Life is expensive for families, and it's getting more so every day. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Consumer Price Index rose 3.9 percent through September 2011 -- more than double the rate that wages increased during the same period. And the figures are even more daunting when you look at these specific household costs: Egg prices jumped by 15 percent and meat by 9; energy rose by 18 percent, and gas soared (do we really have to tell you?) by a whopping 32 percent.
We won't bother to explain the complicated economic forces at work, but suffice it to say that prices aren't likely to ease up anytime soon. What can you do about it? Plenty. Read on to get started saving now.
Start to Shop Strategically
Groceries are a great place to trim fat from your budget. Visit sites such as couponmom.com, coupons.com, and recipe.com for great deals. And check out these other ways to reduce your bill from couponmom.com founder Stephanie Nelson.
Study sale patterns. Nelson's local market has a price break on boneless chicken every other week. By doubling up and freezing the extra, she saves $450 per year on that protein alone.
Check out the coupon policy. Ask the customer-service desk for the store's rules. That way you can find out whether the retailer doubles the discount when you use its loyalty card or accepts competitors' coupons. Also, large chains such as Kroger, Safeway, and ShopRite let you load digital coupons directly onto their loyalty cards. Savingstar.com has a list of others that do too.
Pick up the Sunday paper. It may seem antiquated, but this single source still accounts for 80 percent of all coupons used. You can probably get your hands on a copy from a friend or relative.
Look high and low for deals. Manufacturers pay a premium to have their products placed at eye level, so the simple act of bending down or reaching up for the store brand can lead to sizable savings.
Visit social-media sites. When you "Like" the Facebook page of your favorite stores and brands, they'll often give you a coupon immediately and follow up with other discount offers.
Many of the steps you can take to live an eco-friendly lifestyle also help you spend less on household bills. Environmental advocate Simran Sethi offers tips for saving the planet -- and money too.
Turn down the water heater. By setting it at 120?F (rather than the industry standard of 140?), you'll cut costs by up to 10 percent and won't notice the difference.
Ditch your incandescent lighting. Compact fluorescent bulbs use 80 percent less power and last at least six times as long as standard incandescent ones.
Prevent phantom energy waste. To cut down on your appliance costs, we suggest buying the Belkin Conserve Socket ($10; belkin.com), a plug-in device that shuts off the power automatically after 30 minutes, 3 hours, or 6 hours (your choice).
Look for the Energy Star logo. Products with this designation can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and your energy bills. Go to energystar.gov to see how much you could save by replacing your old fridge with an energy-efficient one.
Install water aerators. These devices, which increase the oxygen saturation of water, cost as little as $1 apiece and save up to 5 gallons per faucet per day.
Switch to reusable microfiber cloths. Shop around to find ones suitable for cleaning a variety of different surfaces. You'll spare trees and go through fewer paper towels.
Make your own cleaning products. Doing so is cheaper and healthier for you and your kids if you use nontoxic products, such as baking soda, cornstarch, white vinegar, and lemon. Go to eartheasy.com for recipes.
Keep More of Your Money
To make your hard-earned cash work for you, try these clever changes from Celia Santana, a financial advisor in New York.
Adjust your withholding. If you usually get a tax refund, taking an extra deduction may be a smart way to stop giving the IRS an interest-free loan.
Get more from your bank. We recommend looking for an account with a higher interest rate. Visit checkingfinder.com or switch to an online bank such as ING Direct. Also try bankrate.com, another great resource for finding better-paying savings, money market, and CD accounts.
Refinance your mortgage. At press time, the average 30-year fixed rate was 4 percent, near its historic low. Dropping your rate by a mere 1 percent on a $170,000 mortgage will save you about $1,700 per year.
Increase your deductible. Raising your homeowner's insurance policy deductible from, say, $250 to $1,000 can save you up to 25 percent annually and won't otherwise impact your coverage.
Spend Less on Your Cell
Joni Blecher, editorial director of LetsTalk.com, a consumer resource for wireless products, explains how to find the best plan for your family.
Compare the alternatives. Searching for a better deal isn't as dizzying as it may seem. There are four major carriers, and most offer only three or four options for families. Go to letstalk.com or myrateplan.com to see how they shape up side by side.
Avoid overbuying. "Err on the side of fewer features and services," says Blecher. "You can always add more minutes, e-mails, or texting later."
Invest in insurance. For families, the $5 per month cost per phone is usually well worth it. "Phones break and kids drop them, and they're expensive to replace," says Blecher.
Drive Down Car Costs
Auto expenses account for one eighth of the average family's expenses. But Dan Weedin, an insurance and risk-management consultant in Seattle, has ideas for saving big on and off the road.
Maintain a good credit score. Virtually all car insurers use your credit rating as part of their evaluation process. A top score could mean a reduction of 20 percent or more in your annual costs. Don't forget to cash in on your clean driving record: New programs, such as Snapshot from Progressive, can save good drivers up to 30 percent. Companies also tend to give discounts for nonsmokers and multicar households.
Put your policies together. A number of insurers offer a package credit of 5 to 10 percent if you bundle your auto and home coverage.
Go for cheaper gas. Visit gasprices.mapquest.com or fuelprices.net to find the lowest rates in your area. You can also download free apps from gasbuddy.com or aaa.com/mobile. And stick with regular octane: Paying for premium is like throwing money out your car window.
Be more fuel-efficient. Carpool whenever possible, avoid idling, and don't use the A/C except when you're on the highway. Also make sure your tires are properly inflated; it's an easy way to improve your mileage by up to 3 percent.
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Parents magazine.