5 reasons so many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck

At the beginning of the New Year, many of us are looking for ways to improve our personal finances. For nearly half of Americans, that means finding a way to stop living from paycheck to paycheck.

Related: 15 Things That Will Cost Less in 2017

Ending that cycle often requires figuring out why you're living without a financial safety net in the first place. A recent survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education asked over 2,000 Americans why they think people are living paycheck to paycheck. These were the most popular responses:

  • Credit card debt (24 percent)
  • Employment struggles (22 percent)
  • Mortgage or rent (18 percent)
  • Healthcare costs (10 percent)
  • Taxes (4 percent)

The survey also asked about the major expenses and financial setbacks respondents actually experienced in the last year, which provides another view of the real difficulties people face. The most popular responses were:

  • Transportation issues - i.e, car repair (23 percent)
  • Housing repairs and maintenance (20 percent)
  • Medical care for injury or illness (18 percent)
  • Falling behind on bills (16 percent)
  • Job loss (11 percent)

A third of Americans surveyed last year by TD Bank said that living paycheck to paycheck was keeping them from reaching their financial goals. "People across all income levels struggle with debt, employment issues, and high housing costs," says NEFE spokesman Paul Golden.

RELATED: 35 secrets to saving more money this year:

35 Secrets to Saving More Money
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35 Secrets to Saving More Money

1. Take Advantage of Deals in the New Year

January is a bargain hunter’s paradise. For example, you can save up to 90 percent on holiday decor during after-Christmas sales, said Teri Gault, money-saving expert and CEO of TheGroceryGame.com. Winter coats, apparel and outdoor gear also tend to be deeply discounted after the holidays. Additionally, Gault recommends using January sales to shop for home goods like sheets, bedding and furniture.

See: 2017’s Top New Year’s Resolution, Finance Survey Finds 

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2. Embrace Mobile Shopping

If you want to save money next year, take advantage of mobile shopping opportunities. Benjamin K. Glaser, features editor with DealNews.com, notes that mobile shopping is one of the fastest-growing areas of retail, and sellers are pushing their mobile apps harder than ever before.

Not only do these apps provide an easy way to shop, but retailers also frequently offer exclusive discounts and savings. Still, Glaser cautions shoppers against making impulse purchases. For best results, only take advantage of deals for items you actually need. 

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3. Watch Out for Rising Prices

Some consumer goods, products or foods might rise in price next year. Do your research. Then, limit purchases of these items, stock up when they do go on sale, look for lower-priced brands and purchase conventional instead of organic options.

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4. Negotiate With Service Providers

Head off rate increases for services such as cable TV in the new year by taking the time to call your providers.

“Ask about any new promotions you might qualify for when old ones expire,” said money-saving expert Andrea Woroch. For example, you could save money by bundling your cable TV and internet services or going paperless by setting up automatic billing.

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5. Cut the Cost of Your Smartphone

Many people try to save money by signing up for wireless plans with less data. However, if you regularly exceed your data allotment — and get hit with fees as a result — your cost-cutting efforts might backfire. To avoid data overcharge fees in 2017, use the free My Data Manager app to track your usage and alert you before you go over your limit.

On the flip side, you might have overspent on wireless service in 2016 by paying for more data than you actually used. To find out how much data you’re wasting, use an app such as Onavo Count or 3G Watchdog. Also, visit MyRatePlan.com to find the right mobile plan based on the number of minutes, messages and data you use regularly.

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6. Reshop Your Auto Insurance

Consumers can potentially save a lot on car insurance simply by taking the time to find out if another insurer can offer a better rate. According to the J.D. Power 2015 U.S. Insurance Shopping Study, people who shopped for better auto insurance rates and switched insurers saved an average of $388 on their annual premiums. You can get quotes and compare offers from several insurers at TheZebra.com, InsuranceQuotes.com and CarInsurance.com.

Find Out: 8 Things to Know About Car Insurance 

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7. Use Discounted Gift Cards for Everyday Essentials

Gift cards aren’t just for gifts. If you buy them for less than face value, they’re also a great way to save money on things you regularly purchase, said Regina Conway, shopping expert for Slickdeals.net.

You can find discounted gift cards at sites such as CardCash.com, GiftCardGranny.com and Raise.com. For example, Conway said she buys pet store gift cards that are discounted by 20 percent or more and uses them to get an instant discount when purchasing pet food and supplies. You can find discounted gift cards for supermarkets, drugstores, gas stations, restaurants and hundreds of retailers online.

