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Sweat the small (and big) stuff

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The payoff: If you decide to spend, say, $650 for a white set instead of $2,517 for the burgundy pair, you save $1867. Make a one-time investment of that amount in a tax-deferred retirement account earning 8 percent, and in 15 years (about the time when you'll need to replace the washer and dryer) it will grow to nearly $6,000. By the way, I chronicled my own quest for a different appliance in "The search for the perfect bisque dishwasher."

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3. Dining out
The choices: This is America's weak spot and often gets us into credit card trouble. We enjoy well-prepared food without having to cook it ourselves and clean up afterwards. We can easily justify such a treat on a weekly basis because we work hard and deserve to be rewarded. So perhaps too often our hunter-gatherer instincts propel us in the direction of quality restaurants where attentive waiters, varied menus, soft music and delicious foods await.

There's no scientific way to calculate how much we would save if we ate at home, but let's use approximate numbers. Let's say it costs $85, including tax and tip, for a couple to enjoy dinner out. The seafood entrees -- Chilean sea bass with mango salsa and Ahi tuna with pan Asian sauce -- cost $18 each; the fried calamari appetizer, $9, plus three glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon at $8 apiece. Do this every Saturday night, and you spend $4,420 a year.

Of course, you're going to need to eat Saturday nights regardless of whether you go out. So let's imagine that alternatively, at home you make a delicious fettuccini dish with fresh scallops in olive oil with lots of garlic and parmesan cheese. Cost of the meal: about $18. A bonus: You know exactly the type and how much fat is in your food. Throw in a bottle of wine that you bought on sale for $12, and you're up to $30.

The payoff: If you were to avoid dining out on Saturdays and instead eat at home, your savings would be $2,860 a year.

But let's not be too rigid; let's say that you go out once a month instead of every week, so that your monthly restaurant expenditures plus Saturday night meals at home equal $2,220 a year. (12 x $85 = $1,020 + $1,200 for 40 dinners at home.) Subtract that from the $4,420 that you would spend if you dine out every Saturday, and you save $2,200 a year. Invest that amount for 30 years in a tax-deferred account earning 8 percent annually, and you will have nearly $250,000 saved up to spend on early-bird specials in retirement. (Make sure to skip the trans fat.)

These types of decisions may not seem like a big deal on a day-to-day basis, but over time they can make a huge difference. That's why it might make sense to sweat the small as well as the big stuff.

Longtime financial journalist Barbara Mlotek Whelehan earned a certificate of specialization in financial planning. If you have a comment or suggestion about this column, write to Boomer Bucks.'s corrections policy-- Posted: April 25, 2007
Next More stories by Barbara Whelehan
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