How to Save Money Now
The tactics that can help you spend less on everything from cell phone bills to insurance coverage to groceries
With inflation rising faster than it has in 40 years, you likely feel the financial sting at every turn.
You experience it as the grocery store cashier totals what you’ve put in your shopping cart, when you pump gas for your commute, each time you open your utility bills, and when you set out to book a vacation to try and get away from it all.
In June, the Department of Labor reported that the consumer price index—the measure of overall change in the cost of a set of specific goods and services—was up 9.1 percent over a year earlier, representing the largest 12-month increase since November 1981. And the costs of some goods have spiked more dramatically than others. Fuel oil prices are up 98.5 percent, gas has risen 59.9 percent, and groceries are up 12.2 percent. Household debt, such as mortgages and car loans, has also increased. It’s little wonder that in a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,076 U.S. adults conducted in May, 64 percent of people said they were very or extremely concerned about inflation-related cost increases.
Now, you may see and hear plenty of advice about how to cut debt and rein in your burgeoning bills. But this often feels complicated, even overwhelming. Where do you start? Can you really reduce spending on life’s necessities? And if it’s possible, won’t figuring out how to do it take endless hours?
Consumer Reports experts and outside financial pros have contributed to this step-by-step guide to help you pare your regular costs by hundreds of dollars. “At a time when we’re all feeling the pain of inflation, it’s both important and easy to get better deals on many of your monthly bills,” says Ben Kurland, co-founder of BillFixers, a service that negotiates lower bills for consumers. All it takes is a little advance reconnaissance, a few phone calls, and some willingness to negotiate.
Lower Your Monthly Bills
Here’s a secret. The companies that bill you regularly all have protocols for giving consumers better deals, Kurland says: “But they rely on the fact that you’re not going to call and ask.” Below, a plan for doing just that.
Remember, timing is important. When calling a company to ask for a deal, time it so you have the best chance of getting to a live person quickly. Wait times are at their longest after work hours and on weekends. But if you call during normal business hours—9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday—you can often get through in just a couple of minutes.
Step 1: Take a Good Look at Monthly Bills
On a day when you can spare a couple of hours, pull out monthly bills such as cable, cell phone, and internet. In a 2021 CR survey of 34,107 members, about 70 percent who tried to negotiate for lower prices on cable TV, internet, and/or home phone services got a reduction (or another perk) on their bundled plans. “All those industries have easy-to-find, competitive deals you can use as leverage,” says Steven McKean, co-founder and CEO of Billshark, a bill negotiating company. Check your bills for any services you no longer want or need. “For example, the $10 per month you were happy to pay to insure your smartphone when it was new might not make sense now that it’s 6 years old,” Kurland says. Or you may be a new empty nester but still paying for superfast internet that the kids used to use for gaming. Circle your total costs, along with any fees or charges you don’t understand.
Step 2: Check Providers’ Websites for Deals
You want to see what discounts they’re offering, especially to new customers. Major cell phone carriers, for example, may be providing subscriptions to services such as streaming music or premium TV channels (and getting these could save you $10 to $15 per month if you can cancel them elsewhere). “If you don’t arm yourself with that information first, you’re going into a negotiation blind,” Kurland says. “You won’t know when they’re giving you a small discount just to get you off the phone, or if they’re handing you a really good deal.” While online, also take a look for simple changes that might lower your bill. For example, your cell phone company might offer discounts of $5 to $10 per month just for enrolling in paperless billing.
Step 3: Choose the Best Day and Time to Contact Companies
To get the biggest discount as quickly as possible, you want to talk to someone (yes, on the phone). Most people call after they get off work or on the weekends, which is when wait times are at their longest. If you schedule your call during normal business hours—9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday—you can often get through to a live person in a couple of minutes, Kurland says.
Step 4: Speak to a Retention Specialist
With your research on deals in hand, dial the provider’s customer service number, which should be on its bills or website. But this isn’t your final stop: Customer support’s job is to get you off the phone, and they’ll probably offer you little or nothing, Kurland says. Instead, say something like, “I’m John Doe, and I’m thinking about canceling my service,” to get to the retention department. “The retention department’s job is to save customers and negotiate discounts with them to make them happy, so that’s the department you want,” Kurland says. If they fail to transfer you right away, ask specifically for the retention department, and keep asking until you are connected.
Step 5: Ask Open-Ended Questions
When you reach a retention rep, your most powerful tools are questions that start with who, whose, what, when, which, why, or how, according to the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation. These are key because the answers require elaboration. McKean suggests starting with: “We enjoy your services, but inflation has been tough and I’m looking to cut costs. What can you do to help me?” “They may end up telling you about a new offer you didn’t even see,” McKean says. Write down the name, title, and phone number of anyone you speak with, and what they say, so you have a record.
