5 Strategies for Saving Year-Round

I'd been waiting for a biggish freelance check for a while and making lists of things my family needed when the money came it. So when I got it, I had some shopping to do: new organic bath towels; a new mattress and (very important given my kids' ages and self control) a top-notch protective mattress cover; a birthday-boy bike for my youngest son; and a service provider to refinish my tub.

All this purchasing makes me queasy after months of frugality, so I had to think long and hard about spending strategies to make the most of my money and the least of my ticket shock.

So when I saw this piece from CNNMoney on ways to save on everyday expenses, I browsed through and got excited. Although none of the tips was quite right for my personal situation, a few great strategies emerged from the reader stories -- strategies that you, too, can apply to spending on big ticket items, run-of-the-mill bills and the costs of every day life.1. Ask for a deal.

When you're hiring a service provider or buying a large-ticket consumables, there's often room to negotiate the price. You think you can't haggle with Best Buy or Costco? Maybe not. But you'd be surprised how many mid-sized companies can find a better price for you -- and maybe Best Buy has a floor model or discontinued version of the item you're looking for.

One CNNMoney reader got a discount on a flat screen TV, as well as some free cables, just by asking. When I bought my son's birthday bike this weekend, I wanted a model that wasn't on the floor and wasn't in inventory. The bike store owners talked amongst themselves, rummaged through the basement, and brought up an old model of the exact bike I had in mind, hidden from inventory -- and with last season's much cheaper price. They upheld the price (which I felt badly about at first -- they're friends of mine -- but the owner said, "It's a price based on what we paid for it, after all!") and I had a coupon. Score!

Speaking of coupons, sometimes "asking for a deal" can mean a pre-negotiated percentage off for members of a group. For instance, many eco-friendly stores in my city have a 5%-off price for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance; others give me 10% off if I've come by bike. IKEA offers $10 off delivery if you show your public transportation ticket from that day. Another local organization, modeled after similar ones nationwide, gives 5% or 10% off at many businesses for co-op members. Most museums, ballets and theatre groups give reciprocal discounts for other cultural institutions' membership holders (like 10% off play tickets for supporters of the public radio station or art museum). Military families get a huge variety of discounts -- 5% off Apple computers, for one, and a much better discount for protection plans. Ask -- and be patient -- and list all your memberships and affiliations! When you're spending $500 or $1,000, 5% is a lot, and 10% is huge.

2. Go direct.

One CNNMoney reader offered up the suggestion to go straight to the provider -- a family needing to rent their home -- for vacations instead of checking with hotels or rental agencies. Skip the middle man and save! The same concept could be used for buying a home (though this can be tricky): "For Sale by Owner" can mean a savings of up to 6% off the sale price, a huge deal, since you won't have to pay the real estate agent commission.

When I was searching the web for deals on a certain organic towel I'd fallen in love with, I found the company's own web site, where the price for each item was fifty cents to a dollar less than anywhere else. (I ended up finding an even better deal when I found the towels at a local store. I saved by skipping the shipping cost, and the store was one that offered a discount to members of my favorite grocery co-op.)

Any item for which a substantial markup is charged or any business that has a high overhead (say, a boutique in a very fancy retail strip or expensive mall) could be an opportunity to go direct. I once got a fantastic deal on locally brewed beer when I walked into the brewpub during an event I was attending. Some crafty types sell their wares through boutiques but also through an Etsy or eBay store where prices might be lower. Or, if you're looking for a service or product that a small artisan might provide -- say, a piece of furniture made from reclaimed wood or an acupuncturist -- try advertising on craigslist or looking for such things for sale in the classifieds.

3. Do it yourself.

(With help, if required.) I recently renovated my bathroom with a lot of help from my retired-general-contractor dad. I tackled a few projects that would have cost significantly more had I gone through a service provider -- even a small one. The biggest project was tiling the floor and most of the walls. My brother-in-law has lots of experience working for contractors installing tile, so I paid him $15 an hour to come for a whole day and work on the floor, teaching me at every step. I picked out a variety of tiles from the outlet section of a local tile maker ($1 per pound instead of $30 a square foot), and I checked out a tile saw from the local tool library. When it came to the walls, I took a deep breath (and a lot of time) and did it myself. I saved way more than what I consider my opportunity cost -- what I would have made had I spent the time writing instead of tiling -- and got uncountable benefits of pride and zen good feelings every time I go into the room. Which is a lot, thanks to my previously mentioned young boys.

A reader from CNNMoney reports having done landscaping work on their own, a great way to save money and get the benefits of spending time outdoors, exercising and learning about botanical and biological things. I can't count the number of times I've walked or biked past a parent instructing several children in digging, planting, weeding or mowing -- a nice way to teach your children responsibility and useful skills while you save some moola. Other projects that lend themselves nicely to DIY include mending and altering clothes; making curtains and slip covers; painting rooms or even your whole house; refinishing furniture; and baking cakes for birthday celebrations. These all take moderate skills, but they're easily acquired if you put your mind to it.

4. Argue.

My favorite example from CNNMoney readers is the man who officially appealed a big bump in real estate taxes by showing comparable homes from his ZIP code and winning! That's worth your time, for sure -- it will pay dividends for years to come. (My next-door neighbor, whose taxes have for some reason been assessed at nearly double mine, should try this.)

Another great way to save money by arguing, one I learned when I was a young professional, is contesting tickets. Any ticket or official penalty assessment -- from a parking ticket to a speeding ticket to jaywalking or nuisance fine -- can usually be contested just by going to court. As a 20-something investment banker, most of my friends were lawyers or consultants or bankers, used to working the system and negotiating to get their way. Few of us ever paid full price for a ticket; it was common knowledge that simply showing up and arguing would reduce a speeding ticket by at least half. My boyfriend's law school buddy was legendary for coming up with creative reasons to expunge the tickets from the record altogether -- asking if the radar gun had been properly tested, maybe, or showing up when the arresting officer didn't and scoring a loophole victory.

Arguing is also fantastic when dealing with collections agents. It's often possible to reduce a debt by 25% to 60% simply by sticking to your guns.

A few tips when you're arguing: Always be courteous (never question the skill or good intentions of the decision maker, for instance, and never swear); don't whine; don't give away your true ability to pay (if you can afford $200 and say so, you'll spend $220 every time); be persistent (the one who lasts longest wins); and sometimes, tears work.

5. Go for the package deal.

This strategy is a cohort to the "ask for it" method, but it goes one step beyond. The opportunities for packaging savings may be all around your financial life already. Your insurance company will give you a discount, for instance, if you use them for both auto and home insurance, and your cable company has probably tried to sell you both internet and phone service. Buy a bike at the right time, and you might also get a free helmet; buy a car new from a dealership, and they'll build a bunch of service features into the price.

People can be packaged as well as goods and services. This is the basis of "friends and family" plans for cell phones, and you can ask for this all over the place. Are you and your brother going to both need a full set of tires? Let the tire place know, and see if you can get a discount for volume. How about your dentist or optometrist? Maybe they'll test all your kids and you, too, for the price of just your kids.

Any time you're shopping for a large item that requires accessories, from cars and bikes to mattresses, you can ask for free or cheap upgrades. Maybe, if you offer to give a customer endorsement they can post on their web site, that tub refinishing place will redo your kitchen sink free of charge. Maybe the wedding dress store will throw in a free veil or headpiece. Maybe the purchase of a coffee maker can earn you free beans, or a reusable coffee cup will earn you a free drink. These cheap or free add-ons are everywhere and will save you money on things you were already planning to buy.

The posted price isn't always the one you have to pay, and with a little work and some clever negotiating, you can start saving money every day.
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