20 Sneaky Ways to Save

woman holding jar of change
Mix and match these favorite money-saving tips from Motherboard Moms across the country. You'll save a bundle this month.

1. Plan Those Meals

It's six o'clock and somewhere some mom is pulling out her hair trying to decide what to cook for dinner. Unless she has a weekly meal plan. That, says Jonni McCoy, author of Miserly Moms: Living Well on Less in a Tough Economy (miserlymoms.com) and a mom of two in Colorado Springs, can prevent all that anxiety-induced hair loss—and be a super-savings secret weapon. "You don't have to spend a lot to eat well," says McCoy, who makes her weekly meal plan based on what's on sale at her favorite grocers.

Sherri Hefley also plans her family's meals, but by the month. "I don't ever have to figure out what to fix," says the mom of two boys in Oronogo, Missouri. The plan keeps her from impulse- shopping at the supermarket or ending up eating take-out, she says. "Eating out's a big budget-buster."

You Save: If planning meals prevents just one last-minute call for delivery pizza, you'll save at least $20.

2. Eat the Sales

To maximize the benefits of shopping sales, make your meal plan flexible. "If boneless chicken breasts are on sale this week, I can plan meals for the whole week around that and protect the budget," says Lisa Reynolds, mother of two in Northville, Michigan. Motherboard Mom Sherri Hefley does the same thing: "Oranges are on sale for 25 cents each, so we're eating oranges this week," she says. "Last week, apples were 98 cents a pound and we ate apples." Hefley also buys and freezes the sale-priced meats to use throughout the month in her menu plan.

Before they head to the store, smart shoppers check the sales online and in the newspaper. Reynolds is known as Red Plum's Mom-Saver-in-Chief because of how she works the shopping site's deals (RedPlum.com). McCoy whittles hundreds of dollars from her grocery bill each month by checking out the ads in local newspapers. The loss leaders (the deals store owners hope will get you in the store) are usually on the front and back pages, she says. The trick is to buy the sale item and not what's displayed next to it.

You Save: McCoy says it's possible to cut 35 percent off the grocery budget by shopping sales—that's more than $300 a month from the $900 spent by the average family.

3. Know the Sales Cycle

To take full advantage of sales you need to learn their cycles at your favorite stores and then plan accordingly, says Granby, Colorado, mom Jessica Payne who has three children. "Most items go on sale every four to six weeks, so buy enough to last until the next time the price is reduced," she says. "This way I never pay full price."

You Save: Based on her grocery store receipts, which total the savings from sale prices, Payne estimates she saves around $200 a month by shopping sales.

4. Make It a Challenge

Corin Hogan, a mom of three girls in Papillion, Nebraska, admits it's exciting when she combines coupons and sales to get an item free. She estimates she spends around three hours a week researching, clipping, and organizing coupons. That budget-friendly exercise keeps her monthly spending for groceries and supplies for a family of five down to $400. "I'm a stay-at-home mom so this is the way I can contribute to our household," she says.

You Save: According to the coupon site Red Plum, spending 20 minutes a week on coupons can save easily $100 a month. Note: Those coupons won't do you any good if they're not handy when it's time to pay. Keep them in a binder or your wallet or car—someplace where you'll remember to pull them out when the time comes.

5. Be a Freezer Fanatic

Take freezing one step beyond stocking up on sale-priced meats by making double batches and freezing them. Even homemade breakfast can be frozen so you don't have to resort to those store-bought frozen waffles on rushed mornings. McCoy makes pancakes, waffles, and muffins to freeze; Hefley makes her own breakfast burritos that easily go from freezer to microwave.

McCoy even whips up her own pancake syrup by heating 2 to 3 cups of brown or white sugar with 1 cup of water until the sugar is melted. Then she adds a teaspoon of maple flavor.

You Save: A package of frozen waffles can run $3; you can make your own for less than 50 cents. If you make your own breakfast products, you could save $10 or more a month.

