Financial advisers have plenty of suggestions for trimming the family budget — but what savings strategies do these financial pros follow in their own lives? Bottom Line/Personal asked Bill and Mary Staton, the married pair of professional money advisers who cowrote the book Worry-Free Family Finances, what they have done to trim their budget in these challenging times…

We don’t go shopping without a list. We used to wind up with a full cart every time we went to the grocery store for just a few items. Now we don’t set foot in a store of any kind without a shopping list, and we don’t buy anything that isn’t on that list. This has kept us from making impulsive, unnecessary purchases.

Estimated savings: Around $1,000 per year.

We stopped using most credit cards. Credit cards are a convenient way to shop — too convenient. They made it easy for us to buy things that we really didn’t need and really couldn’t afford. We started using debit cards instead so that we can’t spend more than we have in our bank account, and we never get stuck paying huge credit card interest charges. Exception: We do use an American Express card to purchase electronics and appliances, because the card provides extended warranty protection. We also use the card to rent vehicles, because it provides rental-car insurance.

Estimated savings: By using debit cards primarily, we calculate that the reduced spending and elimination of interest charges save us between $3,000 and $5,000 per year.

We “shop” in our closets. There was a fancy fundraiser for the arts in October. Rather than buy a new gown as she might have done in the past, Mary “shopped” for something to wear among the gowns and shoes already in her closet. New clothes are almost never a necessity, and shopping can be a very expensive form of entertainment.

Estimated savings: At least $1,000 per year.

We use our car’s cruise control. When we drive on the highway, we set the cruise control. We select a speed close to the speed limit that balances our need to get where we’re going in a timely fashion and our desire to maximize our mileage. Exception: Cruise control wastes fuel on hilly terrain because it keeps gunning the engine to get up the hills.

Our vehicles display miles per gallon (mpg) right on the dash, so it’s easy for us to choose a fuel-efficient speed. If your vehicle does not display your mpg, experiment with different highway speeds until you find the one that best stretches your fuel. Fuel economy generally drops by at least 1% for every one mile per hour (mph) over 55 mph.

Estimated savings: Several cents per mile — which adds up to $200 or more per year.

We favor retailers with liberal return policies. Getting stuck with an ineffective or inappropriate product because a retailer won’t take it back is a major money waster. Now we try to shop only at stores that are good about taking things back.

Estimated savings: Potentially hundreds of dollars a year, depending on what we need to return.

Important: Many stores have toughened up their return policies, so ask before you take anything home that you think you might want to return.

We combine our errands. We work from home, so we used to jump in the car whenever we had a chore to do. We would drive to the bank, come home, then go out again a few hours later to the dry cleaner. Those short trips ate up our free time and increased our gasoline bills.

Now we coordinate errands, thinking through everything we need to do and everywhere we need to go in a particular direction before we get in the car. We have greatly reduced the total number of trips we take to town. Each round-trip we avoid saves us about 14 miles of driving and at least a half-hour of time. If we eliminate an average of one trip to town per day, that’s 180 gallons of gas saved per year.

Estimated savings: About $400 per year in gas… as well as the wear-and-tear those short trips took on our vehicles.

We learned to make fancy coffee drinks. Bill used to go to a local coffee shop almost every day to treat himself to one or two large lattes (espresso with steamed milk), which cost about $4 each. Rather than give up this indulgence to save money, he bought a latte maker for $399 and learned to make his own lattes. The machine paid for itself in less than a year and now saves Bill around $1.50 per latte, plus time, gas and wear on his car.

Estimated savings: At least $500 per year.

We cut down on eating out. We used to eat out somewhat regularly, but we’ve both learned to cook a range of meals. Bill really enjoys cooking. Now we try to go out only on special occasions.

Estimated savings: About $2,000 per year on restaurants.

We gave up trying to cool the hottest room in our house. In the summer, our son’s bedroom was always much hotter than the rest of our home. We never realized just how much it was costing us to keep that room cool until our son left for college and our electricity bill fell by 20%. In retrospect, we could have saved that money long ago by having our son sleep in a cooler room on the hottest summer nights.

Estimated savings: $400 to $500 per year.

We rely less on automatic bill payment. Instead of having monthly payments automatically deducted from our checking account, we sit down and pay our bills together, writing out the checks by hand. This is more time-consuming but well worth it because it forces us to think about the money we’re spending. Did we need to make this purchase? Was there a way we could have paid less?

Example: We used to pay our health insurance automatically — we didn’t want to miss a bill and lose our coverage. As a result, we failed to pay close attention as the cost of our policy increased over the years. When we finally got around to shopping for new coverage, we discovered that we could have paid thousands less per year all along. We would have shopped around years ago if we had been paying the bill by hand each month.

Estimated savings: Potentially in the thousands each year.

We’re taking fewer overseas trips. We are going to our one-bedroom cabin in the mountains more often. It is a three-hour drive each way. Considering the hassles of air travel, local vacations can be more relaxing than distant ones anyway.

Estimated savings: Thousands of dollars per vacation.

Source: Bill Staton, CFA, a money coach and economic historian based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Mary Staton, CEO of The Staton Institute, Inc., and Staton Financial Advisors LLC, also in Charlotte. They are authors of several books on financial topics. Bill’s latest book is Double Your Money in America’s Finest Companies (Wiley).

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