There’s a style of play in baseball known as ‘little ball’ or ‘small ball.’ What it boils down to is rather than always swinging for the bleachers just doing little things to move runners around the bases. Bunt, steal, sacrifice fly, take any small advantage you can get and move men slowly around the bases to score. Its not as dramatic a style of play as banging out home runs, but it can get the job done.
The same thing applies to your household finances. Clipping coupons may not have the same drama or thumping impact as a big raise at work, or winning the lottery, but the little things are easy to do and they add up.
The simplest thing you can do, if you have the self-control to handle a credit card, is to get a cash back card. There are a variety of different kinds, but they all have certain things in common. They give you 3% cash back on some of your purchases, and 1% on everything else. I have a few different cards, each offering a 3% kickback in different categories, to maximize the return. A 3% kickback on a five-buck meal at Wendy’s doesn’t amount to much, but 3% on a new laptop is something you can notice. And 3% on what we spend keeping two cars gassed up is definitely worthwhile.
Sometimes you can get a combo deal. Our local grocery store sells gas too and gives you a discount of ten cents per gallon for every $100 you spend there on groceries. I do my grocery shopping there, with a card that gives me a 3% kickback on purchases at grocery stores. Then I buy the — discounted — gas with the same card, which also gives 3% back on gas purchases.
It doesn’t take any particular effort at all to do. Just a few minutes to fill out a credit card application, or on the phone with customer service getting an account changed to a different type of card, and then it’s just a matter of pulling the right card out of your wallet. The return on that small investment is several hundred dollars a year.
Of course, if you’re going to try that, you have to pay off your credit card every month, or the interest charges will eat up any savings.
A lot of money can be saved simply by paying attention. People will quite commonly negotiate hard on big purchases, like cars and houses, but not pay much attention to the little things. (Men are notoriously bad about this.) For example, an item you buy every week on your regular grocery store expedition may cost twice as much at store A as it does at Store B. But you buy it at store A because most of the other stuff you buy is as cheap or cheaper there. Now, sometimes that’s just fine. There’s no sense spending two bucks in gas to drive to another store and save a buck on a package of hot dogs.
But something like that should raise a flag, tell you to look more closely at your purchasing patterns. You don’t want to set up some overly complicated plan, with so many different items at different stores that you can’t keep track of it. Keep it simple; compare two stores that carry the same items and which are both convenient to you. Look at the stuff you purchase regularly, and see which are significantly cheaper at which store.
You’ll probably end up with just a handful of items that are much cheaper at one store than the other. Keep doing your regular shopping at your usual store, but don’t buy those items there. (Barring emergencies, of course, or a killer sale.) Instead, every couple of weeks or so, depending on the stuff you’re buying, make a second trip to the other store and stock up on those cheaper items.
This little-money trick might take you ten or fifteen minutes of thought, to determine what stuff is noticeably cheaper at which store, but after that, it doesn’t take much effort at all. Just driving a few blocks every couple weeks.
Example. We do most of our grocery shopping at Kroger’s, the above-mentioned store with the gas kickback, and which also happens to be right around the corner. But a few things (most notably hot dogs — and with a hungry two-year old in the house we go through a lot of hot dogs) are a LOT cheaper at Wal-Mart. (Contrary to expectations, most of Kroger’s prices are very close, and cheaper in many cases.) So every now and then we drive the extra few blocks to Wal-Mart and stock up.
Stocking up on staple items is another good trick. We try to buy groceries that are on sale whenever possible, and buy enough of them to last until the next sale. I’d much rather buy three or four two-liters of Coke one week at $.89 a bottle and not buy any again for a month than buy one two-liter at $.89, then two or three at $1.59. That seventy-cent savings may not sound like much, but multiply by each item you can do it on, and do it for a year, and it adds up. It’s not unusual for us to have our grocery bill discounted by 30-40% by sales. Every week. And all it takes is buying more of the stuff on sale that you know you’re going to use (and which will keep) and sticking it on a shelf.
(Don’t get carried away with this. My grandfather used to buy cans of coffee whenever it was on sale, much to my grandmother’s disgust, even though they had a whole cabinet full of the stuff already. Their supply of coffee, in fact, outlasted both of them. I have no idea what eventually happened to it all.)
Then there are coupons.
Oh, who am I kidding. You’re not going to clip coupons. I don’t clip coupons. My wife, fortunately, does clip coupons. Sometimes she even remembers to use them before they expire.
People who are really dedicated can save huge amounts of money with coupons. For most of us it is, let’s be honest, too much trouble.
Once you start looking for them, and get in the mindset, you should see a lot of ways to save a few buck here and there. Down here in the desolate wasteland of north Texas, for example, keeping your house cool is a much bigger expense (and problem) than heating it. Once of the best investments I have made was a couple of years ago, when I spent a few hundred dollars to put dark solar screens on the south- and west-facing windows upstairs. That not only cut our electric bill by a significant fraction (about 25%), but it keeps the house much cooler and more comfortable when the temperatures outside exceed the melting point of lead.
Take a few minutes to look over your expenses and see if there are any ways you can move a few dollars here and there. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s sitting there waiting for you to find it and pick it up. You’re not just going to leave it there, are you?