Lynn Tostado is almost embarrassed about her hobby: "Saving money is, well, a passion of mine," she says. "I've always kept my eyes out for creative ways to stretch a dollar."
The Dover, N.H., accounting manager had a compelling reason to practice thrift. She spent a decade at home raising her four kids. Then she and her husband put three of them through college simultaneously.
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"I really had to watch our pennies," she says.
These days, as the cost of food and gas skyrockets, credit becomes more difficult to get and consumer confidence reaches an all-time low, saving has become a must. Tostado's years of experience as a passionate saver stand her in good stead. She's hardly alone. There's a whole group of people who are passionate about saving without living a Spartan life.
Call them "uber savers."
Michele Carter, a CPA and mother of two in Barrington, N.H., is a hawk about tracking sales prices on her purchases and asking retailers for the savings. For example, Carter keeps her Christmas gift receipts and, after the holiday, checks to see if retailers have slashed prices on any of the gifts she's already plunked under the tree.
Then she calls the merchant and, without returning the item, asks the store to refund the difference between her cost and the new sales price. She then gives the difference to the gift recipient.
"I once got my mother-in-law $60 back on a gift we purchased for her," she says.
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Carter also claims the price guarantees offered by stores like Lowe's and Home Depot: If you find the same product for less elsewhere, you get the item for 10 percent off the lowest price.
"I have seen an ad for something I purchased, after the purchase, and I have been given the lower price," she says.
Keeping an eye on these promotions paid off recently when Carter bought a new refrigerator. After she saw an ad for the same refrigerator at a competitor's store, she netted close to $100 in savings with a single phone call. Her advice: Call, don't visit the store. In Carter's experience, a local store manager will always find a reason to say no.
Carter, an inveterate comparison shopper, also shops on home repairs. Recently, she bought a new Pella front door at Lowe's, spending $1,000 less than Pella's asking price. Then, rather than paying Lowe's $800 installation fee, she hired a local carpenter for $400 -- and paid that tab with the $400 tax credit she'll receive for installing the energy-saving door.
Stay-at-home mom Martha Andersen is an avid reader, as are her husband and her two children. Last year, Andersen, who lives in Durham, N.H., decided to spend only $4 per person on Christmas gifts.
She acquired most of her gifts through Paperbackswap.com, a site on which members can trade paperback and hardcover books for the cost of postage, and Daedalus, a discount book catalog that Andersen says offered "really nice gifts for less than $4." You can also swap CDs on SwapaCD.com and DVDs at recently launched SwapaDVD.com.
Melissa Ragan, a teacher in an inner-city public school in Lawrence, Mass., also loves Paperbackswap.com. She uses the site to get books for her special-needs classroom.
Ragan is also a Freecycle devotee. Freecycle.org, a membership organization with thousands of local chapters, helps people give away unwanted goods, such as brand-new baby clothes, computers and furniture, to other "freecyclers" so that it won't end up in landfills.
Most of the time, it's not worn-out Salvation Army merchandise. Not long ago, the Boston chapter featured an entire Ethan Allen living room set free for the taking. You can "ask" for something specific, and often, you'll get it. People frequently ask for exercise equipment, like treadmills, and find treasures within a day.
Not surprisingly, uber savers are also crazy about Craigslist.org. Chris Grande, a financial planner and managing partner of Heritage Financial Group in Medford, Mass. bought a $5,000 leather living room set for only $200 when he noticed the classified ad on his local Craigslist site.
What does the high price of food mean to the average frugal grocery shopper? Eat locally. Produce, meat, poultry and eggs grown nearby have always been better for the environment. Now, because of high fuel prices, buying local is also the smartest way to shop.
Purchase produce in season and frequent farmer's markets, where you'll find the best deals on the freshest fruits and vegetables. Invest in a freezer, if you have the space, and buy your meat locally as well.
Uber saver Mike Hegarty, a CPA in Des Moines, Iowa, says he saves $500 a year on meat by purchasing whole animals from local farms.
