Plug Your Money Leaks

Miscellaneous spending is hard to account for: the extra charge for a service you aren’t using, food spending inflated by lunches out, the shopping cart of impulse purchases while at the store for light bulbs or cat food. Instead of miscellaneous spending, call them what they are: money leaks.

They suck the cash right out of your pocket and leave you wondering where it went. On their own, they’re not big draws on your resources, “but remember, it’s always the little things that will drain the pool,” says Dave Ramsey, author of The Total Money Makeover. Start plugging those day-to-day money leaks instead. We’ll show you how!

Beware of Impulse Buys

That store that carries everything is great for saving time and money. But on your way to what you really need to buy, you’re going to pass displays for tempting gadgets, snack food, and doodads, and pretty soon, you may succumb to an impulse purchase or three, says Ramsey, who has his own collection of gadgets to prove it. Now he writes a list before he leaves the house. “And I don’t by anything that’s not on the list, period,” he says.

Shop the Specials

Check out Web sites that help you plan your grocery buys around weekly specials — you’ll save about 20 percent, says consumer advocate Clark Howard, co-author of Get Clark Smart: The Ultimate Guide to Getting Rich from America’s Money-Saving Expert. If you spend $200 a week, that’s $2,080 each year.

Dine Smart

At restaurants, the profit margin is the highest on dessert, says Howard. “Something that might cost a quarter to make, they will sell to you for $5.95 or $6.95,” he says. If you and your spouse normally eat out with dessert twice a week, try abstaining, or splitting just one. You can also save huge chunks of change by brown bagging your weekday lunch instead of eating out.

Reclaim Those Rebates

Next time a manufacturer offers you a rebate, take it. Most of us factor a rebate into the price when we buy. But only 21 percent of us actually claim that money, according to a study by the Promotion Marketing Association.

Estimate Ahead of Time

When Paul Brown picked up his car after buying four tires, he discovered the garage had added $44 for an extended warranty, and $15 for chrome valve stem covers. “It was more than I’d estimated in my head,” says Brown, a consumer advocate from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. He made the garage remove the charges. His advice: Figure in advance what something’s going to cost Better yet, have the store or service provider figure an estimate for you — in writing. This gives you leverage to lower the price if it comes in higher than projected.

Fight Fees

Your bank levies a $35 “insufficient funds fee,” and yes, that little math error might have been your fault. But many financial institutions — from banks to credit card companies to your local utility or cable TV provider — may waive the charge if you ask nicely, especially if you’re a first-time or infrequent offender. The same goes for companies that assess fees for letting you talk to a human being, such as banks and other companies with customer support lines.

Demand a Deal

Phone, cable, and Internet service providers often give specials to attract new business yet do nothing extra for the loyal customer who’s been a subscriber for years. You can change that, says Edgar Dworsky, founder, an online public resource guide. When Dworsky’s phone/cable/Internet company was offering a better rate to new customers, he called and requested the same deal. His savings: more than $30 a month. If the company won’t play ball, become a new customer elsewhere.

Ask Why

Several months after buying a fixer-upper home, Daniel Butler noticed that his gas bill had climbed more than $100 higher than normal. He did a quick tour of his home and found that a window hidden behind a curtain had opened just enough to let in the cold air. Sometimes your money leak can be as simple – but as costly – as that.

Create a Paper Trail

For the next month, jot down everything, from your biggest bill to your smallest daily expense (carry a notebook and keep track). Seeing your money “spent” on paper is the first step to budgeting and controlling cash flow.

Allow Yourself “Fun Money”

When you do your budget, set aside an amount you can afford to spend in cash in an envelope. “When the envelope’s empty, you have to quit,” says Ramsey. It’s a handy spending safety valve.