Anyone on a tight budget knows how hard it can be to save money these days, especially when most of your income is spent paying for such basics as food, gas and housing.

Barring unexpected windfalls such as an inheritance or a huge salary increase, today’s cash-strapped families need to take a look at their spending habits if they expect to free up money for emergencies, retirement or even dinner and a movie.

The first step is coming to terms with wants versus needs. Next, tally all major monthly expenses and investigate whether they can be obtained more cheaply.

Budget-conscious consumers can find dozens of ways to trim fat from bloated household budgets, but rather than focus on minutiae, we’ve compiled ideas that provide the biggest bang for the buck.

7 ways to cut back big expenses
  1. Homeowner’s insurance
  2. Auto insurance
  3. Groceries
  4. Communications
  5. Clothing
  6. Utility bills
  7. Entertainment

Homeowners insurance

If you can afford to, consider raising your deductible to $500 or $1,000. You can also reduce your premium by reducing coverage on the “household contents” portion of your insurance policy. This part of your homeowner’s policy covers your personal belongings rather than the structure itself.

Most insurance companies offer discounts if you buy your homeowners and automobile policies from them. You can also reduce your premium by installing smoke alarms, deadbolt locks and home security systems that are monitored 24 hours a day.

Potential savings: By raising your deductibles, combining policies and installing home security devices, you can save as much as 25 percent every month on premiums, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Auto insurance

Start by shopping around and requesting multiple quotes. (You might also want to get quotes for homeowners insurance at the same time, since having multiple lines with one company usually results in reduced costs.) Make sure the coverage you seek from competitors matches the coverage you have (or want) so that the comparisons are apples-to-apples.

Auto polices can vary by several hundred dollars, depending on the insurance company and your driving record. Blemishes like speeding tickets and chargeable accidents will cost you more.

Be sure to advise your insurance agent of your car’s safety features. Such things as air bags, anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights and anti-theft devices can shave dollars off your premium.

Be sure not to skimp on liability insurance, though. A March 2008 report by AAA concluded that the average cost of a crash-related injury was $68,170, factoring in medical costs, property damage and rehabilitation, etc.

“If you’re in a nasty accident you could lose everything,” says Gary Foreman, publisher of Stretcher.com. “That is not the place to start saving.”

You can also save money by raising your auto insurance deductible, but make sure that you can afford the increased deductible if you’re in an accident. If you own an older vehicle that is fully paid for, you may want to drop comprehensive coverage altogether and opt for general liability coverage only.

Potential savings: Increasing your deductible from $200 to $500 could cut costs on your collision and comprehensive coverage by 15 percent to 30 percent. Opting for a $1,000 deductible could save you 40 percent or more, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Groceries

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics say Americans spend nearly 14 percent of the household budget on food. Gary Foreman, publisher of Stretcher.com, believes it’s closer to 20 percent, and of that amount, 25 percent is wasted.

“That’s because it either: 1) Gets bought and goes bad before they cook it; or 2) They cook it and it goes into the refrigerator — with every intention of turning it into tomorrow night’s leftovers — but it ends up becoming a science project,” he says.

The goal: Reduce wasted food by 25 percent. You’ll see your grocery dollar go a lot farther. Cutting coupons can make a dramatic difference.

“Layer the savings, don’t settle for just one kind of savings at the grocery store,” says Ellie Kay, author of “How to Save Money Every Day.”

She advises shoppers to learn to compound savings by monitoring store sales and using double coupons, cash-off-your-next-shopping-trip vouchers, store coupons and more.

It’s a good idea to keep track of the prices of frequently bought items in a notebook, suggests Gary Foreman, publisher of Stretcher.com. “So when you see a sale price, you can truly judge if it’s a good deal and stock up on it.”

Shopping tip: Make a simple meal plan for the entire week before you go shopping to keep you from buying things that look enticing but don’t get eaten.

Cooking tip: Microwaves can be a busy family’s best friend. Prepare a dinner plate or two using leftovers; date and freeze them. Display a list of meals on the front of the freezer. When something gets eaten, cross it off the list. When a new meal is ready for the freezer, add it to the list in chronological order so older food gets eaten first.

Potential savings: Ellie Kay says the average family of four can save up to $3,900 per year by following these tips.

Communications

Premium cable channels and cell phone plans with thousands of minutes and options like texting and Web access go right to the top of the “want” list rather than the “need” list.

The average monthly price for expanded basic programming is $42.76, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Add a couple of premium channels, a sports package or two and your monthly bill can easily top $100 per month.

“Nobody should be in the position that they are going to lose their home or can’t make credit card payments on time because they absolutely have to have HBO2,” says Gary Foreman, publisher of Stretcher.com.

Consider if you really need extra cell phone options or an infrequently used landline. The average monthly cost for bundled cell phone service (including voice, Web access and texting options) is between $99 and $149, plus taxes and surcharges.

Potential savings: $100 or more per month.

Clothing

Families with young children tend to spend more on clothing because kids seem to grow into the next size overnight, and they tend to be a little rougher on their wardrobe. The solution? Shop the clearance racks often.

“I purchased six pairs of jeans for my kids this way, with original prices at $60 and sales prices at $20 for a total savings of $240,” says Ellie Kay, author of “How to Save Money Every Day.”

Another solution is to buy used clothing at consignment or thrift shops, but make sure it’s in good condition.

Financial adviser Susan Zimmerman of Mindful Asset Planning in Apple Valley, Minn., says she saved a bundle by waiting until her children were older before they got the latest gear.

“I didn’t buy toddler and preschool clothes at a store at all,” she says. “I got them at garage sales and things like that.”

Potential savings: Hundreds of dollars, depending on how many children you have and how often you need to buy clothing.

Utility bills

The typical American family spends more than $1,600 a year on home utility bills, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The price of home heating oil alone rose 49.2 percent between August 2007 and August 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Much of that energy is wasted through cracks in windows and doors and through open chimney flues.

Close the damper on your fireplace if you have one. Leaks through the damper can increase your heating bills by 8 percent or more.

In colder climates, small improvements such as caulking and using plastic films around window frames will stem the amount of heat that’s wasted.

“Start with obvious things like weather stripping the house to reduce air conditioning and heating costs,” says Gary Foreman, publisher of Stretcher.com. “Any time you can create an air pocket that way, you will save on your heating bill.”

Set your thermostat back when you’re not home and while you’re sleeping. Lower the temperature on your water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. An added benefit is that you’ll prevent unnecessary scalding injuries.

Potential savings: You can save up to 10 percent on your heating and cooling costs. A dwelling that incorporates a “whole-house energy efficiency plan” by using proper insulation, compact fluorescent light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances can cut energy costs by up to 25 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Entertainment

Just because you’re in “savings combat mode” doesn’t mean you have to wait until 49-cent-burger-night to treat the gang to dinner and a movie. One way to curb expenses: Invest in region-specific entertainment coupon books at such sites as Entertainment.com.

The books sell for between $25 and $45 each and pay for themselves in short order. The discount coupons offer deals for eating at local restaurants, but an added benefit is you can also save on movie theaters, theme parks and other local stores.

Potential savings: The coupon book for the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area claims more than $18,200 in savings if you use every coupon. Of course, you don’t want to use every coupon or your entertainment expenses will be through the roof! But even if you were to use just 10 percent of the coupons, you’d save about $1,820.

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