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8. Get the Inside Scoop on Savings in Shopping Forums

Deal sites like FatWallet.com and Slickdeals.net are known for hosting forums where savvy shoppers can share great deals.

“People like helping people save money, and they’ll also vet others' advice that might not necessarily save you money — which can save you a lot of money…. Heaven knows most retailers aren’t going to give you the insider scoop very often,” said Shelton, who often consults forums before making big purchases.

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9. Unlock Coupons on Social Media

Most consumers know they can get coupon codes for online purchases at sites, such as DealNews.com, Offers.com, Rather-Be-Shopping.com and RetailMeNot.com, and use free apps such as Coupon Sherpa to get coupon codes for instant discounts at checkout. However, money-saving experts warn that overlooking social media as a coupon source is a mistake. According to Woroch, buyers can unlock coupons by 'Liking' a retailer or brand on Facebook or Twitter.

“I received a 15 percent off coupon code to Hotels.com by just liking their Facebook page and received 30 percent off at Heels.com by following their account on Twitter,” said Woroch.

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10. Ask for Coupons and Discounts

Whether you’re shopping at a department store or a mom-and-pop shop, it's wise to ask if there are any coupons available, said Gault. Sometimes, there are coupons behind the register that clerks are happy to let you use. In other cases, the store might direct you to an online coupon or even accept competitors’ coupons.

“If there are no coupon savings to be had, simply ask for a discount,” Gault said. “I always expect to save an additional 10 percent to 20 percent just for asking.”

See: 30 Things You Should Never Buy Without a Coupon 

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11. Stack the Deals

Savvy shoppers don’t limit their savings to just one type of discount. In fact, most supermarkets allow consumers to use manufacturers' coupons along with store coupons. By stacking all allowable deals, you can save more than 60 percent and even get free grocery items, said Gault.

Use discounted gift cards and rewards credit cards that offer cash back, in addition to coupons and sales, to rack up even more savings

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12. Track Prices to Get the Best Deal

Prices on consumer goods can fluctuate wildly — even in a matter of days. To avoid overpaying, it's wise to use an online price tracker to monitor rates on items you want to buy.

For example, Conway said she used the Slickdeals Price Tracker to monitor the price on a pair of boots, which fell from $245 to $170 in three days, before jumping back up to $245. The Slickdeals Price Tracker lets you set a price at which you’d be willing to purchase an item and emails you if the price falls to that level. It also notifies you which retailer has the best price on specified products at any given time.

Don't be afraid to check out other online price trackers, including CamelCamelCamel (for Amazon products). 

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13. Don't Miss Out on Price Adjustments

Best Buy, Target and Walmart are three of the many retailers that offer price adjustments if items purchased at full price drop in cost within a certain number of days. Typically, if you present proof of the price you paid to the retailer, you will be credited for the difference.

To avoid missing out on refunds for price adjustments, Woroch recommends using Paribus to track price drops on your online purchases. The site requests a price adjustment on your behalf, so you get your money back without the hassle.

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14. Ask for a Price Match

Tired of wasting time driving from store to store to find the best prices? Use free mobile apps such as Red Laser and ShopSavvy to scan product barcodes and see if another retailer is offering the product you want for a lower price. In some cases, you can even use that information to get the store you’re currently shopping at to match a competitor price.

If you’re shopping online, consider using the InvisibleHand browser add-on to notify you if the product you’re viewing is cheaper at another site. If the product isn't on sale at your desired store, Woroch suggests using the live chat option to contact that retailer's customer service department and ask for a price match.

See: 15 Stores That Offer Price Matching Guarantees 

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15. Plan Ahead and Buy Off Season

“As retailers try to make way for the new season’s merchandise, they will begin to offer off-season items at discounts of 60 percent off or more,” said Howard Schaffer, vice president of deal and coupon site Offers.com. “If you can have the foresight to shop for winter clothes in the early spring, jewelry after Valentine's Day and costumes after Halloween, the savings can be huge.”

Shopping the sale cycles ensures you never pay full price for what you need, said Kendal Perez, a savings expert with Coupon Sherpa. You can also use an online tool such as MyAlerts to research price histories for products, determine the best times to buy and get alerts for price drops. 

