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Five apps that help you shop smarter

Having a hard time deciding what printer to buy? Holding off on that cat condo until you find a great deal? When you’re in the market for a big-ticket item or just putting together the weekly grocery list, don’t forget to use a shopping app to scour the web for the best deals. Some of the best shopping apps make it easy to compare prices and take advantage of online sales and specials you might miss in-store.

Here are five apps that can help you shop smarter:

creportslogo Consumer Reports Mobile Shopper

When you’re getting ready to buy new home furnishings, electronics, and other investment items, you might already turn to Consumer Reports and other reviews sites to learn about the best brands and products. The Consumer Reports Mobile Shopper app takes things one step further with a comprehensive buying guide and unbiased reviews. It could be just what you need to choose the right car seat for a fussy toddler or cordless drill for the growing tool collection.

Grocery-IQ-logo  Grocery iQ

Not a fan of clipping coupons? Put the scissors down and download the Grocery iQ app for Android or iPhone to use digital coupons and put together your grocery list within minutes. The app helps you build a list of favorite items by scanning the barcode, organizes your grocery list by category, and gives you the option to print or email available coupons instantly. You can even email your grocery list to your significant other — and they’ll never have an excuse to forget the milk again.

groupon Groupon

If you haven’t taken advantage of the latest Groupon deal, you could be missing out on some great discounts at your favorite pizzeria, hair salon, or local gym. When you’re in the market for a last-minute vacation, jewelry, watches, or electronics, use the Groupon app for Android or iPhone to find deep discounts on popular products and travel packages. Groupon’s deal lineup changes frequently and you might just be able to pick up some great rates on that Miami weekend getaway or sushi making classes.

Amazon-App-fro-iphoneAmazon

Frequent Amazon shoppers take note — there’s a miniature version of the entire site condensed into a mobile-friendly format where you can tap and fill up that shopping cart within seconds. Available for Android and iPhone, the Amazon app gives you direct access to the latest product information and customer reviews. You can also use it to scan barcodes and check prices when you are shopping in a brick-and-mortar store. If you were first in line to pick up Amazon Fire TV, you can take advantage of two-day shipping and other deals exclusively for Amazon Prime members.

RedLaser-App-Logo RedLaser

Do you carry around a stack of loyalty cards in your wallet or purse? Leave them at home and download the RedLaser app for Android, iPhone or Windows Phone to store all of your loyalty card information in one place. The app lets you find current deals at nearby stores, scan your loyalty card barcode when you’re making the purchase, and compare prices at both online and offline retailers. It’s the perfect app for bargain hunters and will also keep track of products you have your eye on during a deal-hunting spree.

What are your go-to shopping apps? Share the wealth in the comments below!

 

Five spending habits that will save you more money

piggybank_360.pngDo you always seem to be strapped for cash? Even if you don’t indulge in spending sprees and are a bargain hunter by nature, there may be some spending leaks in your budget. Putting together a monthly budget can be challenging — we know, it’s probably low on the priority list. But, once you have a plan in place, adopting some simple spending habits will keep you on a healthy financial track.

Here are five spending habits that can save you more money:

1: Pay with cash. Every time. Whether you need to leave your credit cards at home or cut them up and throw them away, nix the credit card habit so that you only buy things with cash you have. Learning to manage your money without relying on credit cards is not only good for your financial health but can also help you save money because you will be more mindful about the dollars you spend. Just try it for a week.  Carrying dollar bills around and taking the step to count out your cash for purchases will increase your awareness of the money being spent — and could make you more conscientious about those purchases. If you don’t feel comfortable keeping cash on hand, a prepaid debit card is another option. This way, you can load your card with only the cash you can afford to spend.

2: Spend on savings. Paying yourself first is always a good idea and if you’re trying to save more money for an upcoming vacation or a larger purchase, start ‘spending’ on larger savings contributions. We’ve talked about the importance of creating a savings column as an expense in our budgeting series. Making a sincere effort to spend more on savings can help you build up your savings account that much faster, and will get you in the habit of saving in no time.