6. Go for the Untouched

Is it worth five times the price for you to buy your lettuce prewashed? Not to Motherboard Mom McCoy, who is always going to choose the head of lettuce versus the bag and the uncut fruit versus the fancy precut bowl.

You Save: Washing and cutting your own product could save you as much as $20 a month.

7. Be Your Own Baker

Motherboard Mom Jessica Payne bakes her own cookies, sweet breads, and cakes, getting her children involved when possible. You can save big by doing your own baking, especially if you make it a practice to buy flour, sugar, and other ingredients on sale.

You Save: A 13x9-inch cake sells for $15 to $20; you can make one for less than $2.

8. Become a Popcorn Lover

Who doesn't love to snack? But you can snack and be budget-smart if you choose popcorn, says McCoy. She buys her popcorn in bulk and pops it the old-fashioned way, then she gets creative with toppings, using oregano, parmesan cheese, and garlic salt to make pizza popcorn, or cinnamon sugar for a sweet treat.

You Save: Just four bags of chips a month will run $12, while a $4 jar of popcorn will make almost 200 cups.

9. Brown Bag It

Lunch may not be free, but you can sure save money by taking your own. And it doesn't have to be boring sandwiches if you have access to a fridge and microwave at work. Sherri Hefley plans her monthly dinner menus with an eye to having leftovers for her husband, Bryan, to take in his lunch. He gets fare like barbecued meatballs and homemade mac-and-cheese instead of a fast-food burger or a cold sandwich.

You Save: Hefley estimates they save close to $5 a day when her husband packs his lunch—that can add up to $50 a month even if you're brown-bagging it only every other day.

10. Follow Your Faves

Got a product you love and use often, but rarely, if ever, can find coupons for? Call the manufacturer's 800-number or e-mail the company, says savings blogger Reynolds. You'll get a coupon about 35 percent of the time, she says.

You Save: You could receive $5 or $10 worth of coupons a month following your favorite products.

11. Use Cash, Not Credit

Even before personal finance pro Dave Ramsey made his envelopes of cash famous, moms were relying on the same sort of system. It sets a good example for kids to see real money being spent, and it sets very real limits, too, on spending.

You Save: A cash-only system could save you $100 a month, according to Ramsey.

12. Use Reward Cards

If you're the sort of person who doesn't go crazy with a credit card and pays it off each month, then you might benefit from using a rewards credit card when you shop. McCoy uses a rewards credit card to get free travel, but she's come up with a few tricks to make sure spending is limited when she's using the card instead of cash. She keeps an index card in her purse with a running total of what she's charged. Another visual way of keeping track is to fill envelopes with Monopoly money that you spend as you charge.

You Save: As a reward for your smart shopping, you may earn enough points for vacations or gift cards at stores of your choice.

13. Celebrate Free Kid Night

When you and the family need a night off, make it fun and frugal by choosing a restaurant that has good deals or "kids eat free" nights. "That's become our night out," says Reynolds.

You Save: The cost of a couple of kids' meals—anywhere from $6 to $10 each.

14. Get Homemade Clean

If you're really in the pioneer spirit and have a non-HE washer, make your own laundry detergent. Jessica Payne says it takes her less than an hour to make a batch large enough to last a year. Here's her recipe:

Grate one Fels-Naptha soap bar into four cups of hot water in a saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until the soap dissolves.

Fill a 5-gallon bucket half full of hot water and add the melted soap mixture along with 1 cup of Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda (don't confuse this with baking soda) and 1/2 cup of Borax.

Stir until dissolved and fill the bucket full of hot water.

Once it cools, you may add 10 to 12 drops of essential oil, like lavender, for scent if desired. Cover and let it sit overnight to thicken. Stir again before putting the mixture into clean bottles. Fill the bottle halfway with the soap mixture and add hot water to the top. Shake before using. Use 5/8 cup for top-loading machines, 1/4 cup for front-loaders.

One cup of vinegar added to the rinse water works like fabric softener, or make your own "dryer sheets" by soaking a sponge in a mixture of half fabric softener, half water, and wringing it out well before tossing it into the dryer.

