Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Some savings tips as gas nears $4 a gallon

Four-buck gasoline is a reality again for some American motorists. Only this time, unlike 2008, the price spike follows years of deep national recession and its aftermath, including rampant job loss and home foreclosures.

That means many households’ battered budgets are less able to absorb higher gas prices.

Paying $4 per gallon means a household spends $4,800 on gasoline in a year, assuming two vehicles getting 25 miles to the gallon and traveling 15,000 miles.

For consumers, a long-term solution to higher gas prices is to drive less or drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle. In the short term, it matters more “how” you drive than “what” you drive.

Here are suggestions for saving money on gasoline, with help from the U. S. Department of Energy, Consumer Reports, the Alliance to Save Energy and Edmunds.com.

Don’t spill the coffee: The biggest savings will come from avoiding aggressive driving. It can lower your gas mileage by 33 percent at highway speeds and by 5 percent around town.

Not sure what less-aggressive driving is? Imagine a lidless cup of coffee in your car’s cupholder. Drive like you don’t want to spill it. That means gradual acceleration and gentle braking.

Potential savings vary widely but are significant. At $4 per gallon, gas savings could range from 20 cents to $1.32 per gallon, based on Energy Department figures. That’s a savings of $240 to $1,584 per year for that two-car household described earlier.

Speed costs: Consumer Reports found that slowing from 75 to 55 mph boosted gas mileage 33 percent in testing performed on a family sedan and a large SUV.

American idle: Idling yields zero mpg. Don’t bother warming up your car or keeping it running while waiting for passengers. The rule of thumb is to turn off your car if you know you’ll be stopped for more than 30 seconds, Consumer Reports says. Cars with larger engines typically waste more gas idling than those with small engines.

Trunk junk: An extra 100

pounds in your vehicle could reduce your gas mileage by up to 2 percent, or about 8 cents per gallon. Roof junk —carrying large items on the roof of the vehicle—creates drag that can cut gas mileage 5 percent.

Use cruise: Cruise control is steadier on the accelerator pedal than you are. You might try it on lower-speed suburban roads. Edmunds. com called it a “surprisingly effective way to save gas.”

Find cheaper gas: Compare gasoline prices at GasBuddy.com, Gas- PriceWatch.com and gas-prices. mapquest.com/. Of course, you don’t want to drive far out of your way to save a few pennies. Savings will be lost traveling to a distant service station.

Billshrink.com will send you an e-mail alerting you to the lowest-price gas on your commute. Gas price information also is available via smart phone apps, such as Gas Buddy and AAA’s TripTik Mobile.

Use GPS: Computerized travel directions from GPS devices or smart phones can help find efficient routes, even among multiple destinations. That can save time, hassle and gas. If you don’t have a device, use a website such as www.mapquest.com/routeplanner .

Of course, plotting a route by hand works, too, using a folding map or road atlas. Several devices and websites also alert you to traffic jams, a gas-mileage killer.

Seek discounts: Be on the lookout for promotions and sales that get you gasoline station gift cards for free or at a discount. For example, you might be able to redeem credit card rewards points for a gas card. And Choice Hotels, which owns such properties as Comfort Inn and Clarion, is offering a$50 gas card when you book two stays before May 4.

Make radical changes: Change your work hours to avoid rush-hour traffic, use carpools and ride-sharing programs, take public transportation, walk or bike to work, or work from home.

Shop online: If you spend evenings or weekends running errands, consider ordering products online and let someone else pay for the gas. That’s doable if you can find free shipping online or lower product prices to compensate for shipping fees. Free shipping often comes in the form of a coupon code used at online checkout. Use a search engine with keywords “coupon code” and the retailer’s name.

More math: Make gas mileage a criterion as you select your next vehicle. The difference between choosing a vehicle that gets 20 mpg and 30 mpg is huge. Assuming $4-per-gallon gas, you would save $1,000 a year per car.

Some advice on saving gas is dubious.

Stay cool: Don’t sweat the argument over staying cool with air conditioning versus lowering the windows. Edmunds.com testing found neither made a huge difference to gas mileage.

Inflate tires: The U. S. Energy Department says underinflated tires can increase fuel consumption more than 3 percent. However, a test by Edmunds.com couldn’t find much effect on gas mileage, although properly inflated tires are important for safety and to reduce tire wear.

Gas additives: Advertisements for gasoline additives that supposedly deliver better mileage are exaggerations or outright lies, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has tested more than 100 of them.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Coupon clippers stockpiling items, saving hundreds on food bills

On a recent shopping trip, Tara Whitaker watched the tally on the register climb to more than $543 while the cashier scanned enough items to feed her family for weeks.

But then she handed over her coupons, and watched that number fall - all the way to below zero. She actually had to grab a carton of milk to bring the total to $1.23.