3: Don’t shop on a bad day. If you tend to splurge when you’re anxious, stressed or having a bad day, resist the urge to go out and buy something. Even though it might be a few dollars spent on something that will cheer you up, you’ll be spending money to feed a habit that may get worse over time. Deal with the bad day without spending away your cares and save your hard-earned money for more important matters. Like the motorcycle fund. Or that dream vacation to Tahiti.

4: Comparison shop for 48 hours. When you’re in the market for a new television, smartphone, or other big-ticket items and are tempted by offers from your favorite retailer, give yourself 48 hours to shop around for the best deal. Zeroing in on just that item and exploring auction sites, local classifieds, and current sales can ward off a costly impulse buy. Take the time to shop around so that you are getting the best deal on the market. And, keep your eyes peeled for free shipping offers, rebates and cash back deals to save even more on the total cost of your purchase.

5: Plan your purchases. Yes, it sounds tedious and boring, but taking some time to list your purchases could make you re-think how much you actually need to buy. Whether you’re shopping for groceries or heading out on a clothing roundup, create a list of items you want to buy and estimate the cost before you head out the door. An app like Shopper, for example, helps you find recipes, create grocery lists, estimate costs, find coupons and more! Planning most of your purchases can curb overspending. It can also give you a chance to comparison shop and pare down the list with ease.

What are some of your favorite savings strategies? Let us know in the comments below!

6 ways to take control of your finances right now

piggybank_360.pngDoes it always feel like your finances are spinning out of control? If you have a hard time keeping up with your bills each month or just can’t stick to your budget (tip: check out our guide), it may be time for a quick financial cleanup. Even if budgeting isn’t your strong point, there are several things you can do to keep yourself in the green in the money department. Taking small steps to improve your money management skills will pay off in the long run.

Here are six things you can do to take control of your finances right now:

#1: Schedule monthly bill payments. Whether it’s the electric bill or credit card payments, stay ahead of your bills by scheduling bill payments online and set up automatic payments whenever possible. Automating bill payments can prevent late payment fees and protect your credit score. Just make sure to update your monthly budget with the payment amount so that you have an accurate idea of how much cash you have on hand in any given month.

#2: Build your cushion. Even if it’s $5 a week or $100 a month, make contributions to an emergency savings account every single month. Even small deposits will add up over time and you may be surprised how much you will have stashed away within a few months. Be deliberate about making contributions to this fund every week or every couple of weeks to build up that cushion with minimal effort.

#3: Get friendly with a budgeting app. We’ve recommended several budgeting apps and online tools for keeping track of expenses and putting together a realistic budget in previous posts. Take some time to learn the ins and outs of your app of choice so that you are comfortable using it regularly. Whether you decide to log every expense or just want a bird’s eye view of your cash flow situation at any given time, learn about the app’s different features so you get the most benefits out of the habit.

#4: Organize your bank accounts. Do you have more checking and savings accounts set up  at different banks? Having multiple accounts only makes sense when the bank can offer you attractive rates and low fees on different banking products. If you are having a hard time figuring out exactly how much you have in savings or available to spend, consolidate accounts to one bank and consider setting up sub-savings accounts to organize your finances. Maintaining just one good banking relationship may be all you need to get a better handle on your finances.

#5: Get chatty with creditors. If credit card debt is one of your biggest financial concerns, give your creditors a call to negotiate interest rates and review your account. Some can do this without running a credit check and may be open to lowering your rate if you’ve been a longtime card holder and are in good standing. It never hurts to ask and this simple step could help you whittle down that debt load faster.

#6: Accept the budget. Budgeting isn’t always fun but you need one to better manage your finances. We’ve been sharing tips for putting together a healthy household budget these past few weeks and now is a great time to get started. Even if it’s something as simple as a spreadsheet or something more complex like a software program (we’re big fans of You Need a Budget), accept the fact that you need some type of budget to map out your finances. Accept it. Embrace it. Enjoy some peace of mind.

