The recession has caused many Americans to cut their spending, pay down their debts, and build their savings. And with the economy's tepid recovery, it's still important to keep your spending in check. Even if you think you've cut just about all the fat from your budget, you can probably slash even more with our savvy shopping advice. Keep reading to find out how to cut your expenses in these areas.
• Comparison shop every year. If you have a choice of health plans at work or through Medicare, review your options during the open-enrollment period (usually in the fall). Find out what each plan covers so you know what you'll have to pay. Consider deductibles, co-payments, and other cost-sharing in addition to the monthly premium. If you're buying your own policy, go to HealthCare.gov, which lets you screen every plan sold in your state to find one that will meet your needs. Then consult an independent broker to sort through your options.
• Seek cost-effective treatments. Check out prescription drugs on BestBuyDrugs.org, a Consumer Reports website that compares medications and lists the most cost-effective and safest ones for your condition.
• Buy drugs at big-box stores. We compared the prices of over-the-counter drugs and found they were up to 50 percent cheaper at Target and Walmart than at local supermarkets across the U.S. Those two stores also charge just $4 for a 30-day supply of many generic prescription drugs. For an even better bargain, get a 90-day supply for $10. Similar programs are offered by CVS, Kmart, Kroger, Rite Aid, Sam's Club, and Walgreens, although some, like CVS, charge an annual membership fee. Some local pharmacies will match the low prices at chain stores, but you have to ask.
• Check bills for errors. Eight of 10 hospital bills contain mistakes, according to the Medical Billing Advocates of America, a national association that checks medical bills for consumers. So go over your bills carefully. You might spot mistakes that will save you money—and some insurers pay a reward if you find and report errors.
• Shop the supermarket sale cycle. Food staples like cereal and chicken hit their lowest prices once every 12 weeks. Make a note when you see sales and you'll know when to stock up next.
• Make coupon searches simple. There are so many online coupon sites that searching all of them could be a full-time job. To save time, stick to just a couple of them. We've found Coupons.com and SmartSource.com usually have up to 100 deals at a time, compared with no more than 30 coupons in newspaper circulars. And both sites have new mobile versions that let you scroll through offers from a smart phone without downloading special software or apps. (See our list of recommended apps.)
• Bid on your groceries. Food auctions aren't common yet, but they're a growing trend. Auctioneers say you can save 40 percent or more off typical supermarket prices. We went to a grocery auction website and found big savings. For example, a box of three DiGiorno Cheese Stuffed Crust Three Meat Pizzas was $14, about half the price at a local market; Hickory Farms Summer Sausage and Kellogg's Rice Crispy Treats were 78 percent less than Amazon.com's prices. Look for local events at www.auctionzip.com and www.craigslist.org. Check the prices of the items you want first so you won't overbid, and bring a cooler for pickup.
• Buy store brands. They can save you 50 percent or more compared with brand-name alternatives. Every year we test dozens of store-brand items, and find that many of them are just as good or even better than name-brand products.
• Split a warehouse membership. If you've shied away from those clubs because you don't have room to store dozens of rolls of paper towels, packs of soap, and jumbo-sized packages of frozen food, consider splitting your purchases with someone else. The savings can easily offset the membership fees, which you can also split. In our price comparison between clubs and supermarkets, we found savings of as much as 50 percent or more on such staples as cleaning products, coffee, drugs, paper goods, and snacks.
• Check social-network offers. More stores are using Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter to lure customers with deals. Walmart uses Facebook to post coupons and specials at the store in or closest to your ZIP code. Whole Foods offers one-day sales, recipes, and more through Facebook and Twitter.
• Update your insurance annually. The auto coverage you signed up for when your car was new is often more than you need as it ages and depreciates. It's a good idea to call your insurance company once a year to see whether you should adjust some coverage. Every year you don't file a claim or get a ticket, for example, makes you a lower risk, which could qualify you for a lower rate. But you have to ask. For more details, see our car insurance buying guide.
• Check the competition. You might find a cheaper policy by calling other insurers for quotes or comparing prices at AccuQuote or Insure.com. But if you've been with the same company for several years and you've got multiple policies with that insurer, switching might not save you much, if anything.
• Shop for the cheapest fuel. FuelPrices.net, GasBuddy, Gas Price Watch, MapQuest, and MSN Autos can help you compare fuel prices in your area.
