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25 Tips for How to Save Money if Your Paycheck Is Stretched Thin

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Do you ever wonder why it’s so hard to save money — even when you’ve cut the cable and the meals out (and you’ve never even had a latte habit?)

One reason it’s so difficult to save is that your fixed expenses — the ones that stay the same each month — like your rent or mortgage, car payment, property taxes and insurance premiums — tend to be your largest bills. These aren’t exactly easy to reduce. Sure, you could lower your rent by moving to a smaller place, but moving itself is also expensive.

We don’t have a magic money-saving trick that will send your bank account balance soaring, but there are plenty of small ways you can scale back. And the little things do add up. Read on if you’re ready to start saving.

How to Start Saving: Set Your Goals First

We get that making a budget ranks right up there with a dentist appointment or trip to the DMV in terms of things you’d rather do. But, it’s your essential first step when you want to start saving money. If you want help, get a free financial plan and get matched with a financial advisor.

The best budgeting apps also make it easy to keep track of your spending and identify areas where you can cut back. Just be sure to comb through several months’ worth of expenses to get a true sense of where your money is going (or let the Cleo money app do it for you). Don’t forget about the expenses you don’t encounter every month, like holiday gifts, or annual expenses such as your car registration costs.

If you don’t set goals, the only thing that your new budget will do is make you feel terrible about just how little money you’re saving. To get motivated to make saving a priority, spell out why you’re saving.

Think about the short-term goals you’re hoping to accomplish within the next year or two. Building an emergency fund for your family, making a down payment on a home or saving for a vacation may be goals that work for you. Also, consider your long-term goals, like putting more money in a 529 plan for your child or saving for retirement.

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25 Tips for How to Save Money — Even When Times Are Tight

Here are 25 ideas for saving more money. The good news is that there’s no one thing you have to cut out. If it really matters to you, go ahead and keep spending money on it. You can find other things to eliminate that won’t cause too much pain.

1. Time your purchases like a pro.

You may not be able to time a car repair or vet bill, but with discretionary purchases, knowing when to get the best deals can mean big savings. Need a TV? Wait until January, when last year’s models are discounted to make room for the new ones. Looking for new furniture? Retailers often clear out their stock around Independence Day, making July a prime time for scoring cheap furniture. But make sure you’re getting the best deal — consult our tips first.

A woman smiles as she holds up a drink and a sub she got for free from Jersey Mike's Subs.
Robin Hartill scored a free birthday sub she got from Jersey Mike’s Subs in St. Petersburg, Fla. Tina Russell/ The Penny Hoarder

2. Master the art of getting stuff for free.

Becoming a hermit isn’t the only way to save money. There are plenty of ways to get free stuff or have fun on the cheap. You can start by:

  • Using Facebook and Nextdoor. Before you shell out for things like furniture or baby gear, check out buy-nothing groups on platforms like Facebook and Nextdoor to see if one of your neighbors is looking to get rid of something you want.
  • Scoring free food by downloading an app. Plenty of restaurant chains offer freebies or BOGO deals for downloading their apps. You can always delete them after you take advantage if you don’t want temptation at your fingertips.
  • Getting free stuff just for being born. You can score tons of birthday freebies if your big day is coming up — often not just on your actual birthday, but any time during your birth month.
  • Checking out your local library for free entertainment. Your library card isn’t just a pass to check out books made from dead trees. Plenty of free library apps allow you to access ebooks, movies, music and more without paying a cent.
  • Swapping goods or services with someone else. Learning how to barter can help you get what you need without spending money.

3. Smash your credit card debt once and for all.

The average APR for people who carry credit card debt is well over 16%. Your bank jumps for joy when you don’t pay off your balance because it’s getting rich off all that interest. Quit padding your bank’s coffers and break up with your credit card debt forever. Some tactics to try:

  • The debt snowball method, with which you attack the smallest balance first.
  • The debt avalanche method, with which you focus on the card with the highest interest rate.
  • A debt consolidation loan, with which you merge your debts into a single payment. This is only a good option if you’re lowering your interest rates.
  • A balance transfer credit card, with which you transfer your balances to a card with a 0% promotional interest rate. That zero-interest period typically only lasts 12 to 18 months, though, so this approach is best if you don’t have tons of debt. If you need help, use Credit Sesame’s free tool to help you find the credit card that matches your needs.

