Apr
01
Don't Waste Your Money on These 23 Things

By Jody L. Rohlena and Amanda Walker via Reader's Digest


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Avoiding unforced spending errors will let you save for the stuff you really want

IT’S EASY TO GET INTO A SPENDING RUT, buying the same stuff you’ve always bought out of habit or just because your mom always had that kind of soup in her pantry. But sometimes the same old, same old can cost you, whether we’re talking everyday purchases, monthly bills, or occasional big-ticket items. In many cases, making a simple swap can save you money, time, and even headaches. We checked with experts in more than a dozen fields to find out what you should stop wasting your money on—and what to spend it on instead.

RUNAWAY AC AND HEAT
According to energystar.gov, a typical U.S. household spends more than $2,200 a year on energy bills, with nearly half going to heating and air conditioning.

“A programmable thermostat can save you 10 percent a year on your cooling and heating bills,” says Mary Farrell, senior editor at Consumer Reports. Set your thermostat seven to ten degrees higher on warmer days and the same amount lower on chilly days and see whether the money you save doesn’t feel better than being slightly warmer or cooler than you’re used to. Even easier, make these adjustments when you plan to be out of the house.


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SUPERMARKET FLOWERS

They might look pretty, but resist the temptation to buy bouquets kept in buckets of water near the produce. Some fruits and vegetables give off ethylene gas, which can shorten flowers’ lives, says Amy Stewart, author of Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful. “Instead of lasting a couple of weeks, unrefrigerated flowers near the produce section are only likely to last a few days,” she says. If you want flowers that will stay fresh longer, buy blooms that have been kept in a refrigerator. Skip gerbera daisies, hydrangeas, dahlias, gardenias, and sweet peas, which will probably start wilting within five days. Instead, choose Oriental or Asiatic lilies, chrysanthemums, garden roses, gladiolas, or sunflowers.

FANCY SHEETS
A high thread count—and the accompanying high price tag—doesn’t necessarily mean the softest or best-sleeping sheets. According to the product-testing group Wirecutter, sheets with thread counts in the 200 to 300 range should be plenty soft and durable. Its top pick for bargain-priced sheets is Target’s Threshold line, which costs $50 for a queen set—far less than the hundreds or even thousands of dollars you can pay for premium bed linens.


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LARGE RUGS
A lot of work goes into weaving good-quality handmade rugs, and the price can skyrocket when you go up in size. For example, a four-by-seven-foot Turkish rug might be $300, while an eight-by-ten version could cost $2,000. To save money but get the look, Rebecca Hawkins, president and head buyer for furniture retailer Celadon Home, suggests trying a decorator’s technique called layering. Buy a large rug in an inexpensive material such as sisal, jute, or seagrass for around $200. Then place a smaller, more expensive rug on top, like that four-by-seven Turkish model. Result: You’ve spent $500 instead of $2,000. “Designers and home stagers use this a lot to save a bundle,” Hawkins says.

Layering will get you a premium-priced look for less.

A NEW STICKER-PRICE CAR
You should get a good discount on a new car without having to rely solely on your negotiating skills. One secret is timing: Watch for low- or zero-percent interest on loans, cash-back offers, and special lease terms. “Cash-back offers can even be as high as $10,000,” says Ivan Drury, senior manager of insights at the automotive research site edmunds.com. “Every month, there are new incentives available from every automaker,” he says. “It’s pretty rare that someone looking for a car has no incentives available.” You can check current rebates by make and model at edmunds.com, jdpower.com, and nadaguides.com.

The best time to buy a new car is at the end of the model year (usually August or September) or at the end of the calendar year. The regular deals didn’t happen in 2020 because of the pandemic and the resulting auto shortages, but generally, “buying at the end of the month does yield a bit better deal,” says Drury. The reason: Many dealerships receive monthly volume bonuses, meaning they get additional money back from the automaker if they sell a certain number of vehicles in a month. You probably won’t get a giant discount, but you can likely get another $200 or so knocked off the sticker price.
Don’t be lured by a holiday sale at the beginning or middle of the month, says Drury. “Those holiday deals are usually the incentives you can get all month, so it still makes sense to wait until the end of the month to save a bit more.”

TRAVEL REWARDS CARDS
If you’ve historically put all of your charges on a credit card that pays you in travel rewards, you might want to use another card right now, while you are probably traveling less or not at all, says Loretta Nolan, a financial planner in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. If you pay an annual fee for that card, call to see if the company will waive it, or consider canceling the card.

“Every credit card in your wallet right now should be earning its keep, and if you’re not traveling like you used to, you might do better putting charges on a card that’s going to, say, pay you three percent cash back on the money you spend at grocery stores and drugstores,” Nolan says.

HOMEOWNERS INSURANCE ...
One with a low deductible, that is. Raising a $500 deductible to $1,000 can cut your annual premium up to 25 percent, says Mark Friedlander, director of corporate communications for the Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit consumer education group. Have a monitored burglar alarm or fire alarm system? Some insurers will knock 10 to 20 percent off your annual homeowners premiums for that. Ask your agent about any other discounts you might be missing.