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16. Keep Your Food Cravings in Season

You can save a lot of money at the supermarket by buying produce when it’s in season, said Gault. Additionally, it's wise to take advantage of seasonal savings throughout the store.

According to Gault, the baking aisle is loaded with the lowest prices of the year during the holidays. On the other hand, summer tends to feature deals on condiments, salad dressing and grilling meats. For best results, Gault advises consumers to plan meals and recipes according to the season rather than their cravings.

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17. Eat Out at the Right Times

“You can save up to 50 percent just by changing your schedule [for] dining out,” said Gault, who went on to suggest that consumers take advantage of weekday-only restaurant coupons. Additionally, diners with children should jump on the kids-eat-free deals that restaurants typically offer on Tuesday nights.

Another way to save when dining out with your spouse, close friend or family member is to split one entree instead of purchasing two. “This will save you big bucks and, given the size of portions, you won’t leave hungry,” said Perez.

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18. Plan Meals

According to the National Resources Defense Council, the average American tosses $28 to $43 worth of food each month. To avoid wasting money on food you’re not eating, Perez recommended planning your meals before heading to the supermarket rather than buying items on a whim.

Research grocery store circulars to find out what’s on sale each week and create meals based on these ingredients, as well as what you have on hand. Perez also suggests using a site such as Supercook.com to create new recipes from items you have in your refrigerator and pantry and bringing leftovers to work for lunch.

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19. Download Supermarket Apps

Supermarkets offer a variety of savings and deals to customers who download their mobile apps, said Gault. Some deals are even personalized based on what you’ve purchased before.

Additionally, consumers can instantly score digital coupons via apps. Gault said she’s even scored free items through her grocer’s app.

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20. Save Big by Buying Refurbished

If you aren't concerned with purchasing the latest and greatest gadgets, save a lot by buying refurbished tech items, said Kristin Cook, managing editor of deal site, Ben’s Bargains.

These items are often used but restored to like-new condition, and many come with warranties. In some cases, you can buy these goods directly from manufacturers, such as Apple and Dell, as well as through retailers such as Best Buy and Newegg.com.

“Plan on saving anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent by buying refurb,” Cook said.

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21. Beware of Fake Sales

Plenty of retailers have what Cook calls “fake sales," or discounts that aren’t truly good deals.

“Be especially skeptical of huge percentage-off sales on off-brand items,” she said. Because stores can essentially set the retail prices on items, an 80 percent markdown might not actually be the bargain it claims to be.

To make sure you’re actually getting a deal, research other stores to see what similar items are selling for before getting caught up in the hype, Cook said.

See: 20 Ways Retailers Are Tricking You Into Spending More Money 

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22. Exercise Patience for Clearance Items

During the holidays, retailers tend to allocate areas for seasonal items that they don’t normally carry. However, on the actual holiday, the day after or when the season ends, these items will immediately end up on a clearance table with a 50 percent off sign, said Gault. If supply isn't limited for your desired item, don’t pounce on the sale just yet.

To score discounts of up to 90 percent, ask a manager when the clearance items will be taken away and hold out until the end of the sale, added Gault.

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23. Take Advantage of Status Discounts

If you’re a teacher, senior, student, active military member or veteran, there's likely a discount you can take advantage of at restaurants, retailers and other service providers, said Perez.

“While not everyone advertises these discounts, simply introducing yourself and offering the proper identification can often yield a 10 percent to 15 percent savings on everything from hotel stays to apparel purchases,” she said.

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24. Get Free Goods and Services

Even better than getting something at a discount is getting it for free. And there are plenty of freebies out there for the taking. For example, many restaurants offer free food on special days throughout the year, such as National Donut Day in June, National Ice Cream Day in July and National Cheeseburger Day in September.

Your local public library is another great source of freebies on everything from books and DVDs to classes. Additionally, several supermarket pharmacies — including Harris Teeter, Meijer and Publix — offer select antibiotics and diabetes medications for free. You can even get free admission to all national parks on certain days throughout the year.

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25. Subscribe to Retailers' Emails for Discounts

Many retailers offer new customers a discount of 10 percent to 20 percent just for signing up for their email newsletters, said Perez. Doing this is a great way to save money on purchases, especially if you can’t find a coupon code.

Just be sure to unsubscribe from the newsletter once you’ve used the coupon. Don't let the weekly emails tempt you to spend more money with the retailer.

