You may not realize it, but there are little money vampires all through your life that are draining your bank account. Fortunately, they’re easier to stop than a real vampire, and you won’t need garlic or a wooden stake to fix them.
Get your budget back on track by identifying and eliminating these 10 common money wasters.
1. Ghost subscriptions
Subscriptions are easy to get online and equally easy to forget. An April 2021 survey from Chase found that nearly two-thirds of consumers have forgotten about at least one recurring payment in the last year.
Some automatic payments, such as for monthly utility bills, are convenient and can help avoid late fees. Others, though, can turn into big money leaks. For example, a monthly subscription to Ancestry.com starts at $24.99, and a subscription to investment-information service Morningstar runs $29.95 a month. If you’re an avid user, keep the subscriptions. But if you’re not actively researching your family tree or frequently changing your investments, cancel the subscriptions before they auto-renew, and pocket the monthly savings.
Review your subscriptions and automatic payments at least annually. Even the financial pros can find something to unsubscribe to, says Tess Zigo, a Palm Harbor, Florida, certified financial planner (CFP). “During COVID, due to stress, I signed up for Calm, an app that soothes you by reading stories, [because] I couldn’t fall asleep. Now we are back to the grind, so no need for Calm stories — subscription canceled.”
2. Water leaks
Besides keeping you up all night, a dripping faucet or leaking toilet can cost you money. Let’s say your bathroom faucet drips at the rate of 10 drops per minute. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s drip calculator, three leaking faucets at that rate translates into 43,200 drips per day, or 1,042 gallons a year. That’s a lot of water, but water is relatively cheap: For most people using city water, 1,042 gallons would cost a little more than $1.50. You should still fix the drip, though, if only for the sake of the planet.
A running toilet, however, can be a real water waster. The average leaky toilet wastes about 200 gallons of water a day, or around 6,000 gallons per month, or $108 a year. The average do-it-yourself fix for a leaky toilet is $26.74 per toilet, according to porch.com. If you have a plumber do it, the cost will be $178.11 to $214.03.
3. Bank fees
The average monthly fee for a checking account is $15.50, according to Bankrate.com, which translates to $186 a year. Want to avoid monthly fees? The average balance requirement to dodge those fees is $7,550, which is a lot of money to keep idle (unless you need it as an emergency fund).
Your bank may offer a non-interest-bearing account with no fee, which will save you that $186 a year and keep you from tying up that $7,550, which could be better invested elsewhere. You may also consider opening an account at a credit union, which typically has lower fees than commercial banks. And if you’re willing to give up the brick-and-mortar bank experience, many online-only banks (and some traditional banks) offer no-fee checking accounts.
4. Mutual fund fees
A mutual fund company, like any business, has expenses, including paying managers, accountants, lawyers and marketing executives. The average stock mutual fund charges about 0.50 percent of the fund’s assets a year, according to the Investment Company Institute, a trade group. Those fees reduce your returns or amplify your losses. Current fund fees are well below the average 1.50 percent of a few decades ago. Nevertheless, if you have $25,000 in the average stock fund, then you’re paying $125 a year, and that adds up.
You can, however, find stock index funds that charge less than 0.05 percent a year, or $12.50 for a $25,000 account. These funds send the manager packing and simply track a stock index, such as the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index. (A handful of index funds charge nothing — zip, nada — to manage an index fund.) If you choose a fund that charges 0.05 percent a year, that’s a savings of $112.50 a year over the average stock fund charging 0.5 percent.
5. Dining out
As pandemic restrictions have eased, people have been dining out more, which is understandable. But you might be surprised at just how much you’ve been eating out. “Many folks will say, 'We go out a couple of times a month’ or something to that effect,” says Michelle Petrowski, a CFP in Anthem, Arizona. “They are typically surprised when we add up all those sources for that spending category — including lunch at work, lunch with friends, the kids or the grandkids, takeout, Uber Eats, stops at Circle K, and Starbucks — and come up with a monthly number.”
