smart spending

10 ways to save $500 or more

6. Don't flush money down the commode.

No-name-brand toilet paper, paper towels, tissues, paper cups, plastic wrap, plastic bags, etc., are all available at half the price of similar name-brand products when you buy them in bulk.

You don't even have to wait for a sale. Such stores as Walmart, Kmart, Costco and Sam's Club offer these items all the time at bulk rates.

For instance, you can buy 15,000 sheets of toilet paper for about $13, compared to the 4,224 sheets of the "squeezably soft" variety that routinely sells for $9 in a 12-pack. Big-name plastic wrap can be 10 times more expensive than the big-box variety.

Of course, bulk buying requires having some cash on hand, transportation to carry large quantities and big enough storage space for these items. If you can manage those basic requirements, buying big can be a tremendous deal and easily cut costs by $500 per year. But remember, putting these purchases on your credit card defeats the purpose.

7. Limit media.

A cost that didn't exist at all for most people a decade ago has morphed into a major expense. The average monthly cable bill, excluding Internet access and other extras, now runs about $52, according to Kagan Research, which monitors the broadcasting industry. Look hard at what you are spending for television, phone and Internet. If you are like the rest of us, cutting $50 a month out of this category is a slam dunk.

Who watches 300 channels anyway? The easiest way to cut costs: Just take a deep breath and cancel everything but the basic plan. Most cable companies have a very limited plan for $10 or $15 per month that offers local channels and a few other networks. If you have satellite, the basic plan, including local channels, will cost you about $30. If you want to watch a movie or an HBO series now and then, rent it -- you'll still come out way ahead.

If you have greater than average do-it-yourself skills, consider installing an antenna and capturing high-definition television signals over the air. An antenna isn't your father's rabbit ears -- you get no snow and reception that's probably clearer than your cable or satellite provides. And best of all, it's free. A page on the National Association of Broadcasters' Web site lists the stations you can expect to receive. In most cities, that's all the networks plus PBS. In rural areas, you might get less, but that's changing quickly. CNET offers a great set of instructions for setting it up and calls it a three-hour project.

Next, examine your phone service -- particularly your cell. What kind of user are you? If your phone's for short calls only -- "I'm on my way home now, dear" -- consider a pay-as-you-go plan like ones offered by Virgin Mobile. It has cool phones, and, for a total of $80 per year, you can make those kinds of calls and have peace of mind. It's a big bargain.

Family plans are another possibility. Four people on the same plan will cost about $25 each. Calls at night and during weekends are usually free, so the small prime-time minute allocation goes a long way. You just can't chat endlessly during regular business hours with these plans.

If you are paying more for home phone service than about $50 per month for both unlimited local and long distance, you're missing the boat.

For those with high-speed Internet service, the cheapest phone option is probably an Internet-based phone service such as Vonage or others offered by cable or phone companies. These aren't subject to the same taxes that wired phone lines are, so for less than $20 a month, you can get 500 minutes of service with lots of features, including voicemail.

There are drawbacks. One is that if your Internet is down, so is your phone.

8. Sign up for tax-advantaged plans at work.

The possibilities include education, health, transportation and child care savings accounts. If you're in the 25 percent tax bracket, you'll be $500 ahead once you spend $2,000 in pretax dollars on these necessities. If your company doesn't offer these plans, ask for them to be added. It's a cost-free benefit that even the smallest and most cash-strapped employer can offer.

9. Eat in.

Replace one $20 eat-in restaurant meal per week with a large $7 carryout pizza from any of the billions of cheap pizza places in every city. Better yet, buy pizza at the grocery store.

10. Don't bank on it.

Pay credit card bills in full as soon as possible, and take advantage of free bill pay.

The real savings can be had by avoiding credit card debt and paying off what you've accumulated as quickly as possible. For instance, if you owe $4,000 on a card charging you 18 percent interest, and you pay three times the minimum payment every month, or $300, you'll pay off the card in 15 months and spend about $500 in interest. If you spread the cost out and pay $200 per month -- still twice the minimum payment -- you'll pay off the bill in 24 months and pay out $4,800 in total -- $800 in interest. If you can bite the bullet and pay as much as $400 each month, the debt will be gone in less than a year and you'll save between $100 and $700 in interest over the other options.

Saving money doesn't have to take an ugly bite out of your lifestyle. Once you put these strategies in place, you won't feel pinched, because you're not giving up much at all.

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