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Good, better, best money-saving ideas

Each of us has a different tolerance level when it comes to saving money. What we're willing to do to save a dime depends on our interests, our time and other factors. Some people will make their own hot chocolate but refuse to change their own oil, for example.

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So we asked experts to provide a simple tip that will easily save money (good), another tip that might take a little more time or effort but which will save more money (better), and a more extreme tip that will help readers save the most -- but which would require the most thought or effort (best). This way, you can pick tips that match your needs and your tolerance for frugality.

Car buying
Your old clunker just gave out. Before you venture into the lion's den, also known as the car dealership, consider these money-saving options:

Good: Use a market guide such as Edmunds.com to learn the invoice pricing (what the dealer pays for the car) and the true market value (what people actually are paying for the car), says Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com.

Better: Research financing rates and get pre-approved. This puts you in a much stronger negotiating position, Reed says.

Best: Play dealerships off each other. Call or fax all of the dealerships in your area and ask for a written price quote. Such quotes shows salespeople you are not coming up with numbers out of thin air, Reed says. Remember, the greatest ability you have is to not buy a car. The dealer needs to sell cars, but you don't have to buy from him.

Bonus tip: Never decide based on the monthly payment. Focus only on the overall price of the car.

Clothing
Your wardrobe is looking a little shabby. Time to brighten it up with a few new (or at least new-to-you) pieces.

Good: Keep it simple. One woman built a wardrobe by buying two pairs of great-looking black pants and then shopping for good quality colorful tops, tunics and jackets. This keeps your shoe wardrobe simple and inexpensive too -- a pair of black boots in winter, black pumps the rest of the year. Now everything in your wardrobe goes with everything else, and you just need a few pieces every year to keep it fresh.

Better: Become a frequent buyer. By getting to know the policies and practices of a few stores, you can save a bundle. Couple insider knowledge gleaned from salesclerks along with loyalty programs and coupons, often generated by signing up for mailing lists. Take advantage of in-store promotions, such as applying for store credit cards when they offer an immediate discount on purchases.

Best: Shop everywhere -- and don't buy until you know you're getting the best deal. One woman who had never shopped for clothes at a discount store bought a blouse at Wal-Mart out of sheer desperation. It cost less than $25 and, two years later, still looked as good as new. Other places to shop include thrift stores and consignment shops, other people's closets (when a friend purges her wardrobe), even the grocery store (where T-shirts can go for $5!)

Groceries
Next to your rent or mortgage payment, your food bill is probably the biggest expense you have each month. Ellie Kay, author of "The Debt Diet" and "Half-Price Living," offers these tips:

Good: Shop sales. Look in the Sunday or Tuesday paper (depends on your area) and see what's on sale, advises Kay. Stock up on, and eat, items that are on sale that week.

Better: Sign up for a store card (sometimes called a clipless coupon). Shelf tags and sale ads show the "store card" price as compared to the regular price of the item. Some of these specials are unadvertised. All you have to do is show your store card at the cash register when you check out.

Best: "Get into couponing," says Kay. "Go to a double-coupon store to maximize savings." Use a file box to alphabetize and store your coupons. "Combine couponing with the purchase of sale items," says Kay. "And use your store card. If you make that the way you buy, you've paid the least price possible for the item." To make the most of this strategy, let your pantry dictate the menu. You purchase everything you ordinarily use on sale and with coupons. "Then when you need rice, you've already purchased it for 9 cents a box," says Kay. "Plan your meals around what you have. That's a different way of shopping."

 
 
Next: "I purchased a 1-year-old washer and dryer for 50 percent off."
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