Money

Maintain your savings by thinking outside of the box

Every time we turn on the television or open a newspaper, we're faced with news of a possible recession and a fledging economy. Stocks are down, big shot financial institutions are in trouble and the job market is tight.

The truth is, no one, not even the experts, can predict what's ahead. But one thing's for sure:  Now is the time to be pinching pennies. That means carpooling to work to save on gas, planning summer vacations closer to home and limiting trips to the mall.

It also means taking advantage of deals where you can find them, and one of the best ways to do that is with coupons and rebates.

According to CMS, a coupon processing agent, less than 1 percent of the 302 billion coupons issued last year were redeemed. When you consider that the average value of each was a record $1.28, that's a lot of savings that we as consumers passed up.  Rebate, too, represent a lot of lost value. According to Consumers Union 40 percent are never claimed.

Here are six tips to maximize your savings.

Think outside the grocery storeCoupons are no longer limited to cereal and toothpaste, you can find them for nearly everything these days.

"I use coupons for everything, including the parking lot at the airport. I save $22 every time I travel that way," says Stephanie Nelson, founder of the Web site couponmom.com, which offers links to deals and tips for maximizing your savings. Some people may find it embarrassing to pull out a coupon at the end of a meal, but trust me, your waiter has seen it before, and the savings, which can be ten or even fifteen percent, is worth it.

Hit the Web
These days, "clipping coupons" is little more than an expression. Sure, your Sunday paper still offers tons of savings, particularly when it comes to department stores, but the Internet is the real jackpot. Sites like wow-coupons.com and redplum.com make it easy for you to sort by category, so you can narrow your choices down by grocery, retail, travel and restaurant deals. Just print the ones you need.

And if you're doing your actual shopping online, be sure to do a search for coupon codes before you submit your order, says Edgar Dworsky, founder of the consumer information site consumerworld.org.

"If you go to an online site and see a field at the checkout that says 'promotional code' or 'coupon code,' that's your tip that somewhere in cyberspace, they may have coupons that will get you a percentage off of your order, or even free shipping."

Do a Google search, entering the exact phrase the company uses on its Web site, and you'll find a plethora of sites that offer codes. Granted, some of the deals may be expired, but it's well worth your time to plug a few in and see.

Maximize value
A lot of stores participate in what's called price-matchingm, meaning that if a product is on sale at a competitor, they'll sell it to you for the same price. Bring proof of the item's price at the other store (a circular will do the job) and show it to a manager, then ask for the discount. Most are authorized to give it to you, explains Nelson, who adds that she also asks retailers to honor other stores' coupons and even expired coupons with some success. Bottom line: You never know unless you ask, so give it a shot.

Check out coupon booksI guarantee that at least one school in your town has its students selling these each year. They cost about $30 and are chock full of big deals on travel, restaurants, and entertainment in your town or city. If you don't know someone who's selling them, you can buy them at entertainmentbook.com, but here's the trick: New books tend to hit the shelves in August for the following year, says Nelson.

If you wait until now to pick up your copy, you'll get a huge discount. Last time I checked, they were selling for half-price, plus free shipping. "If you're going on vacation this summer, for $15 it may be worth buying a book for the city that you're visiting," advises Dworsky.

Use rebates wisely"$150 rebate! Only $24.99 after mail-in rebate!" This is the kind of advertising that sucks us right in, particularly when it comes to big budget electronics.

Don't get me wrong, rebates can, and often do, mean a great deal, but that's only if you use them. Too often, we buy a product based on the after-rebate price, then lose our receipt, miss the deadline, or forget about the rebate altogether.

That's why if you're banking on a rebate you have to deal with the paperwork as soon as absolutely possible. Make photocopies of the documentation they require, and send in the originals via certified mail. Note the date that you mailed it on your calendar, and be on the lookout for plain or blank envelopes in your mailbox (many a rebate has been thrown out because it looks too much like junk mail).

Use common sensen
Don't let rebates or coupons talk you into buying things that you wouldn't otherwise spend money on. "It always comes down to whether you need the purchase, of course. Don't go shopping just because you have a 20 percent off coupon, you'll save 80 percent by staying home," says Nelson.  

With reporting by Arielle McGowen.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s “Today Show” and is also a columnist for Life Magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004’s “Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, www.jeanchatzky.com.

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