Money Essentials

Financial budget prioritizing

How to reduce spending to free up money for use elsewhere.

The most common spending problems are caused by a house that's too large, a car that's too luxurious or a credit-card lifestyle that's too lavish for your income. Those who see a virtue in moderation may have had budgeting in mind.

Whatever your situation, here are some common ways that people can reduce monthly bills.

Eliminate trivial but needless costs

Look first for small savings - not because they'll end your budget problems, but simply because they're easy to find and take advantage of. For example, swear off that mid-afternoon, expensive premium latte. Shop for clothes and household furnishings only during sales. Higher gasoline prices make it a good idea to "bundle" shopping trips. Keep your house warmer in summer and cooler in winter. Take on chores that you usually pay someone else to perform, such as mowing the lawn or shoveling snow.

Seemingly inconsequential savings do, in fact, add up.

Reduce larger expenses

These recommendations are decidedly more painful. If you smoke, for instance, take steps to quit. Don't buy season tickets to anything. Trade in your luxury car or sport utility vehicle for something a lot cheaper to buy, fuel and maintain (we did say this was painful).

On the assumption that those kinds of changes may be too wrenching, here are some other specific areas where many people can find savings:

Refinance your mortgage

If new mortgages are costing at least two percentage points less than the rate you're paying, refinancing may save you significant dollars; check our refinancing calculator to be sure.

Cut your taxes

Usually this means taking better advantage of itemized deductions, which is a lot easier to do if you're either self-employed or have some income from work you do outside of a regular job. That opens up a range of new deductions - from expenses for work-related items to a home office - that are much harder to claim if you're an ordinary working stiff.

On the investment side, you can save some money by selling, and then writing off, investments that have lost money. You can use such losses to offset any gains you may have in a given year. If your losses outweigh your gains, you can deduct as much as $3,000 of investment losses from your ordinary income each year. Those with higher incomes may also be able to save some money by shifting money out of taxable bonds into tax-free municipal bonds.

Appeal your home assessment

If you're a homeowner, you may even be able to cut your real estate taxes by challenging the value that the local assessor puts on your property. You have to have good evidence, of course. You should call the assessor's office first to make sure you understand the formula for determining the house's value (the assessment listed on tax bills is often only a fraction of the real value that determines your tax).

If recent home sales in your neighborhood lead you to believe that your house is worth less than its assessment and a qualified real estate agent writes an appraisal in support of your claim, then you can file a grievance with the assessor's office and possibly get your bill reduced. The cost: $200 to $300 for the written appraisal. If an attorney handles the appeal for you, he or she will typically charge 50% of the first year's tax savings.

The above suggestions won't work for everyone, and you may have considered them already. But since you alone are privy to the numbers in your budget, you alone know how radically you need to cut. If our suggestions don't appeal, find your own alternatives.

One last word of caution

Over time, your income should rise as your career progresses and you manage to save money for investing. But, also over time, inflation will raise the cost of living. A mere 3% annual rise in prices will double the cost of everything within 24 years. At that time, you'll need twice as much money as you do today to live as well as you do now. So don't start spending your rising income on luxuries you've been denying yourself until you're sure that you're staying ahead of inflation. Top of page

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Updated 7/10/2012 with content changes, links, typos fixed - aross