That's right. For the price of a pack of gum, Whitaker bought enough meat, dairy, rice, pasta, snacks and pantry items to keep her family of three fed for a long time.

The 29-year-old mom is one of a new wave of coupon-clipping enthusiasts - most of them women who scour the Internet, newspapers and sales ads with the goal of paying next to nothing for groceries.

"I was spending around $150 a week," said Whitaker, who began using coupons around five years ago and now teaches classes several times each month. "Now we spend about $20 to $30 each week."

There's much more to it than clipping a coupon or two from the Sunday newspaper.

Scoring such deep discounts involves knowledge of store policies, sales cycles and a little bit of planning. This is 21st century Home Economics.

Hundreds of websites, many run by young mothers like Whitaker, have sprung up online in recent years. There's the Krazy Coupon lady, the Coupon Mom, the Coupon Queen, Coupon Diva, even a Coupon Dad.

The Learning Channel aired a program called "Extreme Couponers" a few months ago. People featured on the show spent hours clipping coupons, planning shopping trips and stockpiling items they purchased for pennies, in some cases. One man had a stockpile of more than 10,000 items in his garage with an estimated worth of $50,000 to $75,000. That included more than 1,000 bottles of body wash and more than 1,500 sticks of deodorant.

"There is no reason to get carried away like that," Whitaker said at a recent class. "You should only get what you'll need for the next month. It will go on sale again, I promise."

Her shopping trip that resulted in more than $500 of savings wasn't typical. She planned a big trip to demonstrate for The Tuscaloosa News how many items can be purchased for so little. She planned to donate more than half of it to charity. During that trip, she bought 363 items and used 317 coupons. She purchased the coupons used on the trip online for $10.

To get all those groceries for such a low price, Whitaker used the techniques she teaches in her classes. She used the coupons to buy items that were already discounted at the store. A lot of the coupons were worth more than the store's sale price. For example, she bought 89 packages of yellow rice at a sale price of 64 cents, and used 89 coupons for $1 off. The $31.59 overage went toward other items such as chicken, meat, strawberries and milk.

During a typical week, Whitaker uses about 40 coupons or fewer. The coupon use only results in an overage every five trips or so, she said.

She has an ample stockpile of items she bought with coupons while they were at their lowest price, which helps cut down weekly costs. Stockpiling is the key to lowering your grocery bill, she said.

"It takes awhile to stockpile, because not everything is going to be on sale the first week that you start off," she said. "It will probably take about two months before you get the hang of it and start seeing a difference in your budget."

Whitaker, who works as an accountant by day, said that a lot of people are turned off or intimidated by the idea of couponing because they think it takes a lot of time.

"I spend about 30 minutes a week organizing everything," she said. "That 30 minutes is worth it to me because I save a lot of money."

Azia Patrick, 28, began using coupons a few months ago when she realized her family was spending a lot of money at restaurants on top of $150 to $200 in groceries. Patrick, a property manager at an apartment complex in Tuscaloosa, said that her family eats out often and she uses coupons to cut costs in other areas.

"We are an eating-out family, so that's the reason I do it," she said. "I think that you have to have a reason, or you're going to get burned out. I know that we're going to spend money at restaurants, so I figured that cutting costs for groceries would be a way to save."

She was a little frustrated at first, but soon became hooked.

"When you have that really good first transaction where you save more than you spend, that's when it just clicks and the light bulb comes on," she said. "You think 'I've got to do better next time.' "

Her first major haul happened when she used a $25-off coupon for transferring a prescription for free medication to Publix. She used coupons on top of buy-one-get-one-free sales and ended up spending $7 and saving $82.

She started a Facebook group called Tuscaloosa Coupon Friends and plans to hold coupon swaps each month. The group has a class planned today, followed by a swap. She said she spends about an hour or an hour and a half on Sundays clipping newspaper coupons and about an hour on Monday mornings printing coupons online. She enjoys sharing her new hobby with friends who are amazed by her smart shopping.

"I think a lot of people relate because they see a real person doing this, not someone on television," she said. "It's realistic. If I can do this, you can do this. It really is not that hard. You just have to have a game plan and put a little bit of time into it."

As the price of food continues to climb, people's interest in saving money will very likely do the same.

Food prices at the wholesale level rose 3.9 percent between January and February, the biggest monthly jump since November 1974. Wholesale costs jumped 7.3 percent over the last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The government reported that for individual consumers, the price of food prepared in the home has increased 2.8 percent in the last 12 months.

Food costs are expected to rise even further, with record-high energy prices, a weak U.S. dollar and rising labor costs all adding up to increased costs to the consumer. Gas prices are soaring. People have lost jobs. For many who haven't, pay increases are an expectation of the past. It makes sense that coupon use has gained in popularity as people are forced to make ends meet with less.