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Jean Chatzky’s top 10 money-saving tips

Tax time making you concerned about cash? The “Today” show’s financial editor has simple strategies to boost your bank balance.

With tax time just around the corner, this is the season when many Americans take a hard look at their finances. The sad fact, of course, is that for many people the financial picture is not a pretty one.

But it doesn’t always have to be that way. According to my research, four in 10 Americans follow a household budget they or their spouse created. Adopting these habits seems to pay off. People who follow budgets and track their spending are more likely to be steadily working toward their financial goals. They're also more likely to be very happy with their overall lives, and that happiness doesn't seem to hinge on getting a shopping fix.

So, what can they teach the rest of us? Here's a look:

  • Budgeters put off making purchases until they have the money to pay for them and are less likely to spend money on nonessentials.
  • Budgeters save money simply because they don't see a reason to spend it. For example, they're more likely to cook at home rather than eat out, to buy clothes on sale rather than pay full price, to use coupons, wash their own cars, mow their own lawns, and borrow books from the library instead of buying them.
  • Budgeters are more likely to use cash instead of credit.

Sound like a good idea? To get started, here are 10 money-saving tips that could leave you feeling a lot happier the next time the tax man comes calling:

1. Don’t pay unnecessary late feesWith late payment fees on the rise — not just for your credit card bills but also for other regular bills — you need to be sure that your payments have a way to get to their destination on time every single month. And here it is: Pay those bills automatically. You can preauthorize withdrawals from your checking account to pay your mortgage, car payments, insurance, utilities, and even the health club — almost anything that's a fixed amount.

2. Don’t be an office fashion plate.Call it the "Carrie Bradshaw Syndrome." If you're a woman drowning in debt, some new research points to a likely culprit: office apparel. Single women spend 55 percent more than men on clothing and personal-care items. How can you regain control? Try shopping in your own closet before you head to the stores. If that doesn't work, put yourself on a cash budget and leave the plastic at home.

3. Learn in-store self-controlThe next time you're in a department store holding a super pair of black pants in your hands that you think you have to have, stop and think. Don't you have three pairs in your closet just like them? Do you really need another? If you're wavering, put the item — whatever it is — on hold. If you still absolutely, positively, have to have it tomorrow, it'll still be there. But you'll probably decide you can live without it.

4. Those “little luxuries” add upThat nice cup of specialty coffee is only a couple of bucks more expensive … and besides, I deserve it. Maybe, but switching from a $3.50-a-day latte to a $1.50 cup of coffee saves $14 a week. Likewise, buying magazines by subscription rather than on the newsstand can help you save big. And as long as the fall weather holds out, try putting that gym membership on hold and getting some fresh air by running outside.

5. A bounced check is money thrown awayThe number of bounced checks is up to more than 125 million a year, according to Bankrate.com. And each of those infractions is likely costing consumers $20 to $35 a pop, according to the latest research from the Consumer Federation of America. The need to avoid these charges makes overdraft protection (a service that protects you against bouncing a check) a very attractive option. Just make sure you know what it's costing you — $5 per transaction is typical, which is well worthwhile. But if the protection comes in the form of a credit line (rather than from a linked savings account), you need to watch the interest rate. According to BankRate, interest rates on such a line of credit may be 18 percent or higher, and some banks charge annual fees of $15 to $20 for the service.

6. Direct deposit can save you cashAre you taking advantage of direct deposit? Not only is it easy, but most banks will knock $1 to $2 off your monthly account maintenance fees if you have your paychecks direct-deposited. Check with your employer to see if they have special deals with local banks for direct deposit. And don't stop with your paycheck: You can also direct-deposit expense and travel reimbursements, Social Security and Veteran's payments, retirement and mutual fund distributions and tax refunds. In all of these cases, direct-depositing saves you a trip to the bank. With taxes there's an additional bonus: If you file electronically and elect to have your refund direct-deposited, you'll shave weeks off the time it takes to get your money back.

7. Don’t be a gas guzzlerWith gasoline prices across much of the country more than $2 a gallon, you need to pay more attention to getting good mileage. Here are a couple of tips.

  • Keep your tires inflated to the proper levels (which you'll find in your owner's manual). This will boost fuel efficiency.
  • Stop speeding. According to the FTC, driving at 65 miles per hour rather than 55 will increase fuel consumption by 20 percent; Go 75 mph and fuel consumption jumps by another 25 percent.

8, 9 and 10. Don’t let eating out eat too much of your income
The average American household spends more than $2,200 dining out, according to New Strategist Publications. That's reason enough to approach dining in a restaurant as any other consumer experience. I'm not saying you need to haggle over every item on the bill, just to make sure you know where rip-offs are likely to lurk.

  • Specials: It's not unusual for them to be more expensive than every other item on the menu. Simply ask how much they are as the waiter lists them.
  • Bottled water: Bottled water is a huge profit center for restaurants. Beware of a place that starts pouring and doesn't stop.
  • Wine: Be certain the bottle you order is the bottle you receive. Sometimes less expensive varieties are substituted for pricier versions. Some restaurants will cavalierly substitute a less expensive year but still charge you the higher price.

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor for “Today,” editor-at-large at Money magazine and the author of “Talking Money: Everything You Need to Know About Your Finances and Your Future.” Her latest book, "Pay It Down: From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day," is now in bookstores. Copyright ©2005. For more information, go to her Web site, .