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12 Budget Hacks to Beat Inflation

Prices are out of control, but your budget doesn't have to be. Keep your costs in line with these tricks.

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If inflation has hit your wallet hard, you’re far from alone. A new CNET study found the vast majority (95%) of US adults have experienced sticker shock at today’s prices, and 93% are worried about how high prices will affect their budgets.

Inflation may be cooling -- slowly -- but we won’t see any relief soon. While there isn’t much you can do about inflation’s effects on prices, there is plenty you can do to keep it from wreaking havoc on your budget.

Here’s how to keep costs down and stretch your dollars further.

Lower your grocery bills

Groceries gave respondents the biggest sticker shock, according to CNET’s survey. You have to eat -- there’s no getting around that. However, you have some control over the size of your grocery bill. Here are some ways to cut food costs.

Meal plan. If you start the week knowing what you’ll eat each day, you can avoid the temptation to turn to DoorDash when Wednesday or Thursday rolls around. Bonus points for planning meals around ingredients that are on sale at your grocery store. To save time during the week, batch-cook your week’s meals over the weekend so you just have to reheat them when dinnertime rolls around.

Have a plan for your perishables. Research from MITRE and Gallup found the typical household throws away more than 2 pounds of edible food each week. Avoid food waste by putting items such as produce and fresh bread at the top of your to-eat list.

Tip

You can keep a running list of soon-to-expire items on your fridge or incorporate them into your meal plan for the coming week.

Join loyalty programs. Stores want your data, and they’ll give you discounts in exchange for it. Find a store that works best for you -- ideally, one in walking distance so you can on gas -- and join its frequent shopper program to qualify for bigger savings.

Look at the unit price. When you’re comparing options, make sure you’re looking at the unit price, which is typically displayed next to the actual retail price. Store brands tend to have lower unit prices than well-recognized brands and are often the same quality, so you can score some savings by opting for the item you don’t see in commercials.

Dine out for less (or not at all)

Sure, it’s nice to have someone do the cooking for you, but dining out is much more expensive than cooking your own meals. So eat as many meals at home as you can. Tip: Meal planning and weekly meal prep can make eating at home much easier.

If you do want to treat yourself, make the meal more budget-friendly by looking for happy hour specials or weeknight savings. Restaurants don’t usually struggle to capture a weekend crowd, but they do need customers on school nights. You may be able to find lower-priced options by eating early -- between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., for example -- or choosing a Tuesday night for your restaurant date night. 

If you’re ordering takeout, choose a place with a convenient location so you can pick up the food and avoid delivery fees.

Save on gas

If you want to spend less on gas, the most obvious way is to drive less. However, if you live in an area with limited public transit or you don’t like your neighbor enough to start carpooling, that may not be an option.

Fortunately, there are other ways to reduce the amount you spend on filling up the tank. Open Google Maps before you head out to compare prices for regular gas at all the nearby stations. The difference can create some notable savings opportunities. For example, Google showed me a range of nearby fill-up options in Chicago ranging from $4.40 to $5.01 per gallon. With a 16-gallon tank, that’s a $9.76 difference.

Tip

You can also use an app to find the cheapest gas near you. Check out Gas Buddy, Gas Guru or the gas price tracker on AAA’s mobile app.

In addition, the US Department of Energy recommends combining multiple errands into one trip to keep your engine warm, which makes it run more efficiently. Time those errands for less-trafficked times of the day for added savings -- sitting with your engine idling for long periods wastes gas.

Lower your housing costs

If you’re like many people, your housing is likely the biggest chunk of your monthly budget. You can offset the cost with a house hacking strategy. One common one is finding a roommate or renter to subsidize some of your expenses. If that’s not an option, other ways to monetize your real estate footprint include renting out space in your garage or basement.

Since mortgage rates are high right now, refinancing isn’t a great option for most people. However, keep an eye on rates if you’re a fairly recent homebuyer with a mortgage rate of 7% or greater. The Federal Reserve will eventually slash rates, and when they do, it’s worth running the math to determine if a refinance is worth considering.

Cut utility costs

The DOE estimates that people can save up to 10% on their energy bills by adjusting their thermostats by 7 to 10 degrees for eight hours each day. While you’re at it, make sure you’re unplugging everything before you leave -- it’s safer as well as cheaper -- and keep the lights off while you’re away.

And as the summer heat approaches, be sure to change your air conditioner filter. By keeping it clean, you can make your AC run more efficiently.

