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Save on housing, transit, food

By Paula Pant · Bankrate.com
Monday, November 26, 2012
Posted: 4 pm ET

I have a confession: I don't enjoy penny-pinching. It stresses me out.

I have dozens of tasks battling for my attention: emails, appointments, errands and more. I can't dedicate any mental space to thinking about the fact that shoes are cheaper at Store X, but pants are cheaper at Store Y.

Instead, I concentrate my savings efforts on the three categories in which Americans spend the most money: housing, transportation and food.

Housing. This is the biggest expense for most people. Many experts recommend that your housing expenses -- including taxes and insurance -- should not exceed 28 percent of your pretax income.

While that's a solid recommendation, it highlights how much money people spend on housing. I can't think of any other expense (besides taxes) that demands more than one-quarter of your paycheck.

So when I decide it's time to trim back, housing is the first category where I make cuts.

When I was a renter, I'd save money by moving to a less expensive apartment at the end of my lease term. As a homeowner, I save by renting out the extra rooms in my home. Sure, I no longer have a "guest room" – my guests have to sleep on a foldout couch. But in exchange, I shave hundreds off the out-of-pocket costs of my mortgage.

If you don't want the inconvenience of living with roommates, consider downsizing your home. You'll save not just on mortgage payments but also on taxes and utilities. If that's not possible, see if refinancing your mortgage makes sense.

Car. A monthly payment on a vehicle can run from $100 to $450 or more, depending on the year and model. That's a significant chunk of change.

Instead of making a large monthly payment, buy the cheapest safe car that you can afford, and spend the extra money making a car payment to yourself.

For example, imagine you can afford a car payment of $275 per month. I recommend choosing a car with a $150 payment, if possible. Then direct the other $125 per month into a savings account that is earmarked for buying your next car. After five years, you'll have $7,500 -- enough to buy a used car in cash.

Food. After housing and transportation, the third largest expense for most Americans is food, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2011 report on consumer expenditures. Clipping coupons may require more effort than you're willing to exert, but there are other easy ways to trim your grocery bill.

For example, avoid buying perishable goods before you travel. Also, buy staples in bulk at wholesale stores such as Costco or Sam's Club.

Paula Pant blogs at AffordAnything.com about creating wealth and living life on your own terms. She's traveled to nearly 30 countries, owns five rental properties and owes her great life to strong money-management principles. Follow Paula on Twitter @AffordAnything.

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