4. Flex interest rates to your advantage.

Interest rates are higher in 2023 than in the past — especially when you look at mortgage rates. However, you can still take advantage of the situation if you have a great credit score. Consider refinancing your mortgage to save money if you can lower your interest rate by 1 percentage point or more. If you can’t, wait until interest rates come back down (which is expected in late 2023) since you’ll have to pay closing costs.

5. Lower your student loan payments.

If you’re struggling to pay off student loans, take advantage of the new Federal SAVE plan. If you qualify, you can reduce the amount of interest you pay as well as your monthly costs. Your monthly payment will be a percentage of your discretionary spending money — don’t have any? You may pay as little as $0. If you don’t qualify, use a free online tool like Credible to help you find a lower interest loan you can use to pay off student loan debt.

A person meal preps at home.
To save time and money on eating out, Shane and Melissa Courtney prepare their lunches and dinners in their Tampa home. They shop at a local farmers market and use cheaper vegetables like cabbage. They also buy bulk items like rice noodles from Amazon. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

6. Do meal prep. Don’t go overboard.

Grocery stores play all kinds of sneaky mind games with you, and you’re most vulnerable if you shop while you’re harried and hangry. A great way to combat their money-snatching tactics is to make a shopping list and devote a few hours to meal prep every week.

But don’t get too ambitious here. If you’re an UberEats addict whose pantry consists of three spices, you’re setting yourself up for failure if you plan to cook 21 meals a week. Start with a more reasonable goal, such as making your own breakfast and lunch each day, plus dinner three nights a week.

7. Get cash for switching banks.

Another way to get a quick cash infusion: Switch bank accounts. Some of the best bank promotions will give you $300 or more just for opening a new account, like Sofi Checking and Savings. Just be sure to read the fine print, since a bank account with ridiculous fees or minimum balance requirements could cost you big time.

*See full terms and disclosures at sofi.com/banking. 

8. Be strategic about your tax refund.

Some personal finance types will shame you for getting a big tax refund because you’re giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan. We say, do whatever works for you. Opt to have less money withheld from your paycheck if you’ll actually save it or apply it toward debt. But, if the idea of a giant tax refund motivates you, it’s OK to make the IRS play piggy bank. Just make a plan for how to spend your tax refund that will pay off in the long run. Some of our favorite ideas:

  • Put it in your savings account for an emergency or upcoming expense.
  • Pay down your highest-interest credit card.
  • Make an extra mortgage or car payment.
  • Give your Roth IRA a boost.
  • Put it in your child’s college fund.

9. Be skeptical when something seems like a deal.

Free shipping if you spend just another $11? Step away from the digital shopping cart. If you’re being coaxed into shelling out another few bucks for something that’s “free” — well, it isn’t really free.

Playing the credit card rewards game is another good example. Yes, you can score free airfare and cash back. But it’s only free if you don’t spend more to get those rewards and if you pay your balance in full every month. Otherwise, you’ll shell out way more in interest than you’re getting in rewards.

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10. Cancel automated purchases for non-necessities.

Curbing mindless spending isn’t just about cutting out late-night Amazon purchases and impulse grocery buys. You probably have monthly subscriptions and memberships that are draining your bank account each month for things you rarely, if ever, use.

One of the best ways to save money is to look carefully at gym memberships, streaming services, subscription boxes and anything else that you automatically pay for each month. If you haven’t used it in the past month, it probably belongs on the chopping block. Also, be on the lookout for any free trials you forgot to cancel.

