Smart Savings

Denise Trowbridge

Your paychecks aren't stretching as far as they used to. The census bureau said recently the median family income, adjusted for inflation, hasn't grown since 1989. The economy may be out of your control but, with effort and planning, you can give yourself a raise by vowing to save a minimum of 20 percent on everything you already buy. How? Tweak the way you shop and seek out free or lower-cost alternatives. Then, stash the extra cash in savings, retirement or college accounts, or use it to pay off debts.

Food eats up a huge portion of a family's budget, so it's a great place to save. Ellie Kay, author of "1/2 Price Living" cuts her grocery bill by "layering" savings. The basic store discount card is Layer No. 1. The other layers are: the weekly sales flyer; manufacturer and store coupons; and price matching (where a store honors a competitor's advertised price). And stop shopping at one grocery store. We recently started buying our favorite milk at Giant Eagle, because it's $1 a gallon cheaper.

Eat out, but only with a discount. Use daily deals, or the many coupons available in the Valpak (and valpak.com) and mid-week newspaper inserts. At bare minimum, use kidseatout.com to plan meals where kids eat free.

Review all recurring expenses such as cell-phone plans, cable and Internet, and car and home insurance at least twice a year. You can almost always find a better deal. And evaluate how much you really use the services you pay for.

Master discount codes. If you're shopping online, always start at ebates.com or another site that gives you cash back on your purchase. If you're checking out and there's a box for a coupon code, stop what you're doing and scour sites such as retailmenot.com and couponcabin.com, looking for a valid discount code. Those little bits add up.

Stock up. When something is on super sale (a price that happens once or twice a year, and you have a coupon), stock up. Think beyond groceries to beauty products and clothes. Scoop up next year's winter coats on clearance in the spring.

Resell. There are myriad ways to resell your possessions for quick cash, whether it's clothes or that new-in-box, never-used bread machine in your garage. Sell and resell again, to wring the value out of everything.

Look for free alternatives. Sometimes we can enjoy the same perks and services for free. Skip Redbox and reserve movies at the library instead.

Utilities. Pull a Jimmy Carter this winter: Put on a sweater and bump the thermostat down. Each degree will cut your heating bill by 1 percent. And pull the plug on the TV and computer before going to bed. Phantom loads such as these add 6 percent a month to your electric bill. Set the washer to cold (90 percent of each load's energy goes to heat water).

Be Patient. If you can't save 20 percent or more, pledge not to buy it. Do as our grandparents did and wait until what you want goes on sale. Sometimes, this takes time. To stay motivated, remember none of your income is "disposable."

Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.