I'm not ashamed to admit that I enjoy immediate gratification as much as the next person. I like my cable and internet. I have a 70 inch HDTV. I stay in nice hotels. I have good insurance and use my credit card whenever I can.
That said, I also hate paying full price. "Never pay retail" is my motto, and I try to abide by it whenever I can. Here are ten simple ways to be materialistic while still improving your finances.
1. Say goodbye and hello to cable
I've had the Comcast triple play (cable, internet, and telephone) for many years. I bought it at the $100 teaser rate that lasted for a year. At the end of that year I began what has become an annual tradition, which is calling the cable company and saying I'm switching if they don't renew my teaser rate. Just as predictable as the seasons, they will tell me how much they value me as a customer and extend it. Occasionally, they will only value me enough to extend it for six months, so I'll need to make two calls.
The same strategy can work on other services - from cell phones to companies that fertilize your lawn. These service providers know it costs much more to get a new customer, so they are willing to lower rates to keep you.
Payoff: 20 minutes a year to save $360 annually.
[Related: How to Save $800 on a New Car]
2. Pick the right credit card
I hate credit cards. Though I have them, I use them as charge cards, never paying any interest. I search for the cards with the highest rewards. I once picked credit cards for the airline frequent flyer points, but turned a couple years ago to cash back cards. I knew I had made the right decision when my free flight to New York last month cost me over $100 in fees. Airline rewards aren't worth much anymore.
My main card is the Fidelity American Express card, which gives me 2 percent back for every purchase. You can find the card right for you with this Bankrate.com search engine.
A word of caution, however, is that just having a credit card makes you spend more. With one click on any web site, I can put in my credit card information and buy items I'm not sure I would buy if it weren't so easy. Thus, the easier it is to buy, the more you will spend.
Payoff: $720 annually of cash back with no effort.
3. Play the "travel game"
Some people like chess while others like Sudoku or crossword puzzles. I like playing the game of travel, which requires strategy and collaboration to get hotels at about 40 percent of retail price. I start with Priceline.com and Hotwire.com, and then go to the travel boards of biddingforrtavel.com and betterbidding.com, where people will post the names and bidding amounts of hotels they've won. If you don't see what you are looking for, you can post a question which always seems to get answered.
In just about a half hour, I can often save hundreds of dollars per trip. To me, that's a whole lot more rewarding than finishing a Sudoku game.
Payoff: 25 nights at a hotel averaging $60 a night savings, or $1,500 annually for 10 hours work.
4. Coupons are cool
In today's tough economy, coupons have become cool. I'm proud to say, I was using them back when they had stigma. I don't clip coupons from the paper (though maybe I should), instead using a more immediate internet strategy. For example, if I'm ordering Domino's Pizza, I will Google "Domino's coupon code" and, in 15 seconds, I've found a discount code. If my wife says she wants to go to Macaroni Grill, it takes 30 seconds to find a $5 coupon.
An extension of this strategy is, whenever I buy something off the internet where I see the "promo code" on the checkout, I'll Google the site's name with the words "promo code." More often than not, someone has posted a promo code. Last year, I decided to take my son to Cirque Du Soleil, and it took a minute to find a half price code.
Note that I usually first find what I want and then search for a discount.If I start with the coupon, I may end up buying something I otherwise wouldn't have.
Payoff: "Guestimated" $1,000 a year for 5 hours of my time.
[Related: When Is a Refund Not a Refund? When It's Phony]
5. Keep the car
I'm the proud owner of a nine year old Pontiac that I bought in part with GM credit card bonus points. Not only does it get me from point A to B just as quickly as the new Lexus, I also get other benefits, such as taking the tight parking spot, lower risk of theft, and no attitude when the police pull me over for not making that full stop.
In addition to the fact that my car depreciated less than a few hundred bucks last year, I get lower taxes and insurance rates, and avoid paying sales tax every three years for a new car.
I call it my millionaire's car.
Payoff: Annual savings from depreciation, taxes, insurance, and gasoline of $5,000 per car as detailed in the link above.
6. Shop online
You can blame me for Borders Books being buried. I'd pull into my local Borders and browse for books. Then, I'd get on my web browser and buy it from Amazon for at least 40 percent off, with no sales tax to boot. Now with devices like the Kindle, I can get immediate gratification.
The same thing goes with other goods as well. When I bought that 70 inch LED TV, I first saw it at the mall. I then found two great deals - the lowest price didn't include shipping or set up so I called the higher priced site. They agreed to match the other site and throw in the shipping and setup. With my lack of technical skills, I might still be working on the setup.