In case you've never done it and you're having a hard time visualizing it in your garage, when you buy a quarter of a cow from a local farm, a butcher cuts it into the familiar hamburger, flank and sirloin steaks and packages it for you. An extra bonus: Local farms often raise all-natural or even organic beef, pork and chicken.
If you're really devoted to cutting your grocery bill, try buying through a co-op. To do this, you'll need to form a "buying club" with friends and neighbors; forming a group will allow you to order food at wholesale prices from co-op distributors like Associated Buyers in Barrington, N.H., or Rainbow Natural Foods in Aurora, Colo.
You'll need to put in some effort, says Erin Fallon, a Strafford, N.H., housewife who's been purchasing organic groceries through a co-op for years. One group member gathers orders and collects money; then the women meet at another member's home to divvy up food once a month. The effort is well worth it, though. Fallon says she saves $300 to $500 a month.
Need a new car? The good news is that with demand down, automakers are unlikely to raise their prices this year, says economist Gus Faucher with Economy.com.
When buying, take a tip from master saver Carter. Michele Carter and her husband, Richard, negotiate with dealers for each other's cars.
"Dealers have to get on the phone and actually negotiate with someone who is not emotionally invested in the purchase. So far, this has helped us not get taken," she says.
When Michele Carter fell in love with a 2006 Saab last year, she could see that the dealer wouldn't reduce the price for her "because they could see that I was sold on the vehicle." So she turned to Richard for help. He talked the dealer into reducing the price of the extended warranty by $1,000 and persuaded him to throw in Bluetooth for free. Carter was thrilled with her new car -- and the price.
A ream of information exists on how to get the best price on a new car. But what's the cheapest way to finance it?
Wellesley, Mass., financial planner Steve Doucette advises that you figure out which car you want and wait for the manufacturer's year-end zero percent financing deals.
Or consider buying a car at an auto auction. There are two kinds -- government-run auctions open to the public and dealer auctions, where used-car dealers get many of the cars they sell on the lot.
Financial planner Chris Grande admires a friend who bought a used Mercedes at a dealer auction, saving at least $4,000 in the process. In order to get access to dealer auctions, you'll need to go with a friend who has a dealer license and is willing to do a favor for you.
In addition to actual car dealers, tow-truck companies, auto body shops and others also have dealer licenses, Grande says.
Sarah Auerbach, a stay-at-home mother in Acton, Mass., and her husband, programmer Laird Nelson, like to donate to charities. But they're saving to buy a larger home.
Tired of reactively contributing in response to mailed solicitations, they visited their accountant for advice on how much to give annually. Then they listed several favorite causes and assigned weights to each -- for instance, 15 percent for women's rights, 10 percent each to several local hunger-fighting organizations, and so on. Then they did the math and figured out how much money they'd be giving to each of eight or 10 nonprofits.
To spread out the expense, they designated payments to one or two charities monthly.
Hegarty, the Des Moines CPA, saves money in a variety of ways. He and his family clip coupons and turn off lights. But a self-proclaimed cheapskate, Hegarty believes the "small stuff" doesn't really pay off. It's the big stuff, like making wise choices about where to live, that really counts.
Hegarty and his wife, who have four children, chose to buy a $150,000 farmhouse some miles outside of the suburbs rather than living in "$250,000 to $350,000 yuppie neighborhoods with my friends," Hegarty says. "That saves us $1,500 a year in (property) taxes and $6,500 a year in mortgage interest."
Hegarty acknowledges, however, that living some distance away from town costs him an additional $800 a year in gasoline and additional wear on his car. The Hegarty family plans trips to town in order to run several errands at once. He figures this careful planning saves them $500 a year in gasoline.
Their choice to live in a modest house allows Hegarty's wife to stay home with their kids, rather than working full time for a $50,000 salary.
On the other hand, living close to town also can save you money. Uber saver Martha Andersen spends next to nothing on gasoline. She and her husband Peter chose to live in downtown Durham, a small New Hampshire college town, rather than buying a house in the suburbs.
"We can walk to restaurants and grocery stores, the library, the bank, the car service, church, friends and to my father-in-law's," she says.
Since oil hit $100 a barrel, saving on gas has become as important as getting a cheap mortgage.
