A free-falling stock market can make everyone more frugal. How to find the extra cash in your budget
The falling market and the economic uncertainty that comes with it has even the most frugal looking for new ways to save. Many of the easiest ways to do so may not even require that much sacrifice.
Right now, there are plenty of reasons to build savings. For the intrepid, extra cash may mean the ability to snatch up stocks at bargain prices. Far more people are still shoring up their personal balance sheets from the last downturn, and another market tumble reinforces the need for an emergency fund, or to pay down debt. Even for spenders, there's an incentive to sock away a little more: The down market is expected lead to sales on many big-ticket items like cars, airfare and electronics. "It's smart to save wherever you can," says certified financial planner Sheryl Garrett, founder of the Garrett Planning Network, a national group of fee-only advisors.
In general, Americans are already better savers than they used to be. In June 2011, Americans saved 5.4% of their disposable income, up slightly from 2010 but more than double the 2.4% savings rate circa 2007. Still, most financial planners recommend aiming higher, to 10% or so. And while cutting out morning lattes and MP3 purchases can add up, keeping on track requires serious discipline. Better to aim for the bigger expenses by reviewing regular monthly bills. A little research and a phone call or two to can save hundreds of dollars on cellphone and cable service, insurance payments and credit card bills, says Schwark Satyavolu, co-founder of BillShrink.com.
Of course, financial experts rarely advocate against saving. But market swoons to tend to bring out consumers' thrifty sides. For some help with boosting your monthly savings, here are four options that won't take more than an hour or two:
Switch Cellphone Plans
Save: $400 a year
Cellphone users are paying more -- $92 per month on average for a two-year contract, up from $78 last year, according to J.D. Power & Associates. And picking the right plan has also become more complex as carriers add new data plans and require different packages for different phones. In early July, Verizon joined AT&T in eliminating unlimited data plans for new subscribers. Moving into a plan that better fits your calling texting and data patterns could save up to $400, Satyavolu says. Sites like BillShrink and Validas will analyze your current bill and make savings suggestions, or you can call your provider and competing services. (Some apps can also help you save on texting or talk time.) But if the best bet seems to be switching carriers, be warned: early termination fees can go as high as $350, which could eat up any savings in a hurry. Switching can also change call quality, so ask friends who use that carrier if they've had problems -- or better yet, borrow their phone and test for yourself.
Shop Insurance Policies
Save: $200 a year
More severe natural disasters and higher rebuilding costs have led insurers to raise homeowners insurance premiums by more than 7% in many areas over the past year. (Some are hurricane-prone areas, but not all. Some Pennsylvania homeowners saw premiums jump 33% last year.) That's reason enough to shop around on sites like Netquote.com and Insurance.com, checking rates and available discounts. Be sure to call your current insurer, too, and see if they have any new programs you might be eligible for, Garrett says. It wouldn't be hard to save at least $200 per year or more. Last month, Garrett bought new homeowners and auto insurance policies, cutting her yearly bill by $800.
Change (or Ditch) Cable
Save: $800 a year
Consumers can save substantially by finding a new cable provider, or depending on their viewing habits, cutting the cord altogether. Switching is easier to compare with sites like BillShrink or WhiteFence.com. And most viewers have more options than they think, especially for those who are interested in satellite -- and the annual savings for switching averages $800 a year, Satyavolu says. Providers often make their best deals available via cable-phone-Internet bundles, though, and switching to a lower price can entail an unbearably slow Internet or a crackly phone connection, says Dan Rayburn, an analyst for investment bank Frost & Sullivan who covers digital media companies. Also, the growing options for free or cheap TV online mean some people may be able to get by with fewer channels, says Rayburn. A viewer might, for example, switch to a basic cable package with 13 or so channels and use an $8 monthly streaming subscription from Netflix or Hulu to catch more missed movies and TV shows.
Get a Better Credit Card
Save: $600 a year
Thanks to Standard & Poor's downgrade of U.S. debt, many experts expect credit card rates will rise soon. But right now, offers are better than they have been in years, says Curtis Arnold, founder of card comparison site CardRatings.com. Consumers who haven't re-assessed in the past year can compare on sites like CardRatings or CardHub.com to get a better ongoing rate, 0% balance transfers of up to 24 months, or generous reward bonuses. Delta and Continental, for example, have offered some customers sign-up bonuses worth two free round-trip domestic tickets, while an 18-month balance transfer offer would save someone paying off a $5,000 debt in $300 increments more than $650 in interest. BillShrink.com estimates average savings of $600, from lower interest rates and more lucrative rewards. But if you're transferring a balance, be sure to compare fees, Arnold warns. Most cards charge 3% of the balance, but a few are starting to charge as much as 5%, which eats into savings.