Here's a reason to be cheerful: Inflation is finally receding. But don't get too giddy, because many high-price hot spots remain. Food costs are still rising, service providers are charging more for their labor, and surging travel has the industry raising prices to meet demand — and recoup dollars lost during the pandemic.
For this 14th annual edition of “99 Great Ways to Save,” we consulted with dozens of professionals to get their tips on how to cool off those areas where costs remain stubbornly high. Try a few tips, make them habits, then try a few more! As we say each year: So much of saving money is simply being mindful about spending. Maintain a money-smart attitude and keep adding frugal habits, and your savings pile can truly become a mountain.
1. Be section smart. A large grocery store might have three or more places it sells cheese (deli counter, gourmet cheese section, dairy case). Same for spices, breads, packaged meats and other foods. Be sure to compare prices in different sections to get the best value.
2. Get grocery items for half price. Flashfood is a relatively new app that works with grocery stores to offer deals of up to 50 percent off items that are nearing their sell-by date. Pay for the items through the app and pick them up at a designated zone in stores including Giant, Stop & Shop and Tops. Learn more at flashfood.com.
3. Flip your berries. Moisture is the main reason berries go bad quickly. To find the freshest ones, flip over the container at the grocery store. If they aren’t sticking to the bottom, they’ll last longer.
4. Have two grocery shopping lists. The first is all the items you need for the coming week. The second is a running list of pantry items and household supplies that may run low in the next month or so. Buy those only when items are on sale, then get enough to last for a few months.
5. Switch to nonorganic for the “Clean Fifteen.” The Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the “Clean Fifteen” on its website, identifying produce on which it found the smallest amount of pesticide residue. The list includes avocados, sweet potatoes and pineapples.
6. We’ll say it again: Download your grocery store’s app. The loyalty card has gone virtual. Two-thirds of supermarkets have digital deals accessible only on their app. “Clip” ’em within the app, and they’ll get applied automatically at checkout.
7. Look for new store brands to try. Many name brands have aggressively raised prices on packaged foods this past year. Luckily, grocery chains come out with house-brand products that are almost always cheaper than their more famous counterparts. Compare ingredient lists; often the biggest difference is price.
8. Mix up your supermarkets. New discount-grocery chains are showing up widely in many suburban and urban areas. Lidl and Aldi, two fast-growing German chains, keep prices low by selling a selection of largely private-label items. Market Basket, Grocery Outlet, WinCo Foods and Save A Lot are other popular low-cost retailers, surveys show.
9. Use coupons when ordering online. The average grocery shopper could save more than $300 per year by using online coupons for at-home purchases, a CouponFollow survey shows. Install a browser extension such as Honey, Cently or Rakuten to automatically find and apply the codes for you at checkout.
10. Check out Amtrak discounts. Don’t book a relatively short flight (say, of less than 500 miles) before looking at Amtrak.com/deals. On any given day, there are a wide range of discounts and offers that can make taking the train cheaper than flying. Note that folks over 65 get a 10 percent discount on most regular fares. (The discount kicks in at 60 if traveling in Canada.)
11. Be a night owl (or early bird). Another Amtrak trick: Pay as little as $20 to travel between New York City and Washington, D.C., from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. Go to Amtrak.com/nightowl to find deals on overnight routes.
12. Skip traditional car rentals. Car-sharing services such as Zipcar and Turo can often save money compared with traditional car rentals if you pick the one that suits your purpose. Zipcar members pay a monthly or annual fee with gas, 180 miles, maintenance and parking included. Turo, a peer-to-peer car-sharing marketplace, offers a variety of vehicles from sprinter vans to sports cars.
13. Book flights on Sunday. Airfares vary not just based on when you fly but also when you book. Data from Airline Reporting Corp. shows that booking your trip on a Sunday instead of Friday will save you an average of 15 percent on international flights and 5 percent on domestic flights.