Living in Exeter, N.H., Melissa Ragan and her husband, Alex, sold Melissa's 2006 Toyota Camry in January 2008 and became a one-car couple. They carpool together to work and Alex takes the train home. They're saving $725 a month -- a $400 car payment, $75 in insurance and $250 in gas and tolls.
Rochester, N.Y., scientist Wilton Alston also forgoes four wheels whenever he can. He bikes the 15 miles to and from work whenever the weather is good, saving money -- and burning calories -- along the way.
By far the most ingenious strategy for saving on gas and auto costs comes from Dean Frisoli, who "slugs" to work. Slugging is a form of legal hitchhiking available to commuters outside of Washington, D.C., where the traffic is notorious.
In order to take the faster high-occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lane to work, a car must carry two passengers. At designated parking lots, so-called "sluggers" like Frisoli, a transportation policy analyst, line up to catch free rides from drivers eager to use the HOV lane. In the year since he started slugging, reports Frisoli, the former train commuter has saved more than $2,000.
"Other than the ice storm the day of the Virginia primary, where it took me five hours to get home, it has been a completely painless experience," he says.
Chetan Shah, a vice president at Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C., advocates paying for parking with pretax dollars. Tax law does permit this.
"Most of us ... have to pay either for parking or a monthly bus or train pass," he writes. "You can pay it pretax by asking the company you work for to deduct it directly from your paycheck."
Financial planner Grande starts his conversation on saving money this way: "I'm talking to you on Skype right now."
Skype is an Internet-based phone system that lets computer users make calls for free or for only a few dollars a month. You don't need an actual phone -- just a computer and, if you wish, a headset, which costs about $20 at Radio Shack or Best Buy.
Download Skype for free, and you can "call" other Skype users for nothing. Pay $3 a month and you can make unlimited calls to land line and cell phone users.
Grande started using it last year and says now his office pays only the minimum local charge for having a land line -- less than $30 a month.
He uses Skype when he travels, making phone calls from WiFi hotspots in other states and even in other countries. When he traveled to Singapore last year, he called friends in the U.S. for only two cents a minute.
To save on utilities, conserve energy. Get an energy audit, says Larry Chretien, executive director of Mass Energy Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit home heating company with offices in Jamaica Plain, Mass., and Providence, R.I.
When it comes to energy efficiency, Chretien says, "We honestly think every home is different."
In many states, electric and gas utilities offer energy audits at no charge, and some will even help homeowners pay for their recommended changes. When this reporter had her home audited, Public Service of New Hampshire paid $2,000, or more than two-thirds of the total cost of energy-saving improvements, like insulating and installing programmable thermostats.
Call your electric or gas company or search their Web sites for energy auditing programs.
Tostado, the uber saver from Dover, N.H., hoards credit card rewards points. When she turned 50 three years ago, she and her husband set a goal of running road races in all 50 states within 10 years. So far, they've managed 19 states. Those plane tickets could add up -- but not for them.
Their strategy? Never, ever use cash when you can use a credit card. They win multiple free flights a year by paying virtually all of their bills -- including groceries, utilities and their mortgage -- with a Southwest Airlines card.
They even buy Dunkin' Donuts gift cards on credit and use them to buy their morning coffee rather than "wasting" a couple of dollars' worth of points every day. The couple sets aside an hour a week to pay bills together and always pays the full credit card balance so that they never pay interest.
Doucette and his family can afford posh vacations, but sometimes the tab is just too high. When their traditional vacation choice, a Beaches resort, priced out at $8,000 to $12,000, the Doucettes decided to share their vacation. They and some friends rented a beachfront Jamaican villa, complete with chef and bartender, and spent less than $5,000 for the week.
If you're going to travel overseas, consider vacationing in Mexico, the Caribbean or even in Africa or Asia, where the dollar is stronger than it is in Europe.
To get the cheapest fares, use a service like FareCompare.com, which sends e-mails the instant a cheap fare becomes available for your destination of choice. Don't procrastinate buying that ticket -- the cheapest fares go to only about 10 percent of travelers.