Save hundreds with these small changes to your budget

Back in January 2009, the Chicago Tribune asked me to have my family finances revamped by a series of experts. The exercise proved challenging, to say the least: Baring your financial foibles to the world is like waving a red flag in front of every hater on the Internet, and then begging them to ridicule you for foolish purchases and the like.

But it also proved a boon that I wouldn't take back for anything. It allowed me to pick the brains of some very smart money people in my quest to get the Good Ship Carlozo righted and sailing toward financial security. One of those experts, Julie Murphy Casserly, a wealth and asset specialist. Casserly gave me the most to think about in terms of my wasteful habits. (Like: Eating out for lunch every day.)

Casserly thinks most families mired in the Great Recession -- the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression -- can save $500 or more a month by making a few simple adjustments. So if you're still struggling to manage and cut down your household budget, here's how you can do it -- making small changes with variable expenses such as groceries, food, clothing, shopping and entertainment:

1) Plan and Shop Smart for Food

Casserly says the key here is to think ahead: "Plan menus for the week around sales of fresh poultry, fish, meat, dairy, and produce, and make use of leftovers. By planning ahead, you are minimizing your trips to the grocery store and using only what you eat. Utilize online menu planning services like The Six O'Clock Scramble for help."

2) Find Cheaper Auto Insurance

According to Consumer Reports, many Americans have stayed with the same auto insurer for 15 years. Casserly notes: "Depending on your profile and where you live, you might be able to save hundreds of dollars a month by shopping around. Or, talk to your insurance company about increasing your deductible to lower your premium."

3) Keep a Close Eye on Shopping and Entertainment

Ever shop hungry? Now's the time to stop. "Decide what you want to spend before you go to the store and are emotionally sucked into paying more than you desire. In addition, go out with a predetermined amount of cash. When the cash is gone, stop spending. Prioritize your social calendar and limit some of the higher priced activities."

4) Pay Down Debt

Most consumers with credit card debt spend hundreds of dollars a month just in interest charges. That's no way to dig out of the hole, especially when interest rates on your cars are 20 percent or more. "Stop charging and do everything possible to pay more than the minimum balance owed each month. " allows you to transfer debt to a card with zero percent interest for 12 months. Consider the year a challenge to change bad spending habits for good, "Do your best to pay down your debt in this allotted time. Dig up cash from tax returns, work a part-time job, clean out your house and host a garage sale."
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