Strectching your dollars


Tips on getting more for your money in tough economic times

June 22, 2008|By EILEEN AMBROSE

To save a buck, would you separate two-ply toilet paper to create two rolls out of one?

Would you duct-tape holes in your winter coat?

Scavenge in trash bins for unspoiled food to eat? "There are stores and restaurants that do throw out perfectly good food," says J.D. Roth, who blogs about personal finance at "But it's too extreme for me."

It seems everyone these days is trying to find ways to pinch pennies, although, granted, the examples above could be labeled extreme personal finance. Most of us are content with walking to work, raising the deductibles on our insurance and making our own coffee and skipping Starbucks. Still, with the economy unlikely to rebound any time soon, you might have exhausted your money- saving ideas.

If so, here are some tips you may be less familiar with from those who make a living being frugal:

*Share: Your mother always told you to do so. Now it can save you money.

Lisa Wise, executive director of the Center for a New American Dream in Takoma Park, says your community can get together to buy a big-ticket item, like a $3,000 riding lawn mower. Set up a community calendar online where neighbors can sign up to use the lawn mower.

Or, create a community tool shed where neighbors can share tools instead of everyone having to buy their own set, Wise says.

Roth, who blogs from Oregon, shares a cow with friends each year. The animal is butchered, and the ground beef and steaks are divided among four couples. Roth has paid $300 for 83 pounds of meat, or $3.61 a pound. The meat tastes better than store-bought, he says. One drawback: "We eat too much beef because of it."

Don't try this unless you have the refrigerator space.

*Groceries: "Grocery stores should be the last place to buy food, not the first," says Mary Hunt, founder of the Debt-Proof Living newsletter and Web site.

At Target, you can find bargains on dry goods, such as cereal, snacks and cake mixes, she says.

And she says milk is often cheaper at mini-markets at service stations and at Walgreens than grocery stores.

This tip met with some skepticism among my colleagues. But sure enough, a spot check in Baltimore last week found that Royal Farms charged $3.59 for a gallon of milk, 40 cents cheaper than the grocery store up the street. A gallon of skim milk at Walgreens was 20 cents less than at a nearby grocery store, but whole milk was a dime more at the drugstore.

Check in your area, since prices can vary by locale. A Wawa in Harford County, for example, sells milk for a similar price as the grocery store.

One way people are cutting grocery bills is by shopping at warehouse clubs and splitting the 60-roll pack of toilet paper or the case of ketchup with friends. But "buying in bulk is not always cheaper," Hunt says. "You have to be a savvy shopper," she says, and train yourself to look at the price per unit.

Blogger Roth says some of his readers keep a log of grocery store sales. Items tend to go on sale in cycles, he says, and by tracking these cycles consumers can time their purchases and coupons to get the biggest savings.

Of course, cooking meals at home saves money, but not if leftovers are getting shoved to the back of the refrigerator where they are forgotten, spoil and have to be thrown out.

That's what was happening at Jim Wang's house in Columbia. Wang, who publishes the blog Blueprint for Financial Prosperity at, came up with a solution: a leftovers calendar. He and his wife now write down the meals they make and when on a wall calendar, and cross leftovers off the list once eaten.

"At one glance, you can see what we have left as well as the priority they should be eaten in," he writes.

*Credit cards: Usually, when choosing a card you look at the interest rate, annual fee and grace period. But many cards carry all sorts of benefits that can save you money, Wang says.

For instance, a lot of card issuers lengthen the warranty on products purchased with their plastic. "It makes an extended warranty a waste of money," he says. Read the fine print on card terms.

Also, with fuel prices rising what better time to get a credit card that rewards you with cash when you buy gas, Hunt says. Shop for gas reward cards at

Any savings, though, will be lost in interest if you carry a balance month to month.

*Cars: By now everyone knows properly inflated tires save you money, but did you realize how much? The Department of Energy says properly inflated tires can improve your gas mileage by 3.3 percent. In savings, that comes out to about 13 cents a gallon based on the price of regular gas in Maryland last week. A tire-pressure gauge costs a few bucks and is well worth the investment, Hunt says.

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