) and put marshmallows in brown sugar to keep them soft.
When taking a trip or traveling to a new state, look for inexpensive souvenirs that represent the area. Macadamia nuts or Kona coffee from Hawaii, saltwater taffy from the New Jersey shore, or an album from one of Nashville’s well-known record shops are popular examples.
Even infrequent travelers can save money by enrolling in hotel loyalty programs. Basic membership comes with free Wi-Fi, late checkout, and complimentary newspapers at some chains.
Going to the Movies.
Save money on movie outings by buying tickets in bulk at warehouse clubs, attending matinees, going on discount days, and avoiding the overpriced snack bar.
Credit unions are nonprofits cooperatively owned by members (people with an account at the credit union). They offer many of the same services as banks but pass on savings and profits to members. Fees and interest rates may be lower on credit cards and loans, and checking and savings accounts may pay higher interest compared with other financial services firms.
Share and Save.
Families, friends, and neighbors can share all sorts of things to save money. Power tools, lawn mowers, and luggage are just the start. Look for ongoing savings by sharing a cellphone plan or streaming video subscription.
Small debts can have a large effect on a credit score if they go unpaid and get passed on to a collections agency. Newer credit scoring models ignore debts of less than $100, but not all lenders use the latest models. Even if there is no impact on your score, missed payments appear on credit reports for seven years.
Many fast food and fast casual restaurants offer unlimited refills. Chains with this perk include Taco Bell, Chipotle, Five Guys, Olive Garden, McDonald’s, and In-N-Out.
Some car repairs, such as an oil change or brake pad replacement, are relatively easy DIY chores. Other fixes generally require a trained mechanic and could be costly. If a problem arises after the warranty has expired, it may be possible to save money by contacting the manufacturer for “goodwill assistance.”
Eating Out Less.
Keep food costs down by buying in bulk, using a slow cooker, eating at home, and saving leftovers for another meal. Keep small snacks in the car or at work to avoid the urge to buy food at restaurants.
To keep from overspending at the grocery store, eat before going shopping, make a list, and only use a set amount of cash to buy food. Splurge once in a while to keep things interesting.
It may seem unconventional, but many sound sleepers advocate buying a mattress online. Shops such as Casper, Leespa, Tuft and Needle, and Yoga Bed sell high-quality foam mattresses starting at $500. Search for discounts and coupon codes for further savings. There are also inexpensive options on Amazon, but they don’t offer the same warranties or trial period.
Improving Gas Mileage.
Start tracking your vehicle’s gas mileage and then focus on ways to improve it. Some simple tips include maintaining proper tire pressure, checking the tire alignment, and accelerating slowly.
Costco doesn’t require a membership for every purchase. Anyone can eat at the food court or get a flu shot. In some states, nonmembers can buy alcohol, as well.
Shop around before choosing a vet to save money on pet care. Look for discount packages and focus on preventive care. Regular exercise and a proper diet of high-quality food are keys to keeping pets healthy.
Students are often on a shoestring budget, but there are plenty of savings opportunities. Some clothing stores, including Urban Outfitters, Madewell, and Topshop, offer a 15 percent student discount. Restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, gyms, and technology companies also offer discounts for students.
Check monthly bills and think twice about memberships that aren’t used often. Whether it’s a subscription box with products that aren’t to your liking or an infrequently visited gym, if the service isn’t providing value, stop paying for it.
Making Extra Money.
Cutting back gets you only so far, and there are lots of ways make money on the side. Become a mystery shopper, tutor, organize or clean homes, babysit, or drive people using a ride-share app.