There is a scene in the much-loved (but dearly departed) TV show Bunheads in which two of the main characters, both dancers, energize themselves for what seems to be a busy morning: they do push-ups, attempt to gulp down a protein shake, run in place to get their pulses up and make two huge vats of coffee. The punch line: rather than heading to the dance studio, they trot off to a meeting with their financial advisor, heavily caffeinated lest they fall asleep.
Let’s face it: while basic financial advice is important, it can be repetitive and dull. Diversification? Essential for your investments, but yawn. Automated savings? Sure, but wake me up when I have a fully-funded emergency cushion. Pay off high-interest debts first, you say? Scintillating stuff.
With that in mind, I’ve reached out to some experts to curate a list of 11 more offbeat life hacks that can help your bottom line. These are small adjustments and none will make you rich. But combined, they can save you a pretty penny.
Gallery: 11 Life Hacks – For Your Wallet
Ask for new bills – and while you’re at it, get them in $50s or $100s.
There’s been much research about how our brains interact with money, and two of the more recent studies presented particularly interesting findings: when paying in cash, consumers are more willing to spend bills that look worn and old than bills that are new and crisp. What’s more, consumers are also more willing to spend lower-denomination bills than bills of higher denomination. That is, our brains find it easy to break $5s, $10s and even $20s but will balk at breaking a $50 or $100. This is because the smaller bills are a psychological equivalent of a petty cash account, and so spending them is much more justifiable. Pair these two findings together and only withdraw cash that depicts Grant or Franklin– and if you can, ask for a fresh Franklin, which will make it doubly hard to spend on a whim.
(The $100 note was just redesigned. To learn more, see “All About The New Benjamins.”)
Shrink your data to get more out of your cell phone plan.
If you could magically reduce the amount of data you use with your smart phone without reducing how much you use the phone itself, how fast would you sign up? Simon Hill, a writer for tech sites like Tech Radar and Android Authority, says this very thing is possible – and it’s not magic, but a free app called Onavo. The way it works is this: Onavo runs in the background of your phone while you browse, Tweet, Vine, email and more, and runs compression technology to reduce the amount of data each task takes up. This allows you to do even more with what you have, and will help you avoid data overage charges if you haven’t been grandfathered into an unlimited data plan. It also tracks exactly how much data each app eats up, so you can see whether it’s your Twitter habit or email obsession that’s costing you. Onavao is available for iPhones, iPads and Androids.
When looking for airfare, empty your browsing history.
There are many tips floating around the web about finding the cheapest airfare, each one so much more specific than the last that it wouldn’t be surprising if soon someone says that 42 seconds past 10:37am every Tuesday is the best time to buy airfare – but only if you wear polka-dotted socks and pat your head while scrolling through the prices.
Alexa von Tobel, founder of Forbes contributor LearnVest and author of Financially Fearless, has a simpler airfare-seeking tip. “It’s a basic thing,” she says, “but clear your cache when you’re searching for airfare. They’ll see you’re searching and they’ll raise the prices.” She’s referring to the airlines, and while she couldn’t say exactly how much your browsing history can cost you, this blogger saw a $50 price difference on the exact same day.
Get gift cards for a discount – and use them yourself.
Von Tobel says that come holiday season, if you need a way to cut costs, look for gift cards at a discount. There are a number of gift card exchange sites – CardCash, GiftCardGranny, even an exchange center on CardHub.com – that allow recipients of unwanted gift cards to sell them to people who actually want them. You can then buy them at a discount, and sometimes a really good one: for instance, CardHub has a $100 Macy’s gift card going for $50 right now. Buy it now and look especially generous to whomever you choose to gift it to come Christmas – or, even better, save it for yourself and pair it with the store’s next 40% off-whole-store deal. You could get $160-worth of goods for just a $50 initial payment – and still have $4 left over on your gift card!
Insurance policies can help you BOGO.