... AND CAR INSURANCE
There’s a similar savings step with your car: Increase the $250 deductible to $1,000 and you could save up to 40 percent on your premiums. At the same time, sniff around to see whether you have earned any discounts that could save you even more. “If you’re driving less than you used to due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ask your insurer whether you qualify for a low-mileage discount, which might cut your auto premiums by 10 to 15 percent,” says Friedlander.
Bundling your home and auto policies with the same company, if you haven’t already, could save you an additional 15 to 20 percent on each policy. Then pay your premiums in full up front instead of using a payment plan, and you might save another 10 percent.

Even if you are maxing out all your available discounts, it still pays to shop your insurance coverage around every year or two, getting at least three quotes, to see if you can get a better deal. In a study by the Texas Insurance Department, people saved an average of $125 per year on auto policies just by comparing rates.

An independent agent can help you with those comparisons; find one through the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, or check comparison-shopping sites such as insure.com, netquote.com, and selectquote.com.

SPRING FLOWERS
“When you buy in the spring, you’re paying full price for all your plants,” says Renee Marsh, a designer and teacher at the New York Botanical Garden. “Buy in summer or even fall because nurseries don’t want to manage those plants through the summer heat or have to overwinter them.” By waiting, you can easily save 20 to 50 percent or more. “Don’t get carried away by the spring flower bling,” Marsh says.

SUPERMARKET STOCK
In the kitchen, try this easy cooking hack: Save your chicken, beef, and pork bones to make your own nutritious bone broth. Put bones and vegetable scraps in a big pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, then simmer for a few hours, or all day if you can. A splash (about an ounce) of vinegar helps draw nutrients from the bones. Your homemade creation will be tastier and contain more vitamins and minerals and less sodium than store-bought stock. Research has shown that bone broth protects bones and joints, fights inflammation, and promotes better sleep. It also will save you money, as store-bought stock typically costs $2 to $3 per quart. Use your homemade broth as a flavorful base for soups, sauces, and gravies and as a cooking liquid for rice or quinoa.


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EXTRA-FAST INTERNET
Companies such as Xfinity and Google offer home Internet speeds of up to 2,000 Mbps (or 2 Gbps), but unless you are a hard-core online gamer, that blazing-fast service is probably a waste of money. The Federal Communications Commission recommends Internet speeds of 12 to 25 Mbps for most families, even those who stream games or videos. You won’t see a big difference in your everyday browsing speed, but you will see a difference in your bank account. For example, for service in White Plains, New York, where the Reader’s Digest offices are located, Xfinity charges as little as $40 per month for download speeds of 100 Mbps, $80 for 1,000 Mbps, and a whopping $300 for 2,000 Mbps.

A REPAIR-PRONE AUTO
Before you choose your next ride, check the True Cost to Own calculator at edmunds.com to find out how much different models would cost you over time. Information includes purchase price, repairs, depreciation, insurance, fuel, and more based on your ZIP code and five years of ownership. For example, Houston buyers purchasing a 2020 Honda Civic two-door LX coupe can expect to pay $12,339 over those five years ($4,541 for fuel, $7,127 for insurance, and $671 for repairs), while a BMW 330i could run $17,444 ($6,584 for fuel, $8,275 for insurance, and $2,585 for repairs). Of course, check with your insurer to see rates for particular models.

ENERGY-GUZZLING APPLIANCES
Older dishwashers, refrigerators, and other essential appliances use a lot more energy and water than newer models, especially those with an Energy Star certification from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For example, a dishwasher with an Energy Star label uses 3.5 gallons of water or less per cycle, compared with the more than 10 gallons used by some older models. Energy Star-certified washing machines clean clothes using 33 percent less water and 25 percent less energy than standard washers, while certified clothes dryers use 20 percent less energy than other models. So if your existing model is on its way out or you’re looking to upgrade, choose an energy-efficient replacement for long-term savings.

ONE-JOB KITCHEN GADGETS
Tempted as you might be after watching that infomercial, most of the kitchen tools that do just one job are not only a waste of money but also wind up taking up precious drawer or counter space. Think avocado slicer, banana slicer, garlic peeler, etc. To do most food prep, say the professional foodies at Food & Wine, all you need are three good “gadgets”: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife.

INVESTMENT FEES
“Because interest rates are so low, you’re not making much on your money market funds or bank accounts now,” says financial planner Nolan. “To help make that up, make sure you’re paying the lowest fees possible on investments like mutual funds and ETFs [exchange traded funds].” A simple way to do this is to check the expense ratios—the amount of a fund’s assets that goes toward administrative and management costs—of the holdings in your 401(k), IRA, and other investment accounts. Then see whether similar funds charge less.

