Every few weeks I take questions from consumers and do my best to answer them here in this space. This time I'm going to answer a key question that was put to me by one person seeking a "GMA Savings Makeover." In case you missed it, last year I offered Good Morning America viewers makeovers based on the 100 simple cost-cutting strategies in my book, SAVE BIG. I found roughly $47,000 in savings for the first family, $189,000 for the second, $108,000 for the third and $58,000 for the fourth! (To see the stories –and how the same strategies could help you–click on the dollar amounts.) The key is to look for big savings instead of small ones and look in the places where we spend the most money: our homes, cars, credit, groceries and healthcare. In my book I make some very different assumptions about the best way to save (For example, I let you HAVE your latte!), so here's my contrarian response to a classic question.
Q: How do we save when so many fixed costs are involved?
A: In this tricky economy, try to adjust your attitude! Are you SURE your costs are fixed? It's time to get scrappy to save some much needed money. The truth is even most supposedly "fixed" costs can be negotiated, refinanced or shopped around.
If you rent, try negotiating for a better rate. It costs landlords a lot of money to leave properties empty, so if you're a good tenant, that is valuable to them. Research the incentives your landlord and other nearby buildings are offering new tenants and use that as a starting point to argue for a better deal.
If you own a home, interest rates have been historically low. Are you in a position to refinance? I argue that it's worth refinancing if you can get half a point off your rate and if you will add no more than 5 years to the length of your mortgage and be able to pay your closing costs off in 5 years or less–preferably much less. That's my "Refinancing Rule of 5's. Can't get approved at a big bank? Try a credit union. They pay attention to your situation , not just your score. Find one here.
Property taxes? Appeal your assessment! Many local jurisdictions have not caught up with reality and are still using market values from early 2008 to judge homes. This is the time of year that assessments get mailed out. Appealing takes about the same amount of work as fighting a traffic ticket –with a much bigger payout. I interviewed a New Jersey man who stood to save $5,000 a year if he won his appeal!
If car payments are a burden and your vehicle is not too old and you are not underwater on the value, did you know you can refinance it? Yup. Once again, credit unions are the place to turn. They do more of these auto loan refinances than anybody else.
Insurance? That certainly is not fixed! I found a New York family more than $2,000 in annual savings on their car insurance just by shopping around. An easy way to do this is to approach an independent agent who represents many different companies. Find one here. I found a Virginia family of seven nearly $7,000 in savings on their health insurance, again by shopping around through an independent agent. There are savings to be had on homeowner's insurance too.
Groceries aren't fixed either. You know that. But did you know that grocery gurus who know how to work the system can save as much as 80 percent ? When I say groceries I'm talking about food, household supplies and personal care products. One simple way to start saving like that is to try what I call "Copycat Grocery Shopping." Super Savers who routinely get huge discounts post their best finds online on their blogs. Just buy what they buy the way they do and you are golden! The website www.becentsable.net has compiled a list of these Grocery Gurus by state and store.
Medical costs aren't fixed either. The key is to behave like a consumer rather than a patient when you interact with the medical profession. A Harris Interactive Poll found that 70-percent of people who asked a hospital for a price break got one. Most doctors are also open to negotiating, especially if you will pay up front, because they spend thousands chasing after people and insurance companies to pay their bills. Even medications are fluid. Look up the meds you take on a website like RXaminer.com or DestinationRX.com and you will find that some stores offer them for far less than others do. These sites also list less expensive alternative drugs that you might be able to take instead.