Once I got to thinking about it, I couldn't stop thinking about it...
1. Flexible spending account – In case you haven't heard of this, a flexible spending account (FSA) is a pre-tax account that you set up through your employer for health care expenditures. Deductions are taken from your paycheck pre-taxes each pay period, and placed into an account. Whenever you pay your co-pay, or spend money towards your deductible, your insurance company takes note and reimburses you with funds from your account. The initial set-up can be tricky, because you have to know when you set up the account how much you want total in the account each year. If you are just starting the account, I would set it for the lowest amount allowed, unless you have a healthcare issue, or you know that you will be expecting a big expense sometime in the year. Then the next year, you can see how well your money lasted and whether or not you need to adjust the amount. Of course, if you never go to the doctor or have a regular prescription, this is probably not for you.
2. Retirement account – a lot of people who are saving money don't take advantage of their employer-offered retirement account. As long as you plan on dropping dead at work and you don't have a spouse or dependents, this is fine. But for the rest of the population, some is better than none, and sooner is better than later. Especially if your employer matches your contribution! A little money set aside now will earn you interest and reduce the total amount you have to set aside in your account. There are several retirement amount calculators online that can show you just how much you will need to maintain your standard of living later on. Inflation, better health care, and the probable collapse of social security all mean that you will have to set aside more for retirement than you might think. I will confess that my husband and I only contribute at the minimum level right now. But we have set up the account to increase our contribution to the account by 1% each year, until the maximum matched amount by the employer is met. Once that level is reached, we will continue to increase the amount each year up to a point, but will direct the additional funds towards a Roth IRA.
3. Cloth napkins – in addition to a touch of everyday elegance to your meal, cloth napkins save you money in the long run. You can find them cheap at thrift stores or yard sales, or be truly thrifty and make your own from material you already have. You can even set aside a specific color napkin or use a special napkin ring for each family member. This will allow your family members to reuse their own napkin throughout the day, unless very soiled. Chances are, if you're eating cereal or a sandwich, your napkin isn't going to get very dirty anyway. Most people find that the napkins over the course of the week don't take up any more room than a pair of dress pants in the wash.
4. Keep the freezer full – your freezer will run more efficiently if it is full. The cold items inside the freezer will keep your freezer colder, and reduce the amount the motor has to run to keep it cool. If you are not able to have enough food readily on hand to keep your freezer full, you can fill your freezer cheaply by filling up bags of ice to store in the freezer.
5. Buy quick sale meat and bread – when you shop for meat and bread from the bakery, first look for what is marked “reduced for quick sale.” These items are usually a day before their sale by date, so you either need to use them quickly or freeze the item.
6. Family packs of meat – when you buy meat, buy the family pack size and then divide up the meat into smaller portions once you get home. I wait until the 5 LB ground beef is on sale, take it home, and divide it into 1 LB portions. Quart size bags work well for this, and by squeezing out the excess air before sealing the bag, you can mush the meat flat inside the bag so that it is easier to store and thaw.
7. Scratch cooking – whenever possible, make things from scratch instead of relying on convenience packages or mixes. Things like bouillon, broth, and shake n' bake can all easily be reproduced for pennies. The exception I take to this is making my own baking mix, because it calls for shortening, which I don't use. I rarely use baking mix, so the small amount of shortening that the mix calls for would go bad by the time that I got around to using more of the shortening, thereby not saving me any money.
8. Seasonal produce – produce is available all year round, thanks to global trade. But locally grown produce is usually much cheaper. You can easily find a list on the internet of what fruits and vegetables are in season for each month of the year. Stock up on the produce when it is cheapest, and freeze, can, or dry it for future use.
9. Plan meals around sales – rather than look through a cookbook to plan for the week, look through your grocery sale papers. Plan your meals around what's on sale for the week.