14. Time your airplane ticket purchases. Waiting until the last minute to book a flight is not the best way to save. Data shows that by booking domestic air travel 28 to 35 days before departure, you’ll save an average of 10 percent compared with travelers who waited until two weeks or less before flying.
15. Comparison shop for vacation homes. Pricing for vacation home rentals can vary across platforms such as Airbnb, Booking.com and Vrbo. The site HiChee.com scours each of these sites to find the house you want at the best price. The owners may even offer the house for less if you rent directly from them.
16. Book sooner. Hotels typically provide full refunds on room purchases until a few days before your reservation starts. If prices drop, you often can cancel your reservation and rebook at the lower rate (but check the cancellation policy to be sure). Forward your reservation email to email@example.com, and the site will monitor prices on your behalf and let you know if it finds a better rate.
17. Avoid creeping charges on cruise ships. Cruise lines have avoided big jumps in base prices after COVID-19. But they’ve jacked prices for specialty restaurants, tours, drinks and gratuities. Use a travel agent that specializes in cruises — they often get perks they can pass along, such as a free stateroom upgrade.
18. Email independent hotels to negotiate. You’ll have more luck haggling with independent hotels on price than with chains, and email is often the best way to reach someone with the authority to grant a discount request. Let them know the price you saw on a travel site and ask whether they can do better. Hotels pay up to 30 percent to travel sites on confirmed bookings, so it’s in their interest to give you a lower price for a direct sale.
19. Skip the rest-stop burgers. Often you can get interesting, hearty meals for cheap within a mile or two of a highway exit. Check out Roadfood.com to find affordable regional food at diners, clam shacks and other eateries. Sites such as Tripadvisor, Yelp and Foursquare provide regional restaurant choices as well.
20. Stay in (someone else’s) timeshare. Check sites such as RedWeek.com, Koala and Timeshare Users Group (TUG) to rent directly from owners who are unable to use their timeshare this year, sometimes at less than half of what you might pay for a hotel. Recent listings included Marriott’s Aruba Surf Club, the Hyatt Ka‘anapali Beach and The Royal Sands in Cancun, Mexico.
21. Buy big-box gas. Gas at Costco and Sam’s Club can be 25 cents per gallon cheaper. That might save you more than the annual membership fee if you live nearby and drive lots of miles.
22. Slow down, please. Most cars get the best gas mileage at about 55 mph. Typically, 65 mph is 8 percent less efficient than 55 mph, and 80 mph is 28 percent less efficient.
23. Learn your wiper blades ... Newer cars often have different size blades on the driver and passenger sides, plus a back window blade. So buy specifically for your model and year. Some auto stores will do the replacement for free if you buy the blades there. But doing it yourself isn’t that hard; often you can find a video online for your car model. This allows you to shop for the best price online or at big-box stores, where blades can be a third of the cost of auto parts stores.
24. ... but before replacing them … Windshield wipers leaving streaks? Try cleaning the blades by wiping them with soapy water followed by rubbing alcohol. You’ll prolong the life of the blades and maybe avoid scratching the windshield.
25. ... get a free battery check. Many auto parts stores will test your battery for free. If you buy one, they’ll often install it free. AAA will even come to members for a free check.
26. Use your door to fill your tires. Newer cars have a sticker inside the driver’s door that details the proper air pressure for your tires. The optimal pressure is always lower than the pressure written on the tire. Properly inflated tires can improve gas mileage by as much as 3 percent.
27. Rotate tires. Modern tires are designed to revolve in one specific direction to channel water away from the car. If they are put on the wrong side, they’ll be less safe. You should still rotate your tires from front to back; the front ones wear faster than rear tires, so they’ll last longer if rotated every 10,000 miles.
28. Have two auto shops. Take your car to a dealer’s service shop for repairs under warranty and for work on specialized parts such as adaptive cruise control. For standard work such as oil changes, brake jobs and exhaust-system fixes, independent shops are cheaper.
