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The Best Ways to Spend $200

These purchases can help you save money in the long run

Spending $200 these days is easy; making back your investment is a lot harder. Yet with the advice of several value-minded experts, we found seven surprisingly simple ways to stretch out that $200, offering savings immediately or over time.

Gregory Reid (Prop Styling: Angela Campos)

Use LED bulbs

Prices on LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs have dropped dramatically; many sell for $10 (or as low as $5 with some utility rebate programs). An Energy Star–certified LED bulb uses 70 to 90 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb and lasts up to 25 times longer. Replace 20 bulbs in your home, and with an average of three hours of use per day, you should recoup that $200 in a year and a half, or even quicker in some states with higher electricity costs, says Brittney Gordon of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program.

Gregory Reid (Prop Styling: Angela Campos)

Pack smart

With airlines charging extra for everything except using the lavatory, travelers need to pack smart to avoid checked-bag fees. Look for a 20- to 21-inch (sometimes called international size) wheeled carry-on that is lightweight and expandable for extra capacity. One that meets your needs should cost $175 or less. Invest about $25 in packing cubes, which both organize and compress your clothing and gear, says Peter Cobb, cofounder and executive vice president of eBags.com. Many airlines charge at least $25 one way for the first checked bag. “By carrying your suitcase onto the plane, you not only don’t have to worry about its being lost — it pays for itself after four round-trip flights,” says Cobb.

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Shop your backyard

Frugal-living expert Erin Huffstetler says if you can dig a hole, you can successfully cultivate fruit and nut trees or bushes. Her blueprint: Grow two of each of the following (all prices are per pair) — raspberry plants (about $18), blueberry plants ($35), red seedless grape plants ($25), cherry bushes ($68) and 3-foot almond trees ($46) — plus 25 everbearing strawberry plants ($11.50). At maturity a cherry bush yields 20 to 30 pounds of fruit; an almond tree, 12 to 15 pounds of nuts. Within three to five years, you’ll have your own produce section. There are varieties to suit almost any climate. “Many fruits and nuts are incredibly easy to grow,” says Huffstetler. “When you consider that a pint of strawberries sells for $1.70 on average, and each plant yields 1 to 2 pints in its first year, we’re talking serious savings.”

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Seal it and save

The average American family throws away more than $300 worth of food a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Buying groceries in larger quantities or on sale in season can stretch your food dollar. You can extend that food’s shelf life three to five times by using a vacuum food sealer, says Carole Cancler, author of The Home Preserving Bible. A basic model runs about $80; a year’s supply of bags costs another $50. Get a $10 jar-sealer accessory to help you store fragile foods such as potato chips or crackers in jars. That leaves you $60 to stock up on the best food at the best price and can save you $200 a year. Once sealed, many foods can last weeks — sometimes months — longer in the refrigerator or freezer.

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Clip for savings

Some 91 percent of coupons are still distributed through Sunday newspapers. To get more coupons, purchase an extra Sunday newspaper or two for the inserts, suggests Stephanie Nelson of CouponMom.com. If it’s a great week, buy four. And here are some cheaper places to buy them: a gas station, big-box store, supermarket or dollar store (where a $2 paper may sell for only $1). Even modest use of coupons, especially when matched with an item on sale, can save a two-person household $30 per week. That’s an easy way to save $200 in two months. “Coupons are free money,” says Nelson. “If you throw away those for items you use, you’re crazy not to look at them.”

Gregory Reid (Prop Styling: Angela Campos)

Membership pays

Buy a membership to your favorite zoo, aquarium or museum. If you live in a city with lower admission fees for members, purchase several. Drop in whenever you wish for as long (or short) as you want. With some entry fees as high as $25 (the San Diego Zoo’s is $46), it may take only a couple of visits to find yourself ahead, says Janet Vaughan of the American Alliance of Museums. Membership usually gets you in the door without paying a dime, and there may also be discounts at the facility’s shop, restaurant and special exhibits. An added bonus is that many museums and zoos have reciprocal arrangements with their counterparts nationwide. Showing your membership card at a sister site could get you a free or discounted entry. And remember that admission to almost every major museum in Washington, D.C., including the National Zoo, is free, courtesy of your tax dollars.

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Map it out

Give scavenger Mike Wolfe of the History Channel TV series American Pickers $200, and he’ll forage flea markets and garage sales for road maps. Why? Nostalgia for a pre-GPS time, when gas stations were full-service and road maps were practically works of art, has fueled collector groups such as the Road Map Collectors Association (roadmaps.org). “The beauty of road maps is that there are so many different types of collectors — some collect by auto club or state; others, by cover art or their birth year,” says Wolfe. The maps are readily available, and many remain in good shape, having been stuck away in drawers and shoe boxes. While road maps from the 1950s and ’60s may net you only a few bucks, those published by auto clubs and oil and gas companies in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s can fetch a pretty penny; some, $150 or more if you sell them online to collectors or an antiques dealer. One tip: Ask at estate sales to peek inside the family car. Vintage road maps are often forgotten in the glove compartment.

Gregory Reid (Prop Styling: Angela Campos)

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