Step 6: Push Back
Don’t jump at the first offer. A retention rep’s goal is to keep you as a customer with little impact to the company’s bottom line. It’s up to you to say, “What can you do to get me an even better deal?” Kurland says. And here’s where your research on the provider’s website may come in handy: If you’ve seen, for instance, a better deal on the site but the rep isn’t offering it, bring it up. And be polite but not chummy. A 2019 Harvard Business Review experiment involving more than 1,500 people found that warm and friendly negotiators ended up paying 15 percent more for the same item than tough and firm folks. “Keep your tone calm, clear, and consistent about what you want,” says Ben Kurland at BillFixers.
Step 7: Check the Offer Numbers
In some cases, your bill can climb higher during a negotiation, often thanks to bundled offers. “If you have internet service with a company, a rep may tell you it’s the same price a month to add TV to your internet service,” Kurland says. “If you take the deal, you’ll find there can be $30 or $40 of extra taxes and fees.”
Step 8: Get the Details in Writing
Once you get a discount you’re happy with, ask for confirmation via a follow-up email or text—if possible, before you get off the phone. “You’re speaking to a human being, so they may not process your new deal correctly,” says Steven McKean at Billshark. Check your bill the next month to make sure your deal went through. If not, you have the evidence to call and have it corrected.
Keep your paperwork together for any future negotiations. “The discount they give you may only last for 12 to 24 months, so mark your calendar, and give them another call a month or so before it expires,” Kurland says. At that time, ask a retention specialist if you can keep your current deal or get another one before the provider raises your rate.
Step 9: Repeat
Use these same steps to lower other bills, such as those for your health club, home alarm company, and pest control service, Kurland says. You can also try similar tactics with your home and car insurance companies. “In the case of home and auto insurance, ask about discounts that you’re not taking advantage of,” Kurland says. For auto insurance, these can include breaks for getting both your home and auto insurance with one carrier, taking a safe-driving course, and driving less than you used to. And consider raising your deductibles. Increasing your $500 deductible to $1,000 can reduce your overall policy costs by 11 percent, according to Douglas Heller, director of insurance at the Consumer Federation of America.
More possibilities: If you carry credit card balances, call, ask for the retention department, and request a lower interest rate. The company is more likely to do this if you’ve been with them for several years and typically pay your bills on time. When it comes to energy, in many places you can’t shop around for gas or electricity, but the American Coalition of Competitive Energy Suppliers has a list of states that allow you to choose providers, plus links to sites that will help you compare rates.
Slash a Big Medical Bill
Are you dealing with hefty medical expenses after a hospitalization or multiple appointments with specialists for tests and treatments? You may be able to negotiate a lower bill, experts say. Try the following.
Step 1: Get a Detailed Invoice From the Hospital or Providers
Scan the invoices for any duplicate charges, fees for services you did not receive, or anything that is unclear to you. Then flag anything that seems off. Almost half of all medical bills contain at least one error, according to Caitlin Donovan, a healthcare policy expert at the Patient Advocate Foundation, which helps consumers deal with medical bills.
Step 2: Wait for Your EOB
Doctors’ offices and hospitals may mail initial bills to you before they even submit them to your health insurer. So hold off on any payment until you receive an explanation of benefits (EOB) from your insurer, digitally or in the mail. This will show what you owe after the insurer has paid its portion.
But note: If your EOB shows that your health insurer is refusing to pay for services that you think should be covered, call the insurer to see whether it’s a correctable mistake, such as a coding error for a certain test or treatment. If it’s truly a denial of coverage, you may need to file an appeal. There are specific steps for appealing an insurance company decision.
Step 3: Mistake or Not, Seek a Discount
There’s no harm in calling the hospital’s accounting office or the billing staff at your doctor’s practice and asking whether they’ll reduce your bill. In a 2021 to 2022 survey commissioned by the online loan marketplace Lending Tree, more than 90 percent of respondents with medical debt who tried to negotiate were either partly or fully successful. Or if you have the funds to pay the entire bill, asking the hospital or provider for a “prompt pay” discount for doing so in a timely manner may save you 15 percent or more.
After hospital care, you can also call and ask a billing specialist whether the facility offers financial assistance. According to the American Hospital Association, about half of U.S. hospitals are nonprofit. This means they are required to offer free or discounted services in some instances. This is usually reserved for low- to moderate-income patients who have limited or no health insurance, but requirements vary from hospital to hospital, says Jared Walker, founder of the nonprofit Dollar For, which helps people apply for such help.