29. Upgrade your brake parts. Who doesn’t gasp at the price of a brake job? Ironically, the right step might be to spend a little more to save money by asking for high-performance parts that last much longer. They’re safer too.
30. De-junk your trunk. Every 100 pounds of extra weight in your car could reduce your gas mileage by up to 2 percent, the U.S. Department of Energy says. Extra weight also will cause parts such as the suspension, shocks and brakes to wear out faster.
31. Blanket your electric water heater. If your electric water heater is warm to the touch, fitting it with an insulating jacket that can cost $20 to $40 will help prevent heat from escaping, and it will pay for itself in about a year. Some utilities offer these blankets at a rebate. Some will even install one for free.
32. Cycle through your filters. Replacing home air filters is a five-minute job you should perform every three months on your air conditioner and furnace if using moderately priced filters. Doing so can save on your energy bill by lowering usage up to 15 percent, and it can prolong the life of your system.
33. Also clean your AC coils. Dirty evaporator coils in your central air conditioner can increase your energy usage by up to 40 percent. Use a brush followed by dish detergent and water in a spray bottle or coil cleaner designed for the job.
34. Yes, get that home energy audit. Many utility companies do not charge homeowners for a professional to visit their home to search for energy leaks. These auditors can inspect everything from windows to insulation, and find gaps along windows. Plus you might qualify for a $150 tax credit for the audit.
35. Add insulation in the attic. Improving attic insulation is one of the least expensive home upgrades with the highest payback. For about $30 a roll, you can add 10 inches of unfaced insulation. Homeowners should aim to create a total thickness of 15 to 20 inches. One easy strategy is to lay unfaced fiberglass down on the attic floor.
36. Reverse your ceiling fan in the winter. A ceiling fan in warmer months spins counterclockwise to push cooler air down. In cold weather, reversing its spin to clockwise will help move warm air back down in the room.
37. Truly nail down your plan before starting. If a contractor senses you don’t have a clear vision, their bid price will be higher to allow for unforeseen costs. Although an occasional change order is to be expected on larger projects, keeping them to a minimum will save you a bundle.
38. Buy the high-end stuff yourself … If you are hiring a general contractor for a kitchen or bath remodel, offer to handle purchasing appliances, fixtures or any specialty items. Many contractors will gladly give up their markup to avoid tracking down items they don’t routinely buy. Plus you can find the best deals.
39. … then look for scratched or dented items. Ask retailers if they have any appliances discounted due to cosmetic blemishes. You might save a bundle on a stove or refrigerator with superficial damage that won’t be seen once it’s installed.
40. Consider visiting ReStore. Habitat for Humanity has more than 900 ReStore locations that offer surplus building materials, appliances and used furnishings at great prices. Check habitat.org/restores.
41. Buy building supplies at a lumberyard. Need lumber for a project? The prices are often better at professional lumberyards than at the big chains, and you’ll usually get better quality.
42. The golden rule: Don’t auto renew. Yes, it’s work, but shop around when your car policy comes up for renewal each year. More than 90 percent of drivers who switched policies saved money, according to a recent ValuePenguin survey.
43. Consider usage-based car insurance. This relatively new variation charges you by miles driven rather than a flat rate, by using electronics in your car to transmit mileage data. If you’re driving less because you’re working from home a few days a week or are retired, moving to usage-based insurance could mean a lower bill.
44. Downgrade your ride. Older sedans and sport utility vehicles almost always cost less to insure than new, more costly and more complicated cars.
45. Go back to driving school (from home). Older drivers who take a defensive driving or safe driver course often can score a significant discount on their insurance premiums, according to Insurify. Many courses are offered online. (Check out AARP’s driver training.)
46. Bundle home and auto. Purchasing both policies from a single provider can save you an average of 18 percent on your premiums, according to an analysis by Insurance.com. There were more than a dozen insurers with discounts over 25 percent.