There are many different ways to save, but your success depends on your personal spending habits. Some saving strategies are more difficult than others, so start by trying a different tactic each month. This can help you discover where you can save the most.
January: Food for thought
Reducing your grocery budget requires planning, so start the year strong by making food at home. If you don’t already have a grocery budget, look at your grocery spending habits over the past three months—the amount may surprise you. If you usually spend $350 each month on groceries, reduce that amount to $300 by limiting your weekly grocery bill to $75.
Next, begin comparison shopping. If you usually go to the same store, try out several other stores, including bargain grocery stores. Make a list of 30 items that you usually buy and note their price at three different stores. Then, shop at the one with the lowest overall total.
You can also try planning your meals ahead of time. Make a list of everything you will make in a week and shop only for those ingredients. Don’t forget to check out the coupons or weekly deals while you are planning your menu so that you can take advantage of the most affordable items. Buying items in bulk at stores can also be cost effective if you double the recipe and freeze a meal for later.
If you typically include alcohol in your grocery budget, resist the temptation to include alcohol among your other grocery items. Some well-known grocery stores carry wines for as little as $10, and other retail stores frequently offer liquor and sells off-season six packs for just $4.
February: Keep the change
One of the most popular money-saving tricks is to use cash for your non-fixed spending categories, such as eating out, groceries, and entertainment. The idea is that the physical reminder of how much you have left will help you stay within your budget. This can be particularly helpful if you normally rely heavily on credit cards.
Because you’re using cash, you can combine this strategy with another saving tool by putting all your extra change in a jar. You’ll be surprised how quickly those coins add up at the end of one month.
March: Cut down your banking bills
This month, save money on banking services. Do you occasionally incur ATM fees when you’re out with friends? Has your bank charged you a convenience fee or a low balance fee? You can find out by using a service such as Mint.com or by simply looking at your bank statements. If you see these charges, you may want to ask your bank to be reimbursed—or switch to a new bank entirely. A credit union or local bank may help you find ATMs without fees or offer you a free checking account.
April: Break the habit – for a month
Take on the challenge of cutting out a luxury indulgence, such as alcohol, eating out, daily coffee runs, smoking, or shopping—whichever is the most expensive for you. If you can stay away from it for the whole month, look at how much you typically spent on the indulgence in previous months and calculate what you saved.
May: Research insurance rates
A 2013 NerdWallet study (the most recent available) reported that American drivers are overpaying an average of 8 per year for car insurance. Dealing with insurance is often frustrating, but researching better rates can help you save. You can also look into special insurance programs, such as pay-as-you-drive insurance, where your safe driving habits may help you qualify for a lower monthly rate.
June: Celebrate a month of free entertainment
As summer gets into full swing, you’re likely to find more free activities. This month, try to reduce your entertainment budget significantly by looking for “free fun.” If you live in a city, explore the public parks, which often host free concerts and festivals. Many galleries, zoos, parks, and museums will also often have a free night for residents.
In addition, see if you can get any perks through your job, an association to which you belong, or your personal financial institution. For example, a well-known national bank hosts a museum program that allows free entrance for cardholders.
TIP: Consider checking out books or movies from the library. Not a reader? See if your library offers audiobooks, or download a free podcast. If you enjoy the outdoors, go hiking, picnicking, or bird watching, or just go on a long walk.
July: Get a side job
Use this month to look for temporary ways to bring in extra income. Babysitting for the right family can be lucrative and easy if you have the time. You can set up a profile on Care.com or Sittercity.com. On TaskRabbit, you can sign up for odd jobs such as lawn mowing or assembling furniture.
You can also look into using your car to make extra cash as a driver in a ride-sharing program. A few other ideas include mystery shopping, completing online surveys, dog walking, or house sitting. Be sure to investigate any insurance stipulations that may apply to services such as dog walking.
August: Cut your commuting costs
This month, concentrate on reducing your transportation costs. Can you carpool with a coworker and split the gas money? Can you take a train or bus to work? Can you bike to work? Does your employer have a telecommuting policy that will allow you to work from home periodically?
If your commuting costs are fixed, investigate your housing costs. Have you refinanced your mortgage? If you rent, have you considered moving closer to work? The initial moving expenses may be offset over the course of your lease by the savings on gas or other commuting expenses.
September: Break out your haggling skills
Earlier in the year, you negotiated with your bank. Now it’s time to tackle the rest: utility companies, phone companies, and cable companies. Review your existing plans to ensure you’re getting the most cost-efficient rates, plans, and services for your lifestyle.
TIP: Contact your utility company to see if it offers a budget plan – especially in the colder months. You may pay a bit more in the warmer months, but you could save money when it gets colder. Plus, you’ll know how much your bill will be each month.
October: Out with the old
Make a list of items around your house that you’d be willing to sell: old cell phones, computers, clothes, books, and furniture. Take plenty of photographs and post them online on eBay, Craigslist, or Half.com.
TIP: When posting your items, take note of the prices of similar items listed on these sites. Assess the condition of your items compared to the sale listings you’ve seen, and set your price. If you prefer an in-person experience, organize a garage sale or see if there’s one that you could join.
November: Monitor your utility usage
As it gets colder, your utility bills could significantly impact your savings. Keep your winter utility costs in check by turning down the heat when you are not at home or at night. Unplug as much as possible, and only turn on the lights you need. These are small, but simple ways to see your savings grow.
December: Give gifts from the heart
For the holidays, give only gifts you’ve made yourself. There are websites and books that you can check out from the library that are dedicated to DIY gift giving. The time you put into these gifts could make the 2015 season your most meaningful holiday.
If making all of your gifts is impossible, commit to giving only a few gifts, researching them online for the best price, and only buying them from your list.
Saving money requires commitment, dedication, and creativity. It may help you to visualize your goal. Create a debt-free chart or post a photo of where you will travel with your savings. Then, make sure you keep track of how much you have saved.
Ilyce Glink is the author of over a dozen books, including the bestselling 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask and Buy, Close, Move In! Her nationally syndicated column, “Real Estate Matters,” appears in newspapers from coast-to-coast, and her Expert Real Estate Tips YouTube channel has nearly 4 million views. She is the managing editor of the Equifax Finance Blog, publisher of ThinkGlink.com, and owner of digital communications agency Think Glink Media. In addition to her WSB radio show and WGN radio contributions, she is also a frequent guest on National Public Radio. Ilyce is a frequent contributor to Yahoo and CBS News.