Ben Franklin said it best: "A penny saved is a penny earned." And while being frugal has never been fun, it's one of the best investment strategies you can adopt in today's uncertain economy.
With relatively little effort, budget experts say, you can easily slice up to 25% off your basic living costs.
"You should put your time into learning how the supermarket works before you worry how the stock market works," says Amy Dacyczyn, publisher of the penny-pinchers' newsletter The Tightwad Gazette. "You need to save money first, before you invest it."
Cost cutting's best feature is its quick return on investment, Dacyczyn says. Comparison shopping for only a few hours yields instant savings. Paying off high-interest credit card balances and conserving energy can reward you each month at bill-paying time.
Below are some of the basic categories of living expenses, and some simple tips you can follow to reduce their cost.
* Consolidate debt. Credit card balances and other debts with high interest rates can be paid off with money from a lower-rate home-equity loan, reducing your finance charges and boosting your tax deductions. Just be sure you can pay off the new mortgage.
* Use a discount broker. Discount houses, such as Quick & Reilly and Charles Schwab, can cut the cost of brokerage commissions by more than 50%. In a similar vein, investing in a good, no-load mutual fund can eliminate many of the fees involved in load funds without sacrificing your return.
* Consider automatic dividend-reinvestment plans. Some corporations and mutual funds let you automatically invest dividends for additional shares, with few or no transaction fees.
* Buy low-maintenance cars. Compare cars based on their operating costs. Consumer magazines often rank vehicles on the frequency of repairs, tire changes and routine maintenance. Fuel economy is another important consideration, especially if you drive long distances to work or take frequent vacations.
* Buy at the right time. Experts say you can lower the sticker price by 10% or more if you buy a new car at the end of the month, when dealers rush to meet sales quotas. You can save hundreds or even thousands more if you buy a brand-new car just before next year's models are introduced.
* Keep your old car. Insurance, registration and other ownership costs usually drop as your car ages. Those savings can easily outweigh the higher repair costs.
HOUSING AND APPLIANCES
* Refinance your mortgage. With interest rates at their lowest levels in 25 years, this one's a no-brainer. Experts say it's time to consider refinancing if you can find a rate at least one or two percentage points lower than your current rate and you plan to stay in the house long enough to recover your up-front fees and closing costs--which usually takes between one and three years.
* Look for insurance discounts. Ask your insurer about discounts for being a new-home owner or a loyal customer, installing burglar alarms and smoke detectors or insuring your home and car with the same company. Some insurers offer discounts to older people, figuring they'll be around the house more and thus reduce the chances of a burglary.
* Fight City Hall. Home prices in many Southland communities have plunged more than 20% over the past few years, so you can slash hundreds of dollars off your annual property-tax bill by successfully challenging your annual assessment. Call your county tax assessor for details.
* Buy appliances in the off-season. Air-conditioning prices fall faster than the temperature in winter months. Ranges, freezers and refrigerators sell at deep discounts in January and June because of seasonal promotions, penny-pinchers say.
* Use fluorescent bulbs. Compact fluorescent bulbs use up to 75% less power than standard bulbs and last nine to 10 times longer, according to some studies. Using more natural lighting and automatic timers can trim even more off your monthly bill.
* Improve your home insulation. It's the best way to save on heating and cooling bills, and your local utility might help by offering to rebate some of your costs.
Also, open drapes to let sunshine heat your home during the winter. And don't forget to turn down your thermostat at night: It's much cheaper to use electric blankets in each of your bedrooms than to turn on your heater to keep the entire house warm.
* Be water-wise. Fix leaky faucets and toilets. Many home improvement stores offer inexpensive water-saving kits with flow constrictors and other items that can pay for themselves in just a few months.
FOOD AND DRUGS
* Use coupons--but wisely. Coupons often coax consumers into buying products they otherwise wouldn't. Use coupons only for the items you would normally buy.
* Keep a "price book." Write down the prices of items you frequently purchase in a small notebook and then compare them to the prices at other stores. Doing a little comparison shopping can pay off handsomely.