“Buy one, get one” deals aren’t just for shoe stores. Sometimes, paying for one service – like, say, health insurance – covers more than what initially meets the eye. Von Tobel says that some health plans include reimbursements or discounts on gym membership, so read the fine print (or check with your HR department at work) to make sure that you’re getting the most out of your plan. Von Tobel says that Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Care First plan — which serves Maryland, DC and parts of Virginia — covers up to 60% of gym membership fees, so if you normally pay $50 per month, you could save $360 per year.
In other double-teaming news: credit cards often cover rental car insurance, so you don’t have to pay Budget (and others) an extra $7 per day just in case something happens while you’re on the road in your rental. However, don’t automatically turn down rental car insurance at the counter: be sure you’ve read the terms and conditions on your card to be sure it covers what you think it does.
Finally, if you rent your house or apartment, renter’s insurance is a often good idea: if your landlord has insurance on the building, it doesn’t usually extend to your own belongings, and you want to make sure they’re protected against damage or theft. But beyond covering the possessions in your apartment, renter’s insurance can even cover loss of theft that happens outside of your apartment, says Rob Weiss, director of business development for apartment rental site RentHop.com.
“There may be a deductible on that, but if you’re walking in the subway and your laptop gets stolen, if the value [of laptop] exceeds the value of deductible, there’s room to make a claim on the policy,” Weiss says. “The insurance company is counting on you not knowing [that provision] is there.”
(Not all policies are the same, so not all policies will work exactly this way — learn more here.)
Time your shopping – for everything.
Just as pumpkin spice lattes have a prime season, so do most consumer goods, and you can save bundles by timing your purchases around these seasons.
“I’m in the market to buy a rug right now, but if I wait till after holidays, it will be 50% off,” von Tobel says. “Furniture and bedding [is cheap] in January, coats [are cheap] in March. Know what time to buy things,” she says, noting that she put a “when to buy” calendar in her new book. Dealnews.com, too, is a particularly good source of what to buy when.
This trick works just as well for large items as it does for smaller items. RentHop co-founder Lawrence Zhou says that even rent cycles have a cheap season. “Move in the wintertime: the apartment market slows down,” he says, noting that this is a trend in major cities across the country and not just New York City, where this has long been a rumored savings trick. “Prices are anywhere between 10 to 15% cheaper.”
Speaking of apartments: know how much those amenities are hiking up your rent.
Anyone who has spent any time watching HGTV knows that marble countertops and an open-concept kitchen/dining/living room will raise the cost of a home for sale. Likewise, apartments for rent have their own price traps.
“Laundry in unit can run $50 to $100 extra per month,” Zhou says, noting this is especially true in New York City but may be less of a hard and fast rule elsewhere. Air conditioning, too, can raise your rent. “It depends on the area – in California, it might add $50 to $100 per month,” Zhou says.
Zhou says it’s also good to be cognizant of where you are in relation to transportation. If you’re willing to walk a little farther (or drive farther), he says the rent can change dramatically. On New York’s Upper East Side, for instance, every block you walk east will save you $100, he says. Likewise, the higher up you’re willing to climb in a building without an elevator, the less you’ll pay.
Make sure your smartphone really is working for you.
Tech writer Hill says that your phone can do a lot more than you think it can – even though you’re likely already using it as a phone, browser, email service, GPS, camera and more. “I pretty much use my smartphone for everything. I think it’s the ultimate conversion device,” he says, noting that your smartphone can double as an instrument tuner, a baby monitor, and coolest of all, a universal remote control.
After downloading a free app like Dijit or RedEye, “you can just point it at your TV just like you’d set up a universal remote, and it will work with DVRs, satellite and cable boxes,” Hill says.
If you’re really savvy, your phone can even help make you money: apps like Gigwalk, Field Agent and TaskRabbit help connect you to people needing random tasks and errands and are willing to pay to have them done. (Tasks range from on-the-spot consumer surveys to picking up someone’s groceries or dry cleaning, and can net you anywhere from a few dollars per task to $30 for an hour’s worth of work – depending on the task, of course.)