Budgeting (Part VI): Staying on course – Keeping your budget on track

piggybank_360.pngWe’ve been guiding you through the process of creating a healthy household budget these past couple of weeks and this week’s post wraps up our budgeting series with some tips for staying on course.

Your budget won’t work unless you make a commitment to stick with the plan. Like a healthy diet, you can’t expect it to work until you make some lifestyle changes. You might not need to do a complete spending overhaul to get results, but you will need to hold yourself accountable and make sure you’re being realistic with your goals.

Here are some simple ways to keep your budget on track:

  1. Set weekly goals. Don’t wait until the end of the month to figure out what went wrong or why you couldn’t meet your monthly goal. Set weekly goals and monitor your spending closely — at least for the first few months — so you can identify any spending leaks before they make a dent in your budget. Setting weekly goals and keeping track of your spending can make you more mindful about your spending habits so that budgeting is just a little easier.
  2. Recover quickly. Emergencies happen and you may end up spending more than planned in a given week. If you end up going over budget, don’t use that as an excuse to go on a spending spree or give up altogether. Just assess the damage and acknowledge where things went awry. Correct your course quickly so that you can get back on track and recover from the setback.
  3. Don’t cut out too much. We talked about the benefit of making room for miscellaneous purchases in your budget in a previous post. Remember that cutting out too much too soon can backfire and can make it that much harder to stick with a budget. That $5-a-day coffee habit can add up over the course of the month but if it adds something to your life — the opportunity to socialize with other coffee lovers, the ability to work remotely from the coffee shop, or a change of scenery during a stressful day — it may be an expense worth having. Be as thorough as you can when listing expenses but make room for some extras that improve your quality of life.
  4. Operate on a cash-only basis. Break credit card spending habits so that you are only working with money you actually have. Even if you plan on paying off the balance in full at the end of the month — hey, credit card rewards can be a good thing — it can be tricky to keep track of those expenditures and avoid the temptation of spending more than planned. You’ll find it easier to keep your budget on track when you spend only what you have and aren’t ‘pre-paying’ for purchases that you haven’t budgeted for.
  5. Use smartphone apps to your advantage. If you have a hard time tabulating expenses for the week and want to get better at monitoring your spending habits, start using a smartphone app. We recommended Expensify or the Billguard’s spending tool to track your spending. Mint’s budgeting app also makes it easy to log expenses using your smartphone or other mobile device. You can categorize and organize your spending to see trends and create a budget from the data. Level Money is a personal finance app that divides your income into categories and connects to your bank account for real-time data tracking. You can see how much spendable cash you have with a few screen taps and watch your savings account grow at a glance.
  6. Revise and update regularly. Don’t expect to have the same budget a few months from now. Emergencies happen, you may change jobs, or you might get a raise. Revise and update your budget regularly so that it’s as accurate as possible. Adjust your goals based on your needs and revise the budget to accommodate for lifestyle changes. Revising and updating your budget once a month or every few weeks can help you stay on course.

Budgeting (Part V): Financial checkup – Five tips for cleaning up your spending habits

piggybank_360.pngLiving within your means is one of the keys to financial success, but are your spending habits preventing you from reaching your goals? We’ve been sharing tips for creating a healthy household budget these last couple of weeks and today we’ll focus on ways to clean up those money habits to keep your budget on track. You don’t have to be a reckless spender to do some serious financial damage — sometimes it’s those little everyday habits, like out-of-network ATM withdrawals, last-minute purchases, and buying items in bulk that you never use, that end up costing you more than you realize. Here are some things you can do to clean up your spending habits:

  1. Always (always) shop with a list Taking that small step to write down exactly what you plan to buy on your next shopping trip can make you more mindful about your purchasing decisions — and ward off a spending spree. Avoid impulse buys and sale items that catch your eye so that you aren’t spending more than planned. Whether you use a notepad app on your smartphone or do things the old-fashioned way with pen and paper, just make sure you have some shopping guidelines by your side on every shopping trip.
  2. Shop around Resist the urge to buy something on impulse when you’re shopping at a store and stay clear of all types of flash sales online. The urge to splurge will pass if you take some time to broaden your purchasing options. Get into the habit of comparison shopping online to find the lowest prices in your area or lower-cost alternatives. Shopping apps like PriceGrabber make it easy to compare prices on a product just by scanning the barcode. RetailMeNot is a popular coupon site and shopping app for finding current discounts and coupon codes for hundreds of popular retailers.
  3. Know your triggers Do you tend to spend more when you’re stressed, angry, or bored? If you are an emotional spender, it can be even more challenging to keep your budget in the green zone. Identify your spending triggers and recognize an oncoming shopping spree before it starts. Some introspection can help you get a better handle on your finances and ward off a financial disaster.
  4. Break the credit card habit If you tend to turn to credit cards to cover monthly bills or just have a habit of charging everyday purchases to your credit card, take a break for at least three weeks — the time it takes to make or break a habit. Spending money you don’t have via credit cards can perpetuate an unhealthy cycle and make it very difficult to get a handle on your budget. Take steps to eliminate credit card spending so that you can operate on a cash-only basis.
  5. Take stock of unnecessary recurring expenses Take a closer look at any recurring fees you’re paying for membership and subscriptions each month. Do you really need that newspaper delivery subscription when you can read articles for free online? Is that gym membership you paid for — with good intentions, of course — at the beginning of the year actually being used regularly? Authorize a cancellation for memberships and subscriptions you aren’t using anymore and make sure to account for any cancellation fees and charges.

Making changes to live within your means will not only ward off credit problems but can also help you make better purchasing decisions. Stay tuned for the next post in this series where we’ll talk about smart ways to set budget goals and keep your budget on track.

Budgeting (Part IV): Savings essentials – How much should you be saving?

piggybank_360.pngLast week, we talked about doing a debt checkup to help you create a realistic household budget. If you followed the steps outlined in the post, you should have a good idea of what your current debt load looks like and how much you can realistically contribute to your debt payoff plan each month. Today’s post focuses on your savings contributions.

How much should you be saving every month? How much are you actually saving each month? Getting into the habit of saving a percentage of your gross income every month can be tricky but there are several things you can do to make the process a little easier.

How much should I be saving?

Whether you’re contributing to an emergency savings account or saving up for an exotic vacation, you’ll need to determine what your baseline savings contribution is every month. How much can you realistically set aside for savings after major expenses have been taken care of? For most people, a safe number to start with is 10 percent of your gross monthly income.

If you get your paycheck via direct deposit, talk to your bank about setting up an automatic transfer to your savings account each month or create an automatic transfer via online banking. You can then break down that 10 percent to save for different purposes — an emergency fund, gifts, a new car, or a downpayment on a house — by setting up a sub-savings account. Organizing your savings contributions like this will make it easier to watch your savings grow from month to month.

Three reasons to pencil in a savings ‘expense’

Automating your savings is one of the simplest ways to build up a savings account quickly. Automation simply means that you set a specific amount of money aside every month for your savings account — you don’t think about it, you just pay yourself the same amount month after month. Plotting this contribution into your budget as an expense can make things a little easier. Just add ‘Savings’ or ‘Emergency Funds’ to your budget as a line item and look at it is another fixed expense. Here are three reasons why setting up your savings as an expense works so well:

  1. You can set it and forget it. Instead of trying to calculate how much to save — or deciding whether you should save anything at all — in a given month, treating savings as a regular expense lets consistent with your efforts without having to overthink the process.
  2. You’ll develop a healthy money habit. If saving money doesn’t come naturally to you, automating your savings can help you develop a healthy money habit for the long haul.
  3. You’ll be less likely to talk yourself out of it. How many times have you decided to ‘save more this month’ but somehow found a reason to spend away potential savings? When you automate your savings and make a commitment to just keep making those monthly ‘payments,’ you may be less likely to talk yourself out of it.

We’ll discuss specific ways to save more money in future posts. Stay tuned for our next post for tips on cleaning up your spending habits.