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26. Join Online Retailers’ Rewards Programs

“More and more online stores are offering free shipping to anyone who is signed up for their rewards programs,” Cook said.

These programs are usually free to join and can offer members other perks, such as the opportunity to earn points for purchases that can be redeemed for more discounts. Retailers such as Best Buy, Bloomingdale's, CVS, Macy’s, Sephora, Walgreens and Target all offer great rewards programs for their customers.

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27. Buy Used

Buying used is a great way to afford the designer apparel, high-end furnishings and sports gear that might normally be out of your price range.

“Thrift stores and consignment shops are overflowing with gently used inventory for a fraction of retail prices,” Perez said.

As an added bonus, consumers can take advantage of these outlets to sell quality items that they no longer use or want. In many cases, you will net 50 percent of the selling price for your efforts.

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28. Take Advantage of Dollar Store Deals

There’s a reason certain items cost just $1 at dollar stores. However, these discount retailers can also be a great place to score some quality products at rock-bottom prices.

For example, Woroch suggests stocking up on greeting cards, so you’ll have plenty on hand for special celebrations and last-minute events throughout the year. You also can find gift wrap and gift bags at a fraction of the price you would pay at even the big-box retailers.

Beware: 10 Items You Should Never Get at the Dollar Store 

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29. Look to eBay for Deals on Trendy Items

Many consumers overlook the utility of eBay when it comes to shopping for the latest trends, such as headbands or infinity scarves.

“For some types of items, eBay can save you a lot of money,” Cook said. “I have found this especially true for trendy kids' items.”

For example, Cook recently used eBay to purchase leather baby moccasins for just $15. The same item would have cost her $60 from the pricey Freshly Picked brand.

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30. Be Flexible With Travel Dates

“Being flexible enough to change your travel plans — even by a day or two — can end up saving you $50 or more in many circumstances,” said Schaffer of Offers.com.

He went on to recommend using travel booking sites, such as Kayak.com, that allow you to indicate flexible travel dates so you can compare options and prices.

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31. Consider Alternate Airports

“Similarly, you can often find great deals if you are willing to be flexible with your departure and destination airports,” said Schaffer.

When booking your flight, expand your search terms to include nearby airports. If you were already planning to rent a car, cast an even wider net if you’re willing to drive an hour to your destination from the airport. Just avoid renting a car at the airport because you’ll pay inflated prices and high taxes. 

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32. Look for Hotel Coupon Codes

Using travel sites such as Expedia.com and Priceline.com is a great way to get a deal on a hotel room. However, with a little bit of digging, you can often find coupons for deals and discounts on local hotels as well, said Schaffer, who recommends using Offers.com to locate promo codes.

Additionally, consumers can find discounted hotel gift cards that they can use to pay for their stays. Visit GiftCardGranny.com, which aggregates the best offers from different gift card resellers.

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33. Question Your Purchases

A good way to save in 2017 is to question your purchases. Greg Johnson, a frugality blogger with ClubThrifty.com, said he controls spending by stopping to think before making purchases.

“Ask yourself if this is something that you really want or need,” said Johnson. “By taking time to think before you spend, you can save yourself loads of money on splurge purchases."

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34. Create a Budget That Forces You to Save

Holly Johnson, contributing editor for The Simple Dollar, said her secret way to save money involves using a zero-sum budget.

“This budgeting method forces you to live on last month's income and create a plan for every dollar you earn,” she said. “When I don't budget for something at the beginning of the month, I'm less inclined to make an impulse purchase.” 

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35. Actually Save the Money You Save

You won’t benefit much from these money-saving moves throughout the year if you’re not actually putting cash aside. Keep track of your savings, and transfer that amount into an interest-bearing savings account each month. Or increase your monthly retirement account contribution, so the money comes out of your paycheck before you have a chance to spend it.

Up Next: 45 Ways to Make More Money in 2017 

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Related: The Top 5 Financial Resolutions Americans Are Making for 2017

To free up some money in your monthly budget, Golden recommends tracking your spending over several months to identify areas where you can make changes. Cutting back spending will free up money that you can put toward debt payments or to start an emergency fund. Experts recommend having at least three to six months' worth of expenses set aside for unexpected expenses.

If that seems like an overwhelming goal, start with a smaller one, NEFE suggests. Even setting aside $500 offers a bit more security and a sense of achievement, which can help reduce stress. Once you've set aside $500, aim to double it.

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