15 Tips to Help You Make the Most of Your Budget

Are you finding that at the end of the month, there is no money left over to save, much less enjoy? It might be time to get creative, find hidden savings, and dial back some household expenses so you can make your budget work for you. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Food and Clothing Purchases

Plan Your Groceries Weekly

Meal Planning: Who has the time for that? I know how it is when both spouses are working 9-5, arriving home with the kids and immediately rushing off to make dinner. Then comes the homework, the laundry, and other household chores and finally it’s off to bed to repeat the routine tomorrow. However, if you can set aside a mere 20 minutes, I prefer on the weekend, to decide what meals you want to eat in the coming week, you’ll know exactly what to get at the grocery store. You’ll be able to not only reduce waste from purchases you didn’t need to make in the first place, but you’ll also be able to plan for ingredients to overlap.

Deliciously Seasoned Rotisserie ChickenOne of my favorite examples of this concept is planning to eat rotisserie chicken. It feeds my family of four multiple times. On the first night we eat it, as is, accompanied by some sides. Another night we remove the remaining meat and set some aside while using half to roll into baked taquitos (Check out this recipe and more on Pinterest). Towards the end of the week, we might incorporate the rest into a pasta salad, chicken salad sandwiches for lunches, or a hearty homemade soup. Choosing a versatile ingredient like chicken means nearly endless possibilities.

Lunches and snacks should also be planned for when creating your grocery list. I prefer my $2.50 “healthy” freezer meals that save me 4-6 dollars a day (that’s $1,000 a year!), but I know that doesn’t fit everyone’s lifestyle. A cleaner lunch such as a whole grain veggie wrap or spinach salad can still save you dollars a day when the ingredients are bought ahead of time and made at home. I also opt to bring in boxes of snacks and coffee fixings to keep stored in my desk (yes, I’m a hoarder). It staves off the afternoon munchies and my brought-from-home granola bar and break room iced caramel hot chocolate cost half of what they do as when they come from the vending machine or coffee shop.

Meal and grocery planning can be a bit overwhelming- this I know. Luckily, as for everything else, there are some incredible apps to take the hassle out of the equation. If you think an app might work for you, try Pepperplate. It allows you to pin recipes from the web or upload your own. Once you’ve selected the recipes you want to make for the week, the app will pull the ingredients into a comprehensive shopping list—just what I needed!

Grow a Garden

Bowl of Home Grown SpinachGardening takes a bit of time and science but offers another opportunity to save money. Also, nothing matches the convenience of walking no further than your yard to grab a missing meal ingredient. Just this week, I relished in eating some home-grown spinach—a reward enough. Now consider the dinner party bragging rights for a home-grown offering. Sold yet? If this option is feasible, The Penny Hoarder offers some great information on which plants will save you the most and how best to grow them.

Take Advantage of Shopping Savings

Each time you step into a store is an opportunity to overspend—that’s the scary truth (for a penny pincher like myself). So, here are some tips to help you save money every time you shop.

Couponing
Now, I’ve seen those couponing shows and I truly believe extreme couponing can be done, but for many of us, the time it takes to achieve that level of success is an unrealistic investment. I do, however, still embrace the use of coupons even as minuscule a savings they sometimes offer. They are like your investment account, building, or in this case, saving you money little by little. It does add up. Let’s say for instance that I can save $1 on a package of Annie’s organic macaroni (because I happen to have that coupon–or four–at home at the moment). I may buy a package of macaroni once a week. Meaning that’s 50 dollars of savings a year on my macaroni alone. Imagine if I can find similar coupons for other products I buy weekly. That’s hundreds of dollars I can re-allocate to my savings account or even more tempting, the family vacation fund.

Shop Sales and Clearance
Shop sales— I’m sure you’re saying, “duh,” but let me make some points clear. First, shopping sales actually does more damage than good if you don’t have a real need for the items you purchase—even on sale. So, only shop sales if you would get a better price on something you were looking to buy anyways. Second, if you find an unmatchable sale on an item that you buy regularly and it stores well, consider buying more now to have on hand later on. Your grocery bill will be higher on this occasion, but save you money overall.
Keep in mind groceries aren’t the only thing you can stock up on. Sales and clearance events are a great way to score on kids’ clothes as well. You may look at seasonal clearance and think, “I’m not going to buy shorts when we are headed into winter.” This is the perfect time to buy a size up at 70% off and save them for next year. If you observe fashion as closely as I do, you know trends actually last years. Also according to my six-year-old daughter’s school-time stories, a kid is much more likely to be scorned for being stinky than for wearing last season’s jeggings—just saying.