Step 4: Get Outside Help
If you’ve gotten nowhere on your own, the Patient Advocate Foundation may offer free negotiating help. Check to see if you qualify. Or consider hiring a medical billing professional to negotiate for you, but be aware of what the fees may be: These services can cost upward of $100 an hour. You can find potential candidates through the Alliance of Professional Health Advocates. Be sure to choose someone who is credentialed by the Patient Advocate Certification Board.—Lisa Gill
Good to Know: Stretch Out Your Payments
If it’s best for you to pay a medical debt off over time, it’s reasonable to ask the billing office to set up a no-interest payment plan for you.
Cut Your Food and Gas Costs
The high prices of these necessities can take an especially large bite out of your budget—but there are some great ways to save.
Find Grocery Deals
Step 1: Sign up for Loyalty Cards
“With store loyalty cards you can get special offers and additional savings not available to regular shoppers, and discounts from other retailers, sometimes including gas stations,” says Burt Flickinger III, managing director at Strategic Resource Group, a New York retail consulting company.
Step 2: Check Prices Beforehand
You probably already scan your favorite stores’ weekly sales flyers, but you might also try an independent app. Basket, for instance, lists real-time prices at local grocers as reported by other shoppers. Flipp shows you multiple sales flyers from stores near your ZIP code. And don’t forget to peruse sale and regular prices on store-brand items: You can save 20 to 25 percent on store-brand foods and beverages, and 50 percent or more on health and beauty products and paper goods. Plus, Flickinger says, “Most grocery chains have worked with manufacturers over the past few years to really improve the quality of their private-label brands.”
Step 3: Shop on a Wednesday, If You Can
That’s when stores are both stocked up for the weekend rush and less busy than later in the week. “Seventy percent of a store’s business is done Thursday through Sunday, so stores are crowded and shelves get depleted,” Flickinger says. No matter which day, shop between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., if possible. “The night crew will have restocked the store, so all the advertised specials will be on the shelves,” he says.
Frugal fact: On the last four days of each month, stores cut prices on food they need to sell before the next month.
Step 4: Compare Unit Prices
The unit price stickers on shelves, which break costs down by ounce, pound, or other weight, can help you determine which product really is the cheapest. (No stickers? Use your phone’s calculator or a free unit price calculator app.)
Step 5: Consider Self-Checkout
It may make you less likely to make impulse purchases, says consumer finance expert Andrea Woroch: “When you scan your own items, you have to pay attention, notice the price of everything, and decide if you really need each of them.” That makes you more likely to stick to your list and avoid last-minute additions to your shopping cart. Online shopping, Woroch says, may also help curb impulse buying.
Step 6: Pay With a Cash-Back Credit Card
Maximize your money-saving by using the card with the highest cash-back grocery rewards. The American Express Blue Cash Preferred card, for instance, has a $95 annual fee, but for the first $6,000 you spend on groceries each year, it returns 6 percent, or $360. For those considering a new card, “I like cards that give you a flat rate, like 2 percent back on all your purchases, so everything you charge earns you money,” Woroch says.
Pay Less for Gas
Step 1: Scope Out Nearby Prices
Smartphone apps, such as AAA, Gas Guru, and Google Gas Station & Fuel Finder, show gas costs at stations in your area. Checking before you fill up could save you 20 to 40 cents per gallon in metropolitan regions, with many stations competing against each other, and 5 to 10 cents per gallon in other locales, says Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, a gas price tracking website. The greatest price discrepancies usually take place along state lines, De Haan says, so if you’ll be crossing, fill up on the right side. In June, gassing up at a California station would have cost about $2 more per gallon than across the state line in Nevada.
Step 2: Time Fill-Ups at Warehouse Clubs
Filling your tank at warehouse clubs such as Costco may save you up to 20 cents per gallon, De Haan says. But you could face fuel-wasting lines, so go early or late: “Warehouse club stations are often open before the store is and stay open after it closes, so that’s the time to go, because lines, if there are any, will be short when the store is closed,” De Haan says. Note: You may need to be a member.
Step 3: Use Cash . . . Sometimes
Some stations charge about 5 to 15 cents per gallon less for cash, De Haan says. Before you fill your tank, compare these savings with your credit card’s cash-back benefits. Costco’s Anywhere Visa card, for example, gives 4 percent back on up to $7,000 in eligible gas each year. That would give you $2.80 in cash back on a $70, 14-gallon purchase. But you’d net only $2.10 off on that amount of gas with a cash discount of 15 cents per gallon. With credit cards from gas companies such as Chevron and Exxon, discounts may range from 3 to 12 cents per gallon.