• Go longer between oil changes. Although car dealer service departments and oil-change shops might suggest changing your oil every 3,000 miles, modern engines are usually designed to go 7,500 miles or more between oil changes under normal driving conditions. The shorter time span is often used only for cars driven in severe conditions, such as stop-and-go driving, frequent trailer-towing, mountainous terrain, or dusty conditions. Check your owner's manual for its recommendation.
• Buy pet food at Target or Walmart. When we sent 21 of our secret shoppers to stores around the country to price top-selling brands of dog and cat food, prices at those two stores were about 20 percent less. Online pet-food prices were especially high; Target and Walmart beat them by an average of 50 percent. If your vet has recommended a premium food brand because your pet has health issues, check prices at both Petsmart and Petco.
• Inquire about price matching. Some stores will match other retailers' prices. One CR staff member brings circulars or printouts of online deals when she shops at Petland Discounts. Target matches competitors' prices and its own sale prices if you have a receipt showing you paid more within a week before a sale.
• Check out flea-and-tick options. A patent has expired on one of the active ingredients in Frontline Plus, so new competitors have emerged, including PetArmor Plus and FiproGuard Plus. At Petco we found a three-month supply of PetArmor Plus for $28, compared with $50 for FiproGuard Plus and $62 for Frontline Plus. You might find even bigger savings on those products at other stores or online.
• Ask vets about costs. If your pet is prescribed a medication that's also given to humans, compare the vet's price to the cost of filling it at a drugstore, supermarket pharmacy, or big-box retailer. If you're shopping for a new veterinarian, call a few offices nearby and ask what they charge for an annual exam as a gauge of other costs. It can range from about $35 to $46, according to a 2008 national survey by the American Animal Hospital Association.
• Skip pet insurance. Our analysis has found most pet owners are better off saving money in an emergency fund.
• Slash restaurant tabs. BiteHunter.com lists restaurant specials and daily deals from other sites, such as Citysearch and Groupon. It's easy to search by cuisine, deal, or restaurant in a particular city. EatDrinkDeals.com posts discounts from national and regional chains.
• Download free e-books. Hundreds of thousands of books published before 1923, including many classic titles, have been digitized by Google or Project Gutenberg and are offered as free downloads. Some newer titles are free for promotional reasons. There are free e-books for the Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and Sony Reader devices. You can also access e-books free on your Nook, for up to an hour a day, when you're in any Barnes and Noble store. And, of course, you can always borrow books, books on tape, and DVDs from your local library.
• Go to outlets for off-season duds. In-season items are often made specifically for the outlets, and manufacturers might cut corners, as we've discovered in our tests. Out-of-season clothes, however, might come from their nonoutlet locations and be higher quality. Still, inspect them for defects before you buy. Read more about outlet shopping.
• Get free shipping. More online retailers are offering it year-round, not just during the holiday season. FreeShipping.org lists dozens of stores that ship free with no minimum purchase.
• Read the labels. Natural fibers, such as 100 percent cotton, wash and wear better than blends. Cheaper fabrics can shrink and are more prone to pilling. Try to avoid items that have to be dry-cleaned.
These six shopping apps can turn your smart phone into a savings tool. All are free; to find them, search by their name in a Web browser.
Clothing-sale app: Where
Once you've followed a few steps to tag favorite retailers, it tells you every time they post a coupon. Works on Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, Palm Pre, and Windows Phone 7. (The app is called Yowza on the iPhone.)
Fuel-saving app: Gas Buddy
Finds gas stations near you and shows you their recent prices. Works on Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, and Windows.
Entertainment app: Foursquare
By tracking your location, it alerts you to deals at nearby movie theaters, museums, restaurants, and other places. It also connects you to daily deals from Groupon and other social-shopping sites. Works on Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, and Palm Pre.
Grocery-coupon app: Cellfire
Loads coupons from more than 3,500 grocery stores and other retailers onto your loyalty cards. It sends a mobile reminder that you have a coupon when you enter the store that provided it. Works on Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, and Windows Phone 7.
Price-comparison app: PriceGrabber
Lets you know who's selling goods at the best price, including tax and shipping fees. Scan the item's bar code or type in the product name. Works on Android and iPhone. Please note that Consumer Reports collects a fee from Pricegrabber for referring users. We use 100% of those fees to fund our testing programs. Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with any retailers.
Yard-sale app: Garage Sales Tracker
Finds garage sales, flea markets, and consignment shops in your area. Works on the iPhone.