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Martinis that cost $9, pricey gym memberships that go unused and fresh foods that go bad in the fridge are just a few of the bad habits that may be costing you more than they should.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 1/13/2009 4:24:06 PM ET 2009-01-13T21:24:06

So here we are, living through what may be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Are you still clinging to spending habits that would make your Depression-era relatives gasp in horror?

To be fair, even the most frugal among us can slip up from time to time and make painful and costly missteps. But let’s just say for the sake of discussion that you’re continuing to pay $50 a month for a gym membership you used three times last year, consistently letting healthy foods wither and rot in your fridge, or regularly forgetting to pay your bills on time and incurring late fees in the process.

If any of the above sounded familiar — and made you cringe ever so slightly — then it might be high time for an honest self-assessment. The following tips can help you break some stubborn and expensive habits for good:

Bad habit No. 1: Ordering ‘just one more’ $9 martini. OK, so you’re tired, you’re stressed out, and you want to enjoy some downtime with your friends. You decide to meet up for drinks at your favorite place. But have you noticed the prices of drinks these days? Far too many of them rival the price of a menu entrée, and they can turn an otherwise acceptable restaurant bill into a complete budget-buster. Even if you don’t go for the high-dollar mixed drinks, you still have to watch out for those $6 beers, $8 glasses of wine and $4 coffee beverages.

The remedy? To avoid drinking yourself into financial oblivion, do a little sleuth work to find great happy hours in your area. Many happy hours offer dirt-cheap drinks AND food, and you can even do a pub crawl to two or three places for less money than you’d pay at just one top-dollar place. Another option: Get together with friends at each other’s houses, where you can talk, play games, watch movies and even dress like slobs if you feel like it.

Bad habit No. 2: Paying for a gym membership month after month and never using it. Does your gym membership feel more like a charitable donation? Quitting may sound simple enough, until you get stuck in this mental loop: If you cancel your gym membership, you’ll lose out on that initiation fee you paid when you signed up — so how can you ever cancel?

The remedy? Think about your gym membership a different way: If you maintain it for three or four months without using it, you’ve blown the equivalent of that initiation fee and then some.

When can you decide to stop the insanity? At the moment when you can come to terms with what you truly want to do for yourself exercisewise. If you’re motivated to keep a gym bag packed in your car at all times so you can hit the gym multiple times each week with minimal hassle, then by all means keep your membership active. But if you know yourself well enough to know that you HATE-HATE-HATE going to the gym, then quit now and start saving some serious money. Resolve to exercise in the privacy of your own home instead, either with an exercise show or DVD that you actually enjoy, or with some low-cost free weights and a mat for stretching and toning. Beware of blowing even more money on a piece of exercise equipment that you may not use, though.

Bad habit No. 3: Letting vegetables and other groceries go bad in your fridge. This is one of those areas of life that’s bad for both our wallets and our souls. We all know that it’s terrible to let food go to waste, especially considering how many people are going hungry all over the world. So why do we do it? Because we’re exhausted and we don’t feel like cooking, that’s why.

The remedy? Be realistic — not optimistic — about how many veggies and fruits you and other people in your household are likely to eat in a given week. Don’t buy too much, especially if you don’t have a game plan in mind about how to prepare everything you’re purchasing. Another possibility: Buy frozen vegetables that can be whipped up at a moment’s notice. It’s the guilt-free ticket to eating your greens without letting anything go bad.

Bad habit No. 4: Driving your car too fast. You may not be feeling the pain from putting the pedal to the metal right now, considering that gasoline prices have dropped so much. Watch out, though: Gas prices are sure to climb again, and that’s when driving like a hot-rodder can hurt. Aggressive driving, hard stopping and accelerating to stops can make almost everything on your vehicle wear out early, and  can also hurt your fuel economy.

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The remedy? Train yourself to drive the speed limit, or at least as close to the speed limit as you can handle. Leave your house 10 minutes earlier so you won’t have to be in such a big hurry, and develop tricks for coping with the whole driving experience. Listening to something enjoyable or engrossing in your car can help you slow down and dwell on something other than the gridlock and bad drivers around you. Slowing down also can help you avoid the potential expense and hassle of a speeding ticket.

Bad habit No. 5: Hoarding airline miles and then forgetting to use them. This tip also applies to the various rewards points you’ve accumulated by using certain credit cards. Your miles and points are worth cold, hard cash. Why not make use of them?

The remedy? Resolve to spend a few minutes trolling around online and refreshing your memory about how your different mileage plans and rewards programs work. By the end of this process, you may realize that you’re owed flights to Cancun and a fancy steak dinner — free of charge!

While you’re at it, also remember to find out about any companion fares or buddy passes you may be owed through different airlines’ mileage plans. And if you had to cancel a flight in the past year, make a note on your calendar to use that flight credit before it expires on you.

Bad habit No. 6: Forgetting to cancel free trial offers, magazine subscriptions and other recurring payments that automatically get charged to your credit card. There are plenty of businesses out there that are counting on you to become forgetful or downright unmotivated after you place an order for a product or service. Such businesses benefit big-time if you forget to cancel something you meant to order on a trial basis only.

The remedy? Think hard before you activate a recurring-type service. With trial offers, a company may offer to: send you books, CDs or movies if you enroll in a club; send you the first three issues of a magazine and then charge you for a one-year subscription; or provide free Internet or phone service for 30 days before charging you. Remember to cancel in a timely manner if you don’t want the offer. Pop-up reminders on your electronic calendar can be your trusty friends in this arena.

Bad habit No. 7: Forgetting to pay bills on time. This is a surefire way to get walloped with finance charges and late fees, and to hurt your credit score at the same time. And if your credit score drops, you can find yourself getting locked into higher interest rates for just about everything.

The remedy? If you’re consistently running into this problem because you’re being hit with one bill right after another, you can ask to change your billing cycles to space out the due dates. Most creditors are willing to make such adjustments.

But if a hectic schedule or a lack of planning are to blame, then try turning to those pop-up reminders on your calendar again. Just take a few minutes each month to make notes to yourself about when key bills are due.

It’s also important to recognize that some bills are more unforgiving than others. You might be able to get away with paying a utility bill one or two days late every now and then without any dire penalties. But the consequences for late credit-card payments can be especially severe; pay past the due date just once and your interest rate can skyrocket to punishing levels.

Bad habit No. 8: Engaging in ‘retail therapy’ when you’re feeling bored or feeling blue. If shopping-for-stress-relief is your cup of tea, then this tip is for you. Sure, shopping can be an enjoyable diversion every now and then — but not when money is very tight. Then those fun-but-fleeting shopping trips will just add to your anxiety levels, especially when your credit-card bill arrives in the mail.

The remedy? Make up your mind to lay off the unnecessary shopping excursions for a while. Buy only what you need during this stressful period of time — not what you want. If you simply must get a little bit of shopping in, visit a thrift store and vow to spend no more than $10. Many thrift stores offer regular weekly deals that are unbelievably good. For instance, all clothes tagged with stickers of a certain color may cost 99 cents on a certain day of the week. Call up the thrift stores near you and ask about special sales.

If you’re worried that your spending is so out of control that you can’t wrestle with the problem alone, try attending a Debtors Anonymous meeting. This 12-step program provides support and guidance the way Alcoholics Anonymous does. To find meeting times and locations in your area, visit the Debtors Anonymous Web site and click on “Find a DA Meeting.”

Bad habit No. 9: Paying for services that you might be able to do yourself at least some of the time. It’s unlikely that our Depression-era relatives would be able to comprehend the notion of paying other people to clean our homes, maintain our lawns, wash our cars, color our hair and paint our toenails and fingernails for us. Granted, you may have legitimate reasons for hiring people to provide a number of these services for you — or for your aging parents. But what should you do if services like these are beginning to bust your budget?

The remedy? In all of these areas, it’s important to know yourself. Would your appearance, home, yard and vehicle suffer from extreme neglect if you failed to pay for the above-mentioned services? If so, it may not be the best idea to make a ton of extreme lifestyle changes all at once.

But consider these questions: Could you save money by reducing the frequency of some of these services? Could you try handling these tasks yourself at least some of the time?

Bad habit No. 10: Buying stuff at top dollar without even trying to be a bargain hound. This tip applies to books, clothes, exercise equipment, outdoor gear … everything! It’s always possible to time a sale or buy something gently used for a fraction of the top-dollar price. Retailers are counting on you to make impulse purchases of nonsale items — but you don’t have to give in to that temptation.

The remedy? Here are several tactics for you to consider:

  • Shop at the right time. The stores you love will have several big sales throughout the year. With some advance planning, you can time things so you shop only during the best sales. If you don’t feel like monitoring the ads, call the stores directly and ask for details.

  • Shop online the right way. Visit the Web sites of your favorite stores and click on any link that says “sale,” “new markdowns” or “final clearance.” You’ll likely find items that used to cost $100 or more lurking in final clearance sections for $19.99 or even $9.99.

  • Hunt down additional discounts. When making purchases online, stay on the lookout for areas where you can enter a “promotional code,” “discount code” or “coupon.” If you spot such an option, open a Web browser in another window and do a quick Internet search for the retailer’s name along with the same catchphrase used on that retailer’s Web site. Your search could yield a coupon code that could help you save even more on your purchase.

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