The number of websites promising to help families save money has grown almost as fast as the number of Americans who need to trim their budgets. Unfortunately, not all of those websites deliver on their promise. Many of the Save!Save!Save! websites actually have something to sell. Some even charge for things like credit reports that families can get free from other sources. Other websites make you pay in time, forcing visitors to navigate through one ad-filled screen after another searching for nuggets of helpful information.
Parents, of course, need to save time as well as money. The ten tips that follow are designed to give you maximum control over the money you have. Zero in on the places where your budget needs help, and you’ll find relevant websites that are free, useful and easy to use.
1. Make a Budget. Lots of websites help you track your money. At mint.com, for example, you can enter passwords for bank accounts as well as credit cards, making it possible for the site to categorize and track everything you spend. If that seems like overkill, check out the paper and pencil budget forms available at frugalliving.about.com, a website that has tons of tips about living well with less.
2. Look for structural savings. So-called “fixed” expenses aren’t nearly as fixed as they used to be. At lowermybills.com and bankrate.com, you can compare rates for utilities, credit card companies and even mortgage lenders. Other sites are more specialized. Use saveonphone.com to untangle the complicated packages offered by cellphone companies or billshrink.com to compare credit card deals.
3. Control discretionary spending. If you’re serious about sticking to a budget, don’t even visit sites like overstock.com and woot.com. Even though the deals may be terrific, you’ll still be tempted to spend money on things you may not need simply because the price is right. The same rule applies to so-called “deal” sites where “Only 2 Left At this Price!” tags may trigger impulsive spending.
4. Do your homework. Before making any purchase over $25, check a price comparison site like pricegrabber.com to find out what the item “should” cost. If you’re trying to save money on an auction site like Ebay, visit honesty.com first so you’ll recognize bargains when you see them.
5. Be smart when you spend online. If the going price for something is beyond your budget, put what you’re willing to pay into pricespider.com and let their bots e-mail you when they find a deal on what you want. Then look for coupons at coupon sites like retailmenot.com or couponmountain.com. Avoid shipping charges with the codes at freeshipping.org. And register your purchase on priceprotectr.com. They’ll send you an e-mail if they spot the product at a lower price and many retailers will refund the difference.
6. Eat for less. Cutting your food budget means spending less on the food you buy and choosing recipes that get maximum nutrition per dollar. Like many other grocery sites, mygrocerydeals.com lists the specials at local stores after you’ve registered and provided your zip code. This site also lets you search for online coupons, check nutritional information and even search by item so that, for instance, you’ll know who has the best deal on peanut butter this week. For frugal recipes, try cheapcooking.com, a website that doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles–just hearty family friendly recipes that don’t call for costly ingredients.
7. Save on energy. Energy prices may fluctuate but, the pay-off strategy in the long-term is to cut consumption. To make your home more efficient, take the time to work through the calculations at The Home Energy Saver (http://hes.lbl.gov/). To be sure you are getting the best price on gasoline, visit the price data map at Fueleconomy.gov (http://tinyurl.com/4fnot).
8. Indulge in free stuff. If you were dependent on retail therapy to improve your mood, it’s time to make the switch to freebie hunting. At sites like The Absurdly Cool Freebie Finder (www.absurdlycool.com) and Hey It’s Free (www.heyitsfree.com), you’ll find all kinds of things you never knew you wanted. Of course, nothing is truly free. In some cases, there will be shipping charges. In others, you’ll give up contact information. Either way, you’ll pay less for your consumer high.
9. Bypass cash. The Internet has made it much easier to swap things you don’t want for things you need. Freecycle.org lets members post both “Have” and “Want” listings. Dignswap.com sets up exchanges between women who have things they don’t wear in their closets. At Swaptree.com, registered users can trade books, videos, games and other items.
10. Learn tips and tricks. Saving money doesn’t have to be a grim business. You can, for example, recruit the kids to search for coupons and give them a percentage of what they help you save. Or you can visit thriftyfun.com, a lively site filled with craft projects that can be made from odds and ends most people already have on hand. Or you can get the e-mail newsletter from stretcher.com, a website that’s been collecting ideas about getting the most from every dollar since 1996. Join frugalvillage.net, a community where moms cheerfully share their ideas about thrifty family management.
Although no website can tell you how much you “should” be saving, visiting any of these thrifty websites will provide encouragement and even inspiration. And, you’ll know you’re not the only family trying to make sense of the new economic landscape by doing more with less.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing the Growing Up Online column for ten year. She is also the author of Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart. Available at Amazon and Cooperative Wisdom.org. @ Copyright, 2016, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved