1. Get rid of old kids' gear. Dropping off a bag of gently used clothing, toys, and books at the charity of your choice takes only a few minutes and can yield a helpful deduction for people who itemize on their tax return, says Barbara Weltman, author of J. K. Lasser's 1,001 Deductions & Tax Breaks 2014. Follow these rules: Be realistic about the current value of goods, keep a record of what you gave and when, and ask for an acknowledgment slip if your total donation is worth $250 or more. A family with household income of $65,000 that donates $500 worth of used goods can shave $75 off its federal tax bill.
2. Read your thermostat user's guide. Allowing your home's temperature to drop a bit while the family snoozes during winter months (and rise on cooler nights during the summer) can yield substantial savings. If you own a programmable thermostat--which allows you to automate these adjustments--dig out the manual or look for help online. Nearly half of all households that own one keep it in "hold" mode, which disables the programming, notes Therese Peffer, Ph.D., a research specialist with the California Institute for Energy and Environment. Otherwise, you can change the setting manually before bedtime and again when you wake up. You'll save $180 on your heating and cooling bills, based on an average annual energy bill of $2,200.
3. Mute hefty cell-phone plan charges. The typical family mobile bill rings in at $1,788 per year, according to J. D. Power. You may love your smartphone's fun features and apps, as well as the unlimited talk minutes and texts, but chances are you're overpaying for these things. Find out by visiting myrateplan.com, which helps you determine whether switching plans will save you money. (Caveat: Be sure to factor in early-termination fees and, in some cases, the cost of a new phone.) Among those who've found a better mobile plan, half have savings that average at least $300 per year, according to Validas, a mobile-research firm.
4. Lower your interest rate. If you carry a balance on your credit card (40 percent of families do, with an average debt of $7,100 and an interest rate of roughly 15 percent), it's critical to seek out the lowest annual percentage rate available. If you have a favorable credit rating, ask your lender for a rate reduction, suggests Curtis Arnold, author of How You Can Profit From Credit Cards. No luck? Go to cardratings.com, which tells you how much you'll benefit by switching, including any balance-transfer fees. By taking advantage of the plentiful 0 percent balance transfer offers, you can save about $850 in interest charges during the first year.
5. Call your home-insurance agent. Reduce your premium by increasing your deductible (the amount you pay out of pocket before coverage kicks in), suggests Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America. Upping it from $500 to $1,000 can trim your premium by as much as 25 percent, or about $225 per year based on the average homeowner policy. Psst--you can apply the same strategy to your car! Raising the deductible of your collision and comprehensive insurance from $500 to $1,000 could save you around $215 annually.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Parents magazine.