And when you’re through with that smartphone, sell it on the secondary market.
If your smartphone – or old camera, laptop, tablet, desktop or even game console, for that matter – is in good condition when you’re through with using it, recoup the cost of your new phone by selling the old one on the secondary market. Sites like Gazelle and USell let you sell your old electronics, and the better condition they’re in, the more money you’ll get. An unlocked iPhone 4s with 16 gigs of memory and in good condition could, as of this writing, net you $160.
Avoid vampire charges.
No, not charges from paying for Twilight or True Blood – though that would certainly save you money. Vampire charges, or trickle charges, are what you pay to keep all of your appliances and electronics plugged in while you’re not using them. Yep, you read that right: even if your coffee pot and toaster and other appliances are not on and brewing (or toasting), they’re still costing you money by being plugged in. Suzanne Jones, vice president of the Association of Energy Services Professionals, says that the biggest culprits of vampire charges are your electronics.
“The EPA estimates these devices—I’m talking cell phones, iPads, game consoles, etc. – they burn through 100 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in that vampire power,” Jones says. “That translates to $10 billion of wasted energy per year.”
You can stop this drain by investing in a smart power strip, which senses when you’re not using your electronics and will power them down so they’re not draining electricity. Jones estimates that an average smart power strip will set you back $25 to $50 per strip, but it’s worth it: “one will save you $100 per year per strip,” she says.
Another fun tech tool – more for the summer than the winter, but it will work for any appliance – is something called a Modlet. It’s essentially a wifi outlet and allows you to control the plug remotely, which means you can power any appliance up or down from wherever you are. This can be especially useful in the summer, when you want to cool your apartment down with a window air conditioning unit before you come home but don’t want to leave it running all day.
“That really is a great little device, extremely easy to use,” Jones says. “ They’re about $50, and they’ll save 6-7% on utility bill over course of year.”
Note the temperature.
If you’re responsible for your heating bill – some leases will cover the cost of heat in the winter, so if you’re not a homeowner, you might not have to pay – turning the thermostat down can save you about 3% per degree. So lowering the thermostat from 75 degrees to 71 degrees will save you 12% off your heating bill. If the average cost of electric heat will be $1315 this winter, this trick could save you $157.80.
Likewise, adjusting the temperature of your water will also save you money.
“You don’t need your hot water at 130 or 135 degrees,” Jones says, explaining that you can test the temperature of your water by using a $3 hot water card. “For every ten degrees you lower it, you’ll save $10 per month. For the cost of an inexpensive latte, you can save about $120 per year.”
How much these hacks save you – on average – in one year:
(This involved some guesstimation and assumption, but go with me here.)
Skipping a $30 pair of shoes because you don’t want to break that $50 bill: $30
Clearing the cache: $50
GiftCardGranny says most commonly-requested amount is $25, so buying on an exchange: $5
If your health insurance has a gym discount: $360 per year
If your credit card covers rental car insurance at $7/day for a five-day trip: $35
If you time your shopping, buying a $300-coat in discount-month of March: $150
If you skip the apartment with the in-building laundry: $600 per year
Signing lease in December for 10% off what it would be in June: if average rent is $1231 a month, you save $1476 a year.
If you use Onavo to prevent data overage charges: $15/1gb of data on Verizon
If you skip the universal remote control: $10
Selling your good-condition iPhone 4s: $160
Avoiding vampire charges with a smart powerstrip: $100
Lowering thermostat 4 degrees: $157.80
Now, it’s worth noting that some of these savings tricks are person- and situation-specific, so you’re not guaranteed to save exactly $3,148.80 if you can’t get on a December lease cycle or can’t get a health insurance plan with a gym membership, or if you don’t need to save money on a rental car or you don’t have an iPhone to sell. But this does, nonetheless, illustrate how even the smallest of cost-cutting tricks can add up and save you a sizable amount of money over time.