You Save: One 10-gallon batch of homemade detergent costs less than $2 and will last a year, says Payne. That's a savings of at least $5 a month. Note: This should not be used in your HE washer.

15. Check Out the Library

Amy Senk, a mom of two in Corona del Mar, California, loves to read. She's found that her public library, which offers an online request system for books (so it's easy to reserve the latest bestseller), is almost as convenient as amazon.com and a whole lot cheaper. Her kids get books and DVDs too.

"I don't mind buying books when there's one that I fall in love with," she says. "I love books." But for those one-time reads: It's the library for her.

You Save: A book a month at $25 each is a savings of $300 a year.

16. Be a Secondhand Rose

Overland Park, Kansas, mom Leigh Ann Teubert hits two super-big consignment sales a year (sponsored by Just Between Friends at jbfsale.com) to get clothes for her two sons, ages 7 and 3. "The clothes are in good condition," she says, and it's easier to visit the large sales than it is to troll garage sales or local consignment stores.

You Save: Twice a year Teubert buys a total of eight pairs of pants at $3 to $4 a pair, instead of $12 to $15 new, and 20 shirts at $3 a shirt instead of $8 to $10 each, for a savings of more than $100.

17. Unplug Appliances

Some appliances use power—called standby power—even when they're turned off. That was a lesson Mark Holland, a dad in Minneapolis, learned from a home energy audit. "The microwave was using something like 40 cents worth of power a day, the coffeepot 6 cents," Holland says. "It's 5 cents here, 2 cents there, but it adds up."

Biggest culprits: Televisions, computers, printers, VCRs, DVRs, and power tools. Go to standby.lbl.gov/summary-table.html for a list of appliances and their energy uses.

If you leave town for a week, unplug everything possible. The rest of the time, use power strips to switch off power so you're not constantly plugging and unplugging, which risks fraying cords and causing another set of problems.

You Save: The typical home has 40 appliances using standby power, accounting for 5 percent to 10 percent of consumption, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Even if you shut down half of these, you could save $5 or $10 a month.

18. Get an Energy Audit

Ask your local utility company to do an energy audit—usually performed free of charge—or go to energysavers.gov/your_home/energy_audits/ to learn how to do it yourself.

"We were surprised to find out that we wouldn't recoup the costs of replacing our windows," says McCoy. But she did discover that her ancient freezer—used to freeze meals and save money—was actually consuming more money in energy costs than she was saving. She ditched the old appliance and made do with the freezer compartment of her fridge by switching to more space-efficient ziplock bags.

An audit will help you pinpoint where your energy dollars are going and how you can reduce those bills.

You Save: Reducing energy loss from drafts, for example, can save 5 to 30 percent of your energy bill, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. For a $200 monthly bill, that's $10 to $60 a month.

19. Make Insurance Deals

Sometimes you don't even have to switch companies to find ways to save on your car and house insurance. Cynthia Recupero, mom of two college-age daughters in Overland Park, Kansas, checks her car and house insurance policies regularly for additional discounts or changes in coverage that can save money. Two places to start: Decide whether collision and comprehensive are worthwhile on aging vehicles and look for discounts like those given to good students and for low-mileage cars.

You Save: You might be able to knock $100 off your annual or semi-annual premiums.

20. Trick Yourself into Saving

Sometimes it's not how much you spend or don't spend, but how you fool yourself when you're keeping track that can result in some impressive savings. After Terry Dubbs and her husband married, their joint checking account was overdrawn one month, and Dubbs decided they needed a cushion to prevent that from happening again.

The Topeka, Kansas, mom started rounding expenses up and deposits down as she kept track in her check register. Anyone who balances a checkbook to the penny may run screaming into the woods at this creativity, but it worked for the Dubbs family. Once Dubbs saw how much money she was saving, she started rounding even more, so that a $1,363 deposit now is $1,300 and a check for $214 becomes $220.

You Save: The Dubbses now save at least $200 a month with their "funny" accounting. Last year they saved enough for two vacation trips.

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