Compare Value
Not everyone stops to consider the varying value of similar products on the shelf. If I left things up to my husband, he would make a praiseworthy attempt at selecting the box of fruit snacks with the smallest price tag, but that doesn’t always mean they are the best value. Most shelf price tags will tell you the price per measurement in weight or quantity. I often look to these when buying something like paper towels. I can get 6 rolls for 6 dollars ($1 each) or I can get the better value by buying 8 rolls for $7.25 (91 cents each). The latter is a better price per unit.

Entertainment

Grandma Reading to Children

Visit Your Local Library

I am a huge evangelist for the library. Growing up my library’s bag of tricks was weekly story time and the summer reading program which let me choose a plastic prize or a gift certificate for a kids’ meal every 5 or so books I read. They did the best they could. If you haven’t been to the library since you were a child, it is well worth checking out now. As you know library cards are free and allow you the free rental of library materials. This used to include books, magazines, CDs, and Videos on VHS. Now, libraries in my city have been known to rent movies on Blu-Ray (even newly released), board games, puzzles, cake pans, leap pads and game cartridges, looms, glue guns with glue refills, and American dolls. What part of this doesn’t sound wonderful and oh so budget friendly?

Playing a board gameAdditionally, the library offers youth programs and activities for every day of the week including free sessions in which kids can make crafts, snacks, science projects, and compete in video or board game competitions. The library is truly a parent’s and your wallet’s best friend.

Oh, and remember that summer reading program I mentioned before? I help my daughter participate in it every year now and we reap 2-3 free meals or treats every visit along with gift certificates for admission to baseball and hockey games and the annual rodeo as well as multiple entrances into the state park. By the end of the summer, the savings have really added up. Be sure and sign your child up this year.

Pay Attention to the Seasonal Changes in Pricing

Recently, my babysitter set out to take my kids to the zoo. The plans changed as it began sprinkling mid-day. It just so happened that as we looked at zoo prices we realized that this week (now last week) the prices transitioned from spring or pre-season prices to summer or in-season prices, about a 30% increase—ouch! Now you and I know money can be saved by observing when prices change and attending your favorite attractions before prices go up. If you have traditionally bought season passes to the zoo, Water Park, ski lifts, etc., it might not be a bad idea to watch for pre-season sales through the company itself or a local grocery store or bank.

Service activities

Providing service to others has always been a good (usually free) way to spend your time. In the past few years, foundations and charities have taken to social media and brought to the surface all the many opportunities to serve within your community. The next time you have bored kids on your hands or are looking for something meaningful to do, research a way you can serve. You’ll save money by passing on other costly activities and have a chance to refresh your perspective and experience something new.

Pop for a State Park Pass

Hikers in Bryce Canyon National ParkIf you love the outdoors, making the effort to get outside can help you make memories, be a part of your weekly de-stress, and save you money. Many states now offer the option of adding a state park annual entrance pass to your vehicle’s registration renewal. This usually makes up for its cost after only a few visits. Each time you visit after this, you are saving money.

Other Household Expenses

Join a Social Media Group

While joining a Facebook group can offer you a forum for ideas or support for weight loss, you might find savings here, too. A community or educational group can alert you to free or low-cost community markets, fairs, workshops, sales, and events. Mom or kid-related groups might give you access to free second-hand furniture, clothes, or toys, and outings or group deals around town.

Combined Shipping and In-store Pick Up

Four years ago, I moved away from the majority of my friends and family. This has resulted in a lot of back and forth shipping of holiday and birthday presents. Since it’s easier to find hobby-specific products online, that’s where I’ve ended up doing most of my shopping. Online shopping can be a major pitfall because of shipping; the shipping it costs to arrive at your house and then turning the gift around and shipping it off to its recipient. If you’ve found yourself doing this on multiple occasions, it’d be wise to consider shipping directly to your loved one. If purchasing from a popular site such as Amazon, you’ll have the option of packaging multiple purchases together, adding gift wrap, and personalizing a gift tag. Cutting out the local post office middle man will save you hundreds.