The internet shifts power from the sellers to us consumers. With the click of a mouse, we can comparison shop across the world.
Payoff: "Guestimated" savings of $800 annually (I saved almost this amount on my big screen last month).
7. Buy knockoffs
I'm not talking about buying a fake Rolex: I'm referring to buying supplies from "non-OEM" suppliers. For example, in today's world, HP will sell a printer at a loss because they are counting on you to buy their ink for the next few years. The printers now even come with starter cartridges only half full.
I can get on eBay and find a compatible cartridge for as little as a quarter of the price, including shipping. It comes from Asia, and may even be produced by the same company producing the OEM version. Now the printer documentation advises you that using non-OEM ink will render the warranty void, and cause your printer to self-destruct, but I haven't had issues, just savings.
Payoff: Two toners a month, saving $60 per cartridge = $1,440 annually.
8. Get an insurance checkup
I admit that gathering up all of your insurance documentation may not be much fun, but it can be a very profitable time investment. I had been with State Farm for a couple of decades, and saw my rates go up without any claims. Until finally, several years ago, I met with an independent agent. It was like a Geico commercial - though it took more than 15 minutes, it did save me hundreds of dollars a year. For me, it was Auto Owners insurance.
Years later, my rates haven't gone up much. I'll admit, however, I still haven't had a claim so I can't be sure I've made the right move. AutoOwners has one of the highest customer satisfaction rankings on J.D. Powers. You need to make sure any insurance company you have is ranked high in both customer satisfaction and financial stability.
Payoff: Cut $600 annually from my property and casualty insurance.
9. Complain well
I work hard for my money, so when I buy something, I expect to get what's promised. If I don't, this squeaky wheel complains loudly and smartly. When I call the 800 number, I always ask for and take down the customer service representative's name or employee number. That way, I know I'm far less likely to be "accidentally dropped." Always prepared for a long hold, I use a headset when I call and multitask.
To speak with a person I know will have more power to solve the problem, I immediately, but politely, ask for a supervisor. If the person I'm speaking with declines to connect me to a supervisor, I inform them that I guess I'll need to send in a letter asking why (naming the rep or referencing the employee number) denied me access. That always seems to work. In the complaint, I try to give the important facts in a very calm manner, sometimes noting I'd like to get a response from the CEO as to why this happened. Usually, the supervisor wants this to go away as much as I do, and will offer a solution such as refunding the purchase price or replacing the item. And if you still don't feel you've gotten satisfaction, the internet is a great equalizer. The possibility of having bad customer service facts posted where everyone can see often adds leverage. If this becomes necessary, make sure you post just the documented facts and don't make it personal.
Payoff: Varies but, when I toured a timeshare for a promised carnival cruise, I turned the worthless voucher into getting reimbursed for the actual cruise.
10. Keep cash working hard
Banks and credit unions are often paying 0.00 percent for the cash you keep with them. In fact, many charge now. Paying nothing for your cash is just another fee from your financial institution. I minimize the cash in my checking account, and find better places to stash my cash.
My favorite solution for cash I may need soon is in an unlikely place - five-year CDs at Ally Bank. They are currently paying 1.74 percent APY and have a 60 day early withdrawal penalty,which amounts to only 0.29%. If I close the CD after 61 days, I've earned more than my money market yielding 0.03 percent.
Even with $10,000 in cash, this is a way to spend 20 minutes and earn $174 a year more with your money. That's not a bad hourly wage.
Payoff: I have a $100K emergency cash reserve earning $2,740 annually at Ally Bank rather than a whole lot of nothing at Wells Fargo, my local bank (the rate was 2.74% when I opened the CDs).
Conclusion: Don't be cheap
It's easy to slam being cost-conscious as being cheap. I couldn't disagree more. It's not about cost, it's about value, and I'm value-oriented. I get a good feeling when I've gotten a good deal. Half price dining is great, yet I always leave a generous tip on the full undiscounted amount. I'm not staying in a flea-bag motel nor forgoing the big screen TV or cable to watch the Super Bowl. And that I drive the worst car in the neighborhood, demonstrating that my self-worth isn't defined by what I drive, is actually a source of pride.
So this isn't about being cheap - it's about getting the most for your money. While these are all my tried-and true ways of getting the most for your money, Clark Howard makes me look like an amateur by comparison: His recent book, Living Large in Lean Times, will give you over 250 great ways to spend smarter and live larger.
Adapt my motto: "Never pay retail." Admittedly, it's more of an aspiration than a reality.