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16 ways to find an extra $50 in your wallet

16 ways to find an extra $50How would you like to reach into the pocket of last year's winter coat and find a crisp $50 bill?

It's not as far-fetched as it sounds. Even if you're all tapped out by the holidays, you can regularly "discover" an extra $10, $20 or $50 in your bank account with a little help from the experts.

Here are 16 ways to find $50 -- or more -- in your future:

1. Accept free money. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But employees constantly pass up matching funds from employers for everything from retirement savings to day care expenses. When Cherise Oleson decided to have corrective eye surgery, her husband Mark, director of the Iowa State University Financial Counseling Clinic, enrolled in his employer's medical savings account program. The plan allows the couple to pay for the surgery in pretax dollars -- saving them one-third the cost of the $3,500 surgery. Many companies offer similar accounts for dental and child care expenses, and the programs are a great deal if you have regular expenses -- like child care -- or anticipate elective surgery or dental expenses in the coming year. Similarly, take advantage of matching programs for retirement accounts, too. If you're 30 this year, and getting a 6 percent return on your retirement savings, each dollar your employer puts in will be worth nearly $8 when you turn 65.

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2. Put on a sweater. Turn down your thermostat one degree and you will save 2 percent to 3 percent from your monthly energy bill, says Alvin Ubell, co-author of Save Energy, Save Money. If you have a winter power bill of $100 and you crank the dial back just 5 degrees, you'll find an extra $15 in your checking account each month -- and make a quick $50 between now and spring thaw. Want to find an extra $5 to $12 a month? Turn the water heater down, too.

3. Deep six PMI. Planning to refinance your home? Get rid of private mortgage insurance (PMI) while you're at it, says Brian J. Surette, a senior economist with Freddie Mac. As long as you've covered at least 20 percent of your home's original cost -- either in down payment, equity or both -- you don't have to carry PMI. How much you save depends on the value of your home. But on a medium-priced home -- in the neighborhood of $139,000 nationally -- PMI runs $40 to $70 a month, according to the Mortgage Insurance Companies of America, a mortgage industry trade group.

4. Pay your credit cards on time. Sure, it's tempting to let those bills slide a week or two, but in this case time really is money, says David Bendix, president of the Garden City, New York-based Bendix Financial Group. "For some people, this can be a couple of hundred dollars," Bendix says.

5. Go early. From matinee movies to Broadway shows to early bird dinners, showing up ahead of the crowd nets a significant savings. Plan on seeing two movies a month? Take a date in the evening, and you'll pay at least $14 before you even hit the popcorn counter. Switch to a matinee, and you get the equivalent of one trip to the theater for free.

6. Pay your dues (annually). From insurance to magazine subscriptions to gym membership, paying fees annually usually nets you a nice chunk of change. When Elaine Biech joined a gym, she had a choice of paying $25 each month -- a total of $300 annually -- or $175 upfront. "The reason these places want [payment upfront] is that they have cash-flow problems," said Biech, author of The Consultant's Quick Start Guide: An Action Plan for Your First Year in Business. Biech weighed the options and figured out that even if she skips visiting the gym here and there, she's still getting five months of membership for free.

7. Take a hike. In New York, where transit is pricey, CPA Barry Picker often walks or bikes to his job site. "My office is only a mile from my house," says Picker, author of Barry Picker's Guide to Retirement Distribution Planning. Picker figures he saves roughly $45 a month -- and loses a few pounds in the process.

8. Don't throw anything away. Clearing out your closets or bookshelves? Donate or sell anything usable. "Even a sum as nominal as $150 worth of clothing will give you a charitable deduction worth $50," Picker says.

When Patricia Schiff Estess cleared out her bookshelves recently, she carried two armfuls of books down to The Strand, a used bookstore in New York. They gave her $130 for her castoffs. "I felt like I had robbed a bank," says Schiff Estess, author of Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage: Handling Delicate Financial Issues Intelligently and Lovingly."I'm clearing some shelf space, and they're paying me for it." Want to save money and space? Schiff Estess's advice: If you haven't used something in three years -- get rid of it.

9. Switch credit cards. Take the $1,000 balance from a 19 percent rate card and put it on a card with a 9 percent rate and you'll save $100 annually. Oleson's extra credit move: Apply your savings to the balance each month and get out from under your debt a little quicker.

10. Cut back on coffee. If part of your morning routine includes a $4 coffee binge, cutting back to twice a week could net you an extra $64 a month. Can't go cold turkey? Take a thermos full of home brew, or stop at Burger King for less than a buck. At the end of the month you'll find an extra $40 in your pocket.

11. Only buy things you'll really use. "I've really been conscientious about that," says Biech, who's employed this technique to cut her bookstore bill, but not her reading list, in half. It works equally well for magazine subscriptions, clothing, CDs and accessories.

12. Contribute early. Planning on putting money in your IRA? Move the cash into your account as early in the year as you can, says Picker. Even at a 5 percent rate of return, putting in your $3,000 contribution six months earlier nets an extra $75 in interest.

13. Join the club. Travel regularly? Sign up with one of the airlines or online travel sites so that when there is a good deal to a place you regularly visit, you'll know. Try Expedia.com, Travelocity.com or an airline that services your favorite destinations.

14. Brownbag it. Even a cheap meal out is $5 a pop, says Schiff Estess. Pack your own lunch every other day, and you'll save $50 a month. Gotten hooked on vending machine snacks? Even in quarters, a buck or two a day adds up. If you have to have soda or snacks, buy your favorites at the local discount house and bring them from home. Sure, the calories are the same, but at least your wallet will have a chance to gain a little weight, too.

15. Work and play well with others. Live in a condo or co-op? Consider going in with a neighbor to purchase items you use only once in a while -- like power tools, stepladders, card tables and folding chairs. "Chances that you both would need it at the same time are rare," says Schiff Estess. And you get to cut the cost of household necessities by at least half.

16. Give yourself a new start in the new year. Use your Christmas bonus or whatever cash you've gotten for the holidays to pay down the balance on whichever credit card has the highest rate. If you're carrying a $500 balance with a 15 percent rate, paying it off could save you $75 annually. Put that savings into a money market, brokerage or retirement account, and someone else gets to pay you every month instead of the other way around.

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

-- Updated: April 18, 2003

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See Also
Beat the credit card debt game
Create a spending plan
Cheap is chic
7 steps to financial fitness

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