The number of Web sites promising to help families save money has grown almost as fast as the number of Americans who need to trim their budgets. Unfortunately, not all of those sites deliver on their promise.
The 10 tips that follow are designed to give you maximum control over the money you have. Zero in on the places where your budget needs help, and you’ll find relevant Web sites that are free, useful and easy to use.
1. Make a budget. Lots of Web sites help you track your money. At Mint, for example, you can enter passwords for bank accounts as well as credit cards, making it possible for the site to categorize and track everything you spend. If that seems like overkill, check out the paper-and-pencil budget forms available at Frugal Living, a site that has tons of tips about living well with less.
2. Look for structural savings. So-called “fixed” expenses aren’t nearly as fixed as they used to be. At Lower My Bills and Bank Rate, you can compare rates for utilities, credit card companies and even mortgage lenders. Other sites are more specialized. Use Save on Phone to untangle the complicated packages offered by cell-phone companies or Bill Shrink to compare credit card deals.
3. Control discretionary spending. If you’re serious about sticking to a budget, don’t even visit sites like Overstock and Woot. Even though the deals may be terrific, you’ll still be tempted to spend money on things you may not need simply because the price is right. The same rule applies to so-called “deal” sites where “Only 2 Left At this Price!” tags may trigger impulsive spending.
4. Do your homework. Before making any purchase of more than $25, check a price comparison site like Price Grabber to find out what the item “should” cost. If you’re trying to save money on an auction site like eBay, visit Honesty first, so you’ll recognize bargains when you see them.
5. Be smart when you spend online. If the going price for something is beyond your budget, put what you’re willing to pay into Price Spider and let its bots email you when they find a deal on what you want. Then look for coupons at coupon sites such as Retail Me Not or Coupon Mountain. Avoid shipping charges with the codes at Free Shipping. And register your purchase on Price Protectr. They’ll send you an email if they spot the product at a lower price, and many retailers will refund the difference.
6. Eat for less. Cutting your food budget means spending less on the food you buy and choosing recipes that get maximum nutrition per dollar. Like many other grocery sites, My Grocery Deals lists the specials at local stores after you’ve registered and provided your ZIP code. For frugal recipes, try Cheap Cooking, a Web site without a lot of bells and whistles — just hearty, family-friendly recipes that don’t call for costly ingredients.
7. Save on energy. Energy prices may fluctuate, but the pay-off strategy in the long term is to cut consumption. To make your home more efficient, take the time to work through the calculations at the Home Energy Saver. To be sure you are getting the best price on gasoline, visit the price data map at the government Web site Fuel Economy.
8. Indulge in free stuff. If you are dependent on retail therapy to improve your mood, it’s time to make the switch to freebie hunting. At sites like the Absurdly Cool Freebie Finder and Hey It’s Free, you’ll find all kinds of things you never knew you wanted. Of course, nothing is truly free. In some cases, there will be shipping charges. In others, you’ll give up contact information. Either way, you’ll pay less for your consumer high.
9. Bypass cash. The Internet has made it much easier to swap things you don’t want for things you need. Free Cycle lets members post both “Have” and “Want” listings. Dig 'n' Swap sets up exchanges between women who have things they don’t wear in their closets. At Swap Tree, registered users can trade books, videos, games and other items.
10. Learn tips and tricks. Saving money doesn’t have to be a grim business. You can, for example, recruit the kids to search for coupons and give them a percentage of what they help you save. Or you can visit Thrifty Fun, a lively site filled with craft projects that can be made from odds and ends most people already have on hand. You can get the email newsletter from Stretcher, a site that’s been collecting ideas about getting the most from every dollar since 1996. Or you can join Frugal Village, a community where moms cheerfully share their ideas about thrifty family management.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. If she missed your favorite money-saving Web site, please let her know at Growing Up Online.