11. Find energy suckers that are driving up your electric bill.

No, we aren’t going to tell you to invest thousands of dollars on solar panels for your home as a way to save money on your electric bill. But there are a few inexpensive tricks that can help you save money on utilities. Simple things like regularly changing air filters and switching to more efficient light bulbs can make a big difference on energy costs.

12. Repair what’s broken instead of buying new.

Just because something’s broken doesn’t mean it’s destroyed. By learning some basic DIY techniques, you can make your lightly damaged goods like new again without shelling out for repairs. For instance, learning a few basic sewing stitches will help you repair your clothing for you and your family, even if you don’t have a sewing machine. There are plenty of ways to learn home repair skills for free online.

For major repairs, know when to call a pro. It’s worth the cost when you’re repairing a big-ticket item or doing anything that could jeopardize your safety.

13. Save money on prescription drugs.

Whether you have health insurance or not, it often pays to do some detective work before filling your prescriptions. If you don’t have insurance, you can save up to 80% on generic medications and 40% on name-brand drugs through Amazon Pharmacy and RxPass or find medications nearly at cost at Mark Cuban’s Cost Plus Drug Company. Even if you have insurance, a prescription drug card could help you save money. You can ask your pharmacist to run the cost using your insurance and the prescription drug card to find out which option is cheaper.

If a medication is expensive because you have to pay for it out of pocket or your insurance company puts it in a pricey tier, talk to your doctor or pharmacist. A lower-cost alternative may be available. For over-the-counter meds, always buy generic. The FDA requires generic drugs to be chemically identical to their more expensive name-brand counterparts.

14. Ditch your cell phone plan if you have a major carrier.

You don’t have to worry about spotty service when you switch to a discount cell phone plan. Most discount plans run on the network of one of the four major carriers, so the only thing you have to lose is your out-of-hand bill. Depending on the plan, you may have data restrictions. Some also require an unlocked device.

15. Find money you’ve long forgotten about.

Some money-saving strategies require a ridiculous amount of discipline. So here’s a super easy trick that could give you a quick savings boost in just three minutes. Find out if someone owes you money by searching your state’s unclaimed property website.

At least one in 10 Americans has missing money waiting to be claimed. You could find money from old security deposits, bank accounts or even a life insurance policy you didn’t realize a loved one left you. The key to making a one-time windfall work for you is to use it purposefully. That can mean saving or investing your money or putting it toward debt. (You invest in companies without having to pay for an entire share with a free app called Public).

Full terms and conditions at www.public.com/disclosures. Investing involves risk. 

16. Squeeze every cent you can out of your employer.

We aren’t just talking about negotiating your salary and asking for a raise when you’ve earned it — though both are essential, albeit awkward. To build your long-term savings, make sure you’re not leaving free money on the table. Contribute enough to get your employer’s full retirement match if they offer a 401(k) plan. If you have a health savings account, take advantage of any matching contributions to that as well. You can use the money you save for your own, your spouse’s or a dependent family member’s expenses.

17. Got a raise? Congrats, but don’t spend it.

Do your tastes get fancier every time you get a raise? This phenomenon is called lifestyle inflation, and it’s a notorious savings killer. You don’t have to live like you’re on an entry-level salary forever, but make a plan for your future raises so your living expenses increase at a slower rate than your salary. For example, plan to save half of your next pay increase and stick the rest in savings.

A person rides a bicycle in the park as the sun sets.
Aileen Perilla/The Penny Hoarder

18. Travel on two wheels whenever possible.

Even if it’s not feasible to ditch your car, commuting by biking a couple days a week can help you save money on obvious expenses, like gas and parking. But there’s also a bonus here: When you’re on your bike, you can fit a lot less in your basket or backpack than you can in your car’s trunk. So, if you have a habit of making extra trips to the grocery store or stopping for takeout on your way home, traveling by bike reduces the temptation.

19. Cancel the insurance you don’t need.

Insurance can seem like a money-sucker because you don’t need to use it very often (hopefully). Still, having sufficient homeowner insurance or renters insurance, car insurance and medical insurance is one of the best ways to prevent an emergency from destroying your finances.