Look for cheaper cell phone service

Mobile service can cost a lot of money. If you’re paying $65 per month for a Verizon plan that includes access to Hulu, Disney+ and ESPN+, it’s safe to say there are plenty of cheaper options -- including, oddly enough, $25-per-month service from Verizon-owned Visible.

Tip

Choosing a more affordable cell phone plan may mean some trade-offs, such as slower data, but the savings can create some much-needed wiggle room in your monthly budget.

Lower your debt payments

If you’re carrying a sizable chunk of credit card debt, consider a balance transfer credit card. The best balance transfer credit cards have introductory periods of 18 to 21 months with a 0% APR, or annual percentage rate. That means you can press pause on any additional interest charges for at least the next year and a half. After paying a balance transfer fee of 3% to 5% of the amount, all your payments will go toward the principal balance to help you get out of debt faster. 

If you’re carrying an especially large balance or multiple forms of high-interest debt, you may want to look into debt consolidation loans. While these don’t have 0% APR offers, they do tend to accept larger amounts of debt than balance transfer cards and can help you lower your APR so you’re paying less interest.

Review your insurance policies

While it’s tough to lower the cost of your home and auto loans, you can reduce how much you’re paying to protect those assets. According to CNET sister site Bankrate, the average cost for full auto coverage jumped by 26% over last year -- well ahead of the inflation rate.

Shopping around is the best way to save on your coverage. For example, Bankrate reports that the average annual cost for covering a $300,000 home with Nationwide is $1,662, while the same policy costs more than $2,500 with Farmers. Ask for quotes from multiple companies and see whether you can save more by bundling your insurance.

Cancel unused subscriptions

It’s easy to wind up paying more than $1,000 a year for subscriptions like streaming services, gym memberships and subscription boxes. One quick way to slash your costs is to identify which services you actually need.

Review your credit card and bank statements to get a sense of what you’re paying for regularly and ask yourself what you can eliminate. For example, if you’re an Amazon Prime member with access to Amazon Music, do you really need to pay for Spotify, too? You can also look at different pricing tiers to see how you can save some cash. For example, Hulu’s ad-supported plan is $7.99 per month -- $10 cheaper than the plan without ads. 

If you don’t have the time to comb through all your subscriptions, an app can do the work for you. Rocket Money is one of several apps that can help you spot and cancel your subscription services.

Find cheaper ways to have fun

If you’re stressed about finances, it’s important to make time to continue to enjoy life -- frugal fatigue just adds to your stress. And you don’t have to pay a ton to have a good time. There are plenty of low- and no-cost options, such as free-admission museum days and park programs to keep you and your family entertained.

Tip

If you’ve been hoping to plan a vacation, rethink where you’re going and when you’re going. You may still be able to get away by finding a destination within driving distance to avoid high flight prices or traveling during off-peak seasons.

Buy secondhand

Some purchases may not be able to wait until inflation cools. For example, if your fridge breaks or you need clothes for your new job, putting off the purchase may not be feasible. But you can cut your cost by buying used items. Secondhand sites like Facebook Marketplace, The Real Real and Poshmark can help you get what you need at a reduced price.

Consider switching banks

In addition to cutting your spending, it’s important to put the cash you don’t spend in the best place. An emergency fund can help you avoid going into debt if a sudden big expense arises, and the right account can help you grow your savings faster.

The best high-yield savings accounts pay annual percentage yields, or APYs, more than 10 times the national average, which can make a big difference in your bottom line. Compare multiple accounts to find the one with the best rate and the features you need. Pay attention to the fees and minimum balance requirements so you don’t lose any of your earnings to unnecessary charges.

Inflation doesn’t have to ruin your finances

You may not have any say over the rising costs of goods and services, but you can put yourself in the driver’s seat when it comes to where to direct your dollars. Remember that tiny steps can eventually make a big difference. While unplugging your cell phone charger and buying a generic brand of crackers might not seem like much, all those little decisions can really add up.

And you don’t have to do it alone, either. There are loads of free and low-cost budgeting tools that can help you stay on track and navigate the bumps in the road that inflation can create.

David McMillin writes about credit cards, mortgages, banking, taxes and travel. Based in Chicago, he writes with one objective in mind: Help readers figure out how to save more and stress less. He is also a musician, which means he has spent a lot of time worrying about money. He applies the lessons he's learned from that financial balancing act to offer practical advice for personal spending decisions.
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