For example, Vanguard’s S&P 500 Index Fund (VFIAX) and Invesco’s S&P 500 Index fund (SPIAX) both mirror the performance of the S&P 500 index. But the Vanguard fund has an expense ratio of 0.04 percent, while the Invesco fund charges 0.54 percent. If you invested $10,000 in each for ten years, earning an average of 9.8 percent a year, you’d have $2,590 more using the lower-cost Vanguard choice.

To research your fees and find funds with lower ones, consult a financial website such as morningstar.com. If you have a 401(k), ask the employee relations department for that information.


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A BIG LAWN
Spend a lot less on yard care by getting rid of some of your lawn or never growing one to start with. By growing native plants instead of the usual grass, you can save two kinds of green. “After they’re established in your garden, they don’t need constant watering, they don’t need any fertilizers, and they’re more pest- and disease-resistant, so you save on pesticides,” says Kim Eierman, a certified horticulturist and the founder of ecobeneficial.com, a gardening education website. One study by the EPA found that the costs of maintaining one acre of native prairie or wetland plants such as grasses totaled about $3,000 over 20 years. Maintaining the same size lawn covered in traditional turf would set you back around $20,000—and even more for a larger lawn.

Less lawn to mow = more green in your pocket

CREDIT-REPAIR SERVICES
Don’t fall prey to sales pitches from companies that promise they can fix your credit score for you. “There are all kinds of services out there that claim to have ways to get negative information removed,” Andrew Pizor, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, told Money magazine. But there are only a few legitimate repairs that can be done, such as updating old information or correcting errors on your credit reports—all things you can do yourself, for free.

To improve your score, you should also try to pay down any debt you’re carrying, such as credit card balances, and pay all your bills on time, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of hsh.com, a mortgage information website. That will get you a better FICO credit score in a few months—and a better interest rate on a mortgage, a credit card, or any loan.

“Someone with a fair credit score of 640 might pay about a full percentage point more for a mortgage than someone with a very good credit score of 740 or more,” says Gumbinger.

STORAGE BINS
Organizing guru Marie Kondo suggests using shoeboxes to organize items such as T-shirts, socks, and tools in your drawers and closets. If you’re decluttering, these freebies can save you quite a bit, considering that shoebox-sized bins from the Container Store cost $5 (or more) apiece.


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NAME-BRAND PET MEDS
Buying generics can save you as much as 85 percent on prescription drugs—and the same goes for your furry family members. Ask your veterinarian whether a generic substitute might work for a drug your pet needs. Ideally, get a written prescription and compare the amount your vet charges with the prices you find at drugstores and big-box stores. Many pharmacies fill pet prescriptions if they stock the same medication for humans.

Discount programs, including those offered at most big chain stores, may also help. GoodRx says using one of its coupons may save you as much as 80 percent off the retail price of pet prescriptions. For instance, gabapentin, a medication used to control seizures, costs about $10 for ninety 300 mg capsules with GoodRx, whereas the average cash price is more than $70.

FULL-PRICE FURNITURE
The biggest sales at furniture stores typically take place on certain holidays—Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day—and also at the end of the year, says Chris Gaube, head of brand marketing at the home furnishings retailer Raymour & Flanigan. A smart strategy is to shop before those holidays to check prices and then wait to buy at the holiday sales, when much of the inventory could be at least 10 to 20 percent cheaper.
And if you want to save even more, ask about buying floor samples. Says Gaube, “Typically our floor samples are discounted 30 percent to 50 percent during holiday sales.”

LARGE OUTDOOR PLANTS
“A plant in a three-gallon pot looks nice and big, but it has usually been repotted a number of times, so the root structure has been compromised,” says Marsh of the New York Botanical Garden. When you’re looking for plants to grow in your yard, think smaller. “A one-gallon potted plant has a healthier root system that will allow it to catch up to the bigger plants in a season or two, plus it is a fraction of the cost.”

Or go even smaller and buy plant plugs—tiny plants with deep root systems. “Within a growing season or two, they will be the equivalent in almost every case of a plant you paid five times as much for that comes in a one-gallon pot,” says horticulturist Eierman. For example, a Lindera benzoin, or northern spicebush shrub, can cost $29 in a one-gallon pot, while five plugs of the same shrub cost $25.

REPLACEMENT TIRES IN PAIRS
Tires don’t usually go flat in pairs, but the salesperson at the tire store will tell you that you need to buy them two at a time. Unless the tire on the opposite side of the one being replaced has less than 75 percent of its tread, say the experts at Family Handyman, you don’t necessarily have to change it at the same time.

BOX SPRINGS
If you’re shopping for a new mattress but your box spring isn’t broken, don’t let the salesperson talk you into buying one. That'll save you roughly $150 to $300 if you’re buying a queen mattress, the most popular size, according to Consumer Reports testers.

Those testers also say that you should be able to get a good quality mattress for less than $700, including innerspring models, which tend to be more popular than cheaper foam mattresses—and cost far less than the thousands of dollars many brand-name manufacturers charge for some models.



PHOTOGRAPHS BY Levi Brown
VECTOR ART: GETTY IMAGES