In just a few weeks, the holiday shopping season will hit us with all the subtlety of a tsunami: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, whatever holiday retailers can make out of a Tuesday, etc. If anyone fashions a sequel to “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” they’ll likely ditch the turkey, as the whole Peanuts gang gears up to spend their brains out.
If you’re trying be frugal and cut back on spending, the Christmas pressure to spend, spend, spend is the last thing you need!
The National Retail Federation forecasts spending of $602.1 billion in November and December, up about 4 percent from 2012. That’s roughly $10 billion a day for those two months, and if those numbers hold up, you can credit much of the frenzy to non-stop ads, insane promotions and the follow-the-herd mentality of American consumers. We see others blow the dough, and we figure that it’s our patriotic duty to keep up, even if our bank accounts and credit card balances suggest doing otherwise.
Then again, holiday spending involves a web of linked decisions: If you can save in other areas, you’ll have more cash on hand to get presents for your loved ones (and perhaps the one you love most of all, yourself). Here’s a reminder of some of the most straightforward and relatively painless ways to cut back on spending before the holidays.
1. Cancel unused memberships.
Many of us stand guilty of joining a gym, or signing up for a free trial offer for some monthly club that turns into a paid membership because we forget to cancel it. How about those credit-alert systems that credit card companies sign you up for, but that don’t do much of anything? Go through your credit card statements and bills, and see which paid services you can terminate painlessly. If you haven’t used it in six months or more, get up the guts to pull the plug. You can also apply this same logic, by the way, for dormant phone lines in your house, or subscriptions to unread magazines.
2. Use tools like RedLaser to comparison shop on the spot.
There’s no reason to impulse shop when you have an app like RedLaser on hand. It’s easily saved me thousands of dollars, especially in scenarios when “sale” is just a deceptive cover for an already-inflated price. Free for iPhone, Windows and Android, RedLaser allows you to scan a barcode, then check to see who actually has the lowest price, online or in stores. I pulled this out at a luggage sale and showed a salesman bragging about his “50 percent off” price that he was actually $75 above the cheapest price online. When he refused to price match, I walked out and ordered the bag from the online vendor.
3. Buy private label groceries.
Can you buy generic versions of cola, chips, and crackers? If you can, you’ll save big in the next month. According to Deloitte’s 2013 American Pantry Study, 88 percent of those surveyed found store brands that are “just as good as national brands.” And that adds up: The average savings on a $120 grocery bill is $30 a week. There’s nothing generic about that kind of margin.
4. Buy generics at the drugstore.
Now let’s take those newfound generic smarts of yours to the drugstore. Generic versions of ibuprofen, mouthwash and many vitamins, such as beta carotene and vitamin E, work every bit as effectively as the higher priced name brands. A few simple substitutions on your shopping list and you’ll have a prescription for big savings.
5. Behold, the power of lasagna (or any dish that provides a week of work lunches).
No one makes a kick-butt lasagna like my wife, Amy. If I ordered a single lasagna slice for lunch at a sit-down restaurant, I’m sure I’d pay at least $15, including drink and tip, while Amy can make an entire sausage lasagna for roughly half that much. The key to bringing lunch to work is to think in terms of foods you really enjoy, and coming up with dishes that yield portions you can dole out for a week. If you need variety, make a lasagna and a stew on a Sunday night. What’s more, the foods you make at home will likely have less of a waistline impact than those you eat out.
6. Eat out less, period.
You won’t do much good for your bottom line if you bring lunches to work, but eat out for dinner five nights a week. A grass-fed hamburger that goes for $10 at a local pub costs enough to buy about six of those patties for cooking at home. If you must eat out, consider the Entertainment Book for your city. It’ll have tons of junky coupons you’ll never use, but the good ones will pay for the book many times over. (Digital access to EB coupons now runs just $19.99, well below the $35 cost of the coupon book.) Another trick: Use up all your expired Groupons, which will still have their face value in tact, even if their discount no longer applies.
7. Ditch the fancy bottled water for tap water.
A case of Evian water (24 bottles, 11.2 oz.) goes for about $32 to $38. You can save a lot of money by replacing it with tap water. I can hear a lot of health nuts groaning out there, but take note: Tap water is often held to more stringent purity standards than many brands of bottled water (which, like Dasani, are often just tap water in disguise). Even if you convert your faucet with a PUR filter (which you can pick up for $26-$35 at hardware or convenience stores), you’ll save in the short-term and over the long haul. What’s more, you’ll help keep untold plastic bottles out of landfills.
8. If you can’t kick your coffee shop habit, switch your drink.
It seems every column ever written on cutting expenses begins with the tip about eliminating Starbucks or some other coffeeshop fix. I’ll spare you that cliched advice, or the fearsome thought of banishing caffeine. But consider this: Change your drink from a grande mocha or latte (about $4.50) to a double espresso (about half the price), which you can load up with milk, sugar and other fixings. Starbucks doesn’t officially encourage this kind of behavior, but the last time we checked, they weren’t throwing thrifty patrons out of their retail shops, either.
9. Download via Amazon, or buy used CDs.
While iTunes may have the coolest digital music shop around, it isn’t the cheapest: Amazon’s music download site undercuts iTunes 78 percent of the time, which means you can save a bundle on your favorite music. Another sound alternative: Buy used CDs from a record store, and bounce the songs over to your iPod or digital music player, saving in most cases about 50 percent off retail.
10. Get your cash for free.
There is no reason to ever pay an ATM fee. Ever. Aside from the fact that these fees are downright evil, your home bank or local pharmacy gives you cash back for free. Meanwhile, consider going cashless in every other way possible, whether it’s online bill payments (saving stamps), or using services such as PayPal to transfer cash to friends free of charge.
Of course, there’s another side to this equation: how to make more money for the holidays. You might want to start by raiding your closets to see if there’s anything you can sell on eBay, or via Craigslist. And if some of those items happen to be impulse purchases from holiday shopping seasons past, so much the better.
Do you have any other tips to cut back on spending and save money leading up to Black Friday?