That said, some types of insurance are a waste of money. For example, you probably don’t need collision insurance or comprehensive insurance on a car that’s paid off if it’s an older model and one fender-bender away from scrapyard heaven. You may not want to shell out for accident insurance or critical illness insurance either, because the circumstances they’ll cover you for are so limited. Even life insurance may not be worth the cost if you’re single with no dependents.

20. Do a no-spend challenge

Duh. It sounds so easy: To save money, just don’t spend it. But, that can be hard. Fortunately, gamifying saving money can work. Try doing a no-spend challenge, where you commit to not spending any money over a certain period — be it a month, a week or even a single day — can help you reign in your spending.

Or, you could try a modified version. Do a pantry challenge, where you avoid the grocery store and use the ingredients you have on hand to feed your family. Or build a capsule wardrobe, where you select a certain number of clothing items and make those your only wardrobe for the time frame of your choosing.

Dental Hygienist students work on people's teeth at a clinic.
Students work on patients at the Dental Hygiene Clinic at St. Petersburg College in Pinellas Park, Fla. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

21. Find discounted services at vocational schools

If you’re looking for ways to save money on expensive services, sometimes it pays to let a student practice on you. You can get services like beauty treatments, sonograms and massage therapy at steep discounts from local vocational schools. If you live near a university and you’re truly brave, you could even get low-cost dental work from a dental student.

22. Get free or low-cost financial help

If you’re struggling to stick to your budget or keep your spending in check, it’s OK to ask for help. You don’t need to spend big bucks to work with a financial pro. Unlike financial planners and advisers, who often cater to people with a higher net worth, a financial counselor is trained to help regular people manage their money from day to day. Many offer their services at little to no cost through a bank, school or nonprofit, or they practice on their own and use a sliding scale based on your income.

23. Find ways to earn extra money.

There’s no way around this one: When you have a bare-bones budget, sometimes saving money just isn’t possible. One reason is that your fixed costs, like your rent or mortgage, medical insurance and car payments, are often your biggest expenses — and the hardest to reduce.

If you’ve cut everything you can and still can’t save, it’s time to find ways to make extra money. Switching to a higher-paying job isn’t always realistic, but you can still take on a side hustle, find a work-from-home job you can do part-time or make extra cash selling stuff online.

24. Find cheap ways to treat yourself.

Any successful savings plan has a little built-in flexibility so you can treat yourself from time to time. Rather than downing drinks at happy hour, buy yourself a good (but cheap) bottle of wine to enjoy at home. Have a DIY spa day using simple ingredients you probably have on hand. And if you’ve been stuck at home trying to save, try refresh your home’s look without spending a dime.

25. Talk about your struggles and your successes.

One of the best ways to save money is to tell other people that you’re trying to save money. Doing so can help you prepare your friends and family for when they hear you say no to joining them when they suggest expensive plans.

But that’s not the only advantage. It’s easy to feel like you’re the only one who’s struggling to save money, especially when you scroll through Instagram. But you’re far from alone. Find other people who are trying to save money, either within your social circle or by connecting with a like-minded online community. You can swap tips for saving money and find encouragement when times are rough.

And when you reach your savings goals, no matter how big or small? Pay it forward. Talk about it. Let others know exactly how you managed to save money — and that they can do it, too.

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SoFi Direct Deposit Promotion begins on 01/01/2023 and will be available through 12/31/23. SoFi members with Direct Deposit of $5,000 or more in Qualifying Deposits during the 30-Day Evaluation Period can earn 4.60% annual percentage yield (APY) on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. There is no minimum Direct Deposit amount required to qualify for the stated interest rate. Members without either Direct Deposit or Qualifying Deposits, during the 30-Day Evaluation Period will earn 1.20% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Interest rates are variable and subject to change at any time. These rates are current as of 8/9/2023. There is no minimum balance requirement. Additional information can be found at http://www.sofi.com/legal/banking-rate-sheet.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder.