Day 1: Get a grip on your cash flow in 5 minutes flat
Getting started on any new program can be daunting, which is why we kicked off the week by signing up for the free online money-tracking service Mint.com (a Fool partner). With a few clicks, Mint offers an instant 90-day rundown of your cash flow, even if you're the worst record-keeper in the world.
For many, this was the first time they’d faced the black-and-white reality of their cash flow. (Deep. Breaths. Everyone.) There's no other way to identify "issues" than to tease them out and face them head-on. Since each person's spending situation is different, our sole task on this day was to identify three spending categories where we could make improvements.
Over on the Fiscal Fitness '09 discussion board, Fools got philosophical about the meaning and management of money. dbman5 shared his biggest overall money-saving tip, which is in the same spirit as the Mint.com suggestion:
The best thing I did [almost 30 years ago] to save money was to write down EVERYTHING I spent for 2 months. That means everything IN DETAIL - every item from the vending machine, every beer after work, every magazine, everything. I even broke down "groceries" into food/necessities then each non-essential was listed separately.
Yes, it took some time but it was only for 2 months.
When done, I reviewing and summarized the list. I was amazed at the unnecessary things I was buying and how much they were really costing me. Even before I summarized things it was becoming obvious where some of the issues were. That changed my spending habits permanently. (OK, they got a little lax over the years but I'm pretty sure I have more to spend now as a result of that one exercise.)
And for the technologically inclined, Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) App Store offers a variety of low-cost budgeting apps that you can add to your iPhone (there's even one from Mint.com).
Day 2: Leave the plastic at home and save $153
It's no wonder Americans treat credit cards with as little regard as gamblers use poker chips: With the pervasiveness of cash-alternative payment methods, we simply don't feel the pain of parting with our hard-earned money.
One of the easiest ways to curb spending is also one of the simplest: Pay with cash. Our Tuesday tip was to start practicing cash-consciousness -- actually being aware of how often you take out your wallet and how much cash you're spending. Studies show that paying with actual currency leads to less spending. If applied solely to food purchases (groceries and meals out), we calculated that the average household would save $153 a month simply by using paper, not plastic, at the checkout register.
On the discussion board, HaltCatchFire gave this money-tracking tip:
Our solution to this is to keep a Post-It in the front of the checkbook noting how much of the checkbook balance is set aside for the credit card bill. Our real "available" checkbook balance is the true balance minus the set-aside. As charges are made, they are subtracted out of the set-aside. When the credit card bill comes at the end of the month, I write a check for the amount using the set-aside money. As a result we very rarely pay finance charges anymore.
Another poster, toberead, shared a money-saving method that was echoed by several other posters -- cooking at home rather than eating out:
I realized early on that I could take my meager food budget and spend it on cheap, not very satisfying take-out or restaurant food, or I could use it to buy groceries, and I could eat very well.
Day 3: Stop overpaying Uncle Sam and add $200 a month to your take-home pay
It may seem strange to bad-mouth a tax refund. But, as we pointed out in Wednesday's tip, if you're one of the 75% of Americans who overpaid your taxes last year by an average of $2,400 (that's $200 a month), then you got robbed. Uncle Sam pays you no interest on your money when he sends it back. You can do much, much better.
We showed you how to adjust your withholdings on Form W-2 using the IRS calculator as your guide. Additionally, we pointed out ways to organize your tax-related paperwork so you don't overlook any deductions or credits.
On the boards, PSUEngineer suggested directing the extra cash into a separate savings account so you won't be tempted to spend it:
I would not just suggest that they adjust their W-4s to reduce their withholding. They should also take the extra money each month and have it put into a separate account. Put it out of reach before they spend it. It would help if their employer allowed direct deposits into more than one account. Now they earn interest on the account instead of Uncle Sam.
Other Fools pointed out some of the additional great resources on Fool.com for those who need a helping hand. For example, the Fool’s Tax Strategies board has a wealth of good information. And here's a Fool article on "safe harbor" to help you ensure that you don't leave yourself subject to a penalty for underpayment of taxes.
Day 4: Slash your cable bill by $10 to $50 a month
Cable providers like Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) and Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) and satellite providers like Dish Network (Nasdaq: DISH) love to create cable packages that have some consumers paying over $100 a month. Over the years, our own TMFKabellen (Ellen Bowman) has gotten her cable company to give her various breaks, such as new-customer pricing or ultra-high-speed service for the cost of the slower plan -- all of which she estimates have saved her anywhere from $10 to $50 a month on her bill. She shared her secret for never paying retail for TV on Thursday.
So yesterday he did phone the CS department, and told the rep “You have to help me … my wife has been on my [back] to drop DirecTV. What can you do for me?" The sympathic person on the other end of the line did agree to a discount of $15.00 per month, and a (free) new receiver as well. One of ours has been acting wonky the past week or so …
Success! $15 per month saved in a matter of minutes (not to mention a free receiver!)
Day 5: Dial down your debt and save $198
If you have credit card debt at double-digit interest rates (and you've got a decent record of on-time payments with your lender), it's time to talk your way into a rate cut and stop letting Visa (NYSE: V) and MasterCard (NYSE: MA) make your financial life a mess. We showed you where to shop for competitive offers and how to negotiate a better deal with your credit card company.
A few minutes of discomfort on the phone is well worth it: On a $6,000 balance at a 19% APR that you want to pay off in one year, negotiating a rate reduction to 12% will save you $198 in interest -- that comes to $16.50 a month.
$1,580.50 to go!
There you have it: A week's worth of tips -- most of which take less than 10 minutes to implement -- and nearly $420 of extra cash a month to add to your bottom line. Don't go out and spend it celebrating just yet. Remember, our goal over the course of this month is to save $2,000 to invest for your future. And for that, we're serving up three of our best investment ideas on Jan. 30.