Step 4: Reduce Your Driving Speed
CR tests found that slowing from 65 mph to 55 mph improved fuel economy by 6 mpg in a Nissan Altima and 8 mpg in a Toyota RAV4. You can also squeeze more mileage out by driving evenly; removing your roof rack, which can create drag; and keeping tires properly inflated.
Repair, Replace, or Buy Used?
Here are the best cost-cutting steps to take if an appliance, an electronics item, or a car needs fixing, and you’re out of warranty and not up for doing it yourself.
Step 1: Get Repair Estimates
For electronics, call the tech support number on the manufacturer’s website. If you can’t find it easily, search online using the company name and “tech support.” Explain your issue and ask for an estimate. Then get a second estimate from an independent chain such as uBreakiFix (in 45 states and Washington, D.C.) or a shop that friends or family trust. A note: With many electronics, you may have to use a manufacturer-authorized repair shop. (To make it easier to get products fixed, CR supports right-to-repair legislation.)
For appliances, get one estimate from an authorized shop (call the manufacturer’s tech support line for names) and one from an independent. Chris Zeisler, technical services supervisor at RepairClinic.com, recommends two chains: Mr. Appliance and A&E Factory Service. Or ask family members and friends for recommendations.
If your car needs fixing and you have an idea of what’s wrong, CR’s Car Repair Assistant can give you an idea of costs in your area. Otherwise, ask at a trusted independent repair shop, or at a dealership if a safety recall is involved.
Step 2: Calculate Repair vs. Replace Costs
Check the price of a replacement model, and choose repair only if it costs less than half that—especially if the product is near the end of its life span. For refrigerators, washers, and dryers, average longevity is 10 to 14 years; for dishwashers it’s eight to 12 years, Zeisler says. Electronics tend to have a much shorter life span, in part because technology changes so quickly. In fact, if a TV is more than 4 or 5 years old, it might be better to replace it because TV prices drop every year, says Jim Willcox, CR senior electronics editor.
With a vehicle, repairs are the right move, says Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing: “Say you have a 10-year-old car that needs a $2,500 transmission. You’ll likely lose that in depreciation just by driving a new car off the lot.” Exceptions include clear safety issues or a vehicle that was in a flood, or if you want newer safety features.
Step 3: Consider Used
Pre-owned appliances can be as much as 75 percent off the retail price of new ones. Zeisler advises buying these from a used-appliance store or a repair shop, where you will typically get a 6-month warranty.
You can get also good deals on refurbished electronics—which were returned to a manufacturer, tested, and repaired, if necessary. It’s best to buy these from companies that offer warranties.
If you’re shopping for a used car, be aware that those with a “certified pre-owned” designation can cost thousands more than similar vehicles, CR experts say. (See “Best Used SUVs, Sedans, and Small Cars, According to Consumer Reports” for a list of reliable used cars.)
Step 4: New or Used, Look for or Ask for a Discount
In a 2021 survey, two-thirds of the CR members who did so on major appliances succeeded. Tactics that worked best included mentioning better deals elsewhere and buying a display model. Also, check independent retailers, where salespeople can often match big-box store prices and waive delivery or removal fees.
For electronics, you may save money by opting for last year’s model, or if you can wait, buying in November or December, when the best deals are usually available. Consider browser extensions such as CNET Shopping and Honey, which track prices at thousands of online stores. Honey also adds coupons or promo codes it finds to items in your cart.
If you can’t get a discount, ask whether any other perks are available, such as rebates or free installation for a large appliance. It’s a tough time to get a deal on a car, but CR experts say steps like having your old vehicle prepared for trade-in and being ready to act fast may help you obtain attractive manufacturer terms on financing or a lease.
THE LOWDOWN: These coffee brewers are equal in our convenience and carafe handling tests. Bunns scored higher for reliability and satisfaction in our member survey, but the brew performance of the Hamilton Beach model surpasses Bunn’s.
THE LOWDOWN: While the Miele gets top marks for carpet cleaning, the Kenmore is close behind, and matches it on cleaning bare floors, sucking up pet hair, and low emissions. And the Kenmore is the better choice if you use tools for upholstery cleaning.
THE LOWDOWN: The Buick Envision, a top-rated luxury compact SUV, is pleasant to drive. But the similar-sized Hyundai Tucson Hybrid is higher-rated, gets 12 mpg more, is $10,00 less, and has a much higher owner satisfaction score. Note: Prices shown are for cars as tested.
THE LOWDOWN: Both models feature iPhones’ well-liked apps, settings, and iMessages function. The iPhone SE screen is a bit smaller, has Touch ID rather than Face ID, and lacks the iPhone 13’s ultrawide lens. But it takes great photos nonetheless.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the September 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.