And remember that the more of something you buy, the less satisfaction you get from it — enshrined in economics as the law of diminishing marginal utility. “I love my lattes, and if you can afford them, it’s no big deal,” Zigo says. “But if you buy one too many, you probably aren’t even getting the happiness boost from it [that you once did].”
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6. Heat fiends and cooling devils
You don’t want to be wrapped in blankets at home all winter or sweltering all summer. On the other hand, do you really need the house at 72 degrees when you’re at work? The U.S. Department of Energy says you can save as much as 10 percent a year on heating and cooling by adjusting your thermostat 7 to 10 degrees from its normal setting for eight hours a day. Get a programmable thermostat and you can have the house heated (or cooled) to the temperature you prefer before you get home. Locate the thermostat properly to prevent “ghost readings” — unnecessarily high or low readings. Put the thermostat on an interior wall away from direct sunlight, drafts and windows.
7. Electricity vampires
Energy vampires are devices that quietly use electricity all day long, even when you’re not using them. Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest electric power holding companies, says there are two common energy vampires, which they call “bricks” and “wall warts.” A brick is one of those power plugs for computers and televisions that has a big black box attached to it. A wall wart is a charger that has a large plug. When plugged in, both consume energy, even when the laptop or charger isn’t being used.
Other devices in your home quietly suck electricity all day long. That second television you don't use? It’s draining power. That DVD player you turn on once a year during the holidays to play A Christmas Carol? It’s merrily using power all year long.
You’re not going to turn off the refrigerator to reduce energy, but there are plenty of other devices you can power down when they are not in use. An easy and effective tactic: If you have lots of bricks and wall warts, plug them into a power strip, and turn the power strip off when you’re not using the appliances.
A good book is a wonderful thing to have and hold, and a full bookshelf is a wonderful sight. But do you really have to own all of them? The average cost of an adult fiction paperback is $17.89, according to The Library Network, and hardcover fiction will set you back, on average, $27.45.
You can get free books at your local public library. You can also get e-books and DVDs, as well as helpful advice from your librarian. (Some libraries will even lend you tools.) All you have to do is return your books on time or pay a nominal late fee. In fact, many libraries are eliminating fines altogether. In some cases, the libraries figure that ending late fees will increase the number of users by eliminating the Walk of Shame to the book return counter by those who kept their books too long.
Nothing is too good for your beloved Rosie the hound or Sylvester the cat. Still, “those little furry friends can wreak havoc on a budget,” says Vida Jatulis, a CFP in Westlake Village, California. This doesn’t mean you should skimp on pet food or veterinary care. On the other hand, at $10 or more, a squeaky toy should be an occasional treat, not a weekly event — and you probably don’t need a ball-throwing tool for a game of fetch. (Some dogs have even been known to fetch sticks instead of tennis balls.)
Similarly, a cat can be as easily amused by rolled-up paper balls as a laser pointer, and a box of catnip costs less than $10 and can turn an old sock into a satisfactory (if short-lived) cat toy.
10. Gas hogs
Do you need premium gas? Probably not, unless your car’s maker says so (look behind the fuel door or in the owner’s manual). The occasional tank of premium won’t clean your engine; most major gasoline brands have all sorts of additives to keep your engine sparkling. Cars that need premium gas generally do because they have turbochargers or high-compression engines.
Other ways to save on gas:
- Check your tire pressure. You can improve your gas mileage by as much as 3 percent by making sure your tires are properly inflated. The recommended tire pressure for your vehicle is usually found on a sticker in the driver’s side door jamb or in the glove box, as well as in your owner’s manual.
- Use the recommended grade of oil. You can boost your mileage up to 2 percent by using the manufacturer's recommended grade of motor oil.
- Get your engine tuned. Fixing a serious problem, such as a broken oxygen sensor, can improve your mileage by as much as 40 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.