3 Easy Moves to Help You Keep Your Budget Balanced

Banking on your smart phone

Even in the face of a sluggish recovery, Americans are doing a better job of getting their budgets under control. The total amount of personal debt fell during the first quarter of 2013 to its lowest level since 2006, according to the latest figures from the New York Federal Reserve.

Our reductions in mortgage debt and credit-card use show that Americans are recognizing that controlling their debt level is a key element of living within their means. But it's also important to make the most of every dollar you spend.

To ensure your budget will get the job done, here are three key areas where you can hopefully reap some savings.

1. Make Bank Fees a Thing of the Past

Banks have mastered the art of nickeling and diming their customers: At this point, they charge fees for just about all of the basic services they provide. Whether it's a monthly charge just for having an account or the countless extra fees you'll pay for everything from checking-account overdrafts and late credit card payments to using out-of-network ATMs, you can watch a remarkable amount of money exit your account on a monthly basis for very little benefit.

Moreover, many banks are pushing those fees higher, with Bankrate reporting that checking-account fees rose to a record-high level. Just a single overdraft cost an average of more than $31 in 2012 according to Bankrate.

Still, it's not all that hard to avoid bank charges. One way is to simply stop making the mistakes that lead to extra fees. But if you're not sure you can avoid bad banking behavior, look instead for banks that aren't as harsh with their fees. For example, while free checking is getting rare among the largest institutions, smaller banks and credit unions often offer more attractive deals.

Take steps to minimize fees in all of your banking relationships, including mortgages, auto loans, and other loans and deposit accounts. Every dollar you save is an extra dollar in your budget.

2. Be Smartphone-Smart

Think your smartphone came "free" when you signed with your carrier? Look more closely: Behind that no-upfront-cost offer is an expensive long-term commitment.

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Major carriers all hope that you'll focus on the subsidized cost of a phone, which is often as low as zero. Instead, calculate the total cost of the phone over the length of your two-year contract commitment. You can easily end up paying $100 or more per month for comprehensive plan packages, meaning that "free" smartphone's true cost add up to $1,000 to $2,000 per year. And even once your contract is up, it's not as easy as it should be to switch to a cheaper carrier.

In some cases, paying more upfront will save you money in the long run. Some carriers don't subsidize their phones, but they charge much lower monthly payments. Your net cost over time ends up lower, so be sure to explore those alternatives before you buy, and pick the best smartphone plan for you.

3. Make the Internet Pay Off For You

Budgeting doesn't mean that you can't spend money. It does mean you should be smarter with your shopping. The Internet has plenty of tools to help you save money when you shop.

Physical stores have overhead and other costs that Internet retailers don't have to pay. As a result, most physical stores charge a bit more to offer the convenience of giving you instant access to the products you want.

But if you don't actually need something right this second, the savings you'll often find at Internet retailers will give you a nice discount. Moreover, most Internet retailers have greatly reduced their shipping charges, with many offering free shipping on many orders.

Sometimes, online retailers can give you extra savings opportunities you can't get elsewhere. Online coupon sites like retailmenot.com give free access to promotional codes that give you lucrative discounts. That can stretch your budget's resources even further in your favor.

A Budget You Can Live With

Sticking with a budget is hard work. But by doing simple things, you can stay within your budget and still get everything you want.