Another money saver I use is in-store pick up. With more and more stores aligning their in-store merchandise with their online offerings, there are plenty of deals to snag, again, all while avoiding the cost of shipping. Instead of rummaging through shelves of clearance merchandise, I browsed through, found, and purchased two small pieces of home décor and then elected for in-store pickup. If I had the store send them to my home it would have cost me $6. Because I picked them up myself, it cost me $1.20. Ah, sweet savings! Can you tell now I am a little obsessed?

DIY Artwork

Colorful Textured Paint on a CanvasComing from a Visual Arts background, it might surprise you to hear me say that I think anyone can create art, but it’s the truth! The next time you want a new piece for your home, get online, browse the stores, absorb ideas, then go home and do it yourself. Find a blank canvas on sale (or a frame, wooden block or whatever fits your vision), pull out your on-hand paint, get resourceful with other materials, watch a YouTube, if you must, and then get started. The fun part of these projects is they are completely customizable. So, not only would you have saved a good $10 to $100 on one artwork alone, but you will have something that matches your home and fits your personality.

Thrifting, Consignment, and Store Points

Thrifting is another money saver I go crazy for. Shopping is so much more guilt-free at thrift store prices. Before you head to your go-to store for a piece of furniture or décor, an appliance, or a kids costume, check the thrift store first. Besides saving money, I get added satisfaction from knowing what I am purchasing is more unique than if I bought something off a shelf in Target. You don’t need to buy everything second-hand, but mixing and matching will make your budget go much further.

Rack of a variety of pantsIf you are lucky, your thrift store (like mine) will run a rewards program allowing you to accumulate points that you can put toward future purchases. On one occasion, I cashed out my points for a $25 gift card during a special summer sale they were having on kids’ clothes. I was able to buy 25 pieces of infant clothing using only my gift card and donate them to a family in need.

I, too admittedly, have added to my closet from the thrift store. I understand when you think of thrift store clothing, you think of grandma’s MooMoo from the 80s, but you’d be surprised what treasures you may find. If you feel like your local thrift store is lacking, try a thrift store in another, perhaps wealthier neighborhood. I’m happy to brag about the like-new Macy’s and Nordstrom brand clothing I bought for no more than $8 an item (Calvin Klein, you are all mine!).

Kids Consignment stores seem to be popping up left and right as well. They offer the opportunity to sell your kid’s lightly used old clothes and turn around and use the credit towards buying merchandise from the store. Do this right, and you’ll practically be exchanging the old for the new and who can argue with that?

Credit Card Rewards and Free Store Card Bonuses

Stack of Major Credit CardsMany credit cards available come with some type of consumer rewards program. When you use your credit wisely, paying off the outstanding balance every month, the rewards can cover the whole cost of air travel, earn cash back on almost every purchase, and translate to gift cards to a growing variety of stores. I excitedly received a Target gift card only yesterday as part of my credit card rewards and spent it all too quickly on sensible things like my son’s diapers and husband’s razors, I know, cruel. At least, they were diapers and razors I didn’t pay a cent for.

You have probably noticed that most of your favorite mall stores or treat shops now also come with a rewards program and when they are free, there’s no harm in signing up (although I always provide my “junk mail” email address for security purposes.) Again, the points from purchases add up until they afford you a free pair of pants or free 11th coffee. Don’t make excuses to shop more or buy more coffee than you would just to rack up points faster. Make only the purchases you would anyways, and enjoy some saved money when it is time to cash in.

Take Advantage of Work Benefits

Sure, you earn a paycheck from your job routinely, but is that the only monetary benefit it offers? When your enrollment for company benefits comes around, diligently read through the provided information. Signing up for medical, dental, vision, and life insurance through your company might be worth making a switch from your current provider. They may also include some insurance, you would otherwise choose not to afford, for free as part of a package. While you are following up with HR about these benefits, it wouldn’t hurt to ask if there are other, even seniority related, perks as well. Some companies offer things such as discounts to businesses in the same building and free or discounted memberships to gyms or wholesale clubs for staying with the company for five years or more.

Apply which tips fit your lifestyle and the ones that might comfortably change it, and you can start seeing savings today.

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