9 of the Best Ways to Save Money on a Tight Budget

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Everyone needs an emergency fund, but plenty of people don’t have one. More than half of U.S. residents aren’t financially prepared to deal with an unexpected $1,000 expense, according to a recent study from Bankrate.

If you’re living close to the bone, saving may feel impossible. Seems like your money’s been spent before you’ve even earned it.

Yet, it’s almost always possible to squeeze a few (or more than a few) extra dollars out of even the tightest of budgets. The secret is using a mix of tactics.

Some yield noticeable savings right off the bat. Others are literally nickel-and-dime savings but add up in the long run. After all, dollars are made up of nickels and dimes. Stash enough of them, and it starts to look like real money.

Use the following tactics to free up dollars and then, for heaven’s sake, save them at a bank or credit union.

1. Round it up

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Bank programs like Ally’s “Round Ups” or Bank of America’s “Keep the Change” round up everyday purchases and move the extra money into savings accounts. Apps like Acorns and Stash round up purchases as well,but send the extra change to investment accounts instead.

Can you retire on round ups? Probably not. But you can definitely boost your savings.

2. Shop for a cheaper phone plan

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Want to save money every single month, for as long as you have a cellphone? Shop around for a better deal.

Money Talks News writer Brandon Ballenger used a service called WhistleOut to look for the most affordable cell plan – and after switching, he can’t tell the difference. Well, except in his wallet: He’s saving $924 a year this way.

It doesn’t cost you anything to run the numbers with WhistleOut. Go see how much you could save – and remember to put those savings away.

3. Take the weekly challenge

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This one’s bonehead-simple:

The first week of every month, put $1 in a jar. (Or an envelope. Or an old sock. Whatever works.)

Second week, put in $2. Third week, $3, and so on.

You’ll set aside $10 to $15 a month this way. Put those funds into your savings account.

4. Find a better deal on car insurance

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If you drive, you need car insurance. But there’s no need to overpay for it.

Not sure how to compare coverage options? That’s OK. A free online service called The Zebra will do it for you.

In about five minutes, The Zebra will send your insurance needs to 200 different insurers. (No need to give your phone number or payment information.)

And the savings can be pretty startling: up to $440 per year. Every year. What could that kind of money do for your savings account?

5. Launder some funds

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Every time we do a load of wash at our home, we put $2 into a jar sitting atop the dryer. It’s known as the “New Washing Machine Fund.” But it gets used for other things too, such as helping defray the cost of replacing our 30-year-old stove.

Your laundered cash, however, should go straight into savings.

6. Bring it from home

A young man leaves home with a backpack and lunch
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We know, we know: You’re sick of hearing about the “latte factor.” Fact is, making your own coffee and bringing it in a good-quality thermos can save you a bunch of money.

Don’t stop there, though. Stashing teabags, soft drinks and snacks (especially if bought on sale) can keep you from hitting the workplace vending machines.

And of course, packing your lunch can also turn into real money. Money Talks News writer Angela Colley writes that her former $3,000-a-year lunch/coffee/treats habit, if properly invested, could earn $200,000 over the course of her working life.

Learn more about that and other food-related hacks in “How Slashing My Lunch Costs Saves Me $200,000.”

7. Cut gasoline costs

Filling the gas tank
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Commuters are feeling a lot of pain at the pump. Fight back! The GasBuddy smartphone app will clue you in as to the cheapest petrol prices wherever you are. It also promises exclusive deals that could save as much as 25 cents per gallon.

Money Talks News writer Melissa Neiman reports differences as high as 19 cents per gallon in the stations near her home. Using that as an example, and assuming you get two 12-gallon fill-ups per week, you’d save $4.56 by using a gas app.

Multiply $4.56 by 52 weeks, and you’re looking at saving $237.12 per year (more if you have a long commute, less if you don’t). Once a month or so, transfer the money into your savings account.

For more cost-cutting tips, see “7 Smart Ways to Save Money at the Gas Pump.”

8. Use shopping apps

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Smartphone apps like ShopKick, Ibotta and Fetch Rewards let you save money when shopping either in-store or online. You get points when you scan and/or buy things, and then you can trade in the points for gift cards, PayPal or prepaid cash cards (depending on the app). All can be used to pay for:

  • Essentials like food, toiletries, gasoline or drugstore items
  • Home improvement (I trade in points for vegetable-gardening items and DIY supplies.)
  • Nice-to-haves, such as gifts for special occasions (I do much of my holiday shopping this way) or a trip to the movies

To be clear: This is not an invitation to go buy yourself something pretty but unnecessary. It’s a reminder that you should make ordinary expenses pay — sometimes quite literally. I’ve gotten free food, toiletries and pet products by using (and sometimes combining) app deals. Some I keep, some I donate. And it’s just fun to watch those points pile up.

9. Join a Buy Nothing group

Woman with box of clothing to donate
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These groups are similar to Freecycle, but organized along neighborhood lines. “Give where you live” is the Buy Nothing credo, and it can save you some serious coin.

You might find things you need (furniture, clothing, toys, food) or things you want (books, crafts supplies, sports gear).

The point being: Every dollar you don’t spend on those things is a dollar that could go into savings.

Many Buy Nothing groups can be found on Facebook and to learn more, see